Malik Hooker: Reinforcing a Strength

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Recently, when teams were picking up 5th year options on players from the 2017 draft class, there was a major surprise. That surprise came out of Indianapolis, where the Colts didn’t pick up the 5th year option on starting free safety Malik Hooker. Hooker, a star coming out of Ohio State, has had some injury issues but has also been one of the more underrated players in the NFL. Brett Veach, notorious for taking fliers on former first round picks that didn’t pan out, makes some sense as a potential trade partner for Chris Ballard, former Chiefs Director of Player Personnel. Could the two work out a trade for Hooker, and what would he bring to this football team? Come find out.

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Range

One of the main traits of any safety that is required, especially deep safety, is range. Range is a broad term, but it basically means the ability to roam the sideline, accelerate downhill, both vertically and laterally, and take good angles to the ball. Range is both physical and mental; you have to be able to quickly decipher a play, and you need the speed to accelerate downhill to make a play on the ball. This comes in both the run and passing game. In the pass game it comes with interceptions and robbing routes, while with the run game it’s angles to the sideline, working inside out, and stopping the big play.

Hooker’s best asset is his range. He shows high football IQ in his diagnosis of run plays, generally seeing pulls from guards early, or the tackles climbing in Duo/Inside Zone. Once he gets the read on the play, he’s accelerating downhill quickly. In the passing game, he’s got good ability to read the QB’s eyes in Cover 2 and make plays on the ball there. In the 2nd tweet, 1st clip he makes an incredible play, undercutting a route. If the Chiefs were to get him, they would love to use his range to help the cornerbacks on the sideline while adding another guy with incredible ball skills and instincts. You can never get enough of those.

Angles

The biggest thing I would argue for any safety to excel at is his angles. You can be the best athlete in the world, with great ball skills, but if you take poor angles to the ball and can’t wrap up, you’re not going to last in the league long. Safeties, even from deep, have run fit responsibilities and they obviously need to take good angles to cover the stuff deep. It’s not an easy thing to do, and it’s what kicks most players out of the league at safety.

Malik Hooker, on the other hand, takes fantastic angles. I was truly impressed to see that through the 4 games I watched. I figured that would be a big reason why the Colts maybe didn’t love him, but watching him pursue the ball as the “inside-out” player in the fit, which takes away the cutback, was truly fun to watch. Coming out of college that was a big concern for him, but he’s really grown up there. He can play in run support, and of all the Chiefs safeties he would be the best there. That would help insure a better backend for tackling and run support. Plus, better angles covering deep is a thing this team really needs. That is Hooker’s strength.

Click and Close/Transitions

Being a Cover 2 safety is hard. There’s so many angles that come at you and you have to work inside out on all of them. You have 26 yards to cover and you won’t get much help from slow linebackers or cornerbacks that maybe don’t drift far in zone. To be an effective Cover 2 safety you need quick feet, the ability to flip your hips, and take good angles to the ball. With a lot of ground to cover, that can be difficult to do for safeties. Luckily, that’s not a challenge for Hooker.

He’s a very patient player. He doesn’t tend to overstep on his drops and stays consistently patient on the route. He lets the route come to him, not past him. While this will lead to underneath stuff opening he has the ability to drive downhill and make plays. Plus, in Cover 2 you want that underneath tight window pass, if you have rangy linebackers. Still, when he has to flip to this corner route above he stops his feet, flips to the sideline and takes away the pass. The pass was poor, but even if it was close he’s got an interception there.

The Chiefs play a lot of 2-deep shells, but guys like Armani Watts and Jordan Lucas really struggled there. Even Daniel Sorensen had bad reps there. Kendall Fuller was the only consistent piece back there once Tyrann Mathieu went to the slot full time. With him gone and Thornhill likely starting the season a little slow the Chiefs would love to get their hands on someone who has that coveted Cover 2 range.

Box

Daniel Jeremiah talked about it recently on a podcast, but with the way the NFL is trending with more versatile athletes out of the backfield and at tight end, it’s forcing teams to change their model on how to evaluate safeties. Essentially, Jeremiah boiled it down to this; if you want to get drafted high/paid well as a safety, you must be able to play 2/3 positions on the field simultaneously, which is deep safety, in the box, or as the slot player. Hooker’s definitely got the ability to play deep, but he’s not very good in the slot. His man coverage reps were rough. So, I was down on him a bit in terms of versatility, but he did show the ability to play in the box.

While he does have limited reps in the box because of the Colts’ scheme, I was encouraged to see his reps there be very solid. He’s got very good size for a safety, standing at 6’1 and weighing 206 lbs. He’s got some ability to stack a block, and using his very sound angles he can shoot a gap into the backfield. While I wouldn’t want him playing there more than very limited reps, the fact that he can do it gives me some encouragement on his path to becoming a more versatile safety. He’s got the ability to play deep, but if he can work on his skills in the box he’ll get paid a lot more money.

Deeper than the Deepest

One issue I saw from Malik Hooker was that he struggled with the concept of playing “deeper than the deepest”. For a safety, this simply boils down to getting enough depth in your drop to take anyway anything deep, as to not allow anything to go over your head. As a Cover 2 safety, that’s the main goal. Take away the seams and middle first, then work boundary, but more depth is better than a lack of depth. He seemed to have some struggles staring into the backfield too much and not being able to recover on plays. In the Houston game, he allowed 2 long passes over his head because of his lack of getting depth.

With the Chiefs playing a very protective defense for their cornerbacks, this can’t happen. Charvarius Ward and Bashaud Breeland can’t consistently be asked to cover vertically against some of the faster threats in the NFL, so they need as much safety help as possible. They won’t break into the middle of the field to cover some of these post routes that Hooker gave up. To be a consistent high level safety he’ll need to get better there. This is a simple eye discipline thing, and considering how smart he plays otherwise this should get fixed. Add the fact he would be playing with Juan Thornhill and Tyrann Mathieu and that issue would get fixed.

Conclusion

I really like Malik Hooker. I had a huge draft crush on him in 2017. His ability to play single high safety with his size is special. Sure, he’s not super versatile like a Juan Thornhill or Tyrann Mathieu, but that’s okay. He’s very good in deep coverage. With a guy like Hooker, you could ask him to cover deep for you, which allows you to move Thornhill and Mathieu way more. Knowing you have the trust vertically gives Steve Spagnuolo so much more flexibility to call whatever he wants. He has trust in his safeties.

People will read this and wonder, why does Nate want another safety so badly? Aren’t the safeties good but the cornerbacks iffy? And you would be right, but I don’t think building a teams straight for apparent needs is always the right way to operate. If you read my cornerback piece you know that I’m a huge fan of reinforcing the safety room. Pre-draft I was calling for Jeremy Chinn, Xavier McKinney, or Grant Delpit as options to play safety for the Chiefs. My main goals were shutting down the middle of the field and helping the cornerbacks out. That line of logic hasn’t changed for me. If Hooker is available for a 3rd or 4th round pick, go get him. With Veach’s tendency of getting former first round picks late in their contract he’s the best player out there to trade for. Assuming the price is right, go get him and form the best safety trio in recent history.

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Severely Concussed
Severely Concussed
05/19/2020 1:53 pm

Saw the headline and thought Veach made magic happen again.
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Berserker
Berserker
05/19/2020 1:38 pm

Is he better than Jordan Lucas?

Berserker
Berserker
Reply to  Nate Christensen
05/19/2020 6:46 pm

I wouldn’t mind having another Thornhill-like safety starting alongside Thornhill and Mathieu. Biggest thing that would change is that people would start calling Mathieu a CB instead of a safety.

stjoechief
05/19/2020 12:30 pm

Great write up and I love the thought of adding Hooker to the safety group. I’m not sure he would be affordable after 2020, though. And giving up draft capital for a one year rental would be iffy.

BleedingRedAndGold
Reply to  stjoechief
05/19/2020 1:00 pm

Depends on what capital’s involved. A 3rd and I might agree with you, maybe a 4th is also steep, but a 5th or later’s another matter. Furthermore that’s just draft picks, player-for-player has possibilities, too, which means the right bundle might get him.

Stuckinpackland
Stuckinpackland
05/19/2020 11:53 am

Love the write ups hate the Twitter I cannot watch them on mobile without actually going to Twitter very annoyinf

Knightwolfbr
Reply to  Stuckinpackland
05/19/2020 12:26 pm

Hello. What is the mobile browser you are using?

upamtn
05/19/2020 11:09 am

awesome as always, Nate
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