With the advent of quick strike attacks and more spread principles in the NFL, defenses have been forced to adjust. One way they’ve adapted is going away from the strict nature of the 4-3 or the 3-4 and blending the two together. But for the most part we also see teams playing their nickel and dime defenses more regularly than their base packages. This had made it a necessity to find versatile players who may be able to play multiple positions or even defend different types of players and most importantly stay on the field. Here I feature the 6 players that I consider to be this year’s chess pieces. Players who can play multiple positions well and would allow creative defensive coordinators to utilize them in different ways depending on the opponent week to week.
Haason Reddick, LB, Temple
There might not be a faster riser in the draft process than Reddick who looks to move positions from an edge pass rusher at Temple to an off the ball linebacker in the NFL. But instead of looking at that as a negative NFL defensive coordinators could be looking at a versatile weapon. Reddick showed at the Senior Bowl and Combine he can run and chase in the run game and drop back into coverage. But what makes Reddick so valuable is the pass rushing traits he possesses where he can be used as blitzer from all angles forcing quarterbacks and lineman to never know if he is going to blitz or drop back into coverage. A creative defensive coordinator can slide Reddick all over the second level really looking to disguise and confuse offenses.
Tyus Bowser, LB, Houston
In Houston’s defense Bowser was a do it all player and that likely isn’t going to change for him in the NFL. Lining up on the outside Bowser has shown he can play in space reacting to the ball in the run game and dropping into coverage. Not to mention rushing the quarterback to the tune of 22.5 sacks. In the NFL Bowser could be used a lot like former Patriot and current Brown Jamie Collins has been. Bowser can be used in the run game over the tight end to set the edge but can also be stacked and run and chase the ball. He has shown the ability to cover slot receivers in college but in the NFL he could be used a weapon to stop the tight ends that are taking over the league. While he does have good pass rush production in college, Bowser will likely be used as a situational pass rusher and moved all over the formation to take advantage of mismatches. It’s safe to say if Bowser goes to a creative defensive coordinator he’s not likely to leave the field.
Obi Melifonwu, S, UConn
Much like fellow AAC conference member Haason Reddick, Obi Melifonwu is one of the fastest risers in the draft processes. Mainly because you don’t see 6’4 224lb safeties with his athleticism and skill set. There was a time when Melifonwu may have been considered a dime linebacker but a steller performance in coverage drills at the Senior Bowl and deeper dive into his tape has changed that where Melifonwu is even getting some consideration as a press man corner. All of this means Melifonwu can be a weapon for a defense and utilized in many different ways. Just look at how Dallas has used another former UConn safety in Byron Jones. Melifonwu will likely be used as a match up weapon defensive back where he could line up back at safety on certain snaps playing half the field or even underneath zone reacting to receivers coming into his zone. With his size he can be looked as a tight end stopper shadowing the lines of Gronk or Travis Kelce. Melifonwu could even be asked to play outside receiver at times and play press coverage vs the bigger receivers like AJ Green or Demaryius Thomas. While Melifonwu can play well just as press corner or strong safety, he could develop into a star with the right team.
Chidobe Awuzie, CB, Colorado
With teams playing nickle and dime coverage close to 70% of the time, the 3rd cornerback is not viewed not only as a starter but a much more valuable position to fill. Chidobe Awuzie may look like a safety at 6’0 202lbs but he has thrived playing inside cornerback at Colorado and should look to continue that role in the NFL. Awuzie uses his quick burst and change of direction skills to really shadow receivers and stick in their hip pocket. While long speed can be an issue at times, NFL defensive coordinators could look at him as a match up piece against the bigger pass catchers in the league. Gone are the days of the tiny slot receivers as now tight ends and even bigger receivers are regularly lining up inside. Awuzie could be used similarly to how the Patriots have employed their corners as he would be the designated cover man on bigger receivers while a faster teammate will get the smaller more quick receivers.
Budda Baker, S, Washington
We are always looking to find the next someone and with the success that Tyrann Mathieu has had in Arizona everybody wants to target the next Honey Badger. While there will likely never be another Mathieu, Washington’s Budda Baker will provide teams with a similar skill set. While Baker is a safety and will play in deep coverage when the Huskies go to nickle and dime it was Baker who moved to the slot. Having a safety who can play up top and move down to cover receivers inside is a quality most do not have. Add in Baker’s ability to always be around the ball and making plays he could be some teams version of the Honey Badger.
Jabrill Peppers, S, Michigan
Throughout Peppers’ time at Michigan he’s done nothing but move positions coming in as a cornerback, moving to safety and then this past year line up at linebacker. Peppers best true position will be safety allowing him to sit back and react to the ball. However his experience as a box linebacker and rushing the quarterback will intrigue defensive coordinators to utilize him in a variety of ways to take away or attack defenses in different ways.