The Class of 2019 isn’t generally regarded as a strong one at safety—it’s entirely possible that none will be drafted during the NFL draft’s first round on Thursday. However, there are players at the position gaining Round 1 buzz as the draft approaches—including Virginia’s Juan Thornhill.
At first glance, Thornhill would appear to offer NFL teams everything they could ask for where modern safeties are concerned. The 6’0″ 205-pounder, who tallied 98 total tackles and six interceptions for the Cavaliers in 2018, is a converted cornerback (and high school quarterback) who ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at February’s scouting combine and led all defensive backs with a 44-inch vertical. He also flirted with 100 tackles and finished second among DBs in Indy with 21 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press.
As Jim McBride reported for the Boston Globe, Thornhill’s on a mission to show he’s as comfortable roaming the back end as he is in the box stuffing the run.
“I’ll watch guys like Jamal Adams because I know he’s a physical player. He’s in the box and doing things like that,’’ said Thornhill. “And then I’ll watch a guys like Earl Thomas because he’s always back deep and roaming the field, so I’ll pick out things from their game to try to put them into mine.’’
However, for all those ball-hawking skills, Thornhill insisted he has no ambition to go back to playing corner.
“I’m definitely a safety,’’ Thornhill said. “I’m the type of player that likes to play with my face toward the ball instead of with my back toward the ball. I feel like I’m a ballhawk. When the ball is in the air, I can make a play on the left side of the field or the right side of the field.”
Oh, and he might also be psychic—or a former corner and quarterback.
“It’s like I can see things happening before they happen,’’ Thornhill said. “I can see where the quarterback is throwing. I just read his eyes pretty well and break before the ball is released. I think that is my biggest thing. I’m a good player at reading the quarterback.’’
Martin McConnell of FanSided was impressed by those same instincts while watching tape of Thornhill. “Thornhill’s smooth movements make his game tape look more like fine art than football, and his 36 starts give scouts plenty of tape to look at,” he said. “A former high school quarterback, Thornhill has the instincts to know where he needs to be, but he doesn’t use those instincts as a crutch. Thornhill is patient on his reads and will rarely get fooled.”
Did I (we) mention that Thornhill played quarterback?
If McConnell was impressed by Thornhill’s instincts and fluidity of motion, Sean Martin of Cowboys Wire was just impressed. “Thornhill is an instinctive defender with effortless movement ability through all three levels of the defense,” Martin said. “When Thornhill diagnoses a play coming downhill, he doesn’t shy away from dropping the shoulder and making big tackles. With an adept understanding of angles and how to stay on top of routes, Thornhill is fluid with his hips to move laterally and create depth in his drops.”
“In press coverage,” he continued, “Thornhill will jam receivers effectively to reroute them. With the closing speed to undercut routes all over the field, Thornhill remains balanced in man coverage with a low base and light feet.”
However, as Jon Ledyard of the Draft Network pointed out, there’s a reason that Thornhill will probably be available on Day 2.
“A three-year starter/four-year contributor,” Ledyard said, “Thornhill’s experience is evident in the measured, high-IQ way he approaches the game. He’s smart and disciplined, but at times his methodical style is too slow to make the kind of impact plays the top safety prospects in college football are making. Given that he is new to the position, if Thornhill had great athletic traits, I might get on board with believing in his upside, but I think he’ll be limited in any coverage role he sees in the NFL, while not bringing enough physicality or instincts to thrive around the box. He’s a capable starter at the next level, but I’m not sure the playmaking ability is there to be a particularly desirable prospect in the upcoming class.”
There are a lot of things that Thornhill does well—especially in coverage. His range and instincts are both solid. If that 40 time is any indication, concerns about his speed are a bit overblown, and those tackle numbers and his game tape show a young safety plenty willing to get dirty against the run.
But while Thornhill’s well-rounded, he doesn’t have any “wow” talents. His instincts and vision are good, but he can be a tick slow to react to what he sees. He’s physical, but not especially strong—although in his defense a year in an NFL weight room will change that at least somewhat.
I want to like Thornhill—I really do. His tape, and the versatility it shows, has to have piqued the interest of more than one NFL team. So much so that while I don’t think he’ll go late in Round 1, I wouldn’t do a spit-take if he does.
But from an IDP perspective, Thornhill is the most location-dependent DB in this class. Put him on a team that’s forward-thinking about safety play and puts Thornhill in a position to succeed, and he could be my No. 2 rookie defensive back in 2019. Mire him in the wrong spot, with an unimaginative coordinator who doesn’t/won’t, and he’ll be all but undraftable.
The talent’s there. Situation’s the key this weekend.