The former Clemson player could go prove that teams need to rethink what a prototypical football pro looks like
The problem with the NFL draft is that too many scouts and coaches lock themselves into their offices, obsessed with meaningless metrics like how high a player can jump instead of good they actually might be on the field. This is how teams wind up spending millions of dollars on workout champions who cant tackle or catch passes more than 15 yards downfield.
Jayron Kearse, who played at Clemson, must wonder about a system that doesnt appreciate his attributes. He is a tall safety at a time when tight ends and receivers are the size of basketball power forwards. He is also the perfect mix of his uncle, Jevon Kearse, who was once one of the NFLs fiercest pass rushers and his cousin, Phillip Buchanon, a cornerback who could outrun almost anyone and was an effective pass defender. On these facts alone, Kearse should be one of the most intriguing players in this weeks draft.
But NFL teams do not seem to look at Kearse and see solutions to their issues on defense. Instead, they pick him apart. Hes too thin. Hes not ferocious enough. He doesnt intercept enough passes. He is too tall at 6ft 4in to be a good tackler. Because of these things, he might not be picked until the drafts last day, maybe not even until the last round. This is what happens in the NFL. Teams are forever talking themselves out of good things.
A few years ago, there was another tall safety in the draft, another player whose attributes were ignored when teams refused to look past their charts that said a safety shouldnt be one of the tallest men on the field. Fortunately, Seattle coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider saw in Kam Chancellor a player who could use his size as intimidation. They got a steal when they took him in the fifth round of the 2010 draft. Just like picking tall cornerbacks Richard Sherman in the fifth round of the 2011 draft and signing Brandon Browner, unwanted by the rest of the NFL in the same year. Without those three, all 6ft 3in or taller, the Legion of Boom never would have existed.
Kearse likes the Chancellor comparison. He sees the Seahawks safety, the one who calls himself The Intimidator as an inspiration proof that a tall safety can thrive in the NFL. When looking for a surprise in this draft, a player who will defy projections, it might well be Kearse who teams seem to be missing.
No matter what you are doing there are doubters, Kearse says. People say theres never been a successful 6 ft 4in safety. Hearing things like that just drive me. I know Im going to have those things driving me. Just me wanting to be great will help me have that extra motivation.
He is not angry. He knew he wouldnt fit most NFL teams ideal size charts when he left Clemson after his junior season. His uncle and cousin have been giving him advice about professional football. They have told him to take nothing personally, that the NFL is a business and he must be a businessman. They tell him to be professional in his dealings, to give teams no reason to question his ability to be a good employee and he has done that.
He has a legacy to live up to with his relatives. He knows he will be judged simply by having his uncles last name and his cousins speed. This too drives him. He feels that because they were successful with 21 NFL seasons between them that he must do big things in football.
Few players come out of college with such a pedigree. This puts a greater pressure on Kearse. He used to go into games at Clemson aware the name on the back of his uniform drew attention and that those who knew who his uncle and cousin were, expected him to be better than everyone else.
They were great, he says. And Ive got to be great too. It puts a chip on my shoulder.
There was a time when Kearse was going to be a wide receiver. This was when he was in high school in Ft Myers, Florida, and colleges came recruiting. He was a quarterback at the time though expected to move to another position. Most of the schools did not see him as a safety. He was too tall, of course, but nobody questions his ability to play receiver. He was fast, he could jump and at 6ft 4in he could reach over defensive players for passes.
But defense was in Kearses blood. He enjoyed tackling and hitting players and imagined his future was brighter at a position that might get less glory but would have more lasting importance on a personal level. While the other schools talked about him being a receiver, Clemson let him choose. He could be a receiver or safety. Which one did he want? He picked Clemson and selected defense.
I have to be honest there are times I say I should be a receiver, he says. He imagines himself like AJ Green or Julio Jones. I could see myself scoring all those touchdowns. But Im going to be the first guy at this position who makes it in the NFL at this size.
He will eventually get drafted this week he has too much potential for teams to ignore, regardless of how his height fits traditional expectations for a safety.
And when he is picked, he might well be like Kam Chancellor from six years before: the player everyone missed because they were locked into silly notions of what a safety should look like.