The Patriots have a short and long term need at the safety position. Duron Harmon is a free agent this offseason and Patrick Chung two seasons later. The Patriots three safety package has been a huge part to the defense’s success, with Chung and Devin McCourty’s versatility to play both a safety and cornerback type role. The Patriots are likely in the market for a safety with similar skills to either Harmon or McCourty so they can utilize their defense in a similar manner going forward.
One player that comes to mind is Alabama safety Eddie Jackson, not to be confused with the former Patriots defensive back from the 2007-2008 seasons. Eddie Jackson was a team captain at Alabama, coached by Belichick’s former defensive coordinator in Cleveland. Jackson was initially recruited to Alabama and played two decent seasons there, including one just seven months after an ACL tear in Spring 2014. Jackson moved to free safety in the 2015 college season and has flourished at the position. With tremendous range in the back-end as well as a fundamentally solid game overall, Jackson is a perfect fit for the Patriots secondary as an immediate replacement for Harmon and perhaps a longer term replacement for McCourty, who will be 30 in August.
Jackson broke his leg returning a punt against Texas A&M, but the injury occurred in October, so his leg should be healed physically. The Combine will determine if he’s a high or late second, depending on how well he is able to run in drills. On tape, Jackson looked like he had 4.4-4.5 speed. In fact, I don’t think the leg injury is a concern at all because it’s a bone instead of a ligament. The 2014 ACL injury is probably a bigger flag.
For more reading on Jackson, here’s a piece he wrote for The Player’s Tribune. From the article itself, whether or not Jackson wrote every word of it, he comes off as a very intelligent football player and a great guy. There is an obvious passion for the game, especially when he wasn’t in a position to contribute with his teammates.
Vs. USC 2016
There isn’t a lot of action of Jackson in this game because he’s often out of the picture at the snap and USC was blown out. Jackson showed the ability to close space, but had a couple bad angles that led to big plays. There was one coverage where he took on Juju Smith-Schuster in coverage and blanketed him with the CB playing underneath.
Vs. Tennessee 2016
We see more of Jackson’s versatility on this tape. Jackson played in man coverage, walked down in the box, and played deep safety. A lot of the cut-ups involved Jackson’s punt returning abilities, including breaking two tackles on a return TD at the end of the video. Jackson made a couple impact plays on defense, including a TFL on Josh Dobbs and nearly coming away with an INT on a wobbly duck over the middle.
Vs. Texas A&M 2016
This game didn’t show much for Jackson, who is still often out of the picture, on defense. On the Humphrey INT, Jackson had over the top coverage on Josh Reynolds, allowing Humphrey to float back and undercut the pass in zone coverage. At the end of the clip showed the injury, where Jackson was slammed to the ground returning punts and caused the broken leg.
Patriots Fit: Jackson is very versatile, not just on defense. Jackson gives the Patriots a player who can be a core special teamer in addition to being the third safety when the Patriots go Big Nickel. His skills closely align towards McCourty’s (see below), which would allow for the Patriots to play around with coverages. Jackson can also return punts, which gives him extra utility to the Patriots and keeping him active for games. Free safety, strong safety, nickel, punt returner, he can do it all for a defensive back and the Patriots love that type of versatility. I would not be surprised if the Patriots picked him 32nd overall.
Pro Comp: Devin McCourty. The Patriots initially drafted McCourty as a corner, then moved him to free safety because the team didn’t have anyone good there. McCourty is now one of the best safeties in the league and Jackson has that same potential. Jackson has the versatility to play anywhere in the secondary, whether it’s coming down into the box against the run, playing the slot, or playing as a deep safety. Jackson needs some time in the weight room to add a bit more muscle to his frame, but in terms of upside I have him as the #3 safety in this draft class behind Adams and Hooker.