Last year, the Detroit Lions cycled through 12 different defensive backs (13 if you count Calvin Johnson for two plays). It seems like every year Lions fans and NFL Draft pundits are ruthlessly pounding the narrative of Detroit's secondary needs into our brains. This year is different, though. According to Football Outsiders, the Lions finished the season with the eighth-ranked passing defense in terms of efficiency (DVOA). Since 1989, there are just four instances where the Lions made the top 10 in this category (1993, 2000, 2011 and 2014).
If the Lions decide to select a defensive back early in the 2015 NFL Draft, it will be an investment for the future (depending on whether they re-sign Rashean Mathis or not). This year's CB class leaves a lot to be desired, but there are a few names that have caught fire lately succeeding Senior Bowl week. One of those names is Utah DB Eric Rowe.
Rowe played four full seasons with the Utes and was a three-year starter at free safety. After his teammate Keith McGill left for the draft in 2013, the Utes decided to move Rowe over to the outside to play cornerback. Since then, Rowe has garnered a lot of buzz. He was considered a day two/three pick by most experts after his 2014 campaign and received a Senior Bowl invitation to improve his stock. During Senior Bowl practices, Rowe got some looks at both safety and cornerback and impressed plenty of scouts.
Rowe is as aggressive of a defender as they come. I like him a lot better than I did Keith McGill last year. After making the move to CB, Utah loved to use Rowe in press-man coverage. He has the frame (6-foot-1, 204 pounds) that NFL teams are starting to covet, and he uses it well.
Against Washington State last year, Rowe made just his fourth career start at CB. You can see that he already displays great instincts in tight man coverage and mirrors the movements of his assignment well. He does a good job of being physical and stops the play for a minimal gain.
High-Pointing the Ball
Rowe ended his career with 33 pass breakups for the Utes, which is the third-most in school history. Though he didn't rack up a ton of interceptions (three career INTs), he does a phenomenal job of playing the ball at its highest point once it reaches the target.
This example comes on Rowe's second defensive snap of the game. Once again, Rowe is able to disrupt a short slant by reading the receiver's hips and mirroring his movements. He does a solid job of getting his hands on the receiver and high-points the ball for a pick-six.
Another example comes against Michigan with Rowe in zone coverage. On this play, he keeps his eyes on the quarterback and looks fluid in his movements when adjusting to the poorly thrown ball. He has long arms (32.5 inches), which will allow him to win in these types of situations consistently.
Here's a good shot of Rowe breaking up a pass in off-man coverage. Unfortunately, there isn't a better camera angle that shows him breaking toward the ball, but the result is the same. Rowe makes a great play on the ball and deflects yet another pass.
Despite making a nice play while giving up a lot of cushion, playing in off-man and/or zone coverage isn't exactly Rowe's bread and butter.
On this play, Michigan is looking to convert on a third-and-10 with Utah in a Cover-2 shell and Rowe in zone coverage. Rowe is stuck in the middle of two receivers after the linebacker chooses to cut back toward the middle of the field. He reads the quarterback but is too slow to react and gives up a first down. Rowe has to have a better understanding of the situation he's in and realize that a checkdown on third-and-long is unlikely.
Against the Run
Rowe has his ups and downs against the run, but I do like that he is a willing tackler and has no problem getting physical.
There were several instances of the Utes sending Rowe off on a blitz, and here is a good example of him being physical against the run. He does have a lot of work to do as a tackler in general, however. There were a couple times where Rowe completely whiffed on a tackle, and I'd also like to see him take better angles toward the ball carrier.
Rowe does a fine job in coverage, but once he realizes that the QB is looking to scramble, he takes a poor angle and gives up an extra 10 or so yards.
Welp. My sources tell me this is not a good attempted tackle.
Many will also question Rowe's straight-line speed. His coaches reportedly clocked him at a 4.39 40 time, but it's hard to believe that from what I've seen on tape.
Rowe gets beat on a go route on third-and-7 to give up the go-ahead score. Not a good look for him.
If I'm scouting Eric Rowe at the NFL Combine, my two main focuses would be his long speed and how well he moves in coverage. If he can post a time like he reportedly ran in front of his coaches, then it's possible that he doesn't make it past the first round. Rowe also looks a bit awkward in coverage and isn't as fluid as you'd like on deeper routes. I'd like to see how well he performs during the combine drills and whether he can stay low in his breaks when turning his hips. There were a few plays where I saw Rowe get a little too high when turning his hips, which allowed the receiver to get open.
How He Fits
Depending on who you ask, Eric Rowe is either a great cornerback prospect or a great safety prospect. Either way, he's just a great prospect with a lot of upside. He's shown a lot of promise at CB despite having just one year of experience under his belt at the position. Under Teryl Austin's aggressive scheme, Rowe would be a perfect fit to develop behind Rashean Mathis (if re-signed). He has the prototypical frame that many teams are looking for in a CB, and his aggressive style would be a match made in heaven with Austin's coaching.
It's also not a terrible idea to have him develop as a CB and serve as a backup safety. One advantage with Rowe at safety would be that you can use his cover skills to stay in base defense versus three-receiver sets. I could see him developing into either a solid press corner or a true center fielder with his ability to high-point the ball.
As it stands, I like Rowe in the second round. If he puts up some impressive numbers at the combine, then don't be surprised to see him move up into the first round. I've already seen some scouts and/or experts call him a day one pick.
2015 NFL Draft profiles: OT T.J. Clemmings (Pittsburgh), RB Duke Johnson (Miami [FL])
Thanks for reading, and feel free to leave any suggestions of prospects you would like to be profiled in the comments below.