The New Orleans Saints prevented a huge offseason need when they applied the franchise tag to free safety Marcus Williams before free agency began in March.
The Saints look set at safety in 2021 with Williams, veteran leader Malcolm Jenkins, and versatile star Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. However, Williams is under contract through this season. Jenkins, turning 34, has already shown a drop-off in coverage skills.
New Orleans signed reserve safety J.T. Gray as an undrafted rookie in 2018. He made the team the last three years because of his outstanding special teams contributions. One of 11 undrafted signings this year has similar potential to make the team - however, they offer larger upside because of his defensive skills.
ERIC BURRELL, SAFETY (WISCONSIN)
A four-star recruit out of McDonogh High School in Maryland, Burrell spurned the hometown Terrapins for Big 10 power Wisconsin. Showcased himself well on special teams in 2017 before taking on a starting role in 2018. That season he intercepted a pass, broke up two others, and forced 2 fumbles while recording 41 tackles.
Burrell was even more active in 2019. He had 55 tackles, including 3.5 for loss and 2 sacks, along with 2 interceptions, 6 passes broken up, and forcing or recovering 4 fumbles. Wisconsin's 2020 season was shortened to just seven games because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Burrell contributed 23 tackles (2 for loss), intercepted 1 pass and broke up 2 others. He finished his Badgers career with 125 tackles (5.5 for loss), 2 sacks, 4 interceptions, 11 passes broken up, and either forced or recovered 6 fumbles.
Despite his production, Burrell was used often in man coverage roles. When he was, he was a little tight-hipped and struggled to stay with sharp route runners. Doesn't display natural ball skills, often playing the receiver instead of the throw.
Burrell lacks the range to play a single-high safety role consistently. As a run defender, he’ll need to add upper body strength and play with better leverage to be more effective against blockers near the line.
Wisconsin typically asks a lot of their safeties and Burrell thrived as the defenses quarterback. A three-year starter, he displays a high football IQ. Puts himself in position to make plays consistently with outstanding pre-snap reads.
Burrell works best close to the line of scrimmage and is an outstanding tackler. He takes smart angles in space and aggressively fires through gaps to make a play on the ball carrier. His throwback mentality is evident in his physical style of play.
Burrell improved in coverage in each of his last three years with the Badgers. He has the athletic ability to cover bigger tight ends man to man. Burrell has outstanding instincts from a Cover 2 or double-high safety scheme. He sees a play develop well and moves fluidly in position for deep support.
Eric Burrell is the type of player to make an immediate contribution because of his defensive versatility and ability to excel on special teams. He should thrive near the line of scrimmage and in a two-deep safety scheme initially, but also shows the potential of continued development in his coverage skills.