40: 4.55 (estimated)
Active run defender that likes to mix it up. Shows nice speed and closes well on the ball. Will thump a wide receiver on a crossing route over the middle and occasionally deliver a big hit along the sideline. Shows ability to break down in space, wrap up, and make the open field stop.
Undersized and not the biggest or strongest tackler, and it shows when he goes up against bigger, more physical runners and receivers. Will miss some stops in the open field, trying to lower the shoulder and hit rather than wrap up. Needs to take better angles to the ball, and gets beat to the corner by the quicker running back. Needs to show better awareness and discipline in coverage, letting receivers get behind him and loses some assignments in zone. Will get caught looking in the backfield, and doesn't have the hips or burst to match up well in man coverage.
Etheridge is an undersized run defending strong safety that isn't a great run defender. He doesn't make a lot of mistakes, but isn't a guy that is going to make a ton of plays either. He came back for a fifth year due to a season-ending neck injury that cost him the last 4 games of the 2009 season. He suffered a cracked fifth vertebrae and torn ligaments in his neck. But he fought back to have his best year, having 69 tackles, 1.5 for loss, 3 picks, and 4 pass breakups. All in all, a four-year starter that combined for 192 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 0.5 sacks, 1 pick, 9 breakups, 4 forced fumbles, and 2 recoveries in his other three years in the lineup.
Obviously, a report back on the medical in his neck is going to be important to determining his future. But currently I have to believe that he should be fine, otherwise he wouldn't have suited up for the Tigers this past year if doctors were concerned that he could have a potentially career (or life) threatening injury. So presumably, the neck won't prevent him from being able to play in the NFL. But what will hurt him is the fact that he's not a great cover safety. Etheridge is the type of player that can carve out a niche as a reserve in the NFL because he plays the run well and can play on special teams, but his inability to make plays in coverage likely means that's all he'll be. Eventually, he might develop enough experience that he could be a decent stopgap starter like a Marquand Manuel and become a journeyman after his rookie contract. Manuel was a similar prospect coming out of Florida back in 2002, and managed to start 58 games over the course of an 8-year career with 6 different teams. But he was never good enough to stick in one place for more than 2 seasons. Manuel always seemed to find a way to land on teams with bad safeties or go to teams that had injuries that forced them to play him. That's probably the best Etheridge could hope for, and he could add nice depth for a team but unless he really shines on special teams it's going to be hard to see him sticking long-term with any team.
Etheridge would be a decent body to have at safety, and could fill in for the vacated position of Erik Coleman as the fourth guy. He is more of a strong safety in the Falcons scheme, while Schillinger is probably a slightly better fit at free safety going forward. He could add depth and perform on special teams and a year or so down the line he could pass Schillinger as the team's top backup. But if the Falcons were forced to play him for extended periods of time, he would struggle, and probably not perform to a level that would merit him returning after his rookie contract expires.
Etheridge can add depth to a team's safety group, but the earliest he should go off the board is in the fifth or sixth round.
1-poor, 2-weak, 3-above average, 4-very good, 5-elite
Ball Skills: 2.0
Scouting reports of the safeties in the 2011 Draft.
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