The Panthers’ need at safety wasn’t expected to be very significant entering the offseason, as they returned all three starters as well as three rookie players able to offer developmental depth in a number of roles. While Myles Hartsfield’s move to nickel could offer a chance for the Panthers to add another young developmental piece with Juston Burris entering the final year of his contract, it seemed unlikely that the Panthers would see a new face as a starter in 2021.
That all changed last Friday when it was announced that Tre Boston would be released at the start of the new league year, and while there is a chance that the Panthers could look to one of Sam Franklin and Kenny Robinson to step into his starting spot or even move Jeremy Chinn full-time to safety and look to add a linebacker instead, the odds of the Panthers looking for a completely new starting safety this offseason increased significantly.
With that in mind, who are some players the Panthers could target in the draft to address this need?
Trevon Moehrig, TCU (6’2 202 lbs)
Moehrig looks to be not just the best safety prospect in the draft but would also be a good fit for the role that Boston had in the 2020 Panthers’ defense.
Boston was asked both to play in deep zone coverage and drop into the box and act as an extra man to defend the run, and while he wasn’t asked to play a huge amount of man coverage (in part because the Panthers as a whole didn’t play much man coverage) if the Panthers could add somebody who is able to do that to a high level that would almost certainly be something they work into that role.
Moehrig has the range and coverage skills to be a high-quality deep coverage player, shows flashes of the ability to play man-to-man in the slot and also is a good tackler that shows the physicality to play in and around the box. While he does not have one clear elite trait that stands out on tape, he is an extremely well-rounded player who would likely excel in Boston’s hybrid role. He will need to continue to work on his footwork at the head of routes if he is asked to play a lot of man coverage, but he should be able to come in and be a high-quality starter for the Panthers right away, with the positional flexibility to give them freedom in how they build around him.
However, as he is so good, he is also likely to go quite high in the draft, and while he isn’t really in play with the eighth pick, he might not fall as far as the Panthers’ second round pick and is probably somebody who only really makes sense for the Panthers if they trade down in the first unless he somehow falls to them with the 39th pick.
Definitely somebody for Panthers’ fans to know though – especially if he slips to Day 2.
Richie Grant, UCF (6’0 194 lbs)
The Panthers have already been linked with Grant quite a lot so far, in no small part because of the way in which he clearly made an impression during the Senior Bowl. Matt Rhule mentioned him as one of the players who had impressed him most during the week and there were certainly a lot of flashes of real talent during that week. Stylistically, he is more similar to Burris than Boston, and his best fit long-term might be in a safety pairing with Chinn, but he has the versatility to play either deep or in the slot and is somebody who seems to be in play for the Panthers on the second day of the draft.
Grant certainly has the speed and quickness to cover ground in deep coverage or to run with most receivers vertically, and he shows good ball skills and an ability to anticipate throws and make plays on the ball on the back end. He does need to tighten up some things in coverage though, as his footwork in man coverage lets him down at times and there are a few too many blown assignments to be completely happy with his awareness in zone – while he is a generally solid tackler who takes good angles to the ball, he could do a better job of setting his feet and wasn’t really asked to work off blocks consistently.
For the Panthers, his value is somewhat tied to the impression he was able to make in terms of his coachability, as there is certainly a lot of talent there but the occasional mental errors and slightly technical imperfections in man coverage will limit him if not worked on. His absolute ceiling might eventually end up being limited by his movement skills, and given the need for refinement in some areas, he might be something of a reach in the second round, but he should very much be part of the conversation if he is still on the board when the Panthers pick in the third round.
Kary Vincent Jr, LSU (5’10 185 lbs)
Vincent Jr. is one of those players whose role in the NFL is a little unclear, as he spent his time at LSU split between cornerback, nickel and safety, and while he would probably get exposed if asked to play outside corner consistently in the NFL, there is something of a debate about where his best role is.
If this kind of narrative sounds familiar, it’s probably because hybrid players like this are something that Phil Snow’s defense both makes good use of and prioritizes adding. While he might take a little longer to transition to his NFL role than some who have played a more conventional safety role, he certainly has a lot of upside.
One thing that Vincent Jr. certainly is is fast, and this not only helps him to run vertically with almost all receivers and to drive on screens and underneath routes, but also to be a player who has the range to potentially play in the center of the field in Cover 3. He probably isn’t going to make his money in man coverage, as while he can be pretty effective in trail coverage, his hips can be quite tight and this can get exploited in off coverage, but his range, ball skills and reading of the game should allow him to add significant value in zone coverage. As a run defender, he shows good gap awareness and works off blocks quite well but could do with staying on his feet more consistently in the tackle.
Vincent Jr’s draft projection is currently all over the place, and different teams will likely have very different grades on him, but for the Panthers he offers a rare chance to get a centerfield safety outside of the first 40 picks, and his potential versatility to also drop down and play some nickel or even box safety is a bonus. He could take a little while to adjust, but the talent is certainly there.
Paris Ford, Pittsburgh (6’0 190 lbs)
Before Boston’s release, Paris Ford’s Pitt teammate Damar Hamlin might have been the more logical fit for the Panthers as somebody who could develop for a year behind Burris, but with Boston gone, Ford suddenly makes a lot more sense. Like with Moehrig, he is a player whose best role is one which takes advantage both of his range and ball skills in deep coverage while also allowing him to play around the line of scrimmage where he can match-up against bigger receivers and tight ends and add value as a run defender.
Like Moehrig, he would therefore be a natural fit for Boston’s former role.
Ford might not have the elite deep speed of Vincent Jr. but he is a good athlete with range and good movement skills – while he likely won’t be best used in man coverage against slot receivers, he shows the fluidity in his movements and the quickness out of his breaks to play a high level of man coverage if he can continue to work on the discipline of his footwork at the head of routes. While he probably isn’t going to play centerfield in cover 3, he shows a really good reading of the game with good anticipation and ball skills and looks to be a really productive zone coverage player.
He does need to be a little more disciplined as a run defender, however, as he can be guilty of over-pursuing at times and he could do with setting his feet a little more consistently as a tackler. With that said, and while he isn’t quite in the same class as Moehrig, he is another player who looks to be able to come in and start in Boston’s role right away and play at a high level.
Currently, he is projected somewhere from the end of day 2 into the middle rounds and at that range he would not only be a good stylistic fit with the Panthers but also very good value. Certainly one to watch.
Andre Cisco, Syracuse (6’0 209 lbs)
Like Moehrig, Cisco would likely be something of a luxury for the Panthers, as it is hard to imagine him still being on the board much past their second-round pick, and while he is slightly more of a boom-bust prospect than Moehrig, his upside matches the high ceiling that Matt Rhule seems to like in his prospects. Like Moehrig and Ford he would probably be well-suited to play a hybrid role, but unlike those two he also shows the range to potentially be able to play in the middle of the field in cover 3 on a consistent basis, and as such he probably has the highest ceiling of any safety in the class.
Not only does Cisco have the range to play the middle of the field but he also shows the quickness and movement skills to be effective in underneath zone or man coverage. He didn’t play a ton of man coverage but he showed good potential in this regard, though he needs to make sure he doesn’t stop his feet as much in off coverage and can maybe get a little over-aggressive in press. In zone, he shows good anticipation and great ball skills, but when playing underneath zone he did sometimes get slightly too locked-in on the quarterback and lose a sense of what was around and behind him.
As a run defender, he aggressively attacked blocks but needs to be far more active with his hands when doing so, and while he showed both a good understanding of leverage and solid tackling technique, he can be guilty of being a little passive at times as a run defender. Cisco should be able to come in right away and play the hybrid role well, though he could do with being more active as a run defender, but if he can also show that he can impact the ball on the back end as a centerfield safety then he has a chance to be a really special player.
There are a certainly a lot of good options in this safety class – the likes of Damar Hamlin and Ar’Darius Washington who weren’t quite able to make this list also have a chance of being good players at the next level. The biggest question for the Panthers is where on the list of their priorities adding another safety ranks. While Moehrig and Cisco, as good as they are, might go a little higher than the Panthers can justify taking a safety given their other needs, this class offers a chance to get a quality player towards the end of day two or maybe even early on day three.
(Top photo via Leland Dutcher)