One of the more unique prospects that could be in the 2014 NFL Draft is Antone Exum, cornerback from Virginia Tech. The reasons he stands out are good and unfortunate. First, he is a corner after starting out as a safety, which is not a common transition. The last example that comes to mind is when injuries forced Boise State to move safety George Iloka to a corner spot where he performed pretty well under the circumstances. In the case of Exum, he can legitimately play both corner and safety depending on the system he is playing; it is possible he could actually be used as a strong safety in a few schemes.
The other reason he stands out is because he unfortunately suffered a knee injury that tore his ACL and right lateral meniscus in a pickup basketball game at the end of January. Exum’s goal is to not only play this coming year but be back for the game against Alabama and reaffirmed that goal as recently as April. Everyone would like him to be healthy and able to play for that game and it is possible that could happen with some of the recoveries that have been seen in recent years, but it is possible he might miss part of the season and potentially all of it. If there is a setback or the recovery is not as fast as they hope, the decision could be made to sit out this year and take a medical red shirt to go back for another year. This would be a frustration to be sure for Exum as he considered coming out after a strong junior year.
Hopefully Exum can recover and play in this upcoming season because while he has shown a ton of ability and potential, he has fulfilled a number of different roles but has not really distinguished himself with his technique at any one spot and being able to play and improve his technique and consistency, it could have a dramatic impact and help his stock significantly. As it stands, Exum appears to be a day three pick with the potential to fight back into the day two if he is healthy and tests well as there is a ton of ability and potential there for the right team.
Vitals & Build
Listed at 6’1” 224lbs, it will be interesting to see if he actually measures in that big, but he looks impressive for a corner or safety. He has a broad build that enables him to be an imposing player in coverage and in run support. Appears to possess decent but not notable speed, is pretty fluid in small areas with the ability to flip his hips and change direction, and appears to have the potential to continue developing as he goes into the NFL, but obviously the focus here is going to be the status of his knee and getting the strength back there.
Exum shows the ability to be a good tackler but has some bad habits that result in missed tackles and opportunities. He is a player that loves to go for the intimidating, highlight hit and when he lands it, it can not only put a good hit on the ball carrier but also cause a fumble. He brings aggressiveness and the mentality coaches love to see from a defensive back but too often he comes up full speed and just lunges at the ball carrier rather than breaking down and making the good, smart football play. And what he needs to realize is that he is strong enough that he does not need to launch himself to get a strong hit on the opponent. In fact, one of the hits he made that caused a fumble was made in a situation where he made the hit from a flat footed position against Florida State. His long arms are effective for making wrap up tackles and he can reach out and snag guys trying to get past him. Exum would be much better if he would break down, get his feet in position and fire through the ball carrier. When he does it, the results are excellent.
Exum is extremely aggressive and a willing run defender from corner or safety. As soon as he reads run, he is coming downhill full speed to make the play. Again, he needs to do a better job of breaking down to avoid being matadored by the ball carrier, but his attitude is refreshing. He is not afraid to take on blocks and plays with an edge against the run.
Exum seems to be most comfortable in off man coverage as it allows him to break on the ball and be aggressive and probably because he is accustomed to the depth having played safety. He does not really backpedal and just basically waits for the receiver to come to him as long as possible before turning and running with them. Exum is always looking for ways to cause turnovers and will gamble. He is not only willing to try to jump routes but he is extremely confident in his recovery speed and give receivers space before trying to take it back, which can have mixed results. When he is faced with running with a receiver down the sideline, he is fantastic at establishing his position, looking back, finding the football, and making a play on it. His size and strength are natural advantages here and he can body opponents out to make a play on the ball.
The Hokie defense seems to be one that prefers outside leverage and force receivers inside to the help but especially when lined up on the receiver, Exum gives the inside up a little too easily. He does need to be careful of the five yard chuck, but he needs to give them a shot before giving away the inside. Since he is trying to bait the quarterback into a throw, it will make a little easier for him to recover if he knocks him off his line. Exum really likes to put himself in between the receiver and quarterback on crosses, slants, and posts. Because of his size and how broad he is, he can basically blanket the receiver and take them out of the play and this fits in with his style of trying to cause turnovers and put himself at risk. This proves to be an extremely effective technique down in the red zone when Exum has the benefit of the back of the end zone as an extra defender. When he is caught coming from behind the receiver, he has shown the ability to stick his arm in the way and poke the ball away and has had a large number of pass breakups during his career. And if he feels like the ball is going to get there before he does or close to the same time, he is not just looking to hit the ball, but separate the man from the ball with force. Occasionally, this results in a penalty when he is a little early but for the most part he is pretty good with his timing and more than strong enough to do the job. If guys do catch the ball against him, he does do a pretty good job of limiting the damage in terms of yards after the catch and makes the tackle quickly.
Although he has not done it often, Exum shows the ability to be a press corner and he has the physical tools that would make him an excellent fit there. He needs more experience and to do a better job at getting a jam on the receiver at the line of scrimmage. His ability to press and bail is solid and he opens up his hips decently, but it could be an area to improve. Exum never really displays much of a backpedal; he wants to keep his eyes in the backfield and watch the quarterback and a good backpedal would allow him to do it longer, especially if he is not going to jam. He is more a press-shuffle technique. Some of this might be due to the fact that he was a safety and has not really had the ability to focus on corner as much. Press fits what he likes to do so much, being able to physically dominant at the line of scrimmage and when he reads run, being able to attack and land the occasional big hit from the side.
When Exum is beat or he feels like he is in a bad position, he will not hesitate to get grabby with the receiver and gets popped for pass interference at times. He is subtle about it and gets away with it at times, but nevertheless will get grabby. A penalty is certainly better than a touchdown but the penalty is much less in college and they allow more contact in college, which makes it a little more concerning with the transition to the NFL.
Much like with zone, Exum is always looking for ways to cause turnovers and is not afraid to jump routes when he thinks he can make a play. Exum thrives on keeping everything in front of him and being able to attack downhill no matter where the play goes. When it comes to run, he can go all out to get there and when passes are completed underneath, he is looking to put a big hit on them and separate them from the ball if possible. Exum has a lot of range but rarely uses it when it comes to going backward. He uses it to attack sideline to sideline. Provided he has enough depth to keep everything in front of him from the safety position or for times when plays happen in front of his zone as a corner, it can be extremely effective.
His willingness to risk could make some teams a little concerned about putting him as their centerfielding free safety but could make him an attractive proposition for aggressive teams that might like him as a strong or hybrid safety. He has not really been asked to protect over the top too much but there is nothing to suggest he could not do it; but he is going to go for turnovers when he has his chance, which can be a double-edged sword.
Occasionally, Exum will drop a ball that he should not and miss an opportunity but he is definitely a threat to cause get interceptions. He does a good job of tracking the football, especially from when his back is turned, but being that he likes to come up and jump routes, he has experience making those types of plays as well. Exum could be a real asset if he is used as a safety, but clearly does not lose anything as a corner adjusting to the ball either.
Exum fits a number of different defensive schemes and the difference will be which position he plays. As a corner, the Jaguars, Seahawks, and Vikings are teams that stand out. Exum appears to be the type of corner Gus Bradley would love to get in Jacksonville and the Vikings have a couple of big, physical corners in Chris Cook and Xavier Rhodes.
As a safety, Exum’s fit expands substantially. He could be an aggressive free safety, a hybrid safety that can do a little bit of everything, and in certain schemes, even a strong safety. Exum has a number of different skills that could be molded to fit their system and be a big time contributor.
|Sat, Aug. 31||vs. Alabama|
|Sat, Sept. 7||vs. West Carolina|
|Sat, Sept. 14||at East Carolina|
|Sat, Sept. 21||vs. Marshall|
|Thu, Sept. 26||at Georgia Tech|
|Sat, Oct. 5||vs. North Carolina|
|Sat, Oct. 12||vs. Pittsburgh|
|Sat, Oct. 26||vs. Duke|
|Sat, Nov. 2||at Boston College|
|Sat, Nov. 9||at Miami(FL)|
|Sat, Nov. 16||vs. Maryland|
|Sat, Nov. 30||at Virginia|
Given his situation recovering from the knee injury, if Exum is going to play at all this year, it will likely be probably be targeting November and that last stretch of games in the ACC, potentially followed up by the ACC Championship Game and then a Bowl Game. If they can get to the ACC Title game, it could be against Clemson and Sammy Watkins. The variables here are not only Exum’s recovery physically, but if he wants to take a medical red shirt and come back next year, which case, he will not play all. The likelihood of trying to play and potentially do more damage is minimal even if he does plan on going to the NFL Draft, but if he recovers well and feels good, he may want to go out and show his knee is reacting well and getting a little game film under his belt before entering the draft process. If he is able to get back for the Alabama game, which would feature one of the most talented receivers in the country in sophomore, Amari Cooper, but Kenny Bell is another talented receiver for the Tide.Notable Games
He is not quite as polished a player but his wide range of skills in coverage and his ability to contribute as a run defender make him similar Xavier Rhodes, now of the Minnesota Vikings. When Rhodes was in the draft process out of Florida State, there were some people who were wondering if he might need to move to safety, but he excels as a press corner and can be a dominating against the run. Exum has some work to do to reach the level of Rhodes, but he might have a little more fluidity in his game even if he does not appear to have as much straight line speed.
If he is ultimately unable to play this year, he should have no problem being ready to contribute in time for testing in the pre-draft process and would likely enter that process as a day three pick with the ability to move back into the second day. If he can recover well and play and improve his technique a little bit while playing, he could be a top 100 pick with the chance to really climb in testing. Exum has a lot of talent and skills that can be universal in the NFL, which is good, but there are areas of his game that need to be hammered out as he goes to the NFL and is not so physically dominant. He is really a fun prospect to watch and follow going forward as he could end up being a great NFL player at a number of different positions.