This past Thursday, July 10, the NFL held their supplemental draft. It came and went without a single team picking any of the four players who were eligible. However, University of North Carolina LB Darius Lipford looks to be ready to sign with a team. The front-runner to sign Lipford is the San Francisco 49ers. The Tarheels had Lipford line up in a number of different spots during his collegiate career, so if he signs with the 49ers, where would they have him play?
The first and natural response would be at outside linebacker as a situational player and to add depth. The first thing I noticed about Lipford when watching him was his arm length, something the 49ers seem to value a great deal. Something else that jumps off the screen is his athletic ability. What will keep Lipford off the field as an outside linebacker is his lack of pass-rushing ability. While he does extremely well on stunts (something the 49ers do often with their outside linebackers), he has no pass-rushing techniques outside of trying to run past the blocker. That won’t cut it when he gets to the NFL. While he’s faster than a lot of linemen, once one of them get their hands on him, he is done. Lipford would need to work on using his hands and the length of his arms to his advantage, a la Aldon Smith.
Another option is for Lipford to play at inside linebacker. The Tarheels had him playing there before he tore his ACL two seasons ago, so he has experience. They also had him play his fair share in coverage, so he is already used to that part of the position. What I believe would stop the 49ers from putting him there is his lack of strength and size. While Lipford is tall for the inside linebacker position, he would need to put on more muscle to bulk up. When I watch his games, he looks considerably smaller than the other linebackers and linemen. He looks more like a safety.
Which brings me to the next position. I wouldn’t be surprised if they put him at safety for depth. Kam Chancellor, one of the better strong safeties in the league, comes in at 6-foot-3 and 232 pounds. That’s the same height as Lipford and only 13 pounds lighter. If Lipford could shed a few pound,s he’d be quicker than he already is. With his athletic ability, long arms and experience in coverage already, it wouldn’t take an awful lot to bring him up to speed at the position. He’d already be above-average at the position in stopping the run and blitzes, he’d just have to work extremely hard at coverage and schemes.
As of right now, it looks as though Lipford will end up in San Francisco. Where they have him play would be the next question. If I were a betting man, I would put my money on outside linebacker, but don’t be surprised if they check him out at safety. I don’t think he’d ever be starting safety quality, but he could definitely become a very serviceable backup. At the strong safety position, they have Antoine Bethea as their starter with rookie Jimmie Ward (looks to compete for the nickel cornerback role this season) next in line. After that on the depth chart is veteran Craig Dahl. If Lipford can come in and contribute on special teams right away, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the 49ers giving Lipford Dahl’s roster spot as the third strong safety.