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Everything you need to know about Titans fourth round pick Amani Hooker

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Find out why Hooker has been considered one of the biggest steals of the 2019 NFL Draft.

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NCAA Football: Iowa at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

This article is the fourth in a series of articles breaking down all six of the Titans 2019 draft picks. You can check out our breakdowns of Jeffery Simmons, A.J. Brown, and Nate Davis using the links provided below:

Check back later for more on D’Andre Walker and David Long.

The Titans have been widely praised for their haul in the 2019 NFL Draft by both local and national analysts, but none of their picks have been more universally lauded than the selection of Iowa safety Amani Hooker in the fourth round. The former Hawkeye was frequently pegged as a likely day two pick, sometimes even sneaking into the top half of the second round.

So landing Hooker with the 116th overall pick of the draft would qualify as a major steal on most boards. Jon Robinson mentioned after the draft that the Titans had Hooker and another player standing out at the top of their board as day three began. After the other player he coveted went off the board, Robinson decided not to risk missing out on Hooker and made a trade up from 121 to 116 to go get him, sliding back 11 spots in the fifth round to make it happen.

I’d be interested to know who the “other player” was. Christian Miller was the player who went off the board directly in front of Hooker, but it could have been any of the 13 players that went before pick 116. Robinson also mentioned that the Titans were worried about a couple of the teams between 116 and 121 that had been connected to Hooker in the pre-draft process — perhaps the Patriots who are known to have deep connections to the Iowa coaching staff and have rostered many Hawkeyes over the last couple decades? — which is another interesting exercise in speculation.

This is yet another example of Jon Robinson knowing his adversaries and maneuvering based on information to make sure he gets the guy that he wants. It’s something that has become something of a trademark for the fourth year GM.

The fact that Robinson traded up here tells you how strongly they feel about this player, especially considering the fact that safety wasn’t exactly a massive need position for them. It’s not shocking that Robinson liked Hooker quite a bit. As a former three star recruit who got just one Power 5 scholarship offer — New Mexico was the only other FBS offer Hooker received — he’s a guy who grew from a lightly recruited player to the highly productive Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year in just three years. That’s a Jon Robinson prototype if I ever saw one.

As Mike Keith mentioned in the video above, Hooker spent his practice time at Iowa covering George Kittle, T.J. Hockenson, and Noah Fant so he’s no stranger to covering NFL tight ends as he enters the league. His ability to matchup with bigger players in coverage, play the nickel, or drop deeper into coverage as a more traditional safety should help him translate to a role with the Titans pretty early in his career.

The Stats

Hooker got on the field early for Iowa, making an appearance in all 13 games during his true freshman season, mostly on special teams. By his sophomore year, he had broken into the starting lineup for the Hawkeyes. He missed three games with a bruised knee, but was otherwise productive.

Things really took off from a production standpoint for Hooker in 2018. Iowa created a specific hybrid nickel-safety-linebacker role for him specifically and he excelled there, finishing second on the team in tackles (65) and tied for first in interceptions (4) and pass breakups (7). He also chipped in a sack, a safety, and 3.5 tackles for loss. Simply put, Hooker was around the ball constantly making plays for Iowa.

His on field production for the nation’s 11th ranked scoring defense earned him several postseason honors:

  • 2018 Tatum-Woodson Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year
  • 2018 Second Team All-American (Associated Press)
  • 2018 First Team All-Big Ten (Coaches)
  • 2018 First Team All-Big Ten (Associated Press)
  • 2018 Roy J. Carver Award winner for Iowa’s Defensive MVP
  • 2017 All-Bowl Team (Associated Press)

The advanced stats love Hooker as well. PFF had Hooker as their top-graded slot coverage player in college football since 2016. By their charting, he was targeted 69 times during the 2018 season, allowing 39 catches (56.5%) for 350 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions. That works out to a 55.8 quarterback rating when passing into his coverage.

The Measurables

Hooker sports a compact 5’-11”, 210 pound frame with good athleticism. His combine testing was very good, measuring well above average in the forty, vertical, broad jump, three cone, and short shuttle.

That combination was good enough to qualify Hooker as an “elite” athlete according to Kent Platte’s Relative Athletic Score metric.

Hooker blends the size of a strong safety with the speed and change of direction skills of a corner into a versatile, dynamic package that should give him a chance to back up multiple roles right away while also being a key special teams contributor.

The comps that were most common for Hooker during my review were Kenny Vaccaro, Patrick Chung, and Micah Hyde.

The Fit

The versatility is evident on tape when you watch Hooker. One snap he’s blitzing off the edge, the next he’s dropping into deep zone coverage. One play he’s playing as a hybrid linebacker making run fits in the front seven, the next he’s lined up man to man on an athletic tight end. Hooker was all over the field for Iowa in 2018.

That versatility makes his eventual role in the Titans defense interesting to keep an eye on. The line between linebacker, corner, and safety in the modern NFL has never been thinner as defenses try to find ways to matchup with athletic tight ends, oversized wide receivers, and pass catching running backs on a play to play basis. Hooker is a prime example of one of those “hybrid” type players and the Titans are fortunate to have quite a few of them.

Both of the team’s current starting safeties, Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro, are quite capable of playing in the box or over the top as well as manning up on tight ends all over the field. Linebacker Jayon Brown falls into this category as well. Though he’s listed as an inside backer, Brown is quite capable of performing some of the coverage functions usually reserved for safeties or nickels.

The Titans have been on the front edge of the curve in the movement towards “combo safeties” in the NFL and defensive coordinator Dean Pees is particularly familiar with utilizing these types of players. Towards the end of his tenure in New England, the Patriots drafted Patrick Chung, a 5’-11”, 215 pound safety that Hooker has been compared to in the pre-draft cycle. Chung has turned his ability to act as a tight end coverage specialist who can also provide run support into a 10-year NFL career to this point.

After leaving the Patriots, Pees went to Baltimore where he again found similar hybrid type players to be of use. He converted Patrick Onwuasor from an undrafted safety to an undersized linebacker and helped turn him into a full time starter for the Ravens. In addition to Onwuasor — who they now consider a linebacker — Pees was known for his three safety looks on defense, often using third safety Anthony Levine as a big nickel in addition to Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson.

You can see some mirroring of personnel now for the Titans under Pees. Byard in the Weddle role, Vaccaro as Jefferson, and Brown as Onwuasor. I think it’s certainly possible that the team views Hooker as their Levine or Chung. Maybe not right away, but in the relatively near future.

The Film

Let’s start with run defense. Hooker’s biggest strength as a player are his instincts and football IQ. That’s true in all facets of his game. As a run defender, there isn’t a whole lot of flash to his game, but he generally does a good job of reading and reacting quickly and then taking good angles to the football as he shows here.

Hooker is mostly a sure tackler, but he sometimes fails to wrap up as he does here. David Montgomery did this to a ton of college players, but when you get to the NFL level you have to get the guy on the ground when you get a clear shot like this. I love the downhill speed that he shows here though.

Hooker is a good blitzer from the second level — another trait common among many Titans defensive backs and linebackers — showing excellent timing and ability to finish when he gets home. Here, he comes on a run blitz on the goal line and makes the stop for a safety.

Here is another example of Hooker being used a blitzer off the edge. He’s near perfect on his timing, not giving away the blitz too soon, but hitting the line of scrimmage just as the ball is snapped. The result is a right tackle who is set to take on the power rush of his teammate Anthony Nelson and stands zero chance at stopping Hooker with a head of steam streaking off the edge.

The Titans used Logan Ryan in a very similar role often in 2018.

In coverage, Hooker’s insticts really shine. He is able to quickly diagnose plays and always closes at full speed. Here you can see him read the speed out, explode downhill, and finish with a beautiful hit on the receiver.

As a nickel defender, Hooker saw lots of these bubble screens and smoke routes that are so prevalent in college football today. He was regularly able to beat the block of wide receivers and get up field to make the tackle as he does on this 3rd and 3 in the Outback Bowl.

Hooker is an aggressive defender by nature, always hunting for the opportunity to make a big play. That’s trait can be a bit of a double-edged sword for him as the play below shows. He picks up on the bubble screen and tries to shoot inside of the wide receiver that is set to block him and make a big tackle for loss, but he’s just a moment too late and ends up taking himself out of the play completely. It doesn’t cost Iowa much here — and perhaps that was part of his calculation on taking the risk — but it’s something to watch with him at times. I wouldn’t say that he’s reckless, but he does take chances pretty frequently.

Here is an example of Hooker’s aggression hurting him a little worse. This is from his sophomore season and there are certainly fewer examples of this from his recently completed junior year, but he gets caught guessing on a route and pays in the form of a deep touchdown.

Any player who plays with the aggressive, anticipatory style that Hooker does is going to get beat badly every now and then. It’s the price tag that comes with the playmaking that he brings to the table. Whether that trade off is worth it all comes down to how often each type of play occurs. At Iowa, Hooker made far more plays than he gave up. If he can keep that balance at the NFL level, he will end up having a very successful pro career.

Iowa’s defense was excellent in 2018 and part of the reason for that was a multitude of coverage looks that they were willing to mix in throughout games. Here, Hooker (spotlighted) and the corner to the top of the screen are running a pattern matching type of coverage. That essentially means that both of them are going to be in man coverage, but which man they’re tasked with covering isn’t determined until the routes begin to reveal themselves. This type of coverage requires outstanding communication and understanding between the safety (or nickel defender) and corner.

Here, Hooker does an excellent job of recognizing the route combination and quickly closing on the underneath completion to make the sure tackle.

These next two are a couple of my favorite plays from Hooker because they show how advanced his understanding of defense truly is and how he uses it to stay a step ahead of opposing offenses.

This snap sees Hooker line up initially as a safety over trips to the wide side of the field, but just before the snap, he rotates down to replace the blitzing linebacker. As he rotates down, he first takes away the vertical route from the No. 3 receiver — receivers are numbered from outside in — before picking up the No. 2 receiver on the shallow cross. You can see the quarterback look to both options, but is hesitant to pull the trigger with Hooker lingering in the area. Finally, as the pocket begins to break down, Hooker slides off the No. 2 receiver who has passed into the middle linebacker’s area and picks up the No. 1 receiver who is working his way across the field to help his scrambling quarterback. The QB never sees Hooker slide off the shallow cross and throws it right to him for an interception.

This is the play that “sold” Hooker on Jon Robinson according to this outstanding one on one with The Athletic’s Travis Haney.

Another of my favorite plays from Hooker has already been expertly broken down by the great Ben Fennell so I’ll let him take care of the description on this one (make sure you have your volume on).

Plays that highlight Hooker’s instincts were not hard to come by. I am always wary of judging players based on interceptions — at least in a small sample size like a single season — because interceptions come in various shapes and sizes. Catching a tipped ball with no one around you shouldn’t count the same as recognizing and jumping a route to make a play on the ball. Sometimes players can rack up huge seasons with “cheap” picks. When I watched Hooker’s four interceptions in 2018 and his two interceptions from 2017, none of them were of the “cheap” variety.

Here is an example. The Hawkeyes are in a Cover 3 zone with Hooker (spotlighted) responsible for the flat/curl area of the field. There is a route in the flat and you can see him start to move to take it away, but since his eyes are ALWAYS in the backfield, Hooker reads the throw to another target and peels back to snatch it away.

Here’s an example from his sophomore year in 2017. It’s the first snap of Iowa’s blowout upset win over Ohio State. Hooker is sitting in his zone on the back side of the field with eyes on the quarterback. He can sense the timer in QB J.T. Barrett’s head and as soon as he flips his feet to the back side, Hooker breaks on the ball. You can see he’s already about three steps into his break before the ball even comes out of Barrett’s hands. He seems to have that innate ability to read a quarterback’s body language and use it against him. That’s a rare trait in a player so young.

Here’s another example of Hooker reading a quarterback. It’s hard to see from this angle, but Iowa is playing a modified version of Cover 3 here with Hooker serving as the robber in the middle of the field. However, he’s reading the eyes of the QB all the way and races out to undercut the out route. He doesn’t get the pick this time, but he gets his hands into the sight line of Hakeem Butler and forces the drop.

Here’s another look at Hooker’s anticipation and ball skills. He’s simply one of the deep safeties in a Cover 2 look here and while the quarterback throws to a route that should be a Cover 2 beater, Hooker is all over from the jump and undercuts it to get the takeaway.

One more well-earned interception to take a look at here. This play doesn’t look like much at first glance, but it truly is a phenomenal read again by Hooker.

A quick caveat here before we break down the play. Assessing defenses without knowing exactly what the call is or how it is coached is virtually impossible. Coverages today are complex and often designed to look like something while being something else. As I’ve already mentioned, Iowa’s defense ran a lot of different looks and I’m certainly not going to claim to have picked up on all of them after a film study of one player.

What I can tell you is that this appears to be some version of a Cover 2 zone and typically Hooker (spotlighted) would be responsible for covering the hook/seam zone of the field while trying to force an outside release from the No. 2 receiver if this was your standard “by the book” Cover 2. However, Iowa’s defense appeared to lean on Hooker to mask some issues at their inside linebacker position at times in 2018 (they started multiple players in the middle due to both injury and performance reasons as they tried to replace the highly productive Josey Jewell who had manned that spot in previous seasons).

Hooker would frequently trail post routes that would normally be passed off to the middle linebacker. You can see that here as he allows the inside release, but then follows underneath the skinny post to make a crucial interception late in a tight game. Whether that’s how Iowa coached this defense to account for their weaker spots on the roster or just a playmaker making a read and forcing a turnover is up for speculation, but it’s a fantastic play either way.

Hooker has the anticipation and awareness of a much older player, particularly since at just 20 years old — he’ll turn 21 next month — he’s one of the youngest players in this entire draft class. In fact, he’s more than three years younger than Dane Cruikshank who the Titans drafted in the 5th round of the 2018 NFL Draft.

I would expect Hooker to be a lock to make the Titans roster and I think he’ll get on the field quickly as a major special teams contributor. Jon Robinson has mentioned that he was in the mix to return punts for Iowa in 2018 and he also profiles as a key member of both coverage teams thanks to his athleticism and willingness to throw his body around.

On defense, Hooker could serve a number of roles. For one, he will likely compete with Cruikshank to serve as the primary backup to Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro. While I’m still pretty high on Cruikshank as a developmental player, I’m higher on Hooker and think there is a pretty good chance that he ends up as the third safety on the depth chart before Week 1.

I think there is also a good chance that he enters the season as Logan Ryan’s primary backup at the slot corner spot. Hooker lined up at that spot on 70% of his snaps for Iowa in 2018 according to PFF so he’s certainly familiar with that role and with Ryan set to be a free agent next spring, it’s certainly possible that Hooker could wind up as his heir apparent sooner rather than later.

It wouldn’t be entirely surprising to see the Titans try out some “big nickel” packages featuring Hooker either. Last year there were at least two games — vs Houston and vs Philadelphia — where Dean Pees kept his nickel personnel on the field every single non-goal line snap. While Logan Ryan is no slouch in run defense, getting Hooker on the field in these packages would make the Titans defense a little bit bigger when they play teams like Houston that like to spread it out and then run at them. Hooker’s experience defending top level tight ends also gives the Titans another option to cover guys like Eric Ebron while freeing up Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro to wreak havoc elsewhere.

Jon Robinson loves “disruptive” defensive backs. He wants guys who get their hands on the ball and make plays and that’s exactly the type of player that Hooker is with plus athleticism and versatility to boot. This is the first time that Robinson has actually used a 4th round pick since he became GM of the Titans and I think he used this one pretty well.