It has been a while since the league had a bumper crop of safeties to choose from. That wait is most definitely over. The 2017 draft class features top-end playmakers, varied skill sets, and a large number of overall players who will stick on a pro roster this fall. This unexpected bounty means there will be talented safeties available in almost every round of the draft. I covered the top 2 consensus picks last week (Jamal Adams and Malik Hooker) and I was trying to find the next 3 players I wanted to cover this week. But I had a problem; I just couldn't stop watching film. There are so many quality players I decided I’d just do as many as I could.
- Due to the fact I had so many players to get to, the write-ups are a little shorter
- I've organized players into the rounds of the draft where I would be comfortable picking them
- Players are arranged in the order I would select them based solely on their skills, not potential fits with schemes or teams
- There were a lot of close calls for valuation, but I decided in those cases that the tie goes to the player with the better skills against the pass: it's passing league and stopping that is a higher priority for teams than finding old-school, downhill thumpers
Without further ado, I give you the 2017 Safety Stampede:
Round 1-2 (late 1 or early 2)
Obi Melifonwu, University of Connecticut - Obi has generated a ton of hype in the pre-draft process and I figured at least some of that must be fluff. After watching his tape, I can assure you it is not. He's got tremendous size (6'4"/224 pounds) and speed (4.40 40-yard dash) but the thing that makes him special is that he knows how to use both. His reads are good and he likes to hit. His ability to track down ballcarriers and smack them is fun to watch but it doesn't end there. When you see him go step-for-step down the boundary with a WR and leap to tip the ball away at the highest point, you know you are seeing a special combination in action.
Budda Baker, University of Washington - Scouting reports about Baker always start with his size but they shouldn't. Budda was a Husky in college so the Mark Twain quote "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog" is appropriate. Budda is quick, aggressive, and skilled. He can tackle and he can cover. In fact, his best position in the NFL might be as a nickel back, but he is certainly not limited to that spot. He could easily start at either safety spot for most NFL teams. His best position is probably closer to the line where is quickness and toughness can propel him to early stardom.
Marcus Williams, University of Utah - Williams is an excellent coverage player who could probably start at boundary corner, even in the NFL. He's that good mirroring receivers down the field and making plays on the ball. He understands his role and alignment. He makes a great last line of defense and likes to wrap up when he tackles. My issue with Williams is that he almost totally lacks aggression. To make a tackle, Marcus literally grabs the player in question and lets them run him over. He holds on and almost always completes the tackle, but you'll never see him drive anyone backward with a big hit. This means the runner always picks up a few extra yards. It's a stylistic thing, but it does bug me.
Josh Jones, North Carolina State University - Jones is the antithesis of Williams on the hitting front. He loves to pop people and does so at the slightest opportunity. He has a big frame (6'1"/220 pounds) but gets low and can really light into opposing players. He's faster than he is quick, but his speed-size combo allows him to be effective against the pass in underneath zones, especially versus TE's. His crazy 40 time at the Combine (4.41 seconds) probably propelled him up at least a round in the draft, but he's a skilled and versatile player that could thrive in pro system where both safeties need the ability to play in the box and cover.
Eddie Jackson, University of Alabama - If you watch Eddie Jackson's 2015 tape he was easily a 1st-round safety if he'd come out for the 2016 draft. Watching his 2016 tape you wouldn't be so sure, and you might even drop him down to the 3rd-round. We always expect that players will improve in a linear fashion but it rarely happens that way. Careers go up and down, not just up. Jackson broke his leg during the 2016 season and that put him out of sight. But make no mistake, if Eddie regains the form he displayed in 2015, in 3 years when we look back at the 2017 draft we'll be wondering how he was so criminally undervalued. He's converted CB and a true ballhawk when passes are in the air. Once he picks one off he is likely to take it back for 6 points. You see, Jackson is also an excellent return man and can change the game from his spot on special teams too. That combination of high-level, game-changing skill is not usually available in the 3rd-round... but it might be this year.
Desmond King, University of Iowa - King is another player who had outstanding 2015 tape and didn't improve much in 2016. Teams stayed away from this season him in part because of his pass coverage but also because of his reputation. Teams that did try to challenge him this year actually had some success. As a corner during his college years, the move to safety is a projection but the risks are small. You can readily see the coverage skills and physical nature on tape that will ease his position transition.
Delano Hill, University of Michigan - I am higher on Hill's pro prospects than any analyst I know. He is a player I'd seen quite a bit while watching all the other Michigan defenders, but when I went back and focused on him alone I realized how much I'd missed. Despite all the other talent in the Wolverine's secondary Delano was often the straw that stirred their drink. Hill was the cleaner on that defense. He stopped everything that they let through. He is one the best tackling safeties in this draft. His form and results are so good that you could use his game tape as a tackling how-to video. He combines that skill with excellent angles, very good size (6'1"/216 pounds), a hard-nosed physical play style and decent reads to become a reliably excellent last line of defense. The things that Hill needs to work on are getting a half-step quicker in his reads and being a little less handsy in coverage. Bears fans are always looking for the next Mike Brown and his name just might be Delano Hill.
Justin Evans, Texas A&M - Justin Evans might be one of the most frustrating players in this draft. He looks like a safety should. He runs like a safety should and when he makes contact, he sure as hell hits like a safety should. But if you take the time to pick through the full tape and not just the highlights he misses way more often than a safety should. He goes all out no matter what he is doing. When he connects that's great, but when he doesn't it's an all-out miss. As a safety, especially one who plays deep much of the time, he simply cannot afford that. Misses come in 2 flavors: "I missed but I slowed the guy down enough my teammates will get him", or "I missed and that guy is going 60-yards for a TD". Unfortunately, Evans's misses are too often the latter variety. If a coach can throttle him down enough to clean that up, he could be a heck of a player. If not, he'll be in the highlights for all the wrong reasons.
John Johnson, Boston College - Johns was a defensive leader for the Eagles. He has a ton of experience playing against good competition and makes very few mistakes. He is a true "2-way" safety but will make more plays in the passing game than against the run. Johnson will create turnovers and find as much real estate on the return as he can. He's quicker (6.72 second 3-cone drill) than he is fast (4.61 second 40-yard dash), but is fluid in his turns and gets where he needs to be on the field with wise pre-snap positioning and decent reactions.
Xavier Woods, Louisiana Tech University - With so many safeties to choose from this year a few are likely to get lost in the shuffle. Woods is probably one of those players, but he shouldn't be. He is a very skilled pass defender who supports the run well and has a knack for creating big plays. Xavier is always around the ball whether he is breaking up passes, snagging interceptions, knifing into the backfield to rack up tackles for losses his impact can be felt all over the defense. He has outstanding quickness and change of direction but did get burned by some straight out speed when he was lined up against Western Kentucky's Taywan Taylor. If his next coach can refine his footwork at the route release points he could have a very productive run in the NFL.
Marcus Maye, University of Florida - Maye was the leader of one of the finest college secondaries in the country over the last 2 years. Let's just take a moment and appreciate that, Super Bowl starters Brian Poole & Keanu Neal, Vernon Hargreaves, Quincy Wilson and Teez Tabor were all in that secondary with Maye. That's an astounding amount of talent in one position room over a two-year span at one school... and they all said that Maye was their leader. Marcus is solidly-built and likes to hit so his best use is near the line of scrimmage. He can cover in short stints but it is not his strongest suit. On film he was fairly plain in my opinion, but plain in the SEC is still very good.
Lorenzo Jerome, St. Francis - Jerome's ball skills are no joke. Over the past 2 seasons he's snagged 6 interceptions and broken up 26 passes. He snagged a pair of interceptions at the East-West Shrine Game and was named the game's MVP. He got called up to play in the Senior Bowl the next week, and picked off another pair of passes and forced a fumble there. He's not afraid of filling up run lanes to make stop either. Although he ran lousy times at the Combine I'd take those with a grain of salt after watching his film, where he is clearly faster than he ran in Indy.
David Jones, University of Richmond - If you want Obi-light in this draft you can find it in Jones. The Richmond defender has size (6'3"/210 pounds) and ball skills (led the FCS with 9 interceptions on the year). Durability is a concern after some injuries but guys this size who can move (4.43 second 40-yard dash) and cover like he does are definitely worth the gamble in the later rounds of the draft.
Nathan Gerry, University of Nebraska - Gerry (pronounced "Gary") has a blend of size (6'2"/218 pounds) and speed that is intriguing. He's built like a bulldozer and plays with an edge. The thing that sets him apart from your average late-round special teams prospect is his ability to play the ball. While not overly fluid in coverage he has been effective; picking off 8 passes and breaking up 15 over the last 2 seasons.
As you can see there is a veritable smorgasbord of safety talent available this year. Who's your favorite out of this second wave?