Overall Class Strength
While spread offenses have hurt some positions, safeties seem to have a much varied skill set in general as they try to defend high-powered offenses. This is group is very good, with the potential to be excellent.
Top 10 Safeties
- Jabrill Peppers – Michigan. Right now, Peppers isn’t the best player in this class. However, these rankings are not about Draft day, or where they were in college – they are about attempting to project NFL success. Basically playing LB in 2016, I think it was harmful to his development as a pro prospect. He’s a pro safety for me, and what I saw in 2015 was someone who could cover man to man – as well as be an in the box player. With the TE position so productive in the league, someone is going to have to defend these outstanding athletes, and I believe Peppers can do this. He’s a “plus” returner, which lifts his floor. Having played numerous positions, he doesn’t yet have the subtle nuances down at the safety position. When he learns them, then look out – I believe he’s going to be special.
- Jamal Adams – LSU. I didn’t think Adams played quite as well in 2016 as he did in 2015 – but having said that, he’s still a fine player and prospect. He’s better than Peppers right now, but I have bet on Peppers greater upside (which is actually a little unusual for me…). Adams has a varied skill set, having played in the box, man over the slot, two deep or single high. I think he’ll be better in the box and in man against a TE – as I think in zone, he can get a little too aggressive and I wouldn’t trust him as a single high. He’s a good tackler and generally has a nice feel for the game. I would be a little worried that he’s not going to get much better, the tick down in 2016 giving me that thought. However, he’s a day one starter and has a high floor.
- Malik Hooker – Ohio State. As with Peppers, Hooker is still a little raw – but he has huge upside. At 6’1” 206 lbs with long arms, he has that classic deep center fielder frame. When the ball is in the air, he made several outstanding plays – but there were inconsistencies. However, he’s still young and from the way he moves and flashes ability to read QBs, he should be productive as an NFL single high. I wanted to see more from him against the run. He has the ability to see it and get downhill, but he can be late to read and react. I’m not PFF charting every single play, but I also thought there were a few too many missed tackles. Again, that area of his game should improve with greater experience, but he will need to work on his tackling form in training camp.
- Justin Evans – Texas A&M. There’s talk some teams view Evans as a CB (likely because of his size – 5’11” 199 lbs), but as he plays bigger than that, I see him as a safety who can cover man to man. He reads the game well and combined with his athletic ability, it leads to good things happening. His comfort in man coverage is a major plus for his stock, although he does gamble at times, which might mean a rookie mistake or two. Against the run, he’s a heat-seeking missile and he sets the tone for his defense. Throw in his ability as a kick returner and you have a fine prospect.
- Marcus Williams – Utah. Williams lacks the all-around skill set of some prospects in this class. He’s a single high safety, who lacks experience in man coverage. However, there are several teams employing such a player – and he does it very well, so without doubt there’s a place in the league for him. It may seem obvious, but it’s always important to stay deeper than the deepest receiver – and I didn’t see anyone get behind Williams. He has good range, reads the game well – and can deliver the big hit. He might not be for every NFL team, but I think he’ll be a day one and longtime NFL starter.
- Marcus Maye – Florida. Maye broke his arm against South Carolina and missed the rest of the season, but it shouldn’t hurt his stock on Draft day. I thought Maye was improved as a tackler in 2016, so I think he could play in a Cover-2 heavy scheme, whereas in my summer work I wasn’t thinking he would be the best fit. He’s a little like Marcus Williams in terms of skill set – and his understanding of route concepts is clear on tape. His range in center field is plus on tape – and that was confirmed with a good pro day workout. He’s flying under the radar a little because of the injury and the two Florida CB prospects, but for me he’s the best pro prospect of the three.
- Obi Melifonwu – Connecticut. Like Justin Evans, there is talk Melifonwu might be viewed as a CB by some teams; I think it will depend on system. For man heavy teams, I would tend to think he’ll be a safety who is the answer against TE’s. For zone heavy teams, I would be more inclined to think CB. He’s an explosive athlete – his 40 and jumps at the Combine were impressive – and that shows on tape when he comes downhill. I also like how he seems under control when he’s about to tackle. I worry a little in zone that his athletic numbers don’t translate into his play – and in man, I think quicker players will give him problems. I’m not quite as high on him as others, but still think he’s a good prospect.
- Budda Baker – Washington. Baker is only 5’9” with short arms and a poor vertical jump (32.5” – Nico Siragusa’s was 32” at 319 lbs!) and that hurts him. He does have man coverage ability, but he’s always going to be a matchup problem against taller wide receivers or tight ends. If you watch the Stanford game, you’ll see what I mean when he had a TD caught on him by a taller tight end. Now, outside of that, he’s a good football player. He can cover man to man effectively and he’s active against the run – playing much bigger than his size. If he’s protected matchup wise, he’s going to be fine – but there’s always going to be a limitation with him and with so many good players in this class, it costs him.
- Eddie Jackson – Alabama. Like Maye, Jackson missed time due to injury in 2016, he fractured his leg against Texas A&M and missed the rest of the season. Jackson is a real ball hawk, he reads the QB well and his range is good. He’s also a good punt returner, giving him a higher floor. I worry about him as a tackler, not something that I like at the position – which is the last line of defense. He struggles to bring ball carriers to the ground and, for me, is a “catcher” as a tackler. I would also question his angles at time. He compounds that by not breaking down as he closes in on ball carriers, so he’s not under control. However, he has some experience in man coverage, which is always a plus and with improvement as a tackler, he should be fine in the league.
- Josh Harvey-Clemons – Louisville. In Draft terms, I believe there are concerns with failed drug tests (and dismissal from Georgia as a result), but that is not taken into consideration here, so he’s a little higher than you might see elsewhere. He played LB in 2016, so would fit a team wanting a hybrid LB/SS. He has some man coverage experience as well as zone, so that skill set is a plus. His tape is good – he didn’t back down when he played LB and should be active against the run in the league. He has the classic long frame for a safety, but you didn’t always see classic FS plays from him – although his role didn’t help in 2016. If teams are happy with him off the field, I think he could fit a role for some, but perhaps not all, teams.
What?! Where is…?
Josh Jones (North Carolina State) has been a post-season media riser. When I watched his tape, I thought he was either slow twitch, or slow to process information. He has a varied skill set, but I didn’t see his Combine numbers on tape.
Jordan Sterns (Oklahoma State) looked good on tape, for me. He doesn’t have the varied skill set of some in this class, but zone heavy teams will like him. He can get downhill and tackle well – something that translates to special teams coverage, so his floor is high as a day three pick. Michigan State’s Montae Nicholson declared early but hasn’t received much press. He has ability in man coverage, but I do worry a little about his angles and failure to wrap. He has talent, but just misses out of the top 10.
Top Small Schoolers
- David Jones – Richmond. Durability is a concern with Jones – he missed most of 2016 and has suffered other injury problems, but I am not considering this here, as I’m no Doctor. From 2015 tape study, I thought he was a potential day two talent – and that’s basically what has led me to this ranking. He has a classic FS frame – a little wiry, but he does hit with force. His speed and range in over the top coverage is “plus” – as are his ball skills (he led the FCS in 2015 with nine interceptions). He was asked to cover man to man at times, where he showed an ability to turn and run effectively. There’s perhaps a little tightness in the hips, but not alarmingly so. He also has matchup zone experience, so it wouldn’t be a shock if the Patriots had interest – particularly as the Richmond staff are from the Al Groh coaching tree. As long as he can stay healthy, I think he could end up being a steal.
- Donald Payne – Stetson. Whereas Jones is the classic single high, Payne is a classic SS. He played as a LB at times, but also in the box, Cover-2, over a slot WR, either in zone or man and the odd time as a single high. I would say in man I would worry about him in the league, as when he has to turn and run, it’s all a bit clunky – but in a zone heavy system he’ll be fine. He’s also a plus special teams coverage player – and can blocks kicks – so I expect him to make a roster.
- Jordan Bowman – California (Pa.). Bowman is a nice example of the versatile skill set of a modern day college safety – not something you necessarily saw even five years ago. He has experience at single high safety, in the box, as a blitzer and also some man coverage. His frame can add a little weight, but he will get downhill and hit with force. He can be fooled by window dressing, so I’d like to see him wait a tick to make sure he sees the right thing. However, there were examples on tape where he did just that and made impressive plays – so it’s just the odd time he’ll get pulled out of position. His style projects to special teams coverage units, but I think there’s enough there to believe he can get some playing time at safety as well.
- Lorenzo Jerome – Saint Francis (Pa.). As mentioned in previous articles, my “process” has shifted over the years. In Combine numbers terms, I went through a time where I glossed over them – but I now use them more, particularly to look for outliers. Jerome has excellent tape – he’s clearly the best player on the field (including ability as a returner) – but on my Combine scale, his overall number was lower than anyone else who attended the Combine this year. That means he might not be athletic enough for the league. I’ve made past mistakes with athletes like this (e.g. Freddie Barnes), so it knocks him down the small school rankings.
- Richie Sampson – Coastal Carolina. Sampson wasn’t a name I saw until Josh Buchanan posted his positional rankings on Twitter, so I was late getting to him – but he can play. You see with some safeties like Marcus Williams, the first movement is back – but Sampson was given license to attack. He comes downhill with intent – but also under control, which you don’t always see. I liked his feel for the game and think he has a legitimate shot to crack a roster.