The explosion of offense at the collegiate and NFL levels has put a lot of stress on defenses. Not only are offenses stressing defenses with spacing and athleticism on the field, they’re stressing defenses’ ability to match up schematically. Those defenses are responding by looking for versatile players who can contribute in a variety of ways and allow for flexible scheming.
Maryland safety Nick Cross is one of those versatile players who can do a lot for a defense. He’s remarkably fast — the fastest safety in a stacked draft for defensive backs — and often lined up as a free safety 15 or 20 yards off the ball in Maryland’s defense. On the flip side of that coin, he’s also stoutly built at 6-foot, 212 pounds and has the explosive physicality to play a hybrid linebacker role close to the line of scrimmage.
That combination of traits could make Cross an intriguing option for a team like the New York Giants who figure to ask their defensive backs to fill a huge variety of roles in 2022.
Prospect: Nick Cross (3)
Games Watched: vs. Illinois (2021), vs. West Virginia (2021), vs. Minnesota (2021), vs. Iowa (2021)
Games Played: 27
Tackles For a Loss: 5.5
Forced Fumbles: 3
Passes Defensed: 10
Games Played: 12
Tackles For a Loss: 3.5
Forced Fumbles: 2
Passes Defensed: 2
Best: Long speed, explosiveness, physicality, range, competitive toughness
Worst: Agility, hip fluidity, man coverage
Projection: A nickel safety with starting upside.
Maryland’s Nick Cross is a stout, explosive, athletic, and physical safety prospect.
Cross typically aligned as the deep centerfield for Maryland’s defense, though he did line up closer to the line of scrimmage in certain circumstances. He was also frequently asked to execute a post-snap rotation from a 2-deep coverage shell.
Cross is an excellent straight-line athlete with good range from the deep middle of the field. He has the speed to close on ball carriers from a position 15 or 20 yards downfield, and has an explosive closing burst. Cross tracks the ball well in the air from a coverage zone, and puts himself in position to affect passes at the catch point. He also has the size and play strength to match up tight ends or running backs in man coverage.
Cross’ physicality and closing burst make him very disruptive at the catch point. He is able to knock balls away from receivers at the last instant as well as jar balls loose before receivers can secure them.
Cross is very physical in run defense as well. He generally shows good instincts for run defense and is similarly explosive closing downhill on ball carriers. He is a very willing hitter and typically shows good tackling form when playing downhill. Cross’ explosive closing burst and play strength allow him to stop most ball carriers cold around the line of scrimmage.
While Cross is a fearsome tackler around the line of scrimmage, he can be something of a drag-down tackler when playing in space. Cross can also be overly aggressive in his angles to the ball when making tackles at the second level, occasionally running himself out of the play.
Cross’ aggressiveness can also work against him when sorting through offensive misdirection. He can occasionally bite too hard on play-fakes and take himself out of the play – or at least slow himself down.
And while Cross is able to stay with tight ends or running backs in man coverage, he shows enough hip tightness to make tight coverage on wide receivers a struggle. His tight hips can also slow him down slightly when having to break sharply in zone coverage. He is explosive driving downhill, but 90-degree breaks often require him to gather himself before changing direction.
Overall Grade: 7.0
Maryland safety Nick Cross projects as an important nickel safety for most teams, at least to start his career. He has the range and speed to play the deep middle in a Cover 3 shell, though teams might want his physicality and hitting ability closer to the line of scrimmage and use him as a box safety.
Cross’ physicality and athleticism should allow him to push for a starting job fairly early in his career. He has the upside to be an enforcer for an aggressive defense, and while he didn’t seem to be asked to blitz often at Maryland, the traits that make him an effective run defender around the line of scrimmage could make him an effective blitzer as well.
Cross will likely need to be protected from one-on-one matchups with wide receivers, as his change of direction skills don’t match his straight-line explosiveness. Likewise, he might need to be put in positions where he doesn’t have to sort through much to start his career. Playing Cross in Green Dog blitz situations (where he covers the running back in space or blitzes if the runner stays back to block), could be a good role early on.
Of course, that could limit how highly some defenses value him. However, he has the potential to be an impact player when used properly and could offer additional appeal to defenses which use a “STAR” safety-linebacker hybrid position.