One of the biggest needs for the New England Patriots heading into the offseason and in 2013 NFL Draft discussion is at the safety position, and this year’s draft will be stocked with talented safeties. Two of them are D.J. Swearinger of the South Carolina Gamecocks and Phillip Thomas of the Fresno State Bulldogs. Both safeties are rated as top 50 selections in this draft, and they would make sense for the Pats if they fell into the late second-round.
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Right now, the top target for the Patriots (or at least, among Patriots fans) is Matt Elam of the Florida Gators. Kenny Vaccaro will almost certainly be taken in the top 20 choices, so Elam is the next best thing in the late first. The LSU Tigers Eric Reid is another very possible selection at the safety position for the Pats in the second round.
Phillip Thomas was underrated all season for Fresno State, and he had a breakout season for a smaller school that had some good talent. Thomas is at the center of it, and he is headed for a second-round selection in this year’s draft due to his instincts, playmaking ability, and zone coverage skills. The one hitch is that Thomas is a better fit a free safety, and the Patriots need a strong safety instead. That SS in question, like Elam, would need to be strong in coverage.
Bucky Brooks of the NFL Network ranked Thomas fourth among all safeties in the 2013 NFL Draft due to his ball skills and instincts. What makes Thomas a less than ideal fit for the New England Patriots is the fact that he struggles in run defense and missed far too many tackles in 2012. He’s a strict coverage guy, but Thomas is also an excellent cover guy at that. The Patriots already have one of the best coverage safeties in the NFL in Devin McCourty, so Thomas isn’t as appealing.
It’s hard to believe that a star safety from an SEC school could fly under the radar in draft discussions, but that’s the feeling I get with the South Carolina Gamecocks D.J. Swearinger. He’s one of the best safety prospects in this draft, and yet he rarely ever gets talked about. In fact, Brooks didn’t even list him in his “in the mix” at the safety position.
Swearinger did, however, receive some big-time praise from an NFL scout who told Pro Football Weekly, “Every secondary needs a lightning rod like him. When you think of a lot of the great ones — the Ed Reeds and Brian Dawkins — they had that spark. … He’ll miss some tackles that he should make, but he’s a big-time hitter.”
Several Patriots fans have stated their desire for an enforcing safety to replace the injury-prone Patrick Chung, who is set to hit unrestricted free agency and is unlikely to be retained by the Pats. The team has not had a consistent enforcer since star SS Rodney Harrison, and Swearinger’s hard-hitting ability fits well. I think he will be available by the time the Pats pick in the second round, and he could make sense for the team if the Pats decide to go with Tavon Austin or another receiver in the first round. Elam is also a hard-hitter, and he gives the Pats needed coverage skills. Swearinger is also strong in coverage, and he even lined up at corner for South Carolina.
Keep D.J. Swearinger’s name in mind, because he could be a real steal for a team come draft day. It’s amazing that he isn’t viewed as one of the best safeties in this crop, and Swearinger shows us that it is possible to be a star from a major SEC program and still get lost in the shuffle of draft talk.
You can follow Joe Soriano on Twitter @SorianoJoe.