Analyzing the tape of college football's best players... and the NFL's future stars.

Futures: Darnell Savage

Futures: Darnell Savage
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Derrik Klassen

There has never been a better time to be an undersized safety than right now. As the sport evolves, a once-held premium on size and strength has shifted towards speed and versatility. Safeties such as Tyrann Mathieu, Budda Baker, Lamarcus Joyner, Damarious Randall, and Vonn Bell have found varying levels of success while measuring in shorter than 6-foot and lighter than 200 pounds. They are the new wave of safety play in the NFL.

Following in their footsteps is Maryland's Darnell Savage Jr.

Savage measured in a hair under 5-foot-11 and 196 pounds at the NFL combine. With a 4.36-second 40-yard dash (97th percentile) and 4.14-second short shuttle (67th percentile), his combine profile drew a comparison to the aforementioned Randall, per Mockdraftable. If speed and short-area burst are necessities for a smaller safety, Savage checks those boxes with ease.

The other important box to check is versatility. Savage has it in spades. Maryland primarily operated out of two-deep safety shells during Savage's time as a starter, but he was their most movable and versatile piece. Though asked to play plenty of match-quarters, Savage also played man coverage as a slot defender, solo man coverage in the red zone, and hook/robber zones over the middle of the field.

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Here is an example of Savage (4, at the bottom) taking it to tight end Mike Gesicki, who now plays for the Miami Dolphins. Savage waits to mirror Gesicki's footsteps for the outside fade. He then keeps a hand in Gesicki's chest so as to keep close to him and drive him out of bounds. Quarterback Trace McSorley tries to leave the ball high and wide, but Savage has taken away any room for a good throw and shoves Gesicki to the ground.

via Gfycat

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Now Savage is lined up 10 yards off the ball just inside the left hash. It looks as though he might be in man coverage vs the No. 3 receiver to the trips side the (innermost receiver), but when the receiver bends his route inside about 3 yards past the line of scrimmage, Savage passes him off to the linebacker over the right hash (No. 33). He then bails up the left hash to match the No. 2 receiver vertically, with a little help from his teammate rerouting that receiver. It is not the flashiest play, and Savage does not even get targeted, but it showcases his ability to flow in zone assignments in the intermediate middle portion of the field.

The only constant in Savage's assignments was that he was almost exclusively the field-side safety, meaning he played to the wider side of the field depending on where the ball was being snapped from. If snapped from the middle of the hashes, he played to the passing strength. Some of his red zone play, like the Gesicki example above, broke that mold, but it largely held true throughout his film.

Savage is at his best when he can play what is in front of him. He is a player who likes to see a route or running play develop in front of him and fly downhill to answer it. His comfort in flowing horizontally and triggering downhill at the right time is impressive, and he has the speed to finish. In Maryland's two-deep scheme, he got to showcase those skills on a regular basis.

Picking up shallow crossers is one of Savage's specialties.

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Savage is lined up just inside of the left hashmark before the start of this play. As soon as the ball is snapped, the receiver Savage is responsible for bends inside for a shallow crosser moving left to right. Savage collapses and cuts off the crosser with ease, but the quarterback is forced to bail out of the pocket in the same direction that Savage is already moving. Rather than play it safe and stick to the crosser, Savage trusts himself to run up on the quarterback and force the ball out. He closes the gap enough to force the ball out and swat it down before it gets to the crosser player he abandoned.

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Here is tamer example of Savage (right hash) picking up a shallow crosser. He does not get targeted, but he shows off how quick he is to identify and close on crossers like this. Shallow crossers, in particular, can be an indicator of a defender's hustle, and Savage never disappoints in that department.

Savage excels at closing on other quick throws, too. His eyes and trigger in the underneath area are fantastic.

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Savage is on the left hash over the slot receiver on this play. Starting 12 yards off the ball versus a speed out, there is absolutely no way any safety should be expected to make a play on the ball here. The distance is too far; the coverage is effectively giving it up by alignment. Instead, the best thing a safety can do here is close as quickly as possible and bring down the receiver before they can turn up the field for yards after the catch. Savage puts himself in position to do just that, even though the receiver does not hold onto the ball in this clip. Again, this is not the flashiest play, but it is the type of solid effort that glues a defense together.

Savage can also make the game-changing plays. He is no prime Honey Badger, but his short-area burst can take quarterbacks by surprise.

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In this clip, Savage is again over the left hash playing on top of the No. 3 receiver to the trips side. He sits over the top of the receiver initially, but as he sees quarterback Dwayne Haskins move his eyes to the No. 2 receiver, he triggers without hesitation to the area. Savage's instantaneous reaction and closing speed put him in position to tip the pass up in the air, right into the waiting arms of his teammate for a pick-six.

Savage's prowess near the line of scrimmage does not end there, either. He is a fiery, high-motor run defender who can make plays in the backfield from a deep safety position. Not many safeties in the league have this type of recognition, energy, and speed, but Savage is the total package there.

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If you need range, Savage has it. He starts this play lined up 10 yards deep over the right hash, but makes it all the way over to the number marks 5 yards into the backfield on the left side of the field. Dude can book it when he knows where he needs to go.

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Sometimes you need a safety to come down to defend a bubble screen and help force a fumble in crunch time. Savage, over the right hash, can do that, too.

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And, of course, a good do-it-all safety is willing to get physical and play between the tackles. Savage (bottom right) flies in from a deep position to help stop Minnesota's running back for a short gain, though the runner did still move the sticks.

Savage's blemish as a box player is that he is not a reliable tackler. He is not a naturally strong player, so he tends to rely on either going for a kill shot or an arm tackle. Seldom does Savage square up and drive through a tackle the way he ought to. Even in the Minnesota clip above, Savage does not work through the tackle despite doing everything right leading up to the tackle attempt. He has a steep hill to climb to become a better tackler given his size, too. It would be safer to expect that he will always be a hit-or-miss tackler.

There are pitfalls to Savage's play in coverage, as well. He can get lost when he must flip his hips out of a deep zone to match a receiver down the field. He flashes raw recovery speed, but he can be a bit clunky in his transition from flat-footed zone defender to match-man defender. As such, receivers who have the burst to separate from Savage within that transition window can give him issues. Penn State, specifically, gave Savage fits over the years by attacking vertically between the hashes.

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Savage is the safety 10 yards off the ball over the right hash on both plays. The first play is from Savage's meeting against Penn State in 2017, the other is from 2018. Though not the exact same play concepts, Savage is tasked on each play with matching the slot receiver vertically. He gets lost and ends up trailing the receiver by a decent margin on both occasions. The second play looks closer than the first, but that is more a product of McSorley's arm failing him than it is Savage playing it any better.

As mentioned before, Savage does have the speed to erase these plays sometimes. Such is the luxury of running a sub-4.40 40-yard dash. Still, he needs to prove he can be a more fluid player in matching route breaks when he's forced to play back.

If his mediocre 7.03-second three-cone drill time (42nd percentile) is any indication, it may be difficult for Savage to make a significant improvement in regards to moving fluidly in and out of breaks when he is not playing routes in front of him. It would be a stretch to say he is a liability in defending these routes right now, but his defensive coordinator will have to live with him getting picked on deep down the seams every so often.

The sum of Savage's skill set is a net positive, though. Being a top-tier underneath defender and a flex slot cornerback when necessary give him a clear role in the NFL. Mix in a high motor, a willingness to play near the line of scrimmage, and blazing speed, and it is not difficult to see why Savage has become a popular "favorite" outside of the first round by many other draft analysts.

Savage is not rare or impressive enough to warrant a first-round pick, but he is the perfect candidate to go somewhere in the 40-to-60 range and turn out to be an above-average player.


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