+The best kind of versatile
+Awesome strength for his size
+Good ball skills
-Tiny beyond belief
-Often mauled when he has to take on a block
-Lack of height means problems in any deep zone, especially with the rules protecting defenseless receivers.
I love Florida State corner/safety Lamarcus Joyner. His size might make him football’s David Eckstein, but I absolutely love his kind of versatility. To me, the best kind of versatility gives you substitution flexibility. Sure, it’s nice to see a guy like C.J. Mosley who could succeed both as a 4-3 outside linebacker or a 3-4 inside linebacker, but he’s going to play for a team that uses him in one way or the other. If he goes a 4-3 team, his ability in a 3-4 won’t matter, and vice versa. But Lamarcus Joyner? I see him as a strong safety in the NFL who, against three receiver formations, gives his coach tremendous flexibility in his substitutions. He has the choice of subbing in his third corner/nickelback or the third safety, whichever one is better, since Joyner can play nickelback in a pinch. How cool is that? In general, the third corner is better than the third safety since the nickelback gets serious playing time, but a coach is lucky if he goes an entire season without one of his top three corners getting injured, but a coach who has Joyner will lose almost nothing in that event simply because he can put Joyner in as the nickelback and sub in a backup safety.
This kind of substitution flexibility is really only offered by other defensive player in the NFL: Von Miller. Miller allows the Broncos to be the only 4-3 team in the NFL that subs out a defensive lineman (usually Derek Wolfe) when moving to the nickel. This is a tremendous advantage since defensive linemen lack stamina, so they have to be subbed out periodically anyway. It’s annoying to sub out a defensive lineman for a backup defensive lineman, since that entails putting in an inferior player the coach would rather not have in the game, but if a coach can conserve the stamina of a defensive lineman while putting in a player he wants in the game anyway, it’s an amazing advantage. Von Miller is a weakside outside linebacker against 2 receiver sets but, against the nickel, he offers more than enough as a pass rusher and run stopper to play the 5 technique and give Derek Wolfe a rest. So the Broncos have a 4-3 base defense, and, when going to the nickel, they sub out a defensive lineman and go to a 4-2-5 nickel. Von Miller changes his position. And that’s so valuable.
One thing I should make clear: Joyner is nowhere near as good as Von Miller. Regardless of whether or not Miller is playing 4-3 outside linebacker or 4-3 defensive end, he’s among the top 3 players at his position. Miller is incredible at each position. Joyner, on the other hand, projects to be merely a solid starting safety and a good nickelback in my mind. He is good, not phenomenal, at each position. But that versatility of Joyner’s still gives him value that you don’t see in his film. It doesn’t affect his own play, but it allows Florida State (and his future NFL team) to put their best 5 defensive backs on the field against 3 receiver sets, not their best 3 corners and best 2 safeties. And that’s pretty cool.
Joyner’s only significant weaknesses all tie back into his size, which will greatly impact what kind of role he plays in the NFL. He’s 5’8, and I know of no defensive back in the NFL that short, other than Nickell Robey (I give Robey a ton of credit, dominant on film in college but I couldn’t fathom the idea of a 5’7 corner, he’s proving me wrong). I must emphasize that some people see him as a safety, whereas others see him as a corner, and I see him as both, depending on what you need him to be. But let’s start off with his prospects as a corner.
If he’s a corner in the NFL, he’ll probably be in a Tampa 2, where he won’t be forced into ridiculous matchups like man coverage against Calvin Johnson, or cover 3 which would force him to win a few jump balls. In a Tampa 2, he should excel at using his range and instincts to defend the flat. There is no way he plays corner in a man heavy coverage scheme with his lack of size, but he can definitely excel in man coverage against almost any slot receiver. His range is outstanding and he has good quickness, essential for cover 2 corners, but his biggest problem in this area is his inability to take on blocks, especially by athletic players. On a great deal of plays (NOT ALL!), corners expected to be what I call “pseudo-two-gap” defenders against the run. Like a two gap lineman, they are supposed to wait for the running back to commit before shedding their block. If the running back runs between the wide receiver and the tackle, the corner penetrates inside, and if the running back runs outside the receiver, the corner penetrates outside. If the corner were to say, penetrate inside blindly, unless he creates penetration almost immediately, the running back will merely turn the corner, and he will be out of position to make the play. The corner is supposed to remain engaged in the block until the running back commits in either direction. For Lamarcus Joyner, this is a problem, unless he’s lined up against a slot receiver. As long as he is engaged in a block, he is being driven far down the field, as his lack of length makes it impossible for him to even touch the shoulder pads of almost anyone who is blocking him. He is put on roller skates when given this responsibility. He also struggles defending screens for this reason. He can only shed blocks by using his outstanding lateral quickness and above average body control to essentially “shake and bake” the opponent and get him off balance. He must get around the blocker before the blocker touches him. Not only does this make the “pseudo-two-gap” responsibility tough, but wide receivers are quick themselves, and are pretty likely to lay a finger on him. Still, he is outstanding in zone coverage and that combined with his tackling gives him a realistic shot in a Tampa 2. It’s also worth noting that his speed and quickness allow him to excel when he is blitzing from the nickel. He quietly is leading Florida State with 5 sacks this year, as he as been spending more time as the nickelback.
As a safety, Joyner is definitely limited to strong safety, but there aren’t many reasons he can’t excel here. First of all, his lack of height makes him essentially useless in a deep zone, since he can’t win a jump ball and he’s not allowed to breakup passes by annihilating defenseless receivers (like Bob Sanders used to do) in today’s NFL. The free safety has deep middle responsibility in a cover 3, and I don’t think I need to explain what would happen if Jimmy Graham ran a seam route with Lamarcus Joyner covering the deep middle. In fact, cover 3 is part of the reason I prefer him as a safety or nickel back, but ideally not corner, since it is hard to use Joyner covering a deep third of the field. That being said, the problem still exists if he plays safety, as cover 3 cloud becomes very difficult to run when he is a safety, though it would be quite effective if he played corner. If he goes to a Tampa 2 team, he will definitely play corner as to avoid covering the deep half, because he isn’t big enough to make a huge impact on a jump ball in one deep half of the field. However, if he goes to any team that doesn’t use lots of cover 2 5 under, there is a good chance he will play strong safety or nickelback, since he can dominate against slot receivers and running backs in man coverage with his quickness, and his outstanding lateral range allows him to dominate in really any assignment that allows him to play an underneath zone, such as cover 1 robber. It doesn’t hurt that he has good instincts in zone coverage as well. In short, his athleticism combined with his lack of size makes him an extreme player; amazing in some respects like underneath zones but terrible in other respects like man against big wide receivers.
Joyner has above average ball skills. He uses his strength and toughness to breakup passes and he has pretty soft hands. He also flashes ability as a punt and kick returner, and he takes good angles to the ball in the air.
Joyner is a good tackler. His lack of length makes wrapping up very difficult at times, but his strength and power makes him a hard hitter that prevents yards after contact. Coaches always stress the importance of wrapping up, but there is a situation where going for the big hit is more helpful, assuming the hit is legal: when a teammate already has wrapped up. If a teammate has wrapped his arms around the ball carrier and is making the tackle, a good running back will still fall forward as he is being tackled and pick up an extra 2 or 3 yards after contact. This is usually inevitable, but a speeding bullet like Joyner can hit the ball carrier and stop his forward momentum, saving a couple yards. Joyner is very good at this and his assisted tackles always prevent yards after contact. He’s also adequate with solo tackles thanks to his excellent strength, but this is a nice bonus that Joyner provides.
Ultimately, I think Joyner will be a good NFL player. The value of his versatility is quite underrated and should make him a very useful player.
NFL Comparison: There aren’t any 5’8 safeties in the NFL, and a Bob Sanders comparison is quite unfair. Being a Denver Nuggets fan, I think if Nate Robinson had chosen football over basketball, he might have been an apt comparison (they are physically similar at the very least). But, if I have to make a comparison to a current NFL player, I guess I would go with Donte Whitner.
Grade: 87 (worthy of an early to mid second round pick)
Projection: 83 (will be a late to mid second round pick)