Asked to put into words what his feelings were Saturday afternoon in the final rounds of the NFL draft, Jeremy Cash had to chuckle.
The former Duke safety who was the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year last season kept falling in the draft. By the middle of the sixth round, teams were calling him saying they’d love to make him a priority free agent depending upon how the draft would shake out.
“It’s really hard to fathom everything and realize, hey it’s coming down to the end and I haven’t been drafted,” Cash told the Observer Sunday morning. “I’ll be frank with you. It sucked.”
After as many as 20 teams reached out to Cash, the Carolina Panthers made him a priority free agent. He’ll report to rookie minicamp as an undrafted rookie free agent in two weeks.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
The question with almost every high-profile player who goes undrafted is why. A consensus All-American who had 38 tackles for loss, eight sacks and five interceptions in his career doesn’t normally go undrafted.
Two things worked against Cash this draft season, though. He’s a tweener – too big to play safety in the NFL but too small to be a linebacker. And he’s had a rash of injuries since December that scared teams.
With the Panthers, Cash figures to play a hybrid role, one that may look more like a linebacker than a safety.
“First and foremost,” said Cash, who stands 6 feet and 210 pounds, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they want to put a little weight on me.”
Not meant to be in space
Cash shined as a safety in Duke’s 4-2-5 defensive scheme. He’s not the kind of player who is meant to be put out in space, so he wouldn’t succeed at the college or pro level as a free safety.
Instead he’s meant to play in the tackle box. He played “strike safety” in college, which meant he rushed the passer, covered tight ends and stuffed the run.
He made his name for being physical. His nine career forced fumbles in three seasons at Duke – he spent his first year at Ohio State before transferring – are the most for a player in the ACC since at least 2005.
Cash earned ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2015 over the likes of Clemson’s Shaq Lawson, Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey and Louisville’s Sheldon Rankins. All three of those players were drafted in the first round, by pick No. 20.
Realistically, Cash wasn’t going to be a first-rounder, but he was considered a top-five strong safety.
That’s when his injury history came into play.
Cash missed Duke’s bowl game because of wrist surgery. He was healthy enough to return for Senior Bowl practices, but then he missed the game because of a groin strain.
Invited to the NFL scouting combine in February, Cash didn’t do any drills after he pulled his hamstring while training.
One last shot
Those things happen, though, and he still had Duke’s pro day in March. But Cash re-aggravated the hamstring while training for the pro day, and he had to sit that one out, too.
Two weeks later Cash held a private workout for about 10 NFL teams, including the Panthers.
“I wasn’t at 100 percent at that point but I needed to have something on film so that people knew what I was like at 90 percent and could extrapolate that to what I’d be at 100 percent,” Cash said. “Although I hadn’t done anything running-wise – I took the conservative route this time because of what the other way could get me – I went out there and did fairly well for myself.”
Cash said his 40 times were between 4.56 and 4.59. His vertical was 34 1/2 inches and he had a broad jump of 10 feet, 4 inches. Those numbers aligned fairly well with the other safeties at the combine.
The Panthers took note, and they dispatched linebackers coach Al Holcomb, who worked out Cash and took him to lunch.
By the end of the draft when he didn’t hear his name called, Cash essentially had his pick of NFL teams. He finally narrowed his list of 20 teams to five, and the Bengals made a hard push along with the Panthers.
Cash said it was his relationship with Holcomb and Carolina’s ability to maximize its players that tipped the scales in favor of the Panthers.
A versatile vision
The comparison Cash uses for his skillset is basketball great Allen Iverson.
If a coach wanted Iverson, a point guard, to play another position, Iverson would try, but there’s little doubt he’s best suited at point guard.
“If a team asked me to go play a true free safety, I could probably go get the job done,” Cash said. “But I wouldn’t have the same amount of success as I would rushing the passer and covering tight ends.”
That’s what the Panthers want from Cash. According to team sources, Carolina wants to use Cash in sub-packages. That means he won’t be on the field for every down as a strong safety, but instead he’ll be a situational player.
Cash’s role will be similar to what Arizona did with Deone Bucannon, whom they drafted in 2014 as a safety and transitioned to a hybrid “money” linebacker.
On first and second downs he’d be used primarily to stop the run, cover a tight end or bigger slot receiver. On third downs he could do those things or rush the passer as a blitzer.
What he does best
Either way, Cash would be on the field doing what he does best.
“The ability for me to rush the passer and cover tight ends and running backs on passing downs, and just be able to be somewhat of a box run-stopper on running downs,” Cash said, “those are things I did at Duke. They’re going to highlight my attributes, and that’s a situation I really wanted to be in.”
Cash prefers the term “versatile” over “tweener,” and he’ll have to be in Carolina. The Panthers will also want him to play a lot of special teams, too.
“They’re a winning organization and I think I can come in and help contribute early, even if it’s on special teams,” Cash said. “That’s not something I would have a problem with doing. It’s right in the backyard of Durham and just a short drive away.
“I’ve been in North Carolina for four years and I hope to be here just a tad bit longer.”