NFL Draft

Is Safety Grant Delpit A Viable Target At Pick #49?

Last week I did a post on the rising buzz around Georgia’s T/G Isaiah Wilson, one of those prospects who suddenly gain public traction toward the end of the process. LSU Safety Grant Delpit, a 21 year old true Junior, has done the opposite. He came into the 2019 with buzz that he was might well get picked in the Top 10 based on some fabulous 2018 tape. His stock has fallen so far that some well respected analysts now say he could fall all the way to Round 3. What is going on?

It’s best to start with the reputation that Delpit earned in 2018 as the designated heir to Tyrann Mathieu and Jamal Adams. LSU has enjoyed a long reputation as one of the premier schools for the production of talented, athletic, and well trained defensive backs. Matthieu has become a star. Adams is on his way. And in his Sophomore year Delpit looked at least as promising as either of his predecessors. Hence the early buzz. At 6’2″ and 213 lbs., he seemed to cover almost as well as the Corners, excelled as a playmaking single-high presence in the middle of the field, clearly understood route concepts and the like, and showed ball skills that produced five interceptions and numerous pass breakups. He also earned a reputation as a ferocious striker who loved to deliver big hits when he came downhill.

Clearly and obviously the sort of dream pick that Pittsburgh would never have a shot at getting.

Enter 2019, where he never seemed quite the same even if he did play well enough (or have a good enough reputation) to win the Jim Thorpe award for college football’s best defensive back at any position. The hype continued in solid looking pieces like this gif-supported February scouting report (from a good Pittsburgh boy at CMU) that makes comparisons to Eric Berry. But then things started to turn, resulting in a backlash against the hype monster. Scouting reports began to multiply from solid, reliable experts like Lance Zierlein, whose NFL.com scouting profile delivered fainter-than-expected praise. He saw only average range, not exceptional, and worried that Delpit seems to have trouble flipping his hips smoothly enough to deal with good route runners. Zierlein also questioned whether Delpit has the sort of “Alpha personality” teams seek from their stars. And the tackling had almost regressed! The well respected Jon Ledyard recently called Delpit “the worst tackler among all the defensive prospects you’ve heard of in this class.” If you’re not “safe” as a Safety, it is a massive issue!

Now it should be emphasized up front that people criticize Delpit’s tackling technique, but no one has ever doubted his physicality or willingness. This isn’t Gerod Holliman part two! Grant Delpit brings the lumber; he’s just kind of wild when it comes to swinging it around. The overall buzz got bad enough that Delpit’s teammates came out to stand up for him, particularly as the Combine rolled around and he ruffled still more feathers by refusing to do any of the testing or drills. That, he said, would have to wait until the LSU pro day.

Not a wise decision as things turned out. The Covid-19 pandemic shut down the pro day and deprived Delpit and his peers of any chance to answer the nagging questions. Of course, he never really said that he was stiffing the Combine watchers (like me) in some self-centered effort to get a home field advantage. Oh no. He said it was all because he wanted to fully recover from a high ankle sprain that has plagued him since the first game of the season, but…

Wait a sec. High ankle sprain?

Yes indeed, and that is the sauce that seasons the rest of this drama.

We have all seen that exact injury derail entire seasons for very successful NFL players. Proven tough guys, not college kids who might be posturing. Couldn’t that injury explain all the issues that plagued this young man in his 2019 run? After all, it’s kind of hard to flip your hips when the ankle underneath is calling a yellow alert. Same thing for those subtle, last second changes of direction that change missing the big hit into missing the tackle altogether. It makes a certain amount of sense.

The young man himself has never been foolish enough to claim his ankle as an excuse, but his teammates certainly have. Vociferously. So much so that no reasonable evaluator can doubt that he really was hurt, and really did play through a lot of pain from start to finish. But does that erase the issues, especially when they also appear on the 2018 tape? Or just leave us wanting to know more? I’m afraid the latter is where your truth is hid. We just don’t know; we can’t find out; and thus we are left with the mystery.

For what it’s worth, Delpit supposedly ran a 4.39 dash at his improvised pro day. I take that number with several grains of salt, but I have no doubt that he really is one of, and maybe the best Safety athletes in the class. But that isn’t making the slightest dent in the number or ferocity of the rumor mill’s flow. There is blood in the water, and the anti-Delpit bandwagon is running at full speed. “Looks like Tarzan but plays like Jane! Jane can run as fast as she wants but she’ll still hit like a girl!” [Oogah-oogah. You’re the man Internet Tough Guy.]

Sorry about that. My sinking to the same level doesn’t answer any questions. And answers are what anyone doing mock drafts is after about now. Would Grant Delpit be worth the risk at #49 if it cost us the chance to pick a late-1st offensive lineman, running back, or receiver?

How Would A Healthy Grant Delpit Help The Steelers?

Let’s be clear: this article is not an invitation for all the Terrell Edmunds haters to come rushing out of the woodwork. By all accounts the team is very high on it’s 2018 pick and has absolutely no interest in looking for a theoretical upgrade. Bob Labriola recently savaged a fan for even hinting at that idea. But Safety is high on everyone’s list of draft priorities nevertheless because there are so many ways a quality #3 Safety could help the team.

Depth is just the first. Mike Tomlin may not live in his fears, but Steelers Nation certainly does. What would happen if Minkah Fitzpatrick or Edmunds got hurt? We are relying on this defense, with it’s finally-revamped secondary, to lift the team up toward Super Bowl glory. Would that one injury be enough to puncture the balloon? Depth really does matter, even if both of the starters put up all-pro seasons. This is even more true because the team has lost 2019 Mack ILB Mark Barron, backup Free Safety Kameron Kelly, and backup Buck ILB Tyler Matakevich. There is a lack of midfield bodies in general.

Second, three-Safety “Big Nickel” sub packages appear to be a great answer to many of the innovations in modern football, and in particular for the challenges posed by developing QB talent in Baltimore and Cleveland. Fast, cover-capable, midfield tacklers are the single best way to kill outside zone running schemes, shut down athletic TE’s, tackle the check-down targets, and prevent WR outlet plays like shallow crossing routes and slants. Modern offensive schemes and rule changes opened up the middle of the field. As a result, talented Safeties and speedy ILB’s have more importance now than they ever had before. And Pittsburgh has not ignored that fact! This is why the team invested so high in Ryan Shazier, traded up for Devin Bush, double dipped to get Ulysses Gilbert III, spent a late-1st on Edmunds, and traded this year’s 1st to get Fitzpatrick. With Shazier gone, that leaves four good looking players. The Big Nickel uses five. Thus a prospect who’d enable a primo Big Nickel package might not earn the 800-1000 snaps of a full starter, but could easily get 200-300 in sub packages alone.

Finally, Safeties and ILB’s are the very models of what you look for on special teams. Pittsburgh has lost a number of major special teams contributors from the 2019 unit, including Matakevich, Kelly, and Rosie Nix. Those three have been replaced with Derek Watt alone. This reinforces the need for both bodies and talent for the midfield defense.

Essential depth + major sub package role + essential special teams work = an obvious roster spot (or two) for a young man to claim on the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers. And if the young man is more than just “solid”, so much the better. If he’s good enough to fill both the Safety #3 and ILB #3 spots at the same time, yowza!

Upgrading a full fledged starter might provide even more bang for the buck than an excellent midfield defender. That is the argument for spending the #49 pick on a RB, OL, or WR. A superior player on the offensive side of the ball could easily become the starter from 2021 on, while his peer on defense is going to be stuck as a key role player. But if it comes down to a great Safety versus a very good offensive player… You know how that works.

But Is All This Just “Lying Season” Slander?

Probably. The rumors about Isaiah Wilson came from reputable reporters who were passing on confirmed statements from multiple sources within the actual teams. The rumors about Grant Delpit seem to have sprung mostly from the draftnik community, and then gained force in the echo chamber where they were spawned. I do not question the sincerity of those who asked these questions. But that isn’t the same as information coming from the teams.

This is also the time of year when some less scrupulous GM’s will actually start a damaging rumor in order to frighten their peers away from a target they actually covet. Does Delpit fit the kind of situation that spawns those slanders? 100%, because of how the class is structured. The 2020 Safety prospects aren’t “bad,” but Delpit is the only one who might be viewed as special. Xavier McKinney is the only other name routinely placed in Round 1, and he falls in the “high floor, moderate ceiling” department. Antoine Winfield Jr. has flashed great potential and could rise into the 1st, but he is somewhat undersized and has such a long string of injuries that he’s now an almost-22 year old Sophomore. How often do you get to say that? Ashtyn Davis has A+ athletic gifts, but most pundits think he will require at least one redshirt year as a pro because his football IQ lags significantly behind. Then you get to the small school sensations like Jeremy Chinn and Kyle Dugger, who could easily drop to Round 3 due to the level of competition and training concerns. It continues like that. The 2020 class offers decent, consistent value in almost every round but there are no genuine stars – except, perhaps, for the one young man who’s been hit with the negative rumors.

It’s enough to make you go, “Hmmm.”

Then there is the backlash issue. Todd McShay’s middle of the road summary [paraphrased in places] makes a good entry point for this:

“Has very good but not elite range,… is not an elite run defender, but he’s tough,… and has good but not elite ball skills. l think what stands out about him to me is the fact that he does everything either really well or at an elite level. There’s no real huge weakness in his game.”

What happens when people first get sold on a prospect being elite, and then get told he has “no real huge weakness in his game?” Backlash, that’s what. Those who got most excited now feel betrayed, and many of them turn around and declare that the prospect is total trash. It’s wrong and unfair to the kid himself, of course. It’s not like he wrote all those editorials back in the spring and summer. But it is human nature, and there’s no getting around it. Nor can we ignore another ugly side of our fan-based community. Every year sees prospects who get positive buzz because they catch the imagination, but we also see the reverse: prospects who somehow end up as the whipping boy for hot take negativism. One learns to distrust both extremes.

So I think there are very good reasons to believe that cooler heads will conclude that Grant Delpit may not be the Top 10-15 talent people touted back in November, but he really is a top 20-25 talent who won’t fall out of Round 1 in this weak-at-the-top class. I do not, personally, see any real chance that he could fall all the way to #49. But… I also have to admit that I might be a wee bit biased. At some level I really want Grant Delpit to get picked in Round 1 no matter what.

No one on these pages has been more vocal about his desire to see our beloved Steelers spend their Round 2 pick on an offensive player. Round 1 and Round 3 both went to the defense; it was the offense that stank last year; yada, yada, yada. You’ve heard it before. When I see a mock with Delpit getting picked in the 20’s, I don’t mourn. I celebrate. It means some offensive player that I lust for more would be one step closer to Pittsburgh’s draft. But is that good logic? Not even close. The reasons I just quoted are tiebreaker concerns; they only come into play when the player grades are equal. My core point has always been this: the 2020 draft offers major clusters of late-1st talent at RB, WR, and on the Offensive Line; some of those are bound to fall all the way to pick #49; and the best defensive talent that could possibly be there is no better than equal. Since offense wins the tiebreaker, that means I am going to be right. And I like to be right. It’s only fair to admit it.

If Grant Delpit really is a mid-1st defensive talent who might be falling in the draft due to sloppy analysis, that blows my main argument out of the water. A mid-1st grade is an even better bargain at #49 than a late-1st, even if it appears at the wrong position. And that brings us full circle. What exactly is the proper grade for the young Mr. Delpit? Is he better than his teammate, RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire? Better than all those offensive linemen that also have late-1st grades, like Austin Jackson, Lucas Niang, Ezra Cleveland, Cesar Ruiz, and Isaiah Wilson? If he is that good, is there any chance the rumors could have genuine substance? Or is he “just” another late-1st guy who’d be subject to ‘offense wins the tiebreaker’?

I do not think it is a realistic concern, but it’s one we ought to spend a little skull sweat on. Why not if we’re all stuck at home anyway? It’s enough to make you go, “Hmmm.”

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