San Diego Fleet Roster Breakdown: Safeties
Of all the spots on the defense, the safety position may have the least room for error. One misstep or missed tackle and you become another Rahim Moore or Marcus Williams. The players in the safety position are the last line of defense and can be the difference between winning and losing games in the final minutes.
Dave Boehler and Mike Martz certainly have a type, with six of the seven safeties being at least six-foot and 200 pounds. With similar body and skill types throughout the group, it seems the Fleet are looking for safeties that can play both the strong and free safety roles. However, this has left the Fleet with a lack of speed on the backend that may end up hurting them in the long run.
Jason Matovu is a guy that can play both safety spots. He stands at 6 foot 1 and 200 pounds, and he runs a 4.37 40-yard dash. The fastest of all the Fleet safeties, he lined up at both safety spots in his three years starting at Maine, from 2015 to 2017. After going undrafted in 2018, he was invited to a minicamp with the Seattle Seahawks. They had him working out at cornerback.
After walking on at the University of Maine, he started his final three seasons with the team. Over the entirety of his career, he totaled 124 tackles, nine tackles for a loss, 12 pass breakups, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and two sacks. He began starting in 2015, picking up 44 total tackles, four tackles for a loss, and 2 pass breakups in 11 games. His best season statistically was his junior season, in which he had 67 total tackles, two and a half tackles for loss, six pass breakups, one interception, and one forced fumble in 11 games. His numbers took a dive in 2017. He played eight games and totaled only 23 tackles, but still had two and a half tackles for a loss, one interception, four pass breakups, and one forced fumble. It seems his role changed a little bit from 2016 to 2017. In 2017 he was used more to cover tight ends and play a free safety role, limiting the number of tackles he could make. It is a little concerning to see such a big drop in tackles.
Although he was playing FCS competition, his tape showed speed and an ability to take the ball carrier to the ground. The scheme he was a part of in college had him playing mostly to the tight end or receiver strength side, but he played both a free and strong safety role, which his outstanding athleticism allowed. After a great showing at his pro day, the Seattle Seahawks invited Matovu to their rookie minicamp. They had him try out at cornerback since his length would have translated well to Seattle’s scheme. From what I have seen, Matovu is better suited to play at the safety spot. While he might just need more coaching, he isn’t fluid enough in the hips to play cornerback. He plays better when the play stays in front of him, which he would be able to do at the safety position. He drives downhill with a vengeance and can tackle really well. I do worry about his ball skills and range as a free safety since he only had two interceptions in college. If the Fleet does move him to cornerback, his athleticism and size should vault him to a starting spot on the outside. With how thin the Fleet is at the defensive back position, Jason Matovu has the most potential due to his natural athleticism and could be a difference maker on the backend.
Another small school guy, Tyler Thornton played Free Safety at Division 2 Azusa Pacific University. He had an outstanding career at Azusa Pacific before finishing it with an injury-riddled Senior Season in 2014. Once his career was over at Azusa Pacific, he spent time in the CFL, playing 10 games for the Edmonton Eskimos in 2016.
I don’t know what role he played in the CFL, but at Azusa Pacific, he was best suited at free safety. At that position, he totaled 291 career tackles, 13 interceptions, 14 pass breakups, and seven forced fumbles. He was also a special teams standout, spending a lot of time as a punt returner in college. His best year was his Junior year, where he won the GNAC (Great Northwest Athletic Conference) defensive player of the year. In 2013 he totaled 120 total tackles, 4 forced fumbles, five interceptions, six pass break-ups, and almost 300 combined kick and punt return yards. His senior season was not as impressive statistically, with only 67 total tackles. He did still total four interceptions and three forced fumbles. In his final two seasons of college, Thornton showed he has a nose for the football.
That’s something he is going to have to show in camp to make the team. As the only smaller safety on the team (he is 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds), he has an uphill battle if he plans to make the final roster. While small, he still is very athletic. He ran a 4.49 40-yard dash, a 35.5 inch vertical, and jumped 10 feet 4 inches in his broad jump. He is a stellar athlete on paper, and his tape speaks to that too. He showed good range off the hash at Azusa and speed when bursting downhill. He plays a lot bigger than his actual size. A willing tackler, he consistently takes down larger tailbacks and receivers with force. He also has a nose for the football, excelling at causing fumbles and intercepting the ball. And once he has the ball in his hands, he’s slippery and elusive. This gives him even more value as a return man. While he has the skills and a good skill set, his size and lack of true burner speed could create an uphill battle to make the roster.
Na’im McGee is the first out of two safeties on the Fleet from San Diego State University. He spent one year at a junior college before transferring to SDSU and starting for two straight years. It would have been three if a foot injury didn’t end his senior season five games in. While originally considered a possible late-round draft pick by some NFL scouts going into his senior season, his foot injury pushed him off of NFL draft boards and caused him to go undrafted.
After transferring to San Diego State from Diablo Valley College, he earned the starting safety position right away. While he wasn’t a liability on the backend, he certainly wasn’t making many plays. While he totaled 63 tackles, he only had one pass breakup and no forced turnovers. During all 31 of his games in college as a safety, he only had one interception and nine pass breakups. His best year was his junior season, when he totaled 81 tackles and seven of his nine career pass breakups. He also won Defensive MVP in the 2015 MWC Championship game against Air Force. His senior season was marred with injuries, in which he played only five games.
McGee played the “Aztec” position during his career with San Diego State, meaning he acted in more of a free safety role within the 3-3-5 defense. That’s a role I could see him continuing with the Fleet since we are short on free safeties. He ran a 4.57 second 40. He isn’t the fastest guy, but on film, he showed signs of good downhill speed and a willingness to tackle. Usually, free safeties have good ball skills and honestly, I am not sure McGee has that. His lack of interceptions and pass breakups show some evidence of his lacking ball skills. While that does worry me, McGee has other tools that allow him to be a solid safety.
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My names Zachary Gartin. I’m a college kid going to school in Newberg, Oregon. When I’m not writing about the San Diego Fleet, I’m usually training for football or playing Xbox. Follow me @The_Sideline10