Shaquem Griffin might have been making headlines for other reasons before the Combine, but with his 4.38 40-yard dash at the 2018 combine, Griffin cemented his place as a prospect worthy of a second-day pick in the NFL draft in April. What remains to be seen, however, is exactly where he will play at the NFL level, and that will likely depend heavily on the defensive scheme; weighing in at 6’1 and 227 pounds, Griffin would likely be somewhat undersized for a 4-3 outside linebacker and while there is the option of bulking up, that would probably be a sub-optimal outcome for everybody involved. If the Panthers were to draft Griffin, could they possibly look to use his speed elsewhere, such as filling an obvious need at safety?
Different schemes ask box defenders to play very differently against the run, with the Panthers largely asking their linebackers to stack and shed going downfield, with the ends being used to set the edge and the tackles aiming to take up blockers and fill their gaps. This was not something that Griffin, whose left hand was amputated at the age of four, excelled at while at UCF, as he did have some issues disengaging when asked to take blockers on head-on; while many linebackers struggle with this, plays like the following are not uncommon from his tape when he is asked to take on blockers in this way:
UCF seemed to realize that this was not his strength and largely used him in situations where he could pursue to the ball carrier. In the Panthers’ system, that ability would likely be best suited to the box safety role that Mike Adams played last season, because in this role he would be able to impact the running game without having to take on blockers with much frequency.
Plays like the above are extremely impressive, taking advantage of Griffin’s straight-line speed to get to the ball carrier; in the Panthers’ system, these would be possible from the in-box safety spot and if he were to be lined up on the edge as often, his ability to pursue through gaps would be very relevant here. From a run defense perspective, at the very least, moving him to the box-safety role would make a lot of sense for the Panthers.
Griffin wasn’t used extensively in coverage during his time at UCF, as they largely looked to use his speed as a pass rusher and while some 3-4 teams might want to use him as a designated pass rusher on passing downs, the Panthers don’t tend to use specialized pass rushing linebackers in this way. Even if he played outside linebacker in the Panthers system, he would still be asked to drop into coverage on most passing downs. His ability to get to the quarterback should be something that they could use whether he plays at linebacker or safety, but if the Panthers are going to use him in any significant way, he is going to need to cover.
While he is clearly very fast in a straight line, his lateral agility is somewhat unclear and there will also be the mental jump from what he was asked to do in coverage in college to what he will be asked to do in the NFL. Plays like the following will have NFL teams a little concerned about his natural feel for coverage but, quite frankly, teams are going to have to work him out extensively in order to grasp his coverage potential. What is true, however, is that this will be the same whether he plays linebacker or safety for the Panthers.
While it is hardly conclusive, Griffin did look pretty good playing safety in high school…