2017 NFL Draft Player Preview: Malik Hooker
By Charlie Campbell
Summary: In late September of 2016 after only starting a few games in his collegiate career, WalterFootball.com was first to report that Hooker was receiving high first-round grades from NFL teams. Hooker was electric to start the season and was a standout in training camp practices. He maintained a dominant level of play throughout his redshirt sophomore season while totaling 74 tackles with 5.5 for a loss, .5 sacks, four passes broken up and seven interceptions - with three returned for touchdowns. Hooker was the best safety in college football during the 2016 season, even above LSU's Jamal Adams.
The evaluators who love Hooker feel he is a safety who can do it all. In coverage, he has great speed, quick feet, and is extremely athletic with a rare ability to defend the deep part of the field. Hooker is extremely fast and shows it routinely, as in an instant he will race over from the middle of the field to the sideline to break up passes or pick them off. He was tremendous at being the single-high safety to protect his defense vertically. He is the epitome of the rangy center fielder who shuts down the back end of the field. Those kind of safeties with Hooker's interception skills, size, length and instincts are extremely hard to find.
Another thing that sets Hooker apart is great instincts. For a first-year starter, it was remarkable what a natural he was and how he knew where to be. Hooker wasn't caught out of position and would smartly read a quarterback's eyes. Hooker's great instincts led him to jump routes and get deep to defend the back end of the field. After snagging interceptions, Hooker is tremendous on his returns. His play really reminds one of Ed Reed in his glory years with the Ravens.
Hooker does have some rawness to his game as he hasn't seen some route combinations yet, and he will have to learn that in the NFL. Still, he has good recognition skills, so it shouldn't be a long or painful learning process.
Sources also say Hooker has the length and strength to play in the tackle box. He will need to improve his tackling for the NFL, but he wasn't a bad tackler during 2016. He just doesn't have as much experience for taking on NFL-caliber backs. Hooker also has the frame where he could add 5-10 pounds in a NFL strength and conditioning program to help him tackle. Sources also like how Hooker drives down on the ball as his speed allows him to cover a lot of ground in a hurry to limit carries in the ground game.
WalterFootball.com was first to report that Hooker would be out 4-6 months after surgeries to repair a hernia and labrum injury. That could cause Hooker to slide some in the first round and maybe not be the first safety selected. The injury kept Hooker from working out at the combine.
Hooker has the potential to be one of the best safeties in the NFL and a perennial Pro Bowler. One top scout told WalterFootball.com that Hooker was the best safety prospect they had seen since the late great Sean Taylor. Many compare Hooker to Reed as a pro. Even with the surgeries and rehab, Hooker should be a lock to go in the top 12 of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Player Comparison: Ed Reed. Reed is a future Hall of Famer, and I generally don't like to use those players for comparison because it can create unfair expectations. However in terms of style of play, Hooker is a lot like Reed. Reed was a tremendous coverage safety for the Ravens and a tremendous weapon in the deep part of the field. He produced a lot of interceptions and was phenomenal at returning them. Hooker is a taller, longer version of Reed (5-11, 205). In the NFL, I could see Hooker being a defender similar to Reed.
NFL Matches: Tennessee, Jacksonville, Los Angeles Chargers, Carolina, Cincinnati, Buffalo, New Orleans and Cleveland
There are a lot of potential fits for Hooker in the top-12 picks. The highest that Hooker could hope to go would be to the Jaguars with the fourth-overall pick. Jacksonville could lose Jonathan Cyprien in free agency, and that would open up a need for a safety. Hooker could form a dynamic and dangerous secondary with Jalen Ramsey.
The Titans want to improve their safeties and get a difference-maker for the back end. Sources have said that Tennessee loves Hooker and LSU safety Jamal Adams. Adams would probably go ahead of Hooker because of the surgeries, but if Adams is off the board, then Hooker could easily be a Titan.
The Chargers need a true replacement for Eric Weddle, and Hooker looks like a great fit for them. He could give them the rangy play-maker and interception creator they were missing last year.
Hooker could easily go to any of the three teams picking at the end of the top 10. Carolina needs a safety upgrade, but might target bigger needs with the eighth-overall pick. The Bengals really missed not having Reggie Nelson last year, plus they have an inclination toward drafting defensive backs early. Buffalo has a need at safety as Aaron Williams has an uncertain future with a neck injury and could consider an upgrade over Corey Graham.
If Hooker slips out of the top 10, he could quickly get snatched up. The Saints cut Jairus Byrd, and Hooker would be an upgrade to their vulnerable pass defense. Cleveland also needs a safety upgrade, and Hooker would be a steal for the Browns with their second first-round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft.
2017 NFL Mock Draft: Charlie's | Walt's
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