With their final 1st round selection in the 2019 NFL Draft the Raiders grabbed Johnathan Abram from Mississippi State. The hard hitting safety joins an Oakland secondary that features two other first round picks in Gareon Conley and Karl Joseph. It’s possible the addition of Abram could spell the end for Karl Joseph’s time in Oakland. However it ends up shaking out, it’s debatable that the Raiders made a huge improvement their secondary by taking Abram in round one.
Abram’s strengths are his athleticism, hitting ability and effort he brings on the field. He apparently graduated Mississippi State this past fall and was enrolled in an MBA program while getting ready to be selected in the NFL draft. Married with a daughter, Abram’s maturity off the field is lauded by his former coaches, a common theme we’ve seen in this 2019 Raiders draft. But on the field, how does Abram contribute? Let’s take a look.
Abram’s pass coverage isn’t a finished product as of yet. He has the athleticism to become a very good pass defender but inconsistencies in his technique lead to up and down results.
This is a solid rep from Abram going against eventual drafted Ole Miss tight end Dawson Knox. Knox runs an in-breaking route across the middle of the field and Abram stays on his outside shoulder, breaking in time to cut him off. Abram’s outside leverage position and close body contact prevents the tight end from making an adjustment on this pass.
The clip above is another good rep from Abram in coverage and shows how the defensive back has the speed to stay in phase with receivers downfield. Abram is in man coverage and turns to locate the ball, when he realizes it will be out of his reach, he turns his eyes back on the receiver and “rakes” the catch point, breaking up the pass. Often defenders panic when they are in a back shoulder position, Abram knows he has a chance, stays collected and makes a text-book play.
Lined up on the left side of the screen in man coverage against fellow first round pick, Iowa’s TJ Hockenson, Abram is late to break on this out route. This is a technique issue for Abram and it pops up a few times in his film. Abram is guilty here of what is called a “drop step” where a DB will lose ground prior to his break. If Abram stays square and gains ground on his first step, he has the burst to be in better position against this pass.
Another technique issue is Abram gets too grabby with receivers. He is in absolutely perfect position on this deep pass up the sideline. As he starts to get his head around to locate the ball for some reason he second guesses himself and and grabs the receiver first, resulting in a pass interference penalty.
We can leave Abram’s pass coverage break down on a high-note. Abram is again in man coverage on the slot receiver in this clip. He transitions vertical and stays on the receiver’s outside shoulder allowing him to read through his man to the quarterback. This eye discipline is what allows him to make the play here because he breaks on the throw and hauls in the interception. Abram has the speed and explosiveness to consistently stay in phase against down field threats. There are just a few technique issues he needs to clean up before he can make a substantial impact in coverage.
It seems the Raiders put a premium on physicality, a trait all 3 first round selections have in spades. Abram perhaps the most physical of the bunch is notorious for his hitting ability. Abram was famously the reason for Mississippi State stopping their 2018 Spring Game early due to the vicious safety leveling his own teammate. Abram plays at full speed every time he steps on the field.
The play above is Abram at his best, he hustles from the opposite side of the field and takes an incredible angle to stop this reverse for a loss of yardage. Abram is just moving at a different speed than his teammates who are ready to make this tackle a few yards upfield before Abram whizzes past them.
This blitz against Iowa shows Abram is versatile and also won’t be blocked easily. He explodes off the snap, and meets the Iowa running back head on, throwing him aside with ease to notch this sack.
Defeating blocks and making plays behind the line of scrimmage should become Abram’s calling card with the Raiders. He tosses 2nd round draft pick, Irv Smith Jr aside, exploding off his inside foot and spinning off the block. This isn’t just athleticism at work, defenders are being taught to dispatch blockers in this manner, and Abram is able to do it at full speed before dropping the screen in the backfield.
One thing Abram needs to work on is his tackling technique. Right now he relies on his formidable hitting ability to drop ball carriers. He will need to wrap his arms and run his feet through contact more consistently otherwise there will be a handful of plays like this where Abram misses a tackle. Another area of Abram’s game that is very correctable and he has the traits that suggest this shouldn’t be a problem for him in the NFL.
If the Raiders are indeed moving on from Karl Joseph, it’s hard to sell Abram as an immediate upgrade. The two hard hitting safeties are very much alike. Size wise; Abram (5’11) is one inch taller than Joseph (5’10) but Joseph has arms (32 inches) that measure one inch longer than Abram’s (31 inches), both weighed in a 205 lbs at the combine. Both safeties played a lot of box coverage in college and had great film that landed them in the first round of the NFL draft. Each are hard hitters, Joseph actually proving he can do it against NFL competition so he gets the edge.
We saw Joseph struggle to get his footwork down early on in his career and he only seemed to turn the corner this past season in pass coverage. Abram too has things he needs to clean up before he can make an impact in pass coverage. Best case scenario Abram and Joseph compete for a starting position and both get on the field in Nickel personnel when Lamarcus Joyner moves to the slot. It’s doubtful that scenario actually plays out. It seems likely Joseph is let go and the secondary breaks even with a younger but similar player as a starter.