LSU linebacker Patrick Queen graced the Futures spotlight last week as a late riser whose dominance only became clear once the Tigers hoisted the College Football Playoff trophy. One of Queen's teammates, a fellow 2017 recruit, experienced the opposite journey as a prospect.
Safety Grant Delpit was the prized jewel in LSU's fearsome 2018 defense. A rangy safety with centerfield and box versatility, Delpit was a one-man wrecking crew who roamed all over the back end in Dave Aranda's defense. By year's end, Delpit had been named a unanimous first-team All-American, making him one of just four defenders to be unanimously voted to the squad. All three of the other consensus first-team defenders -- Clemson's Christian Wilkins, Kentucky's Josh Allen, and Alabama's Quinnen Williams -- were top-15 picks in the 2019 NFL draft. Delpit was ineligible for the 2019 draft as a true sophomore, but he was nearly universally expected to be the top safety in the 2020 class.
Contrary to expectation, Delpit's 2019 season was not exactly a tour de force. Delpit developed an inability to tackle and battled with injuries throughout the season, including a high-ankle sprain that hindered him for part of the season. Delpit was still largely excellent by college football standards, but the consistency with which he dominated in 2018 was not quite there in 2019. Rather than propel himself into the pantheon of elite safety prospects of the past decade, Delpit more or less tread water around the "very good" tier.
Delpit's defining trait, which was clearest in 2018 and in the handful of healthy games he played in 2019, is his range on the back end. Delpit did not run at the NFL combine and did not get a chance to participate in a pro day, which means there is no concrete data to convey his raw speed, but he played numbers-to-numbers on the back end as well as any college safety could. Single-high defenses should be drooling over a player with his coverage as a centerfielder.
To do Delpit justice, let's start with a clip from 2018. This is the second play of the game versus an Ole Miss offense that featured wide receivers DK Metcalf and A.J. Brown as well as XFL pseudo-star quarterback Jordan Ta'amu, who is now a backup with the Kansas City Chiefs. Ole Miss has the ball on the left hash, but Delpit is aligned dead-center between the hashes. Delpit stays put at the snap, but the moment he sees the running back pull up for the potential handoff on the RPO (run-pass option), Delpit senses Ta'amu is going to pull the ball to throw the one-on-one down the sideline. Delpit books it to the sideline while watching the ball carefully. He sees that it will be overthrown, which allows him to track it down like an outfielder and make the diving interception. While it certainly helps that Ta'amu overthrew the ball, Delpit reacted and flew across the field with such speed that even an accurate, on-time ball on this play would have been disrupted at the catch point.
Delpit pounces on a similar play here versus Florida in 2019. Gators quarterback Kyle Trask wants to throw the quick hitch/smoke route in the flat, but realizes it is smothered and has to make a late adjustment to throw the vertical. Though Delpit initially stepped to the opposite side to potentially play the run, he saw the quarterback reset to the right and took off to find the vertical. The range is impressive as is, but Delpit also covered this kind of ground while never looking for the receiver, which shows an excellent display of awareness and play recognition. Delpit did not need to find the receiver and recalculate where he needed to be. Instead, he flew to an area with his eyes on the ball and allowed the path of the pass to guide him where he needed to be. Unfortunately, Delpit let this ball hit the dirt after it hit his hands, but the process with which he got to the catch point is top-tier ball-hawking.
That same coverage range shows up from split-field alignments, too. Delpit is not just a centerfielder. Granted, the scarcity of quality centerfield safeties likely means that is where he will spend most of his time in the league, but even the most frequent Cover-1 and Cover-3 teams play out of two-high shells a fair amount.
From a play-calling perspective, Florida had LSU on this one. The Tigers came out with split safeties while Florida had a QB-power fake with a seam pass over the top cooked up. LSU's split safeties were enough for this play to work for Florida, but the gullibility of LSU's linebackers sealed the deal. The middle of the field was wide open. Delpit, who starts the play on the left hash, has to read the No. 2 and No. 3 receivers vertically. He starts with a slight shade toward No. 2, but with his eyes trained in the backfield, Delpit shoots out of his backpedal the moment the quarterback begins to draw his arm to throw. Delpit scorches the grass with a 10-yard burst that puts him in position to pop tight end Kyle Pitts right in the hips as the ball hits his hands, jarring the ball loose and leading to an incompletion. Not only is the range and finish excellent in a vacuum, but Pitts had been terrorizing LSU's secondary all day, so getting the better of him here was icing on the cake.
As impressive and versatile a coverage piece as Delpit can be, it is still tough to stomach his tackling struggles while working through his film. The frustration is that Delpit's willingness as a tackler and defender near the line of scrimmage does not match the execution -- or at least it did not for most of 2019. Delpit is as eager as anyone to fight through a tight run fit or fly down to the line of scrimmage at 100 miles per hour to blow up a screen, but when it comes time to square up and wrap up, the two-time All-American temporarily forgets how to play.
Even before the injuries piled up, Delpit's tackling form was a disaster. This clip is from LSU's game versus Texas early in the year, at least a month before his high-ankle sprain. Delpit does well to trigger downhill and meet the receiver behind the line of scrimmage, but his tackle attempt is a flimsy disaster. Delpit simply hurls himself forward, never once trying to slow his momentum to square up and drive into the target. The lackadaisical attempt gives Texas' receiver a fairly easy way out of the tackle and allows him to pick up a solid chunk of yardage after the fact. While some missed tackles can be excused or understandable, this particular attempt is as easy as it comes for a defender playing Delpit's assignment.
This tackle attempt is tougher given the amount of space and the athletic ability of Pitts (the receiver on this play). However, Delpit approached with a very acute angle to him and never put himself in position to square himself up. By the time Pitts caught the ball and turned around, Delpit was clearly committed to the receiver's inside shoulder and did not afford himself the space to redirect if need be. Pitts saw the opening to Delpit's left and took it with one explosive hop step, freeing him into the rest of the secondary for another 10 yards or so.
Even in Delpit's best performances, the tackling issues persisted. Delpit was not necessarily an elite, forceful tackler in 2018, but he was more reliable than he proved to be in 2019.
The hope with Delpit is that his 2019 woes were more a consequence of injury mixed with a dash of natural regression from an otherworldly 2018 season. If Delpit's coverage range and one-high/two-high versatility holds up as expected, his tackling only needs to be a middle ground between 2018 and 2019. Delpit does not need to be a Jamal Adams- or Adrian Amos-caliber tackler in order to allow his coverage value to shine through -- he just needs to not be a liability in one-on-one tackling situations. That version of Delpit would change a secondary for the better even despite his tackling imperfections, a la Justin Reid or Marcus Williams.