The Minnesota Vikings made their first of multiple secondary selections by drafting Virginia Tech’s Antone Exum in the sixth round of the 2014 NFL Draft.
Exum started 32 games between both the safety and cornerback positions going into his senior season at Virginia Tech. A torn ACL and lateral meniscus in his right knee suffered during a pick-up basketball game cut into his final season in Blacksburg. He would return for two full games in 2013 as a shell of himself. An ankle injury suffered against Miami in his third start ended his season.
The shame of it was that Exum was coming off a heralded junior year in which he was named second team All-ACC in a talented group of cornerbacks that included current Viking Xavier Rhodes. Exum led the Hokies with five interceptions. He also logged 48 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 16 pass break-ups, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery.
Exum won time at both free safety and a “rover” position during the 2011 season. He was technically a safety ever since he arrived at Virginia Tech, only platooning at cornerback the one season. That experience at safety will be important, because Exum is listed as a safety for the Vikings.
Let’s dig into the meat of Exum’s cornerback play in 2012 and translate it to safety play before looking at how the Vikings may plan on using him.
Athleticism is an appropriate place to start. For secondary prospects, athletic ability is of increased importance in comparison to other positions. These players have a lot of ground to cover and are matched up with the offense’s best athletes.
The way Exum held his own at the cornerback position, often playing man coverage, is encouraging. He showed the long speed to run with receivers and the body control to quickly change directions and track routes. His combine numbers, which may be on the harsh side for Exum if he wasn’t at full health, are quite reminiscent to a current Vikings safety.
Jamarca Sanford only really falls short of Exum in terms of height. While that may not be the most optimistic comparison for Vikings fans, Sanford holds his own in the NFL in terms of athleticism, playing the position Antone Exum is destined for.
Again, Exum’s top-end speed is not the issue. He can run with receivers step for step. He’s also a very strong defensive back, which isn’t hard to imagine considering the thickness of his build. He won’t be pushed around by receivers.
The biggest limitation for Exum is his build and the problems caused by it. He may be too big for his own good, especially for the cornerback position. Scouts like a cornerback to have thinner ankles, calves, and thighs in order to move with optimal agility. Exum’s bulk slows down his feet.
Issues with his heavy feet are compounded by his poor technique in a backpedal. On the rare occasion he actually does drop his hips and pedal, he doesn’t look comfortable. So instead, when he’s not playing press man coverage, he does more shuffling or imprecise steps. He basically just freelances in terms of technique.
There’s a logical problem with a shuffle. No matter which way a defensive back is facing, the toughest area for him to cover is the space behind him. If he at least has his momentum moving in that direction, he can flip his hips and be in that position quickly. From a shuffle, no momentum is being generated towards the space behind the back. When a receiver breaks in that direction, the defensive back is toast.
Problems go further than that of course. Steps are bigger, so coming out of the shuffle takes longer on average. Exum gets spun in a circle on this occasion by some adept route running. The momentum makes it more difficult to quickly plant and change direction as well. In-breaking routes are almost as problematic.
If Exum was in a proper backpedal, he would have his shoulders square to the receiver and be able to cleanly plant his back foot and break forward on the slant route.
His lack of short-area quickness and lack of technical precision both point him to the safety position, where receivers aren’t running into his comfort zone as often and he has more space to work with.
Virginia Tech and defensive coordinator Bud Foster had a work around for this. They would occasionally walk Antone Exum up to the line of scrimmage and let him bully receivers in press coverage.
Exum has numerous traits which should translate to effectiveness in press coverage. He has above average reach for a defensive back, a sturdy build to hold his ground, and an aggressive mentality.
Following the theme though, his technique is all over the place. At times, he gets himself into trouble by being flat-footed and lunging. Not keeping his feet moving is trouble against a receiver with quickness inside of five yards.
Basically, there’s potential for Exum to be the type of player who can be effective in press coverage. Obviously if he plays safety, that will rarely come into play aside from very specialized game plans. His willingness to get physical with receivers is the take home point.
The whole Exum report is not bogged down by negatives though. Some of the best things about him are intangible qualities that aren’t easily found in defensive back prospects. Instincts, awareness, anticipation, aggressiveness, conviction, and a short memory are a few of these things.
Cornerbacks who don’t consider down and distance situations are actually quite common. Exum doesn’t let his mind float in the game, using the tipped hand of the receiver to his advantage instead. He’s the cornerback starting on the 30-yard line here.
Exum doesn’t backpedal, of course, but doesn’t open up and shuffle either. He sits all over this route because he foresees the receiver breaking at the sticks on third and long. Also, Virginia Tech is bringing extra rushers. That means the ball has to come out of the quarterback’s hand early and cornerbacks can afford to be more aggressive. They just have to realize it. Exum does that here and wins the game for Virginia Tech with this interception.
Allowance for aggressive playing of routes is right up Exum’s wheelhouse anyways. When a receiver breaks off a route, he does everything in his power to cut down the space and then jump it if possible. Parlaying this into a description of Exum as a gambler might go too far though. He is opportunistic but not often reckless.
On both occasions, you can see the route recognition skills from Exum. The second play looks more like something you would see from a safety, especially if he’s positioned over the top of a slot receiver or a tight end and given some freedom with a deep safety behind him.
Exum knowing that he doesn’t need to be everything in coverage is also refreshing. He shows an understanding for where his help is.
This is Virginia Tech bracketing Brandon Coleman. Exum takes an aggressive position to take away anything underneath and shows his recovery speed to cut down space after Coleman’s double move.
All of Exum’s coverage instincts allow him to play faster than his timed speed would indicate that he can. He has man coverage capabilities because of those intangible qualities combined with his physicality and aggressiveness. As a safety, that could mean he gets pitted against tight ends or slot receivers, maybe even right up on the line of scrimmage.
Those same intangibles mean that he won’t get lost in zone coverage. He didn’t do it a ton at Virginia Tech, at least a cornerback. He still has the awareness to locate route runners, ability to find the right positions in coverage, and decisiveness to make plays on the football.
Following the eyes of the quarterback (or wildcat quarterback in this case) is a big part of Exum’s game. His mind is often a step ahead of the quarterback’s, which allows him to bait throws and jump routes or react quickly to a quarterback who telegraphs the throw.
Playing the ball is another big strength of Exum’s. He controls his body in a way that allows him to disrupt the hands of the receiver at the catch point without using excessive contact to draw flags. He also has impeccable timing.
All of this is made possible because Exum locates the ball in the air, at least most of the time.
Positioning doesn’t matter if a defensive back can’t find the ball and then contest the catch. Exum is acutely aware of the ball in the air and when a receiver shows his hands to catch it. When he doesn’t have the necessary position to turn his head and find the ball, he can still be disruptive.
Exum is often able to do this without blatantly running into the chest of a receiver, as cornerbacks are known to do. He masterfully toes the line between pass interference and just being a nuisance. In these cases even when a receiver has Exum beat initially, he’s not going to catch the ball without competition.
As a safety, he may have an even freer role to makes plays on the ball, especially in zone coverage. The potential and experience is there for him to be effective in a variety of usages in coverage. Because of his coverage instincts, there are few limitations.
The final stone to turn over relates to tackling, physicality and run support. Despite a big build, Exum didn’t make a big impact supporting the run at Virginia Tech. In fact, he didn’t meet expectations.
Exum’s heavy feet become a problem when elusive ball carriers have him singled up in the open field. At times it looks like his feet are in mud.
These are tackles a defensive back must make in the NFL. As a safety, it becomes paramount because an eight or nine-yard gain can become 50+ with a missed tackle at the second level.
Equally concerning is that when Exum doesn’t slow his feet down to a crawl, he will be overly aggressive and take gambles as a tackler.
Whether or not certain things can be improved upon is always important with prospects. When it comes to tackling, improvement is unlikely. NFL players don’t get many live reps in padded practices to learn and internalize tackling technique. Exum will probably tackle the same way in five years that he does now. For defensive backs, it’s simple. They just need to get ball carriers to the ground however it works. Exum hasn’t done that consistently.
There is a silver lining, and it follows the prevailing story of Exum as a prospect. Technique is often an issue, but he makes plays that change the game. Naturally, Exum has made a habit of stripping the ball.
He picks the pocket of Tajh Boyd here and can be seen ripping at the ball in a few other games. It’s more evidence of the way the game slows down for him at crucial moments.
Big hits should also be expected from Exum in the NFL. As a safety, opportunities should become more frequent as well.
Physicality is not a problem. It’s not a stretch to think Exum could grow into an enforcer over the middle from a strong safety spot if given time to grow into the role. Playing the ball will always come first, especially as NFL rules continue to tighten up on hard hits, but being able to lay the lumber can be helpful.
A move to safety was in the cards a long time ago with Exum. His deficiencies in technique on the outside would be easily exposed by quality NFL receivers. His body type is one that translates better to the safety position as well. For any player that switches positions, mental capacity and football IQ is important. From everything Exum has shown on the field, he should be capable of making the necessary adjustments. Hopefully he can also stay healthy, because he has much more potential than your average sixth round pick.
The first assumption is that Antone Exum is indeed a safety. Immediate reactions after his selection pointed in that direction. He is listed as a safety for now. His skills pointed to a safety transition long ago. A curveball could be thrown in camp and preseason, but Exum is most likely a safety right now and long term. It makes too much sense.
ESPN’s Ben Goessling had a telling quote of Mike Zimmer in a discussion of Antone Exum.
“The safety position in college football really is hard to find guys now at least in my opinion — guys that have the coverage ability that you are looking for,” he said. “There are times in my career that I always thought, ‘Let’s play three with corners and one safety and make the other guy a safety because of the throwing that’s been going on in the league.’ The bigger corners that may not be quite as fast that are better tacklers, that are more physical, smart — they have to be smart — we always have a little category for those guys to be a possibility of being safeties.”
Then, the question turns to whether he is a strong safety or free safety and what those designations even entail in Mike Zimmer’s defense. Roles are probably more meaningful than those position designations, because Zimmer won’t have one safety who plays forward all the time and one who plays centerfield all the time. A few screenshots of the 2013 Cincinnati Bengals will show that.
Reggie Nelson, who the Bengals list as the free safety, is rolled up on the line of scrimmage here. Zimmer often used Nelson when he wanted to add blitz possibilities with his safeties.
On the other hand, this play has Iloka walked up into the box and Nelson deep.
These roles often stayed consistent within single games but would vary between games. Of course, it’s most often not a matter of which safety is in the box and which isn’t. A more common theme from the 2013 season was having one safety play over the top of any twins or trips sets that outnumber the other side. George Iloka was the safety Zimmer rolled over top of the side with more receivers.
For Exum, this role seems more fitting. This safety often plays forward in coverage to close down space on one of the receivers. If there are two cornerbacks lined up over two receivers, Zimmer likes to play games with his slot cornerback in terms of blitzing. That leaves the safety in man coverage over that receiver. Tight ends can also be run out into the slot, in which case that safety can play man coverage there. With Exum’s experience as a cornerback in man coverage, this role fits.
The other safety is often either run up to the line of scrimmage and used as a blitz threat or in coverage against a tight end that may be on that side. Otherwise, this safety rotates over the top of the defense as a centerfielder. On the surface, this seems like a fit for Harrison Smith.
Here’s one example of what that can look like.
Iloka steps forward at the snap and has man coverage duty against the inside slot receiver. Nelson is rotating over the top.
Jamarca Sanford will probably start opposite Harrison Smith. That places Exum behind Sanford on the depth chart theoretically. Sanford can handle a big snap count, but there are other ways Exum could see the field immediately.
When the Bengals were ravaged by injury at the cornerback position last season, they signed Chris Crocker and he saw the field right away as a third safety. Zimmer played Crocker in the slot and moved Leon Hall to the outside.
The Vikings cornerback situation is also tricky. Xavier Rhodes and Captain Munnerlyn will be staples on the field. Munnerlyn, like Leon Hall, does fine work in the slot. If no other cornerback presents themselves (earth to Josh Robinson?) on the outside, Munnerlyn will probably get time there. That situation might call for Exum as a third safety in the slot, what you could also call a big nickel.
Exum’s versatility is clearly an asset. Theoretically, he provides depth at a position that sorely needs it right now even though he’s not listed as a cornerback. If Josh Robinson doesn’t make strides, this look could become a viable option for Zimmer in 2014.
Assuming an eventual pairing of Exum and Harrison Smith at the safety position, a few different possibilities present themselves for zone coverage looks. The first example is one that utilizes Exum’s skills in coverage.
George Iloka starts at the top of the Bengals logo and steps forward trying to jump an intermediate route. This player is called a robber, fittingly.
Iloka doesn’t bait Tom Brady because he fails to locate the crossing route coming quickly enough. He still affects the play, but this is where a safety has a chance to persuade the quarterback into making a throw he shouldn’t. Exum’s anticipation to find these routes and jump them combined with his ball skills are a recipe for turnovers.
A more prominent usage for Mike Zimmer sees both safeties play a two deep shell, providing cover for the cornerbacks and allowing them to play with aggressive positioning in man coverage.
This isn’t as easy a job as it looks. Iloka does well to arrive in a timely fashion on this play though. The safeties have to read multiple routes, position themselves accordingly, and make split-second breaks on deep throws in order to get there.
The final talking point for Exum will be run support. It may be of lesser importance, but big mistakes won’t be tolerated as a tackler.
Here are two examples of George Iloka’s jobs in run support for Cincinnati in 2014, the first much less of a success than the second.
The heavier usage of man coverage on the outside in Mike Zimmer’s defense often means more run responsibilities for the safety who plays forward into the box. For Exum, improvement upon his tackling performances in college is needed.
Taking a step back to look at the whole picture, Antone Exum is a perfect fit for the Vikings at the safety position. He provides depth and competition at a position where quality players are difficult to find. His usage can quickly supplement a lack of cornerback depth. The scheme matches his array of skillsets. Exum provides tremendous value to the Vikings for a sixth round pick and may even contribute right away. Here’s to sustained health.
Gifs courtesy of DraftBreakdown.com and NFL Game Rewind.