The safety position, much like the game of football, is evolving at a rapid rate. With the introduction of new defenses over the past decade or so, the need for good, and different, safety play is absolutely necessary. More and more often we’re seeing hybrid-type players like Jamal Adams, Derwin James, and Isaiah Simmons. Even those three have vastly different skillsets.
Safeties that can play on the back end like tradition are being morphed into the “star” or nickel role and working downhill into the box as dime linebackers as well. Their plates are as full as the first Thanksgiving plate of the holiday. As the newest edition of the Swiss Army knife safety, could Florida State’s Hamsah Nasirildeen have a future role in the NFL?
Sometimes the versatility is a plus. With Adams and James, it’s certainly seemed as though their progression into the NFL has seen a similar impact as it was for them in college. For others, like Jabrill Peppers, the differing roles just muddied the overall evaluation. Being a “jack of all trades; master of none” is not always a good thing. Sometimes a player needs a more refined role.
So is Nasirildeen a future do-it-all safety who impacts the game in multiple ways or is that just what Florida State is asking him to do at the moment? To answer that, let’s look at his traits and decide from there where he’d fit best.
Hamsah Nasirildeen ability in coverage
If there is anybody on the planet better suited for covering the George Kittle’s and Travis Kelce’s of the world, present them. Nasirildeen has darned near the ideal frame for covering the “Wookiee” tight ends of the world. His length is unbelievable, with arms hanging from his 6’4 frame that could make edge rushers envious. His ability in man and match coverage concepts is sublime at best and adequate at worst.
FSU LB/S Hamsah Nasirildeen (6’4 215 Junior)
Long, Fast, Rangy 👀 pic.twitter.com/kplgVJlOsv
— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) August 6, 2019
His length near the line and along the route stem when playing off can be used as a weapon against receivers and tight ends. He has the upper body strength and natural aggression to reroute receivers at the point of contact, forcing them off their red line. From there is where things get really good, though.
Although he’s tall for a member of the secondary, his towering frame doesn’t hinder his ability to change direction and mirror route runners. He wasn’t forced vertically often in games viewed, but he showed no issues trailing receivers around the field when they put their foot the floorboards. Even in his few reps in man against Van Jefferson before his injury in the Florida game, he looked rock solid.
This is where specificity can really mitigate unnecessary pain. Nasirildeen in zone coverage is like a quarterback’s ball placement charting. Sometimes guys struggle in certain areas of the field, and he is no different. The type of zone coverage also plays a role in his successes and failures as a zone coverage defender.
In traditional spot zone coverage, his ability is defined by his role and position at the snap. When he’s in a traditional deep-safety alignment either as a single high or two-high look he can fill a multitude of roles. He can play as a center fielder in cover three. He can get to the sideline in cover two. He’s an excellent robber coming forward (which we’ll get to later) and he has the athletic ability to be a single high guy in cover one looks.
But please, please, please do not ask him to play as the hook defender. This is an unfortunate turn of events because it really minimizes his true potential as a slot defender. He’s frustratingly one dimensional in that arena. He has to play man or some sort of match because his spatial awareness pedaling backward and covering the curl/seam area is incredibly frustrating.
Far too often in these situations, he will fail to continue gaining depth despite not having any receiving threats in front of him, which allows the QB to attack the seam right behind him. The other issue with him playing as the hook defender is his eye discipline. He will commit to the quarterback’s initial read and drive to the nearest receiver, but he never gets his eyes back to the QB, who has since come off his first read and his backside, looking to attack the area Nasirildeen had just vacated.
Processing and ball skills
Nasirildeen is going to be a menace if quarterbacks believe they’ll be able to fit passes on timing routes to tight end and slot receivers when he’s matching routes from his safety position. This young man processes the receiver’s intention incredibly quickly and covers so much space quickly that he’ll have opportunities to jump in- and out-breaking routes and take them the opposite direction. When you match that with the natural length he possesses you get a young man who can get his hands on passes a majority of defenders simply can’t reach.
Awful decision from Trevor Lawrence but one heck of an INT by Hamsah Nasirildeen. pic.twitter.com/PghZwhIpv2
— Rob Paul (@RobPaulNFL) October 12, 2019
His ball skills extend to ability and willingness to rip at the ball and cause fumbles. Nasirildeen really brings the boom to his tackles, and that showed as he caused two fumbles in the Boise State game. When he inserts himself into a pile he really works to get in tight so he can reach those vines he has for arms into crevices to rip at the football. He’s a go-getter to the highest degree.
Run defense and physicality
He plays the game the way it should be played. He has no issue taking on blocks from tight ends and wide receivers and will take on linemen climbing to the second level. Despite his long and lean frame he really works well to be patient and avoid getting locked up so he can commit when he needs to make a play. He consistently displays good gap discipline and his ability to tackle is overwhelming. He makes plays nobody else can because of his combination of length and grip strength.
However, he must learn time and place. There have been multiple occasions at the sideline where he’s taken it too far and gotten flagged for or should have been flagged for late hits. His aggressive nature will get him into some trouble, but he’s also no Jonathan Abram, so it shouldn’t be too much a detriment to his team or overall health.
How Nasirildeen should be used in the NFL
Nasirildeen is a good football player. He’ll most likely be in the same tier as the non-Isaiah Simmons range from last season as a talent. He plays the game with the type of physicality I love at the position. But he is not a hybrid freak like Adams, James, or Simmons. He’s a traditional safety. He isn’t particularly adept as a blitzer. His athleticism helps him attack the pocket, but he makes little use of his hands and backs don’t have to be outstanding in pass protection to thwart his efforts.
His struggles in spot zone will need to go away to achieve true versatility. Right now, his best fit would be as a boundary safety in a quarters-based scheme. This would allow him to be in the run fit more often as an alley defender and show his skills coming downhill and making tackles and would mitigate his struggles in the curl area.
He could also be used in a cover one/three heavy scheme as a slot defender or center fielder. He can line up in man-to-man all day long and cover a multitude of different slot options, and he has the athletic ability to defend both seams playing the deep middle. If he improves his ability as a blitzer and awareness as an intermediate zone defender after coming off an ACL tear he could cement himself as a first-round pick in 2021.