Louisiana State University is one of the oddest football schools in the nation. They’re coached by Les Miles, who is odd himself. He’s a pizza-eating head coach who talks to the TV and claps with only the palms of his hands like a toddler who is looking for a round of applause. There’s also his aggressive coaching style and disastrous mismanagement of the play clock, which somehow makes Andy Reid look good. And then there’s how he and his staff utilize and develop their players, which makes little-to-no sense.
Players such as 241-pound edge-rusher Barkevious Mingo, a projected first-round selection, have spent time at defensive tackle for whatever reason. Safety Eric Reid, another potential first rounder, has played as a single-high safety deep when he’s best fit inside the first down marker. Reid has the size (6’1″, 213 pounds) and physicality that teams look for at the position, but he’s the equivalent of Les Miles in a uniform, which makes it tough to trust him in deep coverage.
Like Miles, he’s very aggressive while attacking the opposition, but sometimes doesn’t know when and when not to take a risk. He reads the game at his own pace, often slow to react to a thrown ball, thus leaving his teammates hanging out to dry on an island. He tends to be a few degrees short of a right angle, which is going to be problematic in the pros. A narrow angle may work against the athletically deficient University of Idaho, but not against the San Francisco 49ers. A simple five-yard slant route can easily turn into a 50-yarder if a tackle is missed.
Another issue is that Reid couldn’t make up for poor angles with great range like other players do, such as Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas when he was with the Texas Longhorns. Thomas was at times late reading the game and would take false steps in the wrong direction — a death-wish for a single-deep safety — but could easily make up the ground with unreal speed. Even though he doesn’t have the insane range, it’s not to say that Reid doesn’t have talent; he does, but he needs more and better coaching. He has the aggressiveness and stature that could see him get selected in the first round, so teams will likely convince themselves that they can teach him how to read the game quicker and take better angles.
Plays like the one below from this past season where he failed to recognize a deep throw from South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw have to be corrected.
It’s 3rd-and-10 with a little more than three minutes left in the third quarter. At the snap, the Tigers send a fire-zone blitz pressure package. Five rushers, six droppers. Three underneath, three deep in coverage.
Reid’s the single safety in the middle of the field. As a zone defender, his responsibility is to be patient and fundamentally sound: keep the shoulders squared throughout the backpedal, keep the eyes on Shaw, and only change directions when Shaw’s up-field shoulder is raised. That indicates he’s ready to release the football, and if Reid times it right, he’ll be able to meet the ball at the same exact time it reaches the destination point.
While Shaw drops back from center, Reid moves toward the middle of the field. He started off a yard inside the left hash and moved diagonally before backpedaling to the center of the field. He’s patient while moving in reverse, keeping his shoulders square as the play unfolds. That’s what safeties are taught in the NFL, but many still struggle with it. He doesn’t on this play.
The pressure starts to mount on Shaw as he watches his receiver run down the right sideline. The Tigers’ zone blitz sends three rushers to the left side of the offensive line, occupying four blockers. That creates two one-on-one battles on the right side, one of which is a defensive back against the right tackle — a mismatch to say the least.
The tackle is late working over to the defensive back, consequently giving him a free path to the quarterback. Fearing a sack, Shaw is forced to cock the football and heave it downfield. The up-field shoulder goes up and then the football leaves the hand. Reid has yet to move from the middle of the field.
He’s late in tracking the ball and helping his teammate defend the vertical route. The cornerback defending the route is fortunately in position to make a play on the ball. He’s deep and disciplined and is able to knock the ball when it comes down. Reid is still at a distance.
When watching Reid play deep, it’s easy to question why he’s there to begin with. He’s obviously talented and possesses the traits that will enable him to play in the pros for quite some time — whether it’s at a high level or not is unknown — but he might not be best suited to play so deep. He’s better when he’s closer to the line of scrimmage, where he can be mean, physical, and an asset in the run game. That’s where his aggressiveness can really shine because he’s a disciplined run defender and can beat up tight ends in the passing game with his long arms. In a way, he’s like former Baltimore Ravens strong safety Bernard Pollard, a well-known enforcer.
Whether that’s the kind of talent worthy of a first-round selection is debatable. But regardless of where he goes, there’s no debating that he’ll have to be used correctly to succeed.