With a combined 47 defensive backs selected in the first three rounds of the last two NFL Drafts, it's abundantly clear that the NFL has placed a premium on secondary players. It's commonly said that the NFL is a passing league so it makes perfect sense that so many defensive backs would be invested in by teams early in the draft.
While defensive backs come with a wide range of skill sets and physical attributes, those that are versatile tend to be valued higher in the draft. When it comes to versatility, Virginia safety Juan Thornhill emphatically checks the box.
For Thornhill, being a team player and answering the call to contribute however he's asked to started early in his high school playing days. As a freshman, Thornhill played wide receiver and cornerback before switching to safety and quarterback in his sophomore season.
Recruited as a safety to Virginia, Thornhill began his career at safety before again being moved back to cornerback for his junior campaign. It's only fitting that Thornhill will once again change positions for his senior season, moving back to safety where he best projects to the next level.
Thornhill is expected to fill the role left by Quin Blanding, who enjoyed a standout career as a four-year starter for the Cavaliers while racking up 492 tackles, nine tackles for loss and ten interceptions. Given Thornhill's experience already at safety, the transition is expected to be seamless.
When studying what Thornhill has put on film to this point in his career, it's exciting to think about the ways he can find success at the NFL level. Let's examine some of those moments that leave me bullish about what Thornhill can do in his senior season and ultimately the NFL.
One of the primary challenges that safeties are faced with is matching up with tight ends and bigger slots in coverage. Smart offenses find ways to create mismatches with its weapons and give them opportunities to make plays. Georgia Tech didn't throw the football often in 2017, but when they did it almost always went to 6-foot-2 and 213 lbs wide receiver Ricky Jeune. The Yellow Jackets completed on 43 passes last season and 25 of those were caught by Jeune.
On this rep, Thornhill is in man coverage, responsible for carrying Juene vertically down the field with no help over the top. While Thornhill does well to remain in phase with him down the field, it's how he competes at the catch point that excites me on this play. Refusing to allow Jeune to cross his face and establish body positioning, Thornhill actually boxes out Juene while disrupting the pass on arrival, resulting in an incomplete pass.
Isolating a receiver with ball skills and the ability to win above-the-rim on a defensive back in the red zone is a staple of every offense. On this play, Thornhill finds himself in that position against Hokies' WR Isaiah Ford. It's easy to notice Thornhill beautifully playing through Ford's hands to deflect the pass away, but it's how he competes and remains focused despite Ford grabbing and pulling down on his jersey to jockey for positioning that impresses me. Thornhill's ability to to make this play and prevent a touchdown speaks to his ball skills and play strength.
Speaking of ball skills, defensive backs that can make game-changing plays on the ball are coveted. With 19 pass breakups and seven interceptions across the last two seasons, Thornhill is no stranger to securing takeaways and deflecting passes. Take this rep for example. Playing in a zone look, Thornhill's eyes are in the backfield. Taking a non-advantageous step forward, Thornhill picks up the ball immediately in the air, contorts his frame and extends to haul in the pick. To make a play of this caliber it requires length, focus and a strong pair of mitts.
An inevitable part of playing safety is dealing with receivers and tight ends that are physical at the top of route stems in an effort to bump the DB off his spot and create separation. That's exactly what Thornhill faces on this rep. Notice how despite the contact, Thornhill still manages to remain in phase, leverage the route and ultimately elevate for the interception.
Playing safety isn't only about coverage. The more a safety can do they become more valuable and open doors of schematic possibilities. On this rep, Thornhill lines up in the box and is tasked with blitzing around the right edge. The timing of his blitz, along with a tight turn around the corner enabled him to bring down the electric Lamar Jackson for a sack. Relatively speaking, safeties aren't known for their ability to blitz but it's just another way Thornhill has flashed he can contribute in considering how he can be used most effectively moving forward.
While there is still growth needed from Thornhill, he'll be tasked more frequently with playing off blocks in pursuit as a full-time safety. We got a glimpse of what Thornhill is capable of on this redzone rep where he is the contain player, responsible for taking away any outside runs. Thornhill perfectly takes on the block with his hands and leveraged pads while working laterally and chopping down the ball carrier.
Make no mistake about it, Thornhill is not without flaws but most of those concerns are eased with Thornhill's transition to safety. If I were considering him for a cornerback role, I would harp on modest foot quickness, average recovery speed and struggles finding the ball with his back to the line of scrimmage. As a safety, those shortcoming are not as alarming given the amount of time spent playing forward.
This final rep speaks to how Thornhill's modest footspeed and transition is mitigated by a fast read, length and technique for the pass breakup when driving on the ball.
Sorting out the best safety prospects in the nation is what us draft analysts are tasked with over the next several months but I fully expect a big senior season from Thornhill that ultimately lands him near the top of the class.