INDIANAPOLIS — When NFL teams scout players for the NFL Draft process, they’re not just evaluating the player; they’re evaluating the person as well. One team that puts heavy stock into who a player is off the field and in the locker room is the Indianapolis Colts.
A player can’t just be a good athlete. He has to fit into the locker room — into the culture — and be a good teammate.
One player that seemingly fits the bill in the upcoming 2019 NFL Draft is Mississippi State safety Johnathan Abram, who said the Colts have made no secret about the fact he’d fit in well in Indy, on and off the field.
"He said for himself, everybody in the building, the organization loves me," Abram said about Colts defensive backs/safeties coach Alan Williams, who led Abram through on-field drills at his March 27 pro day. "He just wanted to get a feel, for himself, if I was his kind of guy, because he promised the guys back in Indy that he only brings in certain types of guys. And so he felt like that I was one of those guys."
The 5-11, 205-pound Abram backed up impressive college tape with some positive experiences during the pre-draft process.
Although a shoulder bruise kept him from physically participating in the Senior Bowl, he was noted for his leadership qualities throughout the week. He was then cleared to participate in the Scouting Combine and ran a 4.45-second 40-yard dash before a rolled ankle ended his day of on-field drills.
On tape, Abram shows a blend of leadership and football IQ with old-school toughness and new-school versatility. The projected top-50 draft pick can line up in the box and slam running backs down in the backfield, or he can cover a tight end out of the slot.
"Last year, I was a pretty good tackler, but I wasn't as efficient as I was this year," Abram said before leading into what was possibly the quote of the Combine. "My wife, we talked about it a lot. She say if you're not hitting like Bobby Boucher, you're not really hitting."
Fans of "The Waterboy" will get that reference, and that's what Abram's wife says he should bring to the table, although Abram actually patterns his game a bit between a blend of former Seattle Seahawks safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.
With football being such a violent sport and player safety being a top priority, we all know that penalties are often called on big hits, but that's something of which Abram is well aware.
"There's a fine line between being aggressive and just — I say that because if you're aggressive you can be over-aggressive at times. So, for me, it's just a fine line of I like to bring contact. That's it," he said.
Abram is an instinctual defender who sniffs out what the offense is developing into and constantly finds himself around the ball. His read and react time is very quick, and his breaking speed to get to the ball is just as impressive. Abram credits his time as a quarterback in high school as one reason for his football knowledge and his ability to make plays on the ball.
"For me, I knew that was going to be the best position for me (safety), knowing what the quarterback is thinking, progression that he makes," Abram said. "So, I enjoy tackling, playing the ball. I actually enjoy scoring the ball because I have influence in getting the ball and I want to score."
In zone coverage — in which the Colts' defense primarily operates — Abram shows good instincts to read quarterbacks, and he sticks to his assigned receiver with fluid movement in man coverage.
His toughness isn’t just limited to big hits either. He gets physical with route runners by keeping his hands active in pursuit of the ball, but in a way that isn’t usually penalized. Abram is also able to free himself from blocks, largely with his upper-body strength.
Abram has some cherries on top of his game as well. For one, he is a determined pass rusher who one can tell truly wants to get to the quarterback and isn’t just doing it because he's following the play call.
He also has a penchant for attempting to strip the ball from the ball carrier’s grasp, which is a very big part of what Colts defender are coached to do by coordinator Matt Eberflus.
Overall, Abram has a presence about him that exudes leadership and draws his teammates to him. He’s not the type to keep to himself either; if he makes a big play then he’s going to let the opponent know about it. He’s a chatty guy with the opposition, and he’s someone who you can tell the game matters to.
And, like anyone else, Abram has certain areas of improvement.
As a thumper, he sometimes gets caught looking for the big hit rather than wrapping up and making the sure tackle. In general, he is a reliable tackler, but sometimes he can get caught up looking for the “hit stick.”
His instincts in coverage could use some tuning as well. This is particularly evident when he doesn’t get his head turned around when the ball arrives while he tracks his assigned receiver downfield.
Lastly, Abram could also finish plays a little more consistently. You can see him give maximum effort during a play, but if it begins to get away from him where he’s probably not going to be involved in its conclusion, he slows down. Under Eberflus, that would likely be considered a “loaf,” which every defender playing for him must learn to eliminate.
"For me, football IQ is the No. 1 thing I pride myself on as well as my man-to-man coverage, tackling, and just setting the pace for guys like my teammates. We have a lot of great guys. I kind of get those guys and I take pride in that," Abram told reporters at the Combine while describing the strengths and weaknesses in his game. "But one thing I need to work on is footwork and better angles as I'm pursuing tackles and breaking on the ball. And I've been working on that down in Dallas with Clayton Mack, just cleaning up a lot of transition things and footworks."
FIT WITH THE COLTS
Regarding Abram and the Colts specifically, there’s a lot to like about this potential pairing.
For starters, to make sure we’re not just throwing darts at the board, the Colts have done their due diligence on Abram. According to him, not only was there his conversations with Williams, but Abram also had dinner with Colts representatives the night before his pro day, and they had a formal meeting at the Combine as well.
The Colts do currently have two starting safeties in Clayton Geathers and Malik Hooker, but the team doesn't just stand pat with two safeties every Sunday. In different packages, a third safety is introduced; it’s one reason why we saw so much of players like Matthias Farley, Mike Mitchell and George Odum in 2018.
Unfortunately, another reason we saw a great deal of those players is that the Colts have had some bad luck with injuries among their safeties. Geathers and Hooker missed a combined six regular season games in 2018, and 20 in 2017. Whether you like it or not, injuries happen in the NFL. It’s the team’s responsibility to be prepared for when it happens.
Lastly, the Colts had Farley, Mitchell, Corey Moore and J.J. Wilcox on the roster last year, but all are currently free agents (Farley, a restricted free agent, was tendered by the Colts, and is yet to sign that offer). This is a business, so who knows how many of them will be back in Indianapolis in 2019?
Because the Colts like to tinker with three-safety looks and the fact they need to fortify their depth (and insurance) for those not returning in 2019, Abram as an early pick by the Colts makes a lot of sense.
His versatility can be utilized to play all over for the Colts, whether it’s deep in the Cover-2, in the box against the run or as a blitzer, or in the nickel covering a tight end, the Colts can use the tools that Abram brings to the table.
Off the field, Abram prides himself on being a leader and a tone-setter for his teammates. That fits very well into what the Colts are building in their locker room — one that polices itself, keeps each other accountable and forms strong bonds.
"Everyone doesn't respond to the same type of leadership, so you have to lead in different ways," Abram said. "Some guys respond to vocal leadership, leading by example, or a little tough. I pretty much set my leadership to that specific guy."