The 2017 safety class is headlined by a few big names. Jabrill Peppers gets the lion’s share of the attention, while Jamal Adams and Justin Evans are among the other notable prospects who could find themselves in the first-round mix.
As the year of college football goes on, it is the second wave of talents at the position who will make or break the safety group heading to the NFL Draft. One of the lesser known players patrolling the back end of defenses is Orion Stewart.
The fifth-year senior in the middle of the Baylor defense has proven himself to be a playmaker in a conference that likes such types in the defensive backfield. He has eight career interceptions, including four as a sophomore. At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, he is the exact type of athlete NFL teams are excited to add to their roster, with the size to hold up against bigger receivers as well as offensive linemen in the box, but also quick enough to run with slot receivers and running backs.
Stewart is particularly impressive at watching the play unfold in front of him and accelerating forward to make a play. Here as a sophomore against Oklahoma, we can see how quickly he goes from backpedal to making the big tackle short of the first down.
He comes up so fast he beats the cornerback in coverage to the ball. While Stewart is unable to break up the pass, he meets the receiver at the catch point. While he doesn’t have the splash plays coming up to the line of scrimmage, Stewart is consistently in position to make the safe tackle.
It is an unusual trait for a modern safety, where the big hit is valued over the safer play. Last year, Karl Joseph was the first safety off the board and his propensity for violence was a contributing factor to his rising draft stock. Stewart continued to take conservative angles and make very sure tackle attempts, unfortunately ceding a few extra yards at times.
It isn’t necessarily a positive attribute, just an interesting one. It also isn’t his most notable trait. That would be his ability to get his hands on the football.
Again, Stewart finds himself surveying the field before jumping an underneath route as a freshman against TCU. He flies in front of the receiver and is able to make the catch, before turning defense into offense and scoring on a pick-six. There were many examples from his film that when he is within arm’s length of a receiver, he was able to stick his hand in there and break up the pass.
Stewart was particularly effective in his second game of the 2016 season, where he recorded eight tackles, two interceptions, and one touchdown against SMU. Pro Football Focus credited him with intercepting two of his seven targets in coverage, including another touchdown return. For that reason, he earned a spot on the all-Week 2 team as one of the best safety performers in that slate of games.
However, inconsistencies on tape will leave a large gap between himself and the more highly-touted prospects. In one of his worst moments against Texas Tech, the veteran collegiate safety finds himself in a horrible position to make a play.
Stewart displays horrible ball judgment when hanging out as the deepest defender on the field. Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes buys time in the pocket before launching the ball downfield. The receiver isn’t quite open, with Stewart hanging out in the deepest zone of the field.
That’s where it gets ugly. Stewart is caught gazing at the ball and allows late separation between himself and the receiver. He then makes a weird jump and throws his arms up, but completely misjudges the ball which easily clears his outstretched hands. It is one of the easiest touchdowns the receiver will ever have, and puts an embarrassing moment on tape.
There are a lot of reasons Stewart can’t really compete with Peppers or Adams as a prospect. He doesn’t play the run as well as the top guys, and even in coverage, his conservatism costs him when he gives larger cushions than he should . Prototypical size will get him through a lot, especially if he runs well.
Considering his ability to get his hands on the ball and hold on to it, that combination could be enough to punch him up to a day-two pick. Teams will be able to overlook the mistakes, as long as the other skills are there and the mistakes are far and few between.