This post covers my preliminary rankings of the top defensive safeties entering the 2017 NFL Draft. This group consists of traditional free and strong safeties, as well as hybrid CB/S’s (e.g. Green Bay’s Damarious Randall and Micah Hyde and Dallas’ Byron Jones) and hybrid LB/S’s (e.g. Arizona’s Deone Bucannon and Washington’s Su’a Cravens). For analysis of the respective rankings of certain prospects, see the corresponding footnotes (+).
SAFETY RANKINGS: (+)
1. Jamal Adams (LSU) | 6’0 210 (++)
2. Jabrill Peppers (Michigan) | 6’0 215 (+++)
3. Malik Hooker (Ohio State) | 6’2 205 (++++)
4. Budda Baker (Washington) | 5’10 190 (+++++)
5. Marcus Williams (Utah) | 6’0 195 (++++++)
6. Justin Evans (Texas A&M) | 6’0 200 (+++++++)
7. Obi Melifonwu (Connecticut) | 6’4 215
8. Marcus Maye (Florida) | 5’11 215
9. Montae Nicholson (Michigan State) | 6’1 220
10. Eddie Jackson (Alabama) | 6’0 195
11. Josh Harvey-Clemons (Louisville) | 6’4 230
12. Xavier Woods (LA Tech) | 5’11 220
13. Josh Jones (NC State) | 6’2 215
14. Tedric Thompson (Colorado) | 6’0 205
15. Jadar Johnson (Clemson) | 6’0 210
(+) The safety position has become highly adaptive in modern day NFL schemes. Safeties present arguably the best chess piece for creative defensive coordinators to move around and create exotic defensive looks in hopes of confusing opposing QBs. Accordingly, we are starting to see a trend of increasingly diverse skill sets among incoming safety classes recently. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this particular draft class of safeties is as talented (and diversely talented) as any safety class in recent memory– containing three potential all-pro caliber safety prospects as well as incredible depth.
(++) LSU’s Jamal Adams is arguably the best safety prospect to come out of college since Sean Taylor fifth overall in the 2004 draft (one could argue that Eric Berry was a comparable prospect in the 2010 draft). At 6’0 210, Adams is equal parts physical and rangy– qualities that should allow him to man either (traditional) safety spot and fit in practically any defensive scheme. With that said, Adams best qualities are intelligence, instincts and recognition skills. One play that is seared into my memory is his interception in the first quarter of the 2016 Alabama game. Nothing about the interception seemed remarkable at first brush–if anything it looked like nothing more than an ill-advised throw. But watching the replay, you realize that Adams diagnosed the play design pre-snap (which infers great film preparation), anticipated the passing zone where the primary receiving target would break to (before the WR actually made his break) and then move to that zone to position himself for an easy interception. The play is emblematic of this: Adams is the type of defensive player that beats you before the game even starts, and he also has the pure talent to dominate you during it as well. That’s a rare combination, and it should make Adams a surefire top 10 pick.
(+++) Many people classify Peppers as a linebacker, projecting his best role to be a hybrid LB/S in the mold of Deone Bucannon. While that may be true, I think it criminally understates his athleticism and ability to play a more traditional strong safety or two-deep safety role. Let’s start with what Peppers definitely is: He’s on the short list of best athletes in this draft–demonstrating rare change of direction skills, acceleration and physicality to be a disruptive force in the box (as 15.0 TFLs last season demonstrates). With that said, there is, I believe, an unfounded notion that just because he was asked to play predominately in an in-the-box role in college, Michigan was likely hiding Peppers’ cover deficiencies. To this point, I’ve watched multiple Peppers’ games and I have yet to see any real deficiencies in his ability to cover (this includes the 2016 Ohio State game where he asked to cover a fair amount). What I did see, was a player that has the athletic ability to run man to man with any receiver or tight end and the closing speed to adequately cover in zone assignments. What was clear, was that Peppers is not nearly as instinctual in coverage as he his playing in the box. But a big part of that is preparation and playing experience, and Peppers could be excused if the multitude of roles (LB, S, CB, RB, QB, WR, PR, KR) he was asked to play on a regular basis at Michigan deterred him from engaging in detailed prep for any particular position. I think people are talking themselves out of Peppers as the result of some reductive instinct to not be fooled again in falling in love with the “workout warrior.” Peppers is not that– Peppers has natural instincts, spatial and body intelligence (agility and change of direction skills) that workout warriors who turn into busts commonly lack. All in all, I see a lot of similarity to Troy Polamalu in Peppers’ game and believe he’s a clear top 15 talent in this draft.
(++++) If Adam’s is the idyllic SS prospect and Peppers’ is the idyllic Hybrid LB/S, Ohio State’s Malik Hooker may be the idyllic FS prospect. At 6’2 205, Hooker demonstrates exceptional range and instincts as a deep safety (as evidenced by 7 ints last season). Hooker also demonstrates very good physicality to come up and make a hit when needed. In the end, picking between Adams, Peppers and Hooker may be a matter of scheme fit. But it’s clear that Hooker is in the conversation with Adams and Peppers as the best safety prospect in this draft class.
(+++++) Washington’s Bubba Baker is a hybrid CB/S prospect in the mold of Green Bay’s Micah Hyde. He demonstrates natural instincts and range to man a traditional FS spot, but was highly effective playing man coverage and functioning as a slot CB. Despite being undersized, Baker is demonstrates very good physicality to make plays in the box when asked to. Overall, he’s a solid second round talent.
(++++++) I need to do more work on watching Utah’s Marcus Williams, but everything I’ve seen so far suggests he’s second/third round talent as a pure free safety prospect with very good ball hawking skills (5 ints each of the last two seasons).
(+++++++) Texas A&M’s Justin Evans is an interesting prospect. At 6’0 200, he’s a surprisingly physical tackler, almost to a fault because his inclination to administer a devastating hit leads to missed tackles, on occasion. Evans also demonstrates very good potential in coverage–but again, his overaggressiveness can cause problems. At this point, Evans is a probable third round talent with a chance of sneaking into the second round on draft day. I plan to examine him more closely, but I do like his potential as a player overall.