Remember when coming out of college without a defined position was called a “Tweener”. Now teams are looking for more “versatile” players. Here I explain the evolution from Tweener to versatile.
What is a Tweener?
Derived from the word “between”, this term refers to a hybrid player-one who is able to play multiple positions but might lack all the physical characteristics or skill to play a single position exclusively.
A lot of times you watch the NFL draft combine and comments like, “his biggest negative is his lack of true position” or “this guy is a tweener, where will he line up”. If you were a safety that came in at 6’1 230 Lbs than you were too big to plan safety. At this size, you were also too small to play linebacker. Who cares how good of a tackler you were, or how good you were in coverage, you lacked a true position and would drop down draft boards.
The NFL has evolved in the last few years to a more pass-heavy attack. Thus making those “tweeners” more of a hot commodity. You have safeties who have moved to linebacker because they can cover tight ends and running backs. You also have linebackers who can drop in coverage. Now you even have college safeties moving to outside linebacker rushing the passer. This also allows you to mask your defense better with more “versatility” because you don’t exactly know where the rush is coming and who is dropping in coverage. You even have players shifting week to week between safety and cornerback.
Safety to Linebacker
Weakside linebacker has become a position where many of these hybrid safeties have made their NFL living. Mark Barron and Deone Bucannon were really the test subjects of moving safeties to linebackers. Guess what it worked…as a matter of fact, it worked really well.
Barron made the switch in 2015 when Alec Ogletree got injured. Baron was listed at 6’1 213 lbs., far to small for safety right? Since his switch to linebacker, he has played in 52 games. In those games he has 353 tackles (264 solo), three sacks, 17 passes defended, five interceptions, and one safety. Those are pretty impressive numbers for a man “too small” to play the position. Barron here uses his ability to read the QB for the pick:
🗣 YES MARK BARRON pic.twitter.com/E5hvKIXJFZ
— Bate™, playoffs edition (@NoPlanB_) October 22, 2017
Bucannon was drafted as a safety and was originally going to play like Barron did but never make it to the DB spot. The Cardinals were thin at linebacker and chose to play him in what they called a “money-backer”. Since Bucannon was drafted in 2014 he has accumulated 386 tackles (299 solo), six sacks, 12 passes defended, two interceptions, seven forced fumbles, and four fumble recoveries. Deone Bucannon is listed at 6’1 211lbs, far to small. Who says you need to be bigger, look at this hit:
Deone Bucannon with a surreal hit. You'll see this a million times in highlights. Wait til you see the slo-mo replay pic.twitter.com/wwJka7t3mN
— fantasyfootballmetrics (@FFMetrics) August 20, 2016
Others Who Made the Change
Since we saw the success of both Bucannon and Barron there have been a number of others who have made the switch from safety to linebacker. Most notably has been Telvin Smith who is an all-pro talent for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Telvin Smith was also drafted in 2014 but in the fifth round as opposed to Bucannon in the first round. Smith though has racked up an amazing 525 tackles (400 solo) during his time at linebacker. Smith is listed at 6’3 213lbs.
Smith’s running mate at linebacker is also a transfer from safety to linebacker, Myles Jack. Jack was the talk of the 2016 draft being rated as one of the top-five prospects in the draft. Some unfortunate news on his knees as well as his “lack of a true position” cause Jack to fall all the way to the 36th pick in the 2nd round to the Jaguars. Now Jack and Smith make up one of the best linebacker tandems in football.
Shaq Thompson was another prospect who played all over the field in college. Like Jack, Thompson played safety, linebacker and running back. He also did each of those positions well. Thompson was picked at the end of the first round in 2015 and converted to full-time linebacker. He has been a little slower than other prospects at peaking but has finally seemed to be reaching his potential. Thompson is listed at 6’0 230lbs.
Safety to Pass Rusher
This is the most recent change in positions. Your prototypical edge rusher is a tall, strong, and large Defensive End or Outside Linebacker. Speed is now recently becoming more relevant in pass rushing with guys like Von Miller and Kyzir White. White was drafted out of West Virginia as a safety. The Chargers on the other hand, though, were thin at the linebacker position.
White is listed as 6’2 218lbs and while he was playing he took the starting outside linebackers position before going on IR. White’s ability to rush the passer as well as drop in coverage, he had an interception and two passes defended against Buffalo, forces teams to read defenses differently. You can mask your pass rush with White and drop him into coverage while you blitz up the middle or push off the opposite edge. Any time you can make the offense second guess you have won the battle. Remember folks this is an outside linebacker dropping in coverage:
Versatility of the Defensive Back
Tyrann Mathieu is the pioneer of the do it all safety in the defensive backfield. Mathieu is a plus blitzer, plays nickel corner at a high level, and can play either strong or free safety. Since he was drafted in 2013 he has 359 tackles (327 solo), 6 sacks, 13 interceptions, and 46 passes defended. If you need a spot filled in your defensive backfield, pick up Mathieu, he can play every one of the positions.
Corners to Safety
There are guys now who have started their careers as cornerbacks but have made moves to safeties this year. Due to injuries on their respective teams and also based off matchups, these guys have been moved from week to week between safety and cornerback.
Kareem Jackson was drafted in 2010 and played every season with Houston. Every season up till this season he has strictly played cornerback. The Texans went ahead and picked up free agents Aaron Colvin and Tyrann Mathieu so they moved Jackson to safety. He started the season on a tear racking up tackles and forcing turnovers.
Suddenly the Texans face injuries to Kevin Johnson, Colvin, and now even Jonathan Joseph. With the injuries, Jackson moved back to corner and since has been one of Pro Football Focus’ top coverage corners in the NFL. He is quietly having his best season to date. Here is a corner who can hit:
Damarious Randall is another player who was drafted as a cornerback and now switches between corner and safety. He was traded to the Browns this offseason with the idea that he will be their starting free safety. Terrance Mitchell and E.J. Gaines then both went on IR and Randall moved back to corner. He as well has been having his best professional season and he has had to switch between two positions.
These are just some of the guys who show that you don’t need to go into the draft as a safety or as a corner. You go into the draft as a good cover guy who can tackle or a good tackler who can cover.
The 2017 and 2018 Draft
Starting with the 2017 draft teams started looking at defenses differently. How can we get the most amount of talent on the field at one time? Two safeties who were considered 1st round prospects were Jamal Adams and Jabrill Peppers.
Jamal Adams is a guy who is a hard-hitting, good blitzing, glue covering safety who plays each safety position. There is not one part of his game that shows a flaw. He is 6’1 213lbs and if needed he could play linebacker, he tackles really well but can make the cause the most damage as a safety. Look at the power of Jamal Adams:
— Matt O'Leary (@MattOLearyNY) November 11, 2018
Jabrill Peppers played both linebacker and strong safety in college. After being drafted #25 overall in 2017 he was moved to free safety. Peppers wasn’t considered a tweener at 5’11 213lbs, he was considered a bruising safety with good cover skills and experience at linebacker. Look at Peppers make the stuff at the goal line:
The 2018 draft was not at all different. You had another tandem of safeties who were easily considered top-20 picks in Minkah Fitzpatrick and Derwin James. Both players extremely versatile, both in different ways.
James played all over the field at Florida St. At 6’2 215lbs he played everywhere from corner to safety to linebacker. As the draft approached there weren’t many teams who looked at James without a position. They looked at James as the best available talent available. James could have been drafted by any team as his size and versatility could fit anywhere on the field outside of the defensive line. Every team that passed on him are now second guessing that decision as he has a strong case for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Similar to the Jamal Adams clip, look at James’ power:
Minkah Fitzpatrick is more in the mold of Tyrann Mathieu as he can play outside corner, nickel corner, free or strong safety. Most teams looked at Fitzpatrick, not as just a corner or just a safety, they looked at him as a great cover guy. Any team that needed help in their secondary was linked to Fitzpatrick predraft in the 1st round. This alone from Pro Football Focus tells you how good Fitzpatrick has been in coverage:
Fitzpatrick has allowed a total of 4 receptions for 22 yards in coverage over the last 5 weeks 👀
— PFF MIA Dolphins (@PFF_Dolphins) November 13, 2018
This just goes to show you that their is no such thing as a tweener anymore. Being a tweener now means that you have positional versatility. Positional versatility is what every team needs. In today’s pass-heavy football every team needs a linebacker who is quick and can cover. Every team needs a safety who can play the nickel. Every team needs an outside linebacker who can drop in coverage. Tweener now means you are considered a 1st round talent.
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