A breakdown of the Atlanta Falcons’ third-round pick, Wisconsin safety Dezmen Southward.
40 Time: 4.40 (Campus)
Three-Cone: 6.50 (Campus)
He was born on October 1, 1990 and attended St. Thomas Aquinas in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Played only one year of high school football as a senior, but his team was named National Champs that year. Same defensive backfield produced fellow 2014 draft prospects, Lamarcus Joyner and Marcus Roberson, both of whom were juniors on that team. He spent first three years playing basketball and track and field. His stepfather, Eli Rasheed, is a former defensive lineman at Indiana University and is currently a defensive line coach at Toledo University.
He redshirted during his freshman year at Wisconsin and played in 13 games as a reserve as a sophomore, recording eight tackles. Earned three starts as a sophomore at strong safety in 14 appearances, tallying 35 tackles, two pass breakups and a pair of forced fumbles. Earned starting spot at free safety as a junior, starting a total of 14 games. He had 69 tackles, eight tackles for loss, one interception, four pass breakups and a forced fumble. Started 13 games as a senior with 40 tackles, 3.5 for loss, one interception, 5 breakups, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Finished his career with a school-record 54 games played and also started 28 consecutive games, indicative of his durability. Earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors both as a junior and senior.
Competed in spring of 2013 at Wisconsin in 100 meters and 4×100 relay due to injuries to other sprints.
Noted for intelligence, scoring a 31 on his Wonderlic where the average for a safety is 19. Was medically excluded from Combine due to wrist and spine injuries, although he was later cleared and fully participated at his pro day. Measured a 42-inch vertical at the pro day, indicative of his basketball background.
2013 GAMES WATCHED
|Date||Opponent||TFL||Stop||FF||Press||Miss Tkl||Pen||Pen. Type|
|Sep-14||Arizona State||0||1||0||0||0||1||personal foul|
UC – indicates an uncatchable pass.
The grading system is based on a 10-point scale: 1-pathetic, 2-poor, 3-weak, 4-below average, 5-average, 6-above average, 7-good, 8-very good, 9-excellent, 10-elite.
Speed (9.0) – Has excellent speed, timing well at Wisconsin’s pro day and also being clocked at 10.97 seconds in 100 meters during the spring of 2013. Plays to that speed and has the ability to run very well in a straight line. Shows good burst upfield to defend the run out on the edge and can run with receivers on vertical routes.
Tackling (5.5) – Does a good job consistently wrapping up and seeing what he hits, breaking down nicely at the point of attack or in the open field. But struggles when taking on bigger collegiate backs, and will subsequently do so at the next level where backs are not only big but also cat-quick. Will miss some tackles because he doesn’t always take great angles. Smaller frame leads him to be a drag-down tackler. Doesn’t deliver many big hits although a player with his sort of speed and burst could potentially lay out some guys. Has room for growth and could stand to put on another 10 or more pounds of muscle.
Man Coverage (5.0) – Is experienced lining up in the slot and covering wide receivers, but lacks the sort of polish and technique to be good. Struggles out of breaks because of his unpolished footwork and technique. Tends to chase receivers as opposed to actually covering them and gives up far too much cushion.
Zone Coverage (5.5) – Most comfortable playing in zone where he can use his speed and range to cover ground. At his best when he can keep things in front of him. But lack of ideal ball skills also limits his effectiveness, as he doesn’t make very many plays when working in zone. Will bite on play-action and fakes and can be undisciplined at times when playing centerfield, letting receivers get behind him for big gains.
Ball Skills (5.0) – Does not do a good job locating the ball in the air, particularly when it comes to man coverage. Even when he can keep things in front of him, doesn’t show that knack for anticipating throws and plays. At times, struggles when trying to take good angles when coming upfield to defend the run, losing track of the ballcarrier and being caught out of position.
Range (7.0) – Due to his speed, he has the ability to make plays all over the field, just simply didn’t do that a lot at Wisconsin. Has the ability to cover ground when working as a centerfielder in the deep half and is quick to come upfield to defend run or underneath throws. Possesses good sideline-to-sideline range. Can play up in the box, but could improve defeating blocks and avoiding trash.
Based off my own grading system on a 9-point scale.
Developmental Starter (4.5) – A player right on the cusp of being a starter but may be lacking in at least one key area that limits their potential. If he becomes a starter, almost never becomes more than complementary guys as opposed to impact players due to struggles competing against quality NFL players. A solid mid-round pick that should be targeted early on Day 3. Players towards the upper end could sneak into the Top 100 picks.
Southward will take time to develop at the next level and will be best used as a reserve early on.
Southward is still developing as a football player, which means there is a chance that his best football is ahead of him. He switched to playing football in his final year of high school after starring as a basketball player and has shown steady growth over his collegiate career.
With the coaching changes that occurred in Wisconsin this past year, he was asked to play more man coverage against slot receivers as a senior, something he had hardly done previously. It showed as his technique, footwork, and balance need to improve. He struggled mightily against quality slot receivers such as Bruce Ellington of South Carolina.
But there’s the belief that since he is still learning, that his technique and development as a cover safety could improve at the next level as he gets more comfortable.
The main thing to like about Southward is his athleticism. It was the main reason why he made the switch to football and why Wisconsin was willing to take a relative flyer on him by giving him a scholarship.
He’s still raw, but it comes in as upside as he continues to develop a more natural feel for the game. That was the biggest knock on him at Wisconsin, as he didn’t seem to possess that. He was an effective collegiate starter, but did not make a ton of plays compared to most quality collegiate safeties.
He’s such an athlete that he can potentially get by as a stopgap starter even without developing that feel, but probably won’t be a good one. He’ll get exposed in coverage and he’s not a good enough run defender to add significant value as a starter on defense. NFL teams will attack him and he’ll become a liability that eventually will lead to his team moving on to another player.
But if he does start to develop that feel, he could become a capable starter. He’s unlikely to be a top starter, but can be a solid, yet unspectacular starter in the same mold as ex-Miami Dolphins and current Houston Texans free safety Chris Clemons, who had similar measurables and playing-style coming out of Clemson in 2009. Clemons is a more physical hitter, but is an effective starter because he’s solid in centerfield due to good range and ball skills.
A similar role for Southward would be ideal, but he at least possesses the versatility and ability to come up and play in the box to defend the run and cover slot receivers. Those are areas that he’s unlikely to ever excel in and thus ideally, he’ll be more of a zone safety that primarily works the back-end in Cover-1 or Cover-2. But he at least possesses the upside to get better vs. the run and in man coverage.
With a year or two in an NFL weight room, Southward could add a much-needed 10 or more pounds of muscle to become a more physical run defender. Relatively speaking, he’s still in his infancy of learning man cover skills and technique, and thus there is reason to believe that he can get better there. But an NFL stadium is not a place where you want to be undergoing trial by fire, and thus the team that drafts him would be smart to redshirt him for at least one full season, if not two.
Southward, as things stand right now, doesn’t appear as a drastically different or better player than former starting free safety Thomas DeCoud.
Because of his superior speed, range and the possibility that he polishes his cover skills does mean that Southward has higher upside than DeCoud. But DeCoud’s speed and range were his strongest traits, and he did have limited experience in man coverage, dating from his early days at Cal as a cornerback. So Southward isn’t a drastically different player and there’s really no telling if he continues developing and becomes a drastically better player.
But Southward should benefit from getting a redshirt year to similar to DeCoud had in 2008. Based off what I’ve seen and know about Southward, I highly doubt the Falcons are really expecting him to be a major contributor on defense as a rookie. His lack of experience and raw instincts make him a bad bet to garner anything more than a situational role in 2014 if/when the Falcons employ some six defensive backs in their dime sub-package. In that scenario, Southward can patrol the deep half where his speed and range can be a factor.
Since Southward doesn’t have a ton of experience making secondary calls, it would be simply too much to ask him to take over as a starter as a rookie. Instead, the Falcons probably will expect Southward to be a backup to Dwight Lowery and William Moore, and soak up as much information as possible on the practice field and film room, before being expected to push for time in 2015.
As a rookie, Southward could be used on special teams, where his speed could be an asset in coverage. He did play some as a gunner at Wisconsin, although not a lot during his final year. But he could potentially be an upgrade in that capacity to Drew Davis as the team potentially looks for another option to employ opposite Antone Smith.
In 2015, as DeCoud did in 2009, Southward could be expected to compete for a starting free safety if he’s ready. If he is, then he can be expected to grow and develop into a competent NFL starter. But as a third-round pick by the Falcons, he’ll likely be afforded that opportunity even if he is not quite ready.
The major concern with Southward is the Falcons could be falling into the “Kerry Meier Trap” again. Meier was a player that had subpar speed and burst on tape, but had an impressive three-cone drill time at his pro day (6.56 seconds) suggesting developmental upside to become better at separating from coverage against NFL cornerbacks. Meier too was a relatively inexperienced player that had only made a conversion from quarterback to wide receiver as a sophomore at Kansas.
The harsh reality could be that Southward may simply be a better athlete than football player and may not quite as much developmental upside as his athletic tests indicated.
However, the main difference between Southward and Meier is that even if Southward does not develop further in the pros, he can still add decent depth at safety and help out on special teams. He can still run and tackle, and that will bring some value. In the case of Meier, a receiver that can’t reliably separate from coverage is functionally useless. So I’m a bit more optimistic that Southward can at least earn a role in sub-packages, even if he never becomes a reliable starter.
Overall, I suspect Southward will add depth and help out on special teams this year. In 2015, I’m optimistic he can compete for and potentially win a starting job at free safety if he takes fully advantage of his redshirt year. I fully expect some growing pains for him, but the question will be whether he starts to round himself into a better player come in 2016. But in reality, the key for the Falcons will be improving the other positions on defense between now and then, moreso than relying on Southward to reach his full potential.
Like was the case with DeCoud, with other playmakers around Southward and asking him to be more of a complementary player than impact guy, he can get by. Unlike DeCoud however, I don’t think you’ll see Southward making as many plays, particularly in coverage. But he’s a guy that has the intelligence and toughness to play his assignment and not make as many errors and negative plays as DeCoud was prone to do.
Southward has the potential to be an upgrade over DeCoud, but is probably at least two years away from reaching that. In the meantime, he can be a valuable role player and depth guy.