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Possible Starter: Antone Exum

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An analysis of Antone Exum.

Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Antone Exum, a 2014 sixth round pick out of Virginia Tech, will be battling for the starting safety spot opposite Harrison Smith come training camp. While we can't foresee how Exum will perform at training camp, we can look back at his time in college to give us some indication of what he can do when healthy.

Prior to suffering a torn ACL and lateral meniscus in his right knee while playing a pickup game of basketball in January of 2013, Exum was seen as a possible first round pick due to his impressive athleticism, long arms, good speed and his heady style of play. After returning from his injury in the 2013-14 season, he didn't immediately display the same speed or athleticism on the field which led to his draft day fall. Now over two years removed from his injury, Exum is back at full health and should be ready to make some waves come camp time. In this article I will list his combine measurements and test results as well as his collegiate stats, break down his college tape and make the case for him to start over Robert Blanton, provided he shines in camp.

Measurements/Combine Results:

(All measurements and combine results are via NFL.com.)

Height: 6'0''

Weight: 213 lbs

Arm Length: 31 5/8''

Hand Size: 9 5/8''

Bench Press: 17 reps

40 Yard Dash: 4.59 seconds

3-Cone Drill: 7.05 seconds

Shuttle Drill: 4.13 seconds

Vertical Jump: 35''

Broad Jump: 117''

Standing at 6'0'' tall and weighing 213 lbs, Exum boasts a chiseled frame with long arms.

When analyzing Exum's combine drill results, his injury must be taken into consideration. While he was roughly a year removed from his torn ACL, his play during his senior year suggested that he wasn't completely over his injury. While certainly not a standout combine, there is reason to hope that these numbers do not accurately reflect where he is now athletically. His 40 yard dash wasn't terrible, but a time of 4.59 seconds for a cornerback is certainly not good. This time falls more in line with NFL safeties, and could have contributed to the Vikings' decision to play him as such.

While he placed around the middle of the pack in most of his drills, he was able to post a pretty good time in the shuttle drill with a time of 4.13 seconds, good enough to be the third fastest among safeties. The shuttle drill tests the athletes' lateral quickness as well as his or her explosion in short areas.

Statistics:

(All statistics are via sports-reference.com)

Games Tackles Tackles for a Loss Passes Defended Interceptions Forced Fumbles
2010 14 45 1.5 9 0 1
2011 14 89 5.0 11 1 2
2012 13 48 1.5 21 5 2
2013 3 4 0.0 1 0 0

After a solid first year as a rotational safety, Exum really began to make a name for himself in the 2011 season. He posted 89 tackles and broke up 9 passes en-route to showing scouts and analysts alike that he should be scouted as an all-around safety. Exum made the switch to cornerback in the 2012 season, and began to make a case for being a top 30 prospect.

Unfortunately, before he could attempt to improve on an already spectacular first year at cornerback in his second year at the position, he suffered the ACL injury and was forced to miss all of Virginia Tech's offseason activities and was sidelined the first seven weeks of the season. After returning in October and starting at cornerback in three games, he sprained his ankle against Miami and missed the rest of the season.

Tape Breakdown:

+ Uses his hands and arms extremely well. Hand-eye coordination is off the charts. Consistently uses arms to make it as hard as possible for the receiver to make the catch. Knows when the interception isn't happening and defends as such. (See GIF 1)

+ Closes on the ball quickly with aggression and authority. (See GIF 1)

+ Always seems to have complete control of his body. This helps a tremendous amount on the 50/50 balls as he doesn't get out of control and keeps his composure.

+ Good size and build. Body allows him to compete with both receivers and tight ends alike. Looks like the prototype NFL safety.

+ Has the coordination, arm length and proper timing necessary to successfully come over a receiver's shoulder pads and break up the pass despite being behind the receiver. This was a recurring theme on film and most often showed up when defending slant routes. (See GIF 2)

+ Fluid hips and a good, low backpedal. Opens hips and accelerates well. Once again Exum's stellar balance helps him in this area.

+ An enforcer from the safety position. Hits with authority and aggression. Recorded 5 forced fumbles during his time at Virginia Tech. (See GIF 3)

+ Instinctual in zone coverage, especially when playing a deep zone. At his best when he can see the quarterback and read his eyes. (See GIF 4)

+ Plays with a lot of confidence and swagger.

- Can struggle versus quicker receivers, especially on double moves as he lacks the top-end mirroring skills possessed by top cornerbacks. This weakness, however, won't be as big of a concern at the safety spot as it would if he was still playing corner. (See GIF 5. By the way, yes, that is Phillip Dorsett)

- As mentioned earlier, average combine testing and a torn ACL prevented Exum from rising up draft boards. Should we be concerned about his combine results or should we expect his athleticism to recover? Should we be concerned about his injury history? Questions loom.

- Physicality can also be his detriment, as he can be prone to downfield pass interference calls. (See GIF 6)

- Can be fooled by play action. Needs to be more disciplined on the backside as he can "freelance" a bit if not kept in check.

After watching games from Exum's 2011, 2012 and 2013 seasons I came away most impressed with his 2012 tape. In games versus Florida State, UNC  and for much of the Clemson game he was dominant. After playing a lot of off coverage, he has learned the fundamentals of playing deep within a pro-style defense. With most if not all of his flaws being coachable, Exum offers Zimmer a great chance to mold a safety to his liking.

Can Exum Start This Year?

With training camp just a few weeks out, there are a number of position battles that fans have been buzzing about for quite some time. Among these is the battle for the safety position opposite Harrison Smith that figures to include the likes of Robert Blanton, Antone Exum, Anthony Harris and Andrew Sendejo among others.

Blanton figures to provide the toughest competition, as he was the primary starter throughout the 2014-15 season before being replaced by Andrew Sendejo after an injury late in the season. Anthony Harris is an undrafted free agent out of Virginia, but this shouldn't be used against him as he brings a hype train with him as one of the most highly coveted undrafted free agents. Andrew Sendejo has been in and out of the starting lineup for the last couple of years and has mostly displayed solid if unspectacular play, much like Blanton.

If Exum is hoping to earn a starting spot this season and hold onto it, he will need to outplay those three while also impressing Mike Zimmer enough to earn his trust. He can provide a lot to a defense as a starter, including grit, toughness, run defense, and coverage ability. The good news for Exum is that he is on the right track after receiving praise from GM Rick Spielman, who loves when he begins to see his late round picks blossom.

Thank you all for reading. Follow me on twitter @JMcIntireNFL and don't forget to leave your thoughts below.