INDIANAPOLIS — In the NFL, positions on defense are becoming less defined, which puts a premium on players who can play in multiple spots.
Without some late-season adversity, Utah defensive back Julian Blackmon might've heard his name called even earlier in the 2020 NFL Draft, as one of these multi-purpose defenders.
The versatile senior suffered a torn ACL during Utah's Pac-12 Championship matchup against Oregon in December, with Blackmon then undergoing surgery about four months prior to the draft.
But throughout the pre-draft process, it was the Indianapolis Colts who were assuring Blackmon that, injury or not, they were very interested in his services. Fast forward to last Friday, and it's the Colts snagging Blackmon in the third round with the 85th-overall pick.
"Honestly, I had a lot of contact with the (Colts) coaches, yes sir. They told me, 'Hey, don't be surprised if we pick you earlier than what people expect. We don't care that you're hurt.' And here I am a Colt," Blackmon said.
When it came down to it, the Colts were willing to be patient with Blackmon's recovery process, which, they believe, could pay dividends down the line.
"Really, it came more down to I didn't want to lose him. I didn't want to lose him behind us. We thought there was a chance he would be there in the third. We were worried that he wouldn't be there in the fourth," Colts general manager Chris Ballard said about the Blackmon pick. "He's got the ACL injury, we know that he won't be ready probably until late August, early September, which means that he might not even really help us until October.
"Look, he is a rangy, fast athletic safety that can play corner and he can play in the nickel. He has a lot of value in our defense and can play a bunch of multiple spots," Ballard continued. "This is his first year playing safety and we liked him at corner too so we feel lucky to get him. He is a talented young man."
Blackmon arrived at Utah in 2016 as a freshman cornerback, and although the Utes moved Blackmon around to capitalize on his abilities in other areas, corner stayed his baseline position all the way up until 2019 when he made the switch to safety; a move that was actually made at his request.
"It went really well. I felt like the transition wasn't too hard for me. I felt like playing safety was one of my better fits," Blackmon said after the draft about his switch to safety. "So I came to the coaches and I asked them if I could move just because I felt like we had a lot of guys that could play corner. We had depth at corner so I wanted to move to safety and it ended up being something that wasn't too hard to transition to. I just understood it very quickly. So it was pretty good.
"I think that the biggest thing for me was understanding spacing. It's a lot different. You have a whole lot of field to cover as a safety whereas when you're at corner you're guarding just one guy and you're specifically having one job," Blackmon continued. "But the difference with safety is you have to know everybody's job, and that's why I wanted to go to safety, because I feel like my intelligence of the game and my IQ fit that because I understood everybody's position. It's heads up to our coaches. I give it to my coaches at Utah – they played me at nickel, at corner and even safety my freshman year. But we had great safeties – Marcus Williams and Marquise Blair – so I didn't need to play safety. That's the difference, it's just knowing everyone's position and when to make plays."
In 46 games at Utah, Blackmon started 39 of them between cornerback, the slot and safety. He totaled 158 tackles (8.5 for loss), 1.5 sacks, nine interceptions, 29 pass breakups, two forced fumbles and had two defensive touchdowns.
He was a Second-Team All-American in his first season at safety in 2019 as well as First-Team All-Pac-12 and a finalist for the Polynesian Player of the Year Award. Prior to that, he was named Second-Team All-Pac-12 as a cornerback in both 2017 and 2018.
Versatility is Blackmon's calling card, but it's his sharp instincts and football IQ that allows him to play in multiple spots at a high level.
"I think that it's multiple things with just being naturally good at football. The first time I touched a football, I ran it for 60 yards the first time I touched it. I just felt like I understood football differently when I was younger, and my dad was like, 'OK, he's kind of different,'" Blackmon said. "So it's just been something that with film that (I) brought along when I went to college helped me become the player that I am today. But I definitely think that it was just natural ability until I got to college and the coaches taught me what I should be looking for in certain plays."
At 5'11-3/4" and 187 pounds, Blackmon doesn't have classic safety size, but it's fine for an outside or slot cornerback. Still, that size hasn't proven to be a detriment at safety. In fact, he appeared to get more assertive and physical as a tackler when he moved to safety.
Blackmon has actually been lauded by coaches for his ability to tackle. He's a wrap-up, hamstring tackler, which fits right in with how Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus teaches his players.
If Blackmon stays at safety in the NFL, then he can still drop down into the slot to provide man coverage in certain matchups.
"I was strictly a free safety last year. But when we had teams with hybrid tight ends like Hunter Bryant (and) teams like that, I would come down and guard those guys – the better tight ends just because I'm used to guarding man-to-man," Blackmon said.
Whether it's zone coverage, or press or off-man coverage, Blackmon has experience doing it as a corner and a safety.
In man coverage, Blackmon isn't afraid to use his hands to try and disrupt the receiver's momentum. He also shows very quick feet and good hips that flip quickly to pick up the receiver and change direction with them.
However, sometimes he offers perhaps too much cushion and doesn't make it up in time for the ball to arrive. That could have been part of Utah's scheme, however, so it's difficult to determine how much of that is on him.
Regardless, you can tell he got more comfortable and moved more freely as the 2019 season wore on in his transition to safety.
Blackmon wasn't able to participate in drills at the Scouting Combine in February, so we couldn't see athletic scores for him, but his tape shows that he probably would've tested pretty well. His long speed and range in the open field appears to be adequate, but his closing burst to the ball is outstanding. When he has his sights set on a target, he gets there instantly.
With the ball in the air, Blackmon is aggressive at competing for it and looks to make a play on the ball whenever he can. He is able to go up and high-point the ball in the air, snatching it away from the receiver. When it comes to ball skills, he just naturally goes up for it, and it doesn't look forced.
FIT WITH THE COLTS
Blackmon is a natural fit for the Colts. He's very instinctive, works hard, leads his teammates and has the versatility to wear different hats.
Specifically with the Colts, when Blackmon is able to make his debut for them, he can provide depth at outside corner, slot and safety. The team has needed that insurance with the injuries they've had in the last couple of years. Particularly in 2019, starting defensive backs Pierre Desir, Malik Hooker, Kenny Moore II, Khari Willis and Rock Ya-Sin missed a combined 15 games.
"I mean I'll play any position. It doesn't really matter. I think that I just came off a good year playing safety so I don't see why I couldn't play it. But whatever happens is whatever I will be playing," Blackmon said of what position he expects to play in the NFL with the Colts. "Honestly, they really haven't told me anything. I just got drafted so they really just told me they loved me at safety and they thought the transition was seamless. So they want to try me at anything really."
Another kind of criteria for Colts defenders is being able to make plays and take the ball away, an area in which Blackmon is more than capable after being a part of 11 takeaways at Utah and scoring twice on defense.
For the second draft class in a row, the Colts hammered their draft board with leaders, as most — if not all — of their picks were either team captains or members of their team's membership council, in which Blackmon belonged to the latter.
"A thing with leadership with me is I am more of a person who likes to do things before I start talking. I like to get to know people before I start calling them out because I feel like you can't really call somebody out if you don't know them. I like to connect with my guys so I can be able to be like, 'Hey, you need to be doing this.' So they don't take it the wrong way, so to speak," Blackmon said. "So I think for me, I'd rather just go out and show what I can do so these guys can say, 'He can play.' Then once they can see what I can do that's when the leadership comes."
With Ballard suggesting that Blackmon may not be able to help the Colts until roughly October, we could be in for a strong second half of the 2020 season from Blackmon.