The NFL has always had small school guys make splashes on the football field, going back into the 1950s and 60s. Back then, however, it was more dumb luck than anything when one of those guys worked out well. Now, with the advent of every game being recorded, and a lot of the bigger schools playing the little guy, it's a little easier to project how well small school guys will transition to the NFL. A guy many think will make a very smooth transition, and be a really good player, is Jonathan Cyprien of Florida International.
Cyprien was a machine in the Defensive backfield, setting the FIU record for career tackles with 365, which is on average 7.3 tackles in each of the 50 games he played in (45 starts). That's astounding. The guy was second on the team in tackles as a true Freshman, and only started the last seven games. He also had 13.5 tackles for loss (pretty good for a guy lined up 15 yards from the line of scrimmage), and six career interceptions, three in 2012. He was second team All-Sun Belt in both his Sophomore and Junior years, and was a first team selection last year.
Like a good number of Safeties in this draft (a very deep one at that), Cyprien has played both Strong and Free Safety, as well as a little bit of Dime CB when they faced a spread Offense. While not a necessity for a guy drafted high, it's nice when there is some flexibility there. He's also best known for being the lay-the-wood type hitter, something you almost have to do as a Safety in the NFL (safely, of course). It would be nice to get that kind of guy back there again for the Colts.
Cyprien started out projected to go in Round 2, but his Senior Bowl performance really shot him up boards, and he's now being mocked in most drafts I see at the back end of Round 1. Here's one observation from Dane Brugler of NFLDraftScout.com:
In a talented safety group, Florida International's Jonathan Cyprien stood out on Monday with his aggressive playing style and active demeanor. He practiced at full speed and left it all out on the field, not shying away from getting physical. Whether it was a contact drill or not, Cyprien is going to meet the ballcarrier with a pop, refusing to let up. With Kenny Vaccaro (Texas) and D.J. Swearinger (South Carolina) deciding to skip Mobile, Cyprien has a chance to emerge as the top safety at this year's Senior Bowl.
I'm 100% positive the Colts have seen tape on Cyprien, as they drafted his former teammate T.Y. Hilton a year ago, and all Hilton did was be the best rookie WR in the class. Cyprien was asked at the Combine about playing against Hilton in practice:
Well, usually it's always a battle. T.Y. is so fast. If you don't get your hands on him, it's done. You can call it quits. He's a great player, and I'm so happy for what he's done in his rookie year. But it's nothing that me and everyone from FIU didn't expect. I hope to play against him soon.
Cyprien would fit in right away with the Colts, assuredly starting Week 1 beside Antoine Bethea. He'd instantly make receivers a little more gun-shy coming across the middle, and he'd instantly upgrade the run defense. With the Safety class so deep it's not always the best thing to take the first guy, which might be the case at #24, although unlikely. If I had my drothers I'd want the Colts to upgrade the Defense in Round 1 this year, and Jonathan Cyprien is a perfect candidate for the job.
Looks and plays like a strong in-the-box safety with solid thickness throughout his build. Holds his ground against blocks from bigger opponents, and also runs through traffic to wrap up ballcarriers inside (sometimes as a fast edge blitzer). Possesses enough speed and athleticism to cover ground as a zone defender in the back half and line up against slot receivers inside.
Doesn’t have elite range or the height/length combination to play as a single-deep safety. Quick enough to make a hit after the catch when deep, but is often a step slow to recognize the pass coming into his area. Aggressive in coverage, he can be sucked up by play action and will jump underneath routes, allowing plays over the top.
Strengths: Well-built defender who certainly looks the part of an NFL safety. Aggressive playing style and active demeanor. Took advantage of the Senior Bowl opportunity, standing out with his full-speed effort from the first practice. Enjoys the physical nature of the position. Meets the ballcarrier with a pop and refuses to let up.
Weaknesses: Some have concerns about Cyprien's straight-line speed. Played a lot of two-deep coverage at FIU, showing the ability to play halves but not necessarily operate as a true centerfielder. Takes highly aggressive angles to the ball and consistently tackles ballcarriers high, two potential areas of concern considering the significant jump in competition he'll be making.
Compares To: Morgan Burnett, SS, Green Bay Packers -- Surrounded by big names in the Packers' secondary, Burnett is quietly emerging as one of the league's better young safeties.
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