After ranking my top running backs in the draft a couple of days ago, I now look at a defensive position group, to be more accurate I list my top safeties in this class.
Similar to the RBs this safety group is one of the best I’ve seen in years. I could see at least five guys get drafted in the first round and the about same number going in the second. I also love the diversity when I see one-year studs, four-year stars from the FCS as well as guys who played on the outside all of their collegiate career.
1. Malik Hooker, Ohio State:
If you look for somebody with unbelievable range and elite ball-skills with three-XL glove hands this is your guy. His speed was the reason nobody could really exploit the void in the seams against Ohio State’s cover three, but he can also drop down in the slot and cover people one-on-one. Although his technique still has lots of room to grow he set Ohio State’s all-time career record for pick sixes in just one season. Hooker trusts what he sees and goes after it aggressively. This reportedly led to 40 interceptions as a part of the scout-team in 2015 practices before stepping into a starting role, which he ended with eight INTs in 2016. But he’s not only great when he gets his hands on the ball, he can make receivers in his area pay as well. Some concern arise from limited experience as a one-year starter and he’s not a secure tackler yet, taking way too aggressive angles. I think he would be at his best in a role as a pure ball-hawk who’s allowed to move around kind of like what Ed Reed did for the Ravens in a Hall of Fame-career because this guy simply has a knack for the football. I’m not big on comparisons of legendary player, but even his defensive coordinator Greg Schiano compared him to Reed. If his shoulder turns out to be fine he could follow that path.
2. Jamal Adams, LSU:
Adams was a vocal leader the day he stepped onto LSU campus and always backed it up with his play. He is explosive in coverage with the feet to get in front of underneath routes and the sound tackling to keep receivers to short gains. Although I think he might even stop his feet too much, he has the speed to be a terrorizing run defender, especially if he’s unaccounted for. Still, I’m sure if his coaches in the NFL encourage him to be more aggressive in his approach to take on blockers he can be even better. What separates him from the pack are his intelligence and instincts. He can be your centerfielder, but also play man against slots, tight-ends and running backs, plus he’s an outstanding special teamer. Not only is he a great player, but he makes everybody else around him better with the way he energizes his teammates. He might not have the speed or ball-skills of Malik Hooker, but at this point he is a better overall football player who can step in right away and make your defense better.
3. Jabrill Peppers, Michigan:
Let me start like this – Peppers showed a team-first mentality when stepping in at linebacker for Michigan, but there’s no doubt he has what it takes to line up at safety in the NFL. You’re talking about an alpha-dog with a different kind of competitiveness and work ethic, who always wants to improve. The hard work in the weight-room is displayed by his jacked-up body. On the field his eyes trust what they see, he doesn’t mind giving up his body and he loves to come downhill and blow people up, lining up in various spots for the Wolverines, but always with the role of an edge-setter. The Michigan star can cover the deep middle, be a box safety, dime linebacker or nickel due to an unbelievable skill set to work in space as well as manning up against different positions. As a dynamic return specialist he can make an instant impact and he could probably be a full-time running back in the league, but at least an X-factor in some offensive sets. No matter where he lines up his teammates will feed off of his energy. The reason he’s not referred to as the playmaker he was in college going to the pro level are questions about his natural position and the lack of forced turnovers (just one interception in his Michigan career). To me he’s a match-up player who can be a strong safety in base-sets and either cover in the slot or move into the box on third down and fill the stat sheet in a different way than he did so far. Coming from a track background you know he can run at his top-end speed for a long time and he is outstanding at anticipating the snap. What I don’t like about him on tape is that he sells out too much on play-action, which could hurt his team when tagged with deep coverage responsibilities, and I would like to see him use his arms better as a tackler and wrap up more safely.
4. Budda Baker, Washington:
This guy is another tough and aggressive leader. People say he’s undersized, but he’s always around the football and plays with an unbelievable motor. He has a lot of experience in the slot and can be a starting nickel day one, but I believe he also has the mental side down of being a full-time safety. Baker has the acceleration to play flat-footed and still get between the throw and the receiver. He shows no hesitation of getting involved in the run game and often even makes plays behind the line of scrimmage, as he just runs by blockers instead of worrying about releasing from them. At the point of the catch he can separate receivers from the football and rip it out of their hands. My only concerns with him are facing savvy blockers at the receiver position, because he struggles shedding them once he’s engaged and I think he only has mediocre ball-skills. Nevertheless, I think he an outstanding player who plays much bigger than his size would indicate and he won’t let anything people say define him.
5. Obi Melifonwu, UConn:
Other than maybe Haason Reddick I don’t think anybody has improved his draft stock quite like this athletic freak, who blew away people at the Senior Bowl and the combine with his speed and leaping ability. He can fit various schemes with mind-boggling range and explosiveness at 224 pounds. He possesses very long arms to redirect receivers on their routes and wrap around them to knock the throws down. He doesn’t wait to meet people, but rather drives on them and makes his presence felt. I see him at his best as a strong safety who provides excellent run support and can drop down and cover tight-ends one-on-one, but some teams could even look at him as a long corner in man-coverage schemes due to his ridiculous athleticism. In the season finale versus Tulane he recorded 24(!) tackles. Occasionally the UConn stud gets caught on run- or screen-fakes. The reason I don’t have him any higher is that I think he lacks elite instincts and sometimes waits for the ball to leave the QB’s hands before getting involved, but with film study at the next level and the supreme athletic traits he presents he could develop into a force in the league.
6. Marcus Williams, Utah:
This guy is true free safety who plays with his eyes on the quarterback. He has the speed and change of direction skills to make plays on the ball on the perimeter from the center-field position as well as throws down the seams when covering the deep half. Williams is ball-hawk with soft hands who has forced 15 total turnovers in his three years at Utah. Rarely do you see him miss any tackles and I like how he keeps his feet moving through contact. In the run game he definitely is too passive sometimes and he doesn’t have the size to decide which way he and the ball-carrier are going. A thing he struggles with is to relocate the ball in the air once he has turn his back turned towards the QB instead of reacting to what happens in front of him. Early on I’d be afraid of veteran signal-callers, who could manipulate him with their eyes to open up throwing lanes. Still, he definitely has the tools of a Pro Bowl safety and it will be up to his coaches at the next level to make him a more aggressive run defender and to read the entire field instead of get fooled by the quarterback’s eyes.
7. Desmond King, Iowa:
This Hawkeye was a four-year starter at corner who was out on 94% of the defensive snaps. He might lack the pure speed or height to survive on the outside, but he’s a great football player who understands the game and possesses unbelievable instincts, which might lead to a move to safety or maybe even nickel. He tracks the ball naturally down the field and makes plays on it at the highest point to beat out receivers. During his career at Iowa he grabbed 14 total interceptions, including eight in 2015 when he won the Jim Thorpe award for the best defensive back in the country. He maybe isn’t the smoothest athlete in space, but it seems like he always stays under control and ready to make a play. While he might not wow anybody with his measurable, his competitiveness is off the charts and he will be loved by his future coaching staff.
8. Josh Jones, N.C. State:
This former member of the Wolfpack is one of the more intriguing prospects in the draft to me. For his 220 pounds he moves really well in space. He has the size to play in the box as well as the range to play the deep middle and still contest throws towards the boundary. The speed showed up at the combine where he put up a 4.41 in the 40 at that weight. Jones is an explosive athlete and tackling-machine with six 10+ tackle performances in 2016 alone. He disguises coverages with his pre-snap movement and is a very active run-defender, who aggressively shrugs off blockers and runs through contact. Sometimes he’s overly aggressive with his angles and doesn’t break down which leads to missed tackles, plus his eyes get lost on the QB at times. He will have to be more committed to his coverage responsibilities and he has to be taught more about overall consistency and responsibility, but boy is he fun to watch and his ceiling goes through the roof.
9. Eddie Jackson, Alabama:
The two qualities that stick out to me about Jackson are his high football IQ and communication skills. He trusts what his eyes see and reacts quickly. In the run game he plays downhill, slipping blocks and not letting ball-carriers go once he gets his hands on them while targeting their hips. I think he has the skill-set to cover some tight-ends and receivers in the slot and he is shifty as a returner, making him a threat to take interceptions to the house as well (three career INTs returned for touchdowns). The problem with him is that he gives up some plays on misreads where he gets caught with his eyes in the backfield. Behind a great Alabama defensive front he was able to run around free and could have his share of problems as a deep cover guy at the next level. He hasn’t been on the field in a while because he missed half of his senior season due to a broken leg, but he can really run and has excellent ball-skills with a receiver background.
10. Marcus Maye, Florida:
With his muscular body type Maye is strong enough to drop into the box and also rangy enough to play in the back. He does a nice job reading route-patterns as well as keeping his eyes on the quarterback. He’s aggressive in run support, turning on a second gear when the ball-carrier is in range, but he has erased some gambles on angles. He gets his shoulder under blockers and gets past them before putting his helmet on the ball and running his feet through tackles while wrapping up. Something he does extremely well is ripping and punching at the ball resulting in five forced fumbles in ’16, even though he missed the last three games of the season. That feistiness with his hand-fighting also comes in handy at the point of the catch where he knocks the ball out of receivers’ hands. His issues show up when he tracks the ball down the field or when the ball is thrown over his head and he panics.
Just missed the cut:
Justin Evans, Texas A&M:
The first thing that comes to mind about Evans are his outstanding ball-skills, playing it at the highest point. But not only is he great at catching the ball himself, he also uses his length very well to knock away passes away from the outstretched arms of receivers. He has the size to drop into the box, even though his physicality certainly isn’t there yet. He accelerates quickly also out of his backpedal and he covers up a lot of ground. His excellent passion for the game have led to four picks and seven PBUs as a senior, but he is also an elusive return man. The former Aggie has to add some more muscle to his frame and needs to do a better job breaking down and choosing proper angles before approaching tackles to help his team defend the ground game. Too often he’s caught trying to watch the ball and his man at the same time and when the tries to bring stronger players down you often see him being dragged with them for a couple of yards.
Josh Harvey-Clemons, Louisville:
Rarely do you see a 6’4’’ safety with such long arms as the Cardinal stud. On the other hand, he presents a pretty slim frame and lower body. He started his collegiate career at Georgia in a hybrid linebacker-safety role, before being dismissed from the program following marijuana use. At Louisville he showed light feet that enable him to change directions quickly. Harvey-Clemons does a good job with his hands fighting off blockers and he plays with a certain amount of swagger. Unfortunately he shows a tendency to panic when he feels like he’s beat as well as often underestimating ball-carriers’ speed and only being able to make shoe-string tackles from behind. When he has his target in front of him he struggles to get his head on the right side and too often only bumps the offensive player with his shoulder. If he develops into a more consistent tackler and stays clean off the field he has a lot of potential though.
Lorenzo Jerome, Saint Francis:
This dude jumped out on tape against the FCS competition. He was named first-team All-Northeast Conference in all his four years at Saint Francis. His instincts and ball-skills are off the charts. He sniffs out plays early showing in tackles for losses on reverses and he was a ball-magnet in college. Jerome baits quarterbacks to throw over the top of him in underneath-coverage and then makes plays on the ball, leading to six INTs as a senior. He is an outstanding blitzer, who ducks under blockers, and a dangerous return-man with excellent vision and juke-moves in the open field (26 yards per kick-return). The main concern with him is if his game will translate to elite competition, the biggest areas being overall speed and that he doesn’t have the biggest body. Running a 4.7 flat in the 40 at the combine certainly didn’t help, but he shows much better speed and range on tape. He had an excellent Senior Bowl game with two interceptions and a forced fumble on a reverse, making me believe he can get things done at the pro level.
Right behind them:
Jadar Johnson (Clemson), John Johnson (Boston College), Tedric Thompson (Colorado), Chuck Clark (Virginia Tech)