It’s July, and The Draft Network Slack is already abuzz, debating the quality of safeties in the upcoming 2019 NFL Draft. My fellow draft analyst, Jon Ledyard, has watched eight players and is “still looking for someone I think can be top 50.” Joe Marino likes Jaquan Johnson out of Miami and Juan Thornhill of Virginia. Trevor Sikkema is making fun of Ledyard for not liking anyone. And I’m just twiddling my thumbs and talking about Taylor Rapp.
But I agree with Jon: I’m not sure Taylor Rapp is a Top-50 player yet, either. The tape is Round 1 worthy; the athletic profile might not be. Rapp posted some wild numbers at the Husky Combine in March — 3.88 short shuttle and 6.57 three cone — but I’m left wondering about his long speed.
Coming out of high school, Rapp ran a 4.74 40-yard dash at 200 pounds. Now, he plays at 213.
Of course, Rapp’s on-field responsibilities dictate on which physical traits he’ll rely — so if he isn’t fast, adjust his usage. As a freshman, he played single-high far more frequently than in his sophomore campaign, during which he rotated down into the box and over the slot. I like that second-year role for him better than the first, as it protects him from long-range safety play.
Playing as an overhang defender maximizes Rapp’s greatest strength: his quick recognition and his understanding of leverage. As the overhang defender, Rapp has both run and pass responsibilities. But he’s quick to support the box and always keeps outside contain, and as a good tackler, can be trusted with a lot of grass around him. His instincts and explosiveness help him win landmarks and make hard plays look easy.
Check out that last rep again — the one against Utah. Rapp rolls late into the box, but the downhill nature of play serves as an example for all of his run fits from his single-high position. I could have dumped thirty different clips in there. When he’s attacking downfield, he’s a top-flight player.
The overhang defender or box safety is asked to do so much — you just saw four widely different reps from Rapp — and accordingly, you can’t trust just any player there. Because Rapp has a rounded skill set and a sharp mind, he fits the mold. You see physicality, burst, pre-snap recognition, and leverage all throughout those clips. He brings a lot to the table.
In order to play a defender that close to the line of scrimmage, he needs to be able to cover — and in Rapp’s case, his 6-foot, 210-pound frame brings up some question marks. That’s not great height for covering the 6-foot-5+ TEs of the NFL; and scatbacks at 190 pounds might prove too slippery in space.
Rapp wasn’t asked to cover backs, but he handled explosive slot receivers and physical tight ends well when the opportunities arose.
Rapp’s explosiveness in space flashes all over these reps — even that last one, on which he totally whiffed on the press attempt? He was able to flip his hips and drive to a trail position pretty fluidly. There’s some technical work to do there, certainly–but that flip and burst is great to have for a line-of-scrimmage player. His better coverage reps clearly came when he was in off or catch-man coverage, which allows him to play with more patience and read through to the backfield. Starting away and coming downhill? That’s Rapp’s tune.
Rapp did get ten types of toasted on a slot rep against Demetris Robertson, the 5-star WR recruit then of Cal who has since transferred to Georgia. Robertson is a 4.35 40-yard dash player, which Rapp very well knows when he lines up against him. Watch him gain depth with the side-shuffle, clearly preparing to open his hips and race downfield.
But he’s late to click and takes too many steps to fully snap open, and by that point, Robertson’s already by him.
We’ve discussed a good deal of taking Rapp away from single-high responsibilities, in part because he clearly doesn’t have sonic boom speed. But you can’t fully protect slow players by rolling them down into the slot. Rapp’s biggest question to answer will be how wide his area of influence really is on the NFL field, given the speed of the game.
The other question mark I face with Rapp concerns his playmaking ability. Now, raw stats don’t tell the whole story for many Draft prospects, of course — we all know that. But when a DB is credited with 1 INT and 0 PBUs…well. I start to wonder.
On tape, he’s a fine cover man–it’s not as if he got shredded left and right–but he doesn’t really have that ballhawking ability. When receivers get into his zone, he often plays the deep areas safe and allows for underneath completions and subsequent tackles. For such a physical downhill force, he can be a touch timid as a short zone defender.
Which brings us nicely to our final point on Rapp: he does make some impact plays, and it often is as that physical downhill force. Rapp’s more than just a thumper, man–he’s a guided missile. Thumpers want to take your head off on every play; Rapp knows how to pick his spots. A high-motor player, he pursues runs from the opposite hash or from 20+ yards deep, scanning for his favorite target: a wrapped up ball-carrier.
He shoots in with a powerful 3-step burst, drops his hips, gets his helmet on the football–and pop! Forced fumble. I found it twice in 2017 tape (even though he was only credited for one).
As we stand, these are the biggest impact plays that Rapp makes. Forced fumbles are generally tougher stats to keep sticky year to year, but Rapp just may have a knack for it. That second rep in particular impresses. Rapp tracks the flow, closes down on the gap, works against the grain to the cutback, and sticks ‘im.
Rapp makes too many technically sound, physical tackles against the run to ignore — especially from a deeper alignment. Putting him in split-safety looks and rotating him to a Robber zone will help him play with the game in front of him — the time at which he’s at his best — while still keeping him away from centerfielding.
With nary a doubt, I can tell you that Rapp has starting strong safety potential in the league. Take it to the bank. Put it on my mama. He’s as high-floor as they come.
But in 2018, I’ll watch Washington tape, searching for impact coverage reps from Taylor Rapp. That will be the first box to check–the second will have to wait for Indianapolis. If Rapp can put up good jumps and a solid 40 time, he’s the total package.
I tweeted (never a good idea) the other day that I felt tempted to compare Rapp to Harrison Smith, a Top-2 safety in the NFL. (We should note here that I didn’t actually make the comp.) They have similar interchangeability in their deployment, a marriage of hit-sticking and sure tackling, and great instincts for the game. It feels right, in terms of play style.
Smith, at 213 pounds in Indy, ran a 4.57 40-yard dash. He also posted a 6.63 3-cone and a 4.12 short shuttle. Rapp can allegedly already hit those agility numbers; the sub-4.6 40 is the one to circle in red.
As a more moderate comp, I think of Tony Jefferson, the hitter for the Baltimore Ravens. Jefferson tested poorly in Indy, but he plays smart and tackles well inside the box. His coverage ability improves by the year, and I think most teams would spend a second-rounder on Jefferson’s career to this point.
I can’t speak much on the Jaquan Johnsons and Juan Thornhills of the world, but I can speak for Taylor Rapp: Firmly on the national radar and the key returning cog for the Huskies defense, a strong junior campaign will undoubtedly put him in Round 1 conversation. A Huskies postseason run would help even more. Long story short, he’s in striking distance of a Round 1 grade — and when Rapp’s in striking distance, he typically hits.