The Kansas City Chiefs selected Georgia cornerback Sanders Commings with the first pick of the fifth round (No. 134 overall). Get to know him because he could be starting at free safety by the end of next season.
I thought Sanders Commings is unique, I was actually a little surprised that he lasted that long. He’s a very gifted athlete: a former baseball player. I think he was drafted by a professional baseball team.
He has played corner in the past. He’s a larger corner: 229 pounds. I can envision the coaching staff using him in matchups with more athletic tight ends. Actually, playing some free safety, I can see a combination; you have safeties in today’s football that are now used in coverage situations. I can see him kick down inside and playing safety. I think he’ll be very intriguing. (via KCChiefs.com)
As Dorsey hinted, Commings was drafted—as a center fielder—by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 37th round of the 2008 MLB draft (via NFL.com). And his baseball background reveals itself whenever passes sail toward his vicinity.
When evaluating Kansas City's draft, Fox Sports' Peter Schrager endorsed the Chiefs' fifth-round selection, saying:
But the pick that I really liked was Sanders Commings, safety out of Georgia. Everybody was talking about other Georgia players this draft on defense, whether it was Alec Ogletree, Jarvis Jones, John Jenkins. Sanders Commings pops out on all the tape.
Schrager wasn't lying.
As Dorsey alluded to, the Chiefs plan to move Commings to free safety. Currently, Kendrick Lewis, Husain Abdullah and Tysyn Hartman project to be his competition at the position. Although, Hartman will likely be demoted to the practice squad or transition to strong safety (which he played in college).
The ideal free safety boasts five qualities: rapid recognition, keen awareness, sufficient closing speed, trustworthy ball skills and fail-safe tackling—Commings excels in every category.
In most scenarios, free safeties act as the quarterback of the secondary. And to a lesser degree, the defense.
They normally line up the farthest distance away from the line of scrimmage, which offers a comprehensive view of offensive formations. When the offense breaks the huddle, the deep safety makes any adjustments to counteract the receiving corps' alignment.
At the snap, their first read locks onto the offensive linemen. If the unit stands upright, it's usually to protect a pocket. If the group remains lowered, it's usually to gain leverage and pave a lane.
In other words, if the offensive linemen stand upright, the free safety will backpedal and protect against any potential deep threat.
Commings' ability to quickly diagnose plays becomes apparent on film. He often looks one step ahead of his opposition, jumping routes and disrupting plays before they have a chance to develop.
No. 19 demonstrated his knack for identifying play calls against Vanderbilt (2010).
During Commings' most notable effort of the afternoon, the offense attempted to set up a halfback screen. Commings reacted by flinging a blocking wideout like a rag doll just as Georgia's middle linebacker forced the quarterback into an overthrow.
The cornerback then screamed up the sideline and snatched an airborne interception.
When the clubs renewed their rivalry the following year, Commings' anticipation disrupted another passing play.
Vanderbilt ordered a wide-receiver screen, and the quarterback tried to create a cushion for his target by briefly scanning the opposite side of the field. But Commings was already beelining toward the ball carrier.
He blew past a blocker and corralled the wideout behind the line of scrimmage.
Ed Reed's bust will undergo a sculpting process the second he's eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And an unrivaled sense of awareness was—and still is—instrumental in molding his illustrious career.
On a typical down, every free safety's plate is swamped with responsibilities—first and foremost, halting any vertical threat(s). Because of this, the vast majority of plays unfold in front of them.
If a pass is tipped, the league's distinguished safeties become opportunists and secure turnovers.
In 2011, Mississippi State was knocking on the door of Georgia's end zone, and the team's quarterback slings a bullet to his intended target. But the receiver's in-route places him in the path of an oncoming freight train.
Anticipating the collision, the receiver contracts a case of alligator arms, and the football ricochets toward the goal line. However, Commings never loses track of the ball and paws it at the last instant, eventually leading to a 16-yard interception return.
Free safeties don't always practice zone coverage, though. The position still entails man-to-man on occasion, especially when defensive coordinators release the hounds and dial up blitzes.
In man coverage, awareness often becomes a decisive factor in the outcome of a play. If a defensive back is oblivious to his surroundings, yellow flags are bound to litter the field.
Conversely, a defender who grasps the situation can turn the tables.
During the 2012 SEC Championship Game, Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron tested Commings' intangibles and paid a hefty price.
With Alabama five yards shy of the goal line, Commings knew that double moves were out of the question. In other words, whenever the receiver snapped his head around to the quarterback, Commings could immediately do the same without consequence.
At the snap, Georgia's cornerback guided his receiver toward the sideline with his inside arm. As soon as the receiver looked back to locate the ball, Commings did as well. No. 19 gained inside leverage, minimized the passing window by using the sideline and jumped in front of his target to snag an interception.
Although the result wasn't as noteworthy, the rookie's technique looked just as masterful in the 2012 Outback Bowl.
Combating another goal-to-go scenario, Commings backpedals in zone coverage. With his eyes locked in the backfield, he secures the outside edge, knowing that help awaits him on the inside.
However, the receiver bounces to the outside. Commings shields his man from the ball and forces him toward the sideline, all while looking back to locate the pass. The Michigan State receiver steps out of bounds before either player makes contact with the ball—even if he had caught it, the reception wouldn't have occurred in the field of play.
Instead, Commings deflects the lob and ensures an incompletion.
Free safeties basically serve as the surface-to-air missiles of football: They're responsible for locating and preventing any incoming bombs.
Quarterbacks look them off, hoping that the delay negates the safety's closing speed.
Heading into training camp, Kendrick Lewis will likely be projected as the Chiefs' starter at the position. Lewis posted a 4.73 40-time at the NFL Scouting Combine. To put that in perspective, 12 linebackers recorded a faster time at the event this past year.
Commings registered a 4.41 during the drill. The rookie's time tied for seventh-fastest amongst cornerbacks and would have topped the list of safeties. Chiefs backfield blur Jamaal Charles cemented an official time of 4.38—only three-tenths faster than Commings' mark.
The Georgia defender showed off his speed versus South Carolina (2011), sacking the quarterback on a corner blitz.
He also illustrated it in his last performance against Alabama, sprinting stride for stride with his target across the middle.
Commings' past experience as a center fielder becomes evident when watching film. Not only does he track passes with precision, he dispels the myth that defensive backs are cursed with stones for hands.
No. 19 enjoyed his best collegiate performance at the expense of (arguably) the nation's most talented receiving corps.
In 2012, Commings tallied four solo tackles and two interceptions as Georgia hosted Tyler Bray's Tennessee Volunteers.
Guarding dynamic playmaker Cordarrelle Patterson, Commings keeps No. 84 in front of him. Fearful of a double move, the corner doesn't attempt to locate the ball until he's positive that Patterson has ended his route.
Commings quickly turns his hips, finds the ball and punctuates the play with a leaping interception.
In Georgia's matchup vs. Louisiana Lafayette, Commings snatched an interception that most defensive backs would be incapable of holding onto.
At first glance, it appears that Commings shields the receiver and procures a run-of-the-mill interception.
A closer inspection reveals that the then-sophomore tips the ball with an outstretched arm, then bobbles and cradles it at full speed.
While free safeties generally don't net as many tackles as their strong-safety counterparts, they often serve as the last line of defense. The difference between a long gain and a touchdown lies in their ability to tackle.
Sanders Commings isn't afraid of contact.
There have been instances, although rare, when the rookie unsuccessfully lowers his shoulder in trying to tackle larger ball-carriers.
But if Commings initiates contact, his target feels regretful the vast majority of times.
Exhibit A: On a third down vs. Mississippi, the cornerback shed his assignment and drilled the receiver four yards shy of the first-down marker.
In similar fashion, Commings rocketed past a would-be Boise State blocker and bottled up the ball-carrier.
Facing Georgia, Tennessee receiver Cody Blanc recorded the hardest-earned two yards in the history of the sport.
The wideout was treated like a 6'3" pinball during an in-route, only for Commings to whip him around by the neck.
The Chiefs rookie also made a lasting impression on Jeff Demps, spearing the Florida rusher at the 1-yard line and rocking him back into the end zone.
Making the Case
The trio of Chiefs free safeties—assuming that Commings remains at the position—all measure at 6'0". But despite the 213-pound Commings outweighing his competition, he flashes significantly faster straight-line speed—the most critical tangible trait for any free safety.
The rookie's tackles pack a more violent punch, and he was drafted by an MLB franchise (partially) due to his distinguished ball skills.
On paper—and tape—Sanders Commings projects as a stronger free-safety prospect than Lewis and Abdullah. And while the largest road block in his path will be transitioning to the role at the next level, he gained experience in it while attending Georgia.
Commings won't headline the position in the Chiefs' first depth chart of the 2013 season. Yet he could do just that by season's end.
Critics will claim that the idea of a fifth-round rookie starting in the NFL is ludicrous.
But don't tell that to Kendrick Lewis.
Brett's email: firstname.lastname@example.org