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SAFETY First

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WANNA AMP UP YOUR D WITH A BRASH BALLER WHO THRIVES ON BEATING UP RECEIVERS AND GETS BORED COVERING TIGHT ENDS? BETTER DRAFT LSU'S JAMAL ADAMS EARLY. IF YOU DON'T, SOMEONE ELSE WILL

JAMAL ADAMS was three when he first played organized football, but like most toddlers he was raw. "I would run the wrong way," he recalls. "I was looking at butterflies." Before you bleat outrage about the impact of that early exposure on his long-term health, know that he didn't play tackle football until the advanced age of five (albeit in the eight-year-old division). "My mom was all for it," Adams says. "I fell in love with the game."

Michelle Adams had spent much of her life around football. In 1991 she married George, who was the Giants' first-round pick in '85 and played six NFL seasons at running back. Four years after George retired, Jamal was born in Lewisville, Texas, one of the pigskin-crazed suburbs of Dallas.

Adams grew up in football's fast lane, and he never once pumped the brakes. Besides having a Super Bowl champion as a father, Jamal cites Bill Parcells (George's coach) as a mentor and Michael Irvin as a close family friend. Adams appeared in 13 games as a true freshman at LSU and declared for the draft two years later. At 6 feet and 214 pounds, he is likely to be the first safety off this year's board, and he'll be disappointed if he doesn't start for his new team in Week 1.

"This is what separates me from other cats in this draft," Adams says as we watch film of him doing a Charles Woodson impression against Auburn, slithering toward the line to make a swiping tackle. "Film study. Instincts. Not always being a robot." He plays the tape back. "Coming up, filling the hole.... You won't find too many [other safeties] that fill the hole."

He says this in LSU's defensive meeting room at 8 a.m. on a Saturday in March. The session was scheduled for 11, but Adams called the night before and asked to move it up. He likes to get his day going early.

Adams studies film the same way he plays, with nonstop energy. Clicker in hand, he alternates from standing to sitting to strolling; he'll answer a question and, in the same breath, move on to the next play. Watching film with him is like walking a dog constantly tugging on its leash.

"I wouldn't want to say that someone is better than me, but [Seahawks free safety] Earl Thomas has a lot more experience in the middle of the field, a lot more football IQ," Adams says when asked who in the NFL can match him as a deep, single-high safety—and then he presses play, bringing the film back to life before a follow-up question. "So right here, this is another hell of a play I make. We're in a [two-high safety] shell. They motion the X receiver. That means I get to blitz off the edge...."

What jumps off the screen is Adams's physicality. With his ability to change directions on a dime and his predatory closing burst, he's a textbook tackler both in traffic and in open space. "If I miss a tackle," he says, "that eats me alive. That's almost worse than busting a coverage or giving up a touchdown."

But an opponent needn't possess the ball in order to experience Adam's wrath. On one of the first plays in the film session he delivers a fierce, clean shot up high to Auburn receiver Darius Slayton, who was trying to make a block. Then Adams got in Slayton's grill.

"I simply told him, 'You'll try to block me all game long. It's not going to happen. So just get it out of your head.' You can tell: He didn't come in there as hard after that."

Adams points at the screen: "Look—he had to adjust his face mask."

We watch several LSU games, and in each one Adams delivers a high, hard shot to a receiver on the wideout's first blocking attempt. "I take pride when it comes to a receiver trying to block me—I really feel I shouldn't be blocked by anybody," Adams says. "So for a small receiver to feel like he can block me? It's disrespectful. If I'm not knocking him on his ass, he damn sure is going to be pushed back."

That kind of talk prompts me to ask about his views on the increased emphasis on player safety. "It's football, man," Adams says. "What made football was those hits. I remember watching [Redskins safety] Sean Taylor and [the Colts'] Bob Sanders and [the Eagles'] Brian Dawkins just knock heads—that's what I love about the game. I'm all about making the game safer; you have to look at it beyond football. But they've taken away a little bit of the game. I wish they didn't. As a [defensive back] you can still deliver that hit—you just have to lower your target."

As enthusiastic as Adams gets about crushing receivers, he's more concerned that people know he can cover, and as a planned 45-minute film session turns into two hours, he keeps remembering more footage he wants to narrate. The Tigers have a spring practice scheduled for later in the day; when they finally need their defensive meeting room back, Adams moves the show upstairs. He asks a video assistant to help get the computer screen on the large projector, then carries on, going through all the forms of coverages he handled at LSU, pulling up examples of each: zone from a strong safety spot, man out of the same look, help coverage from free safety, iso against a tight end split out wide, man-to-man in the slot....

"Certain people want to knock my coverage," he says. "I gave up one ball over 20 yards [in the Citrus Bowl win over Louisville]. So when I hear somebody say, 'He's a box safety; his coverage ability isn't great,' that triggers me. I'm like, Are you really doing your job, watching film? Ask any coach: [My coverage] is what separates me."

The unequivocal leader of LSU's defense, Adams oozes confidence, but he's not arrogant. He owns his mistakes. "That's the one I busted," he says, recognizing a formation Auburn will use to complete a wheel route against him. "I had bad [vision]. The linebacker and I communicated poorly. If there's one play I'd want back from that game, that'd be the one."

WHEN THE RAIDERS selected West Virginia's Karl Joseph with the 14th pick last April, he became the highest-drafted safety in four years. Don't be surprised if Adams goes in the top five. Safeties play the most rapidly evolving position in pro football, and they're more valuable than ever. The Chiefs' Eric Berry set the market with the six-year deal, worth $40 million guaranteed, that he signed in February. Tyrann Mathieu, if he stays healthy in 2017, will be with the Cardinals on a similar contract. Mathieu's former defensive backfieldmate, Tony Jefferson, signed with the Ravens in March for $9 million a year (and turned down $10.5 million annually from the Browns). Since '13, the top salaries at safety have grown more than at any defensive position except tackle.

One big reason for that change: The position drives a scheme's versatility. Every coverage disguise involves a safety; so do many blitzes. He's the one player for whom the offense typically doesn't have a block, making him integral in run defense. And, perhaps most important, he's the key to countering the more flexible tight ends, who can line up all over the field. Adams wants it known: He's comfortable guarding tight ends anywhere. Those matchups against the elite flex guys—the Rob Gronkowskis and Travis Kelces of the league? They can't come soon enough.

"In the NFL, tight ends are basically receivers," Adams says. "But in college, I told my coach: Tight ends are getting boring to cover. It was so easy. And these are my guys, so don't get me wrong, but [Alabama's] O.J. Howard, [Ole Miss's] Evan Engram"—two of the top ends in this draft—"those guys combined for, like, four catches on me."

So what is fun for Adams? His favorite place is in the slot, which is important because modern NFL offenses operate with three receivers on a majority of snaps. And many of those snaps come on first and second down, when the run is still a threat. To counter that, defenses are starting to use three safeties, and having one who can cover the slot, like the Eagles' Malcolm Jenkins or the Cowboys' Byron Jones, creates tremendous flexibility.

Just when you might start thinking Adams is superhuman, the topic of playing linebacker comes up. Finally, an area where he can't illustrate his dominance with film. "I feel like I can play anywhere on the field—but linebacker? Yeah, I'm not gonna...." He trails off and then restarts with a soft chuckle. "When I say I like to get dirty, that doesn't mean I want to, you know, be involved when it comes to offensive linemen. I dip under linemen; I don't try to take on too many. You gotta know your place. Linebacker? Nah, you can have that.

"But now if you ask me to do that"—he pauses just long enough to let acceptance enter his voice—"then, yeah, I'll do it."

IF THE TEXANS CAN'T DRAFT THEIR QUARTERBACK OF CHOICE IN ROUND 1, THEY CAN AT LEAST MAKE LIFE EASIER FOR WHOEVER STARTS UNDER CENTER.

SOLID AS A MOCK

LET'S DO THIS ONE LAST TIME. FOR SI'S FINAL 2017 MOCK DRAFT, WE DIVIDED THE 32 TEAMS BETWEEN OUR TWO EXPERTS, CHRIS BURKE AND EMILY KAPLAN AND MADE THEM GMS FOR A DAY, WITH ALL THE TRADING PRIVILEGES THAT IMPLIES

1 [EMILY KAPLAN]

BROWNS

MYLES GARRETT

DE

TEXAS A&M

Don't overthink this. No QB is worthy of the top pick; no team has offered enough to trade down. And Garrett is a freak: taller than Julio Jones, heavier than Rob Gronkowski, faster than Jarvis Landry.

2 [CHRIS BURKE]

49ERS

SOLOMON THOMAS

DT

STANFORD

His inside-outside game makes him a complement to Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner (the Niners' first-round picks of '15 and '16), giving San Fran three options to plug in at DT or DE in its new 4--3 D.

3 [EMILY KAPLAN]

BEARS

JAMAL ADAMS

SS/FS

LSU

If Chicago has conviction in a QB, take him—but a safety could make a quick impact. Adams is physical, savvy and flashes leadership. He can address Chicago's need for a QB ... of the defense.

4 [CHRIS BURKE]

JAGUARS

JONATHAN ALLEN

DL

ALABAMA

This pick is made with Tom Coughlin in mind. The Jaguars' new executive VP loves to build around the defensive line. Putting Allen alongside FA Calais Campbell makes Jacksonville's front a force.

5 [EMILY KAPLAN]

TITANS

MARSHON LATTIMORE

CB

OHIO STATE

Corner is a clear area of need—Jason McCourty's release made FA Logan Ryan the only proven vet on this roster—and Lattimore is the best pure CB in the draft. He's athletic, tough and can start immediately.

6 [EMILY KAPLAN]

TRADE W/JETS

REDSKINS

MITCHELL TRUBISKY

QB

NORTH CAROLINA

To land him, a team might need to get in the top 10. And why not the Skins, who have a history of splash? They can't ride the Kirk Cousins franchise-tag carousel forever. Sit Trubisky one year, then swap him in.

7 [EMILY KAPLAN]

CHARGERS

MALIK HOOKER

S

OHIO STATE

With his tremendous instincts and ball skills—seven INTs in '16, three for TDs—Hooker gets Ed Reed comparisons. He would seamlessly fill the Earl Thomas role in Gus Bradley's signature Cover 3 D.

8 [CHRIS BURKE]

PANTHERS

LEONARD FOURNETTE

RB

LSU

Carolina's offense leans on a power attack and cannot count on Jonathan Stewart—who's played 13 or fewer games in each of the past five seasons—to stay healthy. Fournette could quickly supplant him.

9 [EMILY KAPLAN]

BENGALS

REUBEN FOSTER

LB

ALABAMA

Cincy needs insurance at linebacker. Vontaze Burfict is in a contract year, and he missed 22 of the last 48 games due to injuries or suspension. Foster is easily the most talented 'backer in this draft.

10 [CHRIS BURKE]

BILLS

COREY DAVIS

WR

WEST. MICHIGAN

With Sammy Watkins sidelined for half of '16, Robert Woods led the Bills in receiving yards last year ... with 613. And now he's gone, signed by the Rams. Buffalo has to find another weapon. Why wait?

11 [EMILY KAPLAN]

SAINTS

DEREK BARNETT

DE

TENNESSEE

New Orleans must figure out how to get after the QB, and Barnett left UT with a school-record 33 career sacks in three years. Pair him with Cam Jordan, and the Saints might finally have an edge presence.

12 [CHRIS BURKE]

BROWNS

DESHAUN WATSON

QB

CLEMSON

Nabbing Watson here without trading up is a victory. He would have no issues wrestling the starter's job from Brock Osweiler and Cody Kessler, and he'd pair well with Hue Jackson's West Coast attack.

13 [EMILY KAPLAN]

CARDINALS

PATRICK MAHOMES

QB

TEXAS TECH

His footwork and mechanics might need refining. Transitioning from the quick-read Air Raid to reciting 17-word play calls will take time. Arizona is the perfect home, with Carson Palmer in his twilight.

14 [CHRIS BURKE]

EAGLES

HAASON REDDICK

LB

TEMPLE

He would join Jordan Hicks as the heart of Philly's LB corps and would be an intriguing chip for coordinator Jim Schwartz, who could implement Reddick's experience as a college DE to crank up the pass rush.

15 [EMILY KAPLAN]

COLTS

TAKKARIST MCKINLEY

DE/OLB

UCLA

New Colts GM Chris Ballard inherits a meager defense; he should take the best prospect out there. And a guy who one scout says is potentially "the next DeMarcus Ware" isn't a bad place to start.

16 [CHRIS BURKE]

RAVENS

MIKE WILLIAMS

WR

CLEMSON

He would add a physical element to Baltimore's passing game that neither Mike Wallace nor Breshad Perriman can offer. He also showed at Clemson that he can go get the deep ball, a requirement in a Joe Flacco--led O.

17 [CHRIS BURKE]

TRADE W/REDSKINS

JETS

O.J. HOWARD

TE

ALABAMA

If Adams goes in the top five and the Jets aren't smitten with any of the top QBs, this is a dream scenario: Trade down, add a pick or two, and develop Howard as you figure out your QB plan.

18 [CHRIS BURKE]

TITANS

JOHN ROSS

WR

WASHINGTON

Tennessee's offense had a top three rushing attack in '16, but the passing game lacked game-breakers. Ross can burn teams vertically from the slot, and he's a surprisingly potent red zone threat.

19 [EMILY KAPLAN]

BUCCANEERS

CHRISTIAN MCCAFFREY

RB

STANFORD

Tampa Bay is committed to giving Jameis Winston an impressive cast of playmakers alongside receivers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson. This slot receiver/running back/returnman hybrid is the next piece.

20 [CHRIS BURKE]

BRONCOS

GARETT BOLLES

OT

UTAH

A team with Super Bowl aspirations isn't likely to ride with Donald Stephenson and Menelik Watson at OT. Bolles could be a Day One starter on the left, allowing Stephenson and Watson to duke it out on the right.

21 [CHRIS BURKE]

TRADE W/LIONS

COWBOYS

GAREON CONLEY

CB

OHIO STATE

Conley's not as physical as Lattimore, his former teammate, but his quickness and instincts give him the foundation to become a lockdown NFL corner. Dallas wouldn't need to break the bank to jump from 28 to 21.

22 [CHRIS BURKE]

DOLPHINS

FORREST LAMP

G

WEST. KENTUCKY

Aside from his lack of length, there are few holes in his game. Miami figures to move '16 first-rounder Laremy Tunsil back to his natural tackle position, and Lamp's arrival would ease any worries about that transition.

23 [EMILY KAPLAN]

GIANTS

DALVIN COOK

RB

FLORIDA STATE

GM Jerry Reese typically shies away from players with character concerns, but Cook is a home-run-capable back who can contribute to the passing game, giving New York's offense a second gear.

24 [CHRIS BURKE]

RAIDERS

TRE'DAVIOUS WHITE

CB

LSU

White proved himself in '16 to be the type of cornerback a defense can trust by his lonesome defending one-on-one outside. His quick feet make him a potential option to play in the slot, too.

25 [EMILY KAPLAN]

TEXANS

RYAN RAMCZYK

OT

WISCONSIN

If the Texans can't draft their QB of choice in round 1, they can at least make life easier for whoever starts there. Ramczyk is rehabbing a torn hip labrum; if he recovers, Houston has a steal.

26 [CHRIS BURKE]

SEAHAWKS

KEVIN KING

CB

WASHINGTON

Seattle has a reputation for preferring a certain type of CB—long and athletic—and King fits the profile. He has the size to overwhelm WRs in the air and an aggression when it comes to finding the football.

27 [EMILY KAPLAN]

CHIEFS

JARRAD DAVIS

LB

FLORIDA

Derrick Johnson, 34, is coming off Achilles injury number 2. Scouts, meanwhile, see in Davis an eager tackler who can cover sideline to sideline. He can inherit Johnson's role inside or perhaps play outside, too.

28 [EMILY KAPLAN]

TRADE W/COWBOYS

LIONS

T.J. WATT

OLB

WISCONSIN

J.J.'s youngest brother has been playing LB for only one year—he switched from TE; sound familiar?—and he's a training freak like J.J. too. Detroit, meanwhile, desperately needs an upgrade at the position.

29 [EMILY KAPLAN]

PACKERS

CHIDOBE AWUZIE

CB

COLORADO

Micah Hyde left in free agency. The Packers find a replacement here in Awuzie, who calls himself "a cornerback that thinks like a Mike linebacker." Awuzie would fit well in Dom Capers's press-man system.

30 [CHRIS BURKE]

STEELERS

CHARLES HARRIS

OLB

MISSOURI

Were it not for Jabrill Peppers's failed drug test, the Michigan safety would be enticing here. (He still might be.) Instead, the Steelers add a dynamic pass rusher with the athleticism to play in space.

31 [EMILY KAPLAN]

FALCONS

TACO CHARLTON

DE

MICHIGAN

Dan Quinn loves rotating players on his D-line, and Atlanta's '16 sack leader, Vic Beasley, could use a sidekick. With superb length and athleticism, Charlton will have no problem harassing NFL QBs.

32 [CHRIS BURKE]

SAINTS

QUINCY WILSON

CB

FLORIDA

The Saints have to be thinking CB here. Wilson checks off all the boxes, and he uses his physical nature to body WRs off their routes. The Saints keep trying to fix their secondary; Wilson might be the key.