On the final version of my positional rankings for the defensive side of the ball, we are taking a look at the safety class. I already put out my top tight-ends earlier this week and now it’s just the quarterback that are missing – so check out those other articles and my video breakdown is already on Youtube.
Watching this group of safeties was very interesting. I think there is a pretty clear top three, but everyone of them has some obvious question marks. After that there is a lot of disagreement about who is next and I feel like I differentiate myself more so than at any position maybe. You can find a lot of notable mentions at the end, because I really wanted to be thorough and found a bunch of prospects worth considering.
Here is the list:
1. Xavier McKinney, Alabama
This former top-50 overall recruit from Georgia played in 13 games as a reserve and special teamer as a true freshman, but then grabbed one of the starting safety spots the following season. In 2018 he played in all 15 games for the Tide, putting up 74 tackles, six of those for loss, three sacks, a couple of forced fumbles, ten passes deflected to two intercepted – including one of those going the distance. Last season he was even better, earning first-team All-SEC honors with 95 tackles, three sacks, five PBUs and three INTs, including a pick-six and four forced fumbles. He also blocked a punt in that crazy LSU game.
This guy is very smart and instinctive football player at six foot, just over 200 pounds, who understandings spacing and where the ball could go. He spent at least 227 snaps at deep safety, nickel and in the box each last season. McKinney looks like a linebacker defending the run as a member of the box and does a nice job choosing the appropriate angles from different spots across the field. As a deep middle safety, he aggressively fills the alley, plus when he arrives there, he knocks bigger guys backwards a lot of times. From a split safety look, he works upfield with bouncy steps and keeps good leverage on the ball-carrier. And when he is split out a little further by the receivers, he does not allow the ball to get outside of him, while running through blockers consistently on screen passes.
McKinney has experience with a multitude of coverages and responsibilities. You see him play deep halves or middle, work down as a robber, guard slot receivers, tight-ends or even backs one-on-one and cover the shallow areas as a sub-package linebacker. He is very physical covering guys down the field and he excels at re-routing them. In zone coverage his ability to track the ball when it is put up in the air is excellent and he arrives at the catch point routinely, where he does a great job ripping the ball out of the receiver’s hands late. Thanks to his knowledge of opposing passing offenses, he seems unafraid to sit or drive on some routes. McKinney had a very impressive pick-six versus Ole Miss in 2018, when he drove on a slant on the backside of a zone-read RPO play and took it back to the house.
When the ball is caught, the Alabama all-rounder is an outstanding open-field tackler, who throttles down and wraps around guys in a lot of difficult spots in open space. He made a bunch of third-down stops in coverage or took away any run after catch. A lot of times you see the opposing team complete a flat or short-out route and McKinney comes from 15 yards down to hold the reception to a couple yards post-reception. He was also highly effective as a blitzer these last two seasons, whether it was disrupting the run game – manifesting itself in 11.5 tackles for the loss since the start of 2018 – or getting to the quarterback – recording 21 pressures on 71 pass-rush snaps over that same stretch. You see him try to run through backs in protection and slip through cracks to close in on the QB. McKinney recorded a strip-sack versus Joe Burrow in the LSU match-up, rushing off the edge, and added another one late in the fourth quarter. He was all over the field in that game against Bama’s biggest rivals, showing up in coverage, making crucial tackles in space and as a blitzer.
However, the Alabama standout does not quite have that free safety range in deep coverage as some other guys do and since he cramped up running his 40 at the combine (4.63) and we don’t get another time at his pro day, we have to label his straight-line speed is just average. He is not an elite athlete by any means and I wouldn’t ask him to man up against some of the better slot receivers in the league necessarily. I also would like to see him come in lower as a tackler sometimes, as physical ball-carriers can gain yards through contact that way, when he catches them too much.
This young man is a highly versatile player, who is ready to contribute in the pros right away. He can play either safety spot, come down as a linebacker or into the slot, contribute in run defense and blitz from multiple spots. There may be some better athletes at the position and I wouldn’t deploy him a pure deep middle safety role full-time, but with his high football IQ and feel for the game, I think McKinney’s floor is extremely high and he will be around the field a whole lot.
2. Grant Delpit, LSU
Coming to Baton Rouge as a four-star recruit out of IMG Academy, Delpit immediately contributed for the Tigers, starting double-digit games as a true freshman and putting up some good numbers for one of the best secondaries in the country annually. In 2018 he became a superstar for a school known for its rich DB tradition. He recorded 74 tackles, 9.5 of those for loss, five sacks, each a fumble forced and recovered, nine passes broken up and five more picked off, making him a unanimous first-team All-American. Last season he took a little step back, but with two sacks, two INTs and seven more PBUs, he still earned first-team All-SEC honors and helped his team win a national championship.
Delpit is everything you want in terms of measurables, coming in at 6’2”, 210+ pounds with a 74 ½-inch wingspan. He spent 385 snaps at free safety, 316 at slot corner and 173 in the box last season. Delpit was used in quarters coverage, as a single-high free safety, in the shallow zones and man-to-man against number two and receivers in trips sets. Georgia’s Mecole Hardman ran by the LSU safety a couple of times in 2018 when they were matched up in the slot, but he is more than capable of running with guys that don’t clock in the low 4.3s in man-to-man situations, with the body-type to be looked at as a tight-end eraser. Delpit is super fluid in his pedal and rotations, not showing any problem with transitions and coming forward after retreating despite his lanky build. In 2018 he didn’t allow a reception longer than 32 yards and saw just a 57.3 passer rating as the primary coverage defender.
His biggest value in coverage however is as a true deep middle safety, where he has the range to really shine and you can not let the ball hang up there against him, because he also has the ball-skills to quickly make you pay, with long arms he can reach a lot of passes. From that spot you can see excellent short-area burst and he can drop his shoulder on receivers catching the ball in front of them, to make them think twice about going up for the ball again. Last year in the Florida game, the Gators tight-end looked wide open for a touchdown on a seam route, but Delpit separated him from the ball with a big hit. The LSU safety has next level closing speed to run the alley and he really plays downhill in the grounding game, as he doesn’t mind banging into bigger bodies on his way – even cutting down some pulling linemen at times. His light feet and ability to process information is shining through in that area as well.
While his tackling is the biggest concern, Delpit also makes some tremendous stops on screen plays and a lot of his misses come with him trying to blow somebody up around the line of scrimmage. From a deep safety alignment, when he can break down, his problems are not nearly as severe. He cuts ball-carriers down at their trunks and get his shoulder across the legs to flip them. He came up with a bunch of stops short of the marker on third downs. Delpit was also pretty effective as a blitzer from different spots – especially off the slot. He recorded 13 QB pressures on 39 pass-rush snaps in 2018. Last season he only had six put played a lot more deep coverage for the Tigers. Still, seven sacks on just 76 attempts combined over these last two seasons is an excellent rate.
Nevertheless, the amount of missed tackles by Delpit does hurt him a lot. He missed 16 tackles in 2018 and 20 last season. That results in a rate of almost 25 percent of his attempts ending unsuccessfully. He needs to stay on his feet more and wrap up instead of diving at the ball-carrier’s legs. Even when he has the opponent in his grasp, too often you see him just let that guy slip out of it. And when a blocker can get in his face, he doesn’t disengage particularly well, considering his long arms should help here. Delpit certainly isn’t perfect at reading his keys either at this point, toggling through different reads without a real process to it at this point seemingly – especially in two-high shells.
Delpit brings a lot of versatility to the table with his ability to play deep safety, drop down into the slot and cover bodies one-on-one, contribute against the run from any spot and be a dangerous blitzer. The tackling issue is real and while he can obviously improve technically, his lanky stature is the reason he prefers to attack the ankles of the ball-carrier instead of squaring big bodies up. However, I didn’t see those effort issues some people claim to have seen, with a couple of chase-down tackles and throwing his body around in traffic. I like him best as a true single-high free safety.
3. Antoine Winfield Jr., Minnesota
This guy is the son of former first-round pick and three-time Pro Bowl defensive back Antoine Winfield Sr. from the Vikings and the youngster became a three-star recruit from Minnesota. While the predecessor could – somewhat controversially – not win the Jim Thorpe award for the nation’s top DB, Antoine Jr. did have an incredible 2019 campaign. He was a unanimous first-team All-American selection with 83 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles and seven interceptions, including a pick-six versus Rutgers. He came right in as a true freshman to start nine games, but was the next two seasons after just four games respectively due to hamstring and foot injuries.
Winfield has kind of a stocky build at 5’9”, 205 pounds. He has experience as a deep middle safety with making plays in-between the numbers as well as down in the box and as a blitzer – he actually spent 284 snaps in the box last season. No matter where he lines up, he always seems to be around the football. While he does play the free safety position very “safely” to not let play-action draw him in possibly, when he isn’t the last line of defense, Winfield pulls the trigger in the blink of an eye, zooms up to the ball-carrier and I have even see him shoot through a shoulder of offensive tackles even. I really like how doesn’t overrun plays from the deep middle spot and adjusts his angles on the fly, making a lot of tackles a couple of yards downfield at either sideline. You see him split some blockers or just beat them to the spot routinely. Winfield lined up on the edge quite a bit and showed tremendous pursuit from the backfield of run plays.
He excels as a free safety with the instincts and feel to arrive at the same moment as the ball does. Winfield does a great job tracking the ball downfield and attacks it in the air, winning a lot more battles for jump-balls than you would expect from a guy sub-six feet. In split safety duty when he is basically manned up with a slot receiver pushing upfield, you see him get back into the picture with speed turns if he initially opens up to the outside and the receiver comes back to the post. The former Gopher also has experience matching up with big tight-ends in the slot. He does not panic in one-on-one situations with receivers but instead acts the ball like it is his only. Overall, he allowed a passer rating of just 45.5 last season. To go with that, he is a very dependable tackler in space, who shows good fundamentals with low pad-level and running his feet through contact. You see him up-end a lot of guys in the open field and take away yards after contact, but he can also deliver some devastating blows on slow-developing plays, like a wheel route to the running back, where the ball is in the air for a while. He had a couple of big interceptions in an upset win over then-number four Penn State to really put the Gophers on the map.
The Minnesota standout was also blitzed from the deep safety spot a few times and looked like a maniac shooting down, chopping down ball-carriers at their legs when those guys think they had a good lane actually. He also recorded three sacks in the passing game. And the same way he can bait QBs to throw the ball his way, he doesn’t give away when he is coming, while timing up the snap very well. Winfield had an amazing combine showing with a 4.45 in the 40 and top ten numbers at the safety position in both leaping events. More importantly, he had a flawless field workout, looking so natural going through all the drills, getting in and out of his pedal, driving on the ball and playing it in the air with those great ball-skills. While we don’t want to overhype what a prospect does in underwear, you see that movement on the field and if you see it shine among some other very talented guys, it just gives you re-assurence.
Before you talk about anything else with Winfield, you have to look at that long injury history. He missed 18 games over the 2017 and ’18 season with surgeries on his hamstring and foot and is a fifth-year sophomore coming out. However, outside of that there are some negatives of course as well. Winfield may not have the range or fluid hips to make plays outside the numbers from a deep middle alignment and a lot of NFL scouts may not look at him as a true free safety. At the same time with arms barely measuring in at 30 inches to go with his height of 5’9”, his lack of length could limit his ability to match up with slots and flex tight-end in man coverage.
Winfield is a combo-safety with the instincts and IQ to be a playmaker. He flies around the football field and brings a lot of fire to the game. He doesn’t have elite movement skills, but combined with his feel for the game, they are plenty good. The medical reports will be crucial for the Minnesota safety and without teams being able to test him personally, he may be selected later than he maybe should be, since there aren’t many questions about him from his tape. I think he will be best in more two-high looks and playing around the line of scrimmage in certain instances.
4. Jeremy Chinn, Southern Illinois
Underrecruited out of high school as a All-Metro selection from Indianapolis, Chinn settled for Southern Illinois without any Division 1 offers. He was the Mountain Valley Conference Newcomer of the Year despite missing three games with a separated shoulder. From his second season on he has been a fixture in the starting lineup, earning second-team All-MVFC honors in year and first-team all-conference these last two. Through his his four-year career with then Salukis, Chinn has amassed 13 interceptions, 31 PBUs and six forced fumbles, in addition to 243 total tackles.
This guy is really well-built at 6’3”, 220 pounds with ridiculous athleticism. Chinn has the second-best number among all DBs with a 41-inch vertical and the second-best number of all performers in the broad jump (11’6”). His 4.45 in the 40 is nothing to scoff at either, when you consider he measured in at just over that 220-pound mark. For that size, he did not have any problems moving around the field, showcasing oily hips and pretty good ball-skills. He also impressed at the Senior Bowl ever since the weigh-ins and backed it up with moving around very well during practice. Chinn does a great job avoiding and working around blockers to get to the ball with active hands, but also doesn’t mind throwing a shoulder at a slot receiver trying to put hands on him. He buzzes down against the run with his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage. With his speed, he takes away a lot of angles towards the sideline and keeps potential big plays to average ones, being able to cover ground in a heartbeat, which also comes in handy versus quick passes and screens.
Chinn lined up deep for 276 snaps, in the box for 172 and the slot for 202 snaps last season. He primarily lined up two-high safety looks and was used in a lot of deep coverage, but was also dropped down as a robber and even a sub-package linebacker in some matchups. With his body-type and skill-set, he also projects very well for man-coverage against tight-ends and big slots, which he already did some at Southern Illinois. Chinn allowed a passer rating of 67.4 last season, which is pretty strong considering all the jobs he filled. He makes a lot of excellent tackles in the open field to limit yardage, pulling down opponents at their feet or grabbing one of their legs and not letting go. Overall he missed less than ten percent of his tackling attempts last season, despite being in a lot of true one-on-one situations in space. Chinn works upfield quickly versus screen passes, but does a good job breaking down and securing the tackle. He was blitzed from 10+ yards off the line of scrimmage a few times and just showed stupid burst to close that distance and put a lick on the opposing QB. He recorded a strip-sack that way in last year’s matchup versus Youngstown State and recovered the fumble himself as the cherry on top.
To put things into perspective, Chinn has very little tape versus high-class opponents. Last year he only played against two FBS teams and neither one of them will likely have anybody drafted this year either – UMass which finished 1-11 and Arkansas State which was a mid-tier team in the Sun Belt conference. Chinn has to find a little better balance between having his eyes on the quarterback and the receivers in coverage. At this point he is more of a see-ball get-ball type of player, rather than feeling things develop and being instinctive. You rarely see him just blow up a play, because he anticipates it and just goes for it.
There is a lot of room to grow in terms of football IQ and anticipation, but Chinn’s athletic skill-set is obviously crazy and he has already played at a very high level. While there could definitely be some growing pains early on, I really like his ability to close distances in zone coverage and the upside to cover big bodies in man-coverage potentially, to go with his aggressive mind-set of going after the ball.
5. Kyle Dugger, Lenoir Rhyne
After not receiving any Division 1 scholarships as an unranked recruit, Dugger arrived at Lenoir Rhyne measuring in at 5’6”, but showed that he was a real late-bloomer, growing to 6’1” as a senior. Over his four-year career with the Bears, he put together 237 tackles, ten interceptions, 36 PBUs and six fumbles forced and recovered each. He won the 2019 Cliff Harris award winner for the best defensive player of Division II and III, despite playing in just seven games due to a hand injury, and was a first-team All-South Atlantic Conference selection for the second year in a row. Dugger also scored six career punt return TDs in college and is now looking to be the first player drafted from Lenoir Rhyne since 2000.
I first really got familiar with Dugger at the Senior Bowl, when he looked like he fit right in with those divison-one guys, showing fluid hips to guard tight-ends one-one on way, making a couple of picks throughout the three days of practice and doing a pretty good job tackling in space. He continued to make noise at the combine, where he ran a 4.49 in the 40 at almost 220 pounds, a DB-best 42-inch vert and 11’2” broad jump. During the field workout, he flipped those hips with ease and caught the ball naturally. Dugger is 6’2”, just under 220 pounds with close to WILL linebacker size and he really fills out his jersey beautifully, while having the biggest hands and longest arms by any safety at the combine. I did not have to look for very long to find him on tape – to say the least. He also plays the run more like a box player and is out there to hunt. Dugger works his way upfield in a very controlled manner for the most part. At the same time you can also see him just run through the outside shoulder of blockers on jet sweeps to force the play back inside. His explosiveness also really show up as a hitter, just blasting some guys when he can a straight shot at them.
Dugger has that easy speed for a big safety to run with guys way down the field and he doesn’t look like he is actually straining while some D2 receiver is sprinting as fast as he can on a vertical route. You see him actually sit on tight-ends who are pushing upfield and is right there as those guys break either way. Dugger was used in a lot of two-high safety looks, where he was ready to drive on routes, but also seemed comfortable flipping towards his end-zone and undercutting routes, when the wideout tried to get behind him on a skinny post. Even when he has to open up to the outside initially, he has no issues rotating back to the post. You see him be flat-footed at times and then just look like he was shot out of a cannon as the ball comes out to either knock somebody backwards or get his hands on the ball himself. In deep coverage, Dugger doesn’t allow play-action or screen fakes draw him away from his assignment. He had one play early versus Mars Hill, where the opposing team ram a double-passes with a rail route off it and Dugger hit the intended receiver out of bounds from a split safety alignment to take away what looked like a sure-fire completion.
The level of competition is obviously a big question mark here. Digger will not be able to sit on routes the same way and be put on his heels more routinely at the next level for sure. You see him be a little slow at processing route patterns at times, where his physical advantages can bail him out versus D2 athletes – that won’t be the case in the pros. Dugger overruns some plays, especially on screen passes, and leaves his feet a little too much as a tackler. While there are no real limitations physically, Dugger is kind of a tweener, who some teams may look at as more a linebacker, which he never really played in college.
While it is always tough to project guys to the NFL, who simply looked so much further ahead than their opponents, his athletic testing and the time in Mobile give us a much better picture of Dugger. I love his physicality and range. He plays the ball in the air at its highest point and there aren’t a lot of guys his size you could legitimately ask to play single-high. In 2018, when he returned kicks and a few punts for his team, Dugger averaged 54.4 return yards per game (including interceptions) – so he could be a weapon at that as well, which is pretty crazy for a guy his size.
6. Ashtyn Davis, California
After being unranked coming out to high school, it was a track scholarship that got Davis to walk on for Cal’s football team. He was the team’s Most Valuable Special Teams Player as a true freshman and started the final three games at corner. In 2017 he repeated those honors and started six games at safety. His junior year Davis became a fixture in the starting lineup, where he earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 recognition, which he improved to second-team all-conference last season. Over the last two years he has put together 108 tackles, six interceptions and nine PBUs for the Golden Bears, while continuing to excel in other athletics.
At 6’1”, just over 200 pounds, Davis plays at full speed all the time and as a track star, that is pretty darn fast. Cal used a ton of two-high safety looks and had those guys rotate either way late or play them both deep, but they also put Davis as a true free safety and let his range at the back of the defense shine. However, the speedy safety also spent over a hundred snaps in the slot and covering guys one-on-one as well. This guy is lightning quick at transitioning forward and breaking on a route, plus he has one hand ready to punch right at the ball. Even as he is caught opening his hips to the outside thinking he is running with the inside fade and the receiver curls back towards the quarterback, he can just plant that outside foot and still somehow crowd the catch point. His short-area bursts also are intriguing as a robber to take away easy throws over the middle.
I really like the way Davis works upfield against the run from a two-high alignment and shuffles into the action to squeeze the play from the backside or works through traffic at the point of attack. When he can come straight downhill, he gets involved in plenty of tackles late or can cut down ball-carriers low as they approach him. You also see Davis really punch at that egg when he joins the action. With his speed, he is a threat to blitz from any spot on the field basically. He can really dip underneath blockers when he is coming off the edge, but I’ve also seen him run right through Washington running back Salvon Ahmed. With the momentum can he build up when he comes from a distance, not a lot of people want to get in his way usually. (5:48)
On the flipside, Davis gets caught shooting downhill too aggressively at times and get sucked in, which erases any angle towards the sideline as the ball-carrier bounces outside. One play that comes to mind came in last year’s Washington game, when the aforementioned Ahmed ran for a touchdown on fourth-and-one, who used that pursuit against Davis. His angles are off on plenty of occasions and you see him from 20 yards deep get caught in positions where the ball-carrier cuts the other way and Davis has to chase him from behind because he overruns the play initially. He gets hung up with blocks in space too much and you also see him whiff on some tackles, where his eyes are pointed towards the ground and he doesn’t actually grab anything.
With his speed and willingness to be a physical player, Davis is an intriguing prospect with a lot of room to develop. His tackling form and block deconstruction certainly need some work, plus he needs to more consistent with the angles he chooses, but his range and change-of-direction ability are very interesting. I primarily like him as a free safety, but I could definitely see him succeed in some man coverage duty and as a blitzer as well.
7. K’Von Wallace, Clemson
Once a first-team All-Virginia selection on offense and defense as a high school senior, Wallace only was a three-star recruit and barely saw the field his freshman year with the Tiger. He earned six starts the following season, before turning into an impact player at the top of the depth chart for Clemson. Over these last two years, he has put together 133 tackles, three interceptions, a couple of sacks and forced fumbles and 17 passes broken up, earning second- and third-team All-ACC selections respectively.
This 5’11”, 205-pound bundle of energy is highly competitive and plays more like a linebacker in some areas, while having the skill-set of a defensive back. He spent over 200 snaps in the box and almost 400 in the slot, compared to only 63 at deep safety. Wallace does a great job working through traffic and getting to the ball, especially on screen passes. He keeps his contain responsibilities upright when tasked with them and was a highly dependable tackler for the Tigers, only missing 18 of his 171 career tackling attempts. Wallace also had a really good combine, running a 4.53 in the 40, a 38-inch vert and an 11’1” broad jump, as well as the top mark in the three-cone drill among all defensive backs (6.76).
From a two-high alignment, Wallace can race down against crossing routes and either knock the ball out or at least take away any yards after the catch. He has solid make-up speed to run underneath deeper routes when he is a couple of steps behind and then his ball-skills are excellent. Wallace is not afraid to sit on some routes underneath, while having the sudden burst to make a play on the ball or recover if a receiver catches him in a position that isn’t perfect. Wallace primarily covered in the slot, where he was tasked with man and different spot drops. He was matched up with tight-ends quite a bit as well, who he has a great job working around on hook routes, where their bodies are in-between Wallace and the ball, but he still knocks it down. Wallace likes to bait quarterbacks and then aggressively jump routes and he held opposing QBs to a passer rating of 61.9 last season. He was utilized quite a bit as a blitzer in Clemson’s versatile scheme under Brett Venables, lining up outside tight-ends or right over the number two receiver a lot.
With that being said, Wallace is certainly quicker than fast. He doesn’t have the top-end speed to keep up with true speedsters in the slot and doesn’t turn vertically as easy as guys do who played more corner in college and could transition to the slot as they head to the pros. At the Senior Bowl, Wallace was too grabby overall – even if he did show good feel for route development – and was smoked pretty badly on a couple of fade routes. The former Clemson DB may act like he is bigger than he actually is, but when he has to take on blocks it shows that lacks some size and he should come out of worse in collisions with heavier ball-carriers if he plays more in the box.
While he does offer versatility to play anywhere in the secondary pretty much and could probably even be used as a sub-package linebacker to some degree, Wallace lined up in the slot the most already and that’s just where he fits best. I like his feisty attitude and the trust he has in himself. In addition to that he should be a core special teamer and source of energy for his future team.
8. Julian Blackmon, Utah
Despite breaking his hand as a senior in high school, Blackmon ended up being a three-star recruit and decided to stay in his home-state of Utah. After barely seeing the field as a freshman, he started all 27 games over the next two years and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors in both of them. Last season he moved to safety and had a lot of success at his position. Blackmon was a second-team All-American selection for one of the best defenses in the country, recording 60 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and four INTs, including a pick-six. Due to a non-contact injury in the Pac-12 championship game, he has not been able to perform in any pre-draft activities.
Blackmon is six foot, around 190 pounds and spent 485 of 632 snaps as a deep safety last season. While he does take his coverage responsibilities very seriously from that spot, once he has the green light to go, he really darts upfield against the run and is looking to get involved when protecting the first-down marker especially. Blackmon puts himself into the right position by choosing the appropriate angles and he is an excellent open-field tackler, who works across the body of ball-carriers and clamps at their legs to not let them go. That’s why he has only missed 11 tackles over these last two years combined. The former Ute can kind of weave around blockers, but also stack them out and keep his leverage when needed. Blackmon made this huge tackle for loss on the first defensive play of Pac-12 title game versus Oregon, where he rotated off a motion and shot into the backfield versus a screen pass.
At Utah, Blackmon was heavily utilized as a single-high safety last season and rarely allowed anybody to get behind him. He adjusts extremely well when the ball is put in the air for a while. He does not panic and or just tries to not look stupid in those situations, but actually attacks the ball at its highest point after letting the eyes of the quarterback lead him there. You see Blackmon get in front of plenty of receivers and bat the ball out of the reach of those guys. When the pass is put on the back-shoulder of receivers down the seams and he plays in-between two routes, Blackmon comes over the top of those guys by almost climbing on their back to disrupt things. You also see him knock down passes towards the pylon when he is in two-high shells in the red-zone. His closing burst is really underrated in my opinion. Down 20-0 to BYU in the 2018 regular season finale, Blackmon made the game-changing pick-six that started an incredible comeback win. As a former corner, he has plenty of experience in man-coverage and he dropped down into the slot quite a bit, especially against tight-ends, What I really like about him in that area is the way he reads the eyes of his receiver in man-coverage, finding the ball in the air and high-pointing it. He made an incredible pass-breakup in the fourth quarter versus Northern Illinois in 2018 that way, where he got up sky-high and knocked it down with one hand. Overall he held opposing QBs to a passer rating of 61.9 in 2019.
Unfortunately, Blackmon might not quite have the long speed to pick up streaking receivers with elite speed, as they push his way and put him on his heels. His lack of premiere athletic tools kind of was what forced the transition to safety – a position he is still learning, after giving up almost 800 yards in coverage on the outside the prior season. Blackmon isn’t a really violent hitter and has his problems fighting off contact when someone puts their hands on him, especially when tight-ends come right at him.
Blackmon is one of “my guys” in this draft. We don’t have any testing numbers on him and I wouldn’t think he would quite measure up with some of those other guys at the position, who impressed at the combine, but he is just an excellent football player. While he is still developing at the position, his instincts as a deep middle safety and the secure tackling skills are something I value very highly. I feel like I know what I will be getting with him.
9. J.R. Reed, Georgia
Despite being the son of former NFL receiver Jake Reed, this former three-star recruit did not get any scholarship offers from big programs due to an injury in his final high school game. After a year as a reverse at Tulsa however, he transferred to the Bulldogs. Following a redshirt year, he immediately took over as a full-time starter at one of the safety spots. Over his first two seasons in Athens he recorded 145 tackles, seven PBUs and four interceptions. In 2019 Reed was a first-team All-American selection with seven PBUs and ones across the board for interceptions, fumbles forced and recovered, as well as scoring a touchdown for one of the stingiest defenses in the nation.
What stands out right away with Reed is that long build at 6’1”, right around 200 pounds with 32 ½-inch arms. He is very versatile and was a highly important asset to the Bulldog defense over the last three years. You see him play high safety one snap, drops into the box the next and then also man up the slot – even is he did line up deep on about 60 percent of the defensive plays last season. I really like the way he puts his body into positions, where he forces receivers to go through him, doing a good job anticipating breaks and not overcommitting. The patience in deep coverage is definitely there and this guy has no fear in his heart to attack the ball even when he has to come from more than ten yards away. Reed already had some excellent coverage snaps versus Oklahoma tight-end Mark Andrews in the Rose Bowl as a sophomore and I like him guarding that position in general, because of his length and physicality. In 2018 he held opponents to 6.1 yards per target and didn’t allow a reception over 36 yards as the primary coverage defender.
I also believe Reed is underrated athletically. That 4.54 in the 40 should erase some of the speed concerns people had about him and he has some excellent closing burst, which was on full display on that incredibly interception he had in last year’s game versus Notre Dame, where he went from in-between the hashes to making the tip-toe pick at the sideline working against a crossing route, as the quarterback scrambled that way. He also had a huge pick in the 2018 SEC Championship game against Alabama, that could have sealed the deal for the Bulldogs. Reed does a nice job filling the alley from the center-field spot and leveraging the football. He quickly shoots upfield against screen passes and goes through receivers to shut them down. With those long arms, Reed usually keeps blockers away from his body when he has to take them on. The versatile safety doesn’t mind going through one shoulder of a pulling lineman either when he lines up in the box. He also knows how to work the scramble drill and take away easy throws.
With his lanky type of body, Reed can be beaten to the post if he opens up the other way too much and he can’t quite change directions to get into the hip-pocket of the receiver making their break down the field, as he pedals backwards pretty upright too. Reed missed 20 percent of his tackling attempts last season and 47 total over his three seasons with UGA, You see him be really aggressive with shooting downfield and banking on chopping down the ball-carrier at his feet, which does result in some quick stops, but can also go wrong at times. His head drops too much at times as well in tackling situations. Moreover, he will turn 24 before the season even starts and has come much closer to his potential already than several other guys.
Overall Reed is a really solid, but maybe not overly exciting safety prospect. He is far from some of these athletic freaks we have on the list, but he has been an outstanding player for Georgia, who filled several roles for them. I like his balanced styled of play overall and if he can learn to throttle down a little more as a tackler in space, I think he can be a dependable starter for multiple years for whoever drafts him.
10. Terrell Burgess, Utah
This guy is a former three-star recruit from California, who split time between receiver and defensive back as a freshman with the Utes, before transitioning to defense full-time. It took Burgess until his senior year to be a full-time starter, but he really impressed in that limited span of time. He recorded 81 tackles, 7.5 of them for loss, a pick, five PBUs and two fumble recoveries, earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 accolades for his play.
The 5’11”, 202-pound Burgess split over 70 percent of his snaps last season between down in the box and the slot, compared to only 133 as a deep safety. He works upfield pretty aggressively against the run and you see him shoot through gaps with a purpose as a member of the box. Burgess does not mind sticking his face in the fan and mixing it up with bigger bodies in the run game. He made a bunch of important tackles in space for the Utes, grabbing and twisting ball-carriers to the ground effectively on an angle or taking them off their feet from straight ahead. Eight missed tackles on about 70 attempts isn’t bad at all, putting himself in good position routinely. He made 24 total Pro Football Focus stops on pass and run plays combined in 2019, which qualifies tackles for less than half the yardage needed to move the chains or convert on third downs.
At 4.46 in the 40, Burgess’ speed is excellent for safety or nickel. In man-coverage he already has some good jams off the line and patient feet. He also displays fluid hips and good change-of-direction skills. When he is in trail technique and in position to undercut the route, Burgess does a great job getting his eyes off the receiver and finding the ball in the air. When he sees the ball completed in front of his, he quickly wraps up the recipient and negates any yards after catch, while also packing a punch to knock those guys backwards when he has the chance to. Altogether, Burgess only allowed 190 yards on 26-40 targets for a passer rating of 65.6 against him last season, which results in an outstanding yards-per-target mark below 5.0. The longest reception he was responsible for went for 34 yards and he received the second-high coverage grade among all draft-eligible safeties by PFF. In addition to that, Burgess is a ferocious blitzer, who doesn’t mind going through running back and actually had 46 pass-rush snaps last season – one of the highest numbers for any qualified safeties. He also pursues the ball with a hunger when coming off the back-side of run plays.
Burgess played some cornerback at the Senior Bowl and he allowed receivers to stack him without much resistance. However, he does have more of the body-type of a corner at an inch short of six feet and only 29 ½-inch arms. At that length he can’t crowd the catch point the way you would like him to, especially when matching up with bigger guys in the slot. Not anticipating breaks particularly well doesn’t help in that regard either. As a safety, Burgess doesn’t have a ton of deep coverage reps and almost all of them came in cover-two. Putting the slower Julian Blackmon in more single-high spots may be telling in that area.
Burgess’s best fit and the easiest transition would probably be as a nickelback, where he can utilize his man-coverage and blitzing ability. Athletically his profile is very impressive, but the lack of length is an issue in certain matchups. Still, I love how unafraid he is in traffic and how many plays he limits to little yardage. He should be able to start from day one and play very well, if you don’t allow opponents to put him in mismatches.
Right behind them:
Geno Stone, Iowa
Despite being a first-team all-state selection in Pennsylvania his senior year of high school, Stone was only a three-star recruit. Since he didn’t receive an offer from Penn State nearby, he joined their Big Ten rivals. Stone was a back-up his freshman year and even though he started only eight games the following season, he made an impression on everybody with with picks, including one being taken to the house. Stepping into the role of a team leader in 2019, the third-year safety recorded 70 tackles, three of them for loss, an interception, four PBUs and three fumbles forced, which earned him second-team all-conference accolades.
At 5’10”, 207 pounds, Stone spent 62 percent as a deep safety last season and always finds himself around the football. He triggers upfield against the run in a heartbeat and you see him blow some plays up after just a few yards despite coming from almost 20 yards of depth. I also love how he always gets in on the action late and makes sure the pile is moving backwards, instead of the offense gaining exta yardage. Stone has no problem running through the shoulder of a blocker on quick screens and forcing the play back inside. He made 11 coverage stops last season according to PFF. I have also seen this guy just blow up receivers catching the ball underneath to his side, when he can race up on them.
Stone played a bunch of cover-two at Iowa, but also has experience as a robber, coming up in the flats and even with some single-high duty. Usually he doesn’t allow eye-candy move him too far off his spot and stays very balanced in deep coverage, while not panicking with bodies flying around him. Stone attacks the ball at its highest point when he has a chance to, but also does a great job fighting through the hands of the receiver. He shows great understanding of spacing and how to split routes in certain coverages. According to PFF, on over 600 career snaps as a free safety, Stone has been responsible for just 137 yards, while intercepting three passes and forcing seven more incompletions. He also puts up their highest grade in coverage among all safeties in 2019. Stone quickly jumps on shallow post and dig routes to contest the catch point – even at the the opposite numbers at times.
Unfortunately Stone had a pretty rough combine, measuring in at just 5’10” with only 29 ¼-inch arms and he ran a 4.62 in the 40 to go with some poor leaping numbers. While that athletic testing may suggest a move to the box, he was not nearly as effective there for the Hawkeyes, and he only spent 31 snaps in man-coverage last season. I also think he leaps too much as a tackler and just tries to cut guys down low by leading with his shoulder. That resulted in 13 missed tackles in 2019.
Stone may not fit the athletic profile perfectly for the safety position, but he is very smart, physical and aggressive player. He was highly effective in Iowa’s zone-heavy system and could continue to succeed if put in a similar type of defense. That means a lot of two-high shells, while rolling him down low or into a robber role. Stone also only just turns 21 before the draft.
Alohi Gilman, Notre Dame
This former unranked recruit and all-state selection from Hawaii started out at the Naval Academy and had a strong first season before, but with the rules for needing active duty time in order to playing pro sports being the way they are, Gilman decided to transfer to Southbend. After sitting out the 2017 season due to transfer rules, he became a full-time starter and leader for the Fighting Irish, recording 169 tackles, six of them for loss, three interceptions, eight passes deflected and six fumbles forced.
Coming in at 5’11”, 200 pounds, Gilman offers a feisty style of play. He spent 100 snaps in the slot and almost 400 each at deep safety and in the box. He triggers upfield instantly in run defense and gets involved on a bunch of tackles or jumps on top of piles. Even if he can’t get there quite in time, you see him come into the picture late every time in the broadcast view, showing tremendous pursuit overall. Gilman also doesn’t mind running into bigger guys trying to get in front of him and he uses his hands pretty well to disengage. You see him throttle down as he works against zone run plays who get strung out and lets the running back make his cut instead of blindly shooting through the space he sees. Overall he made 21 run stops last season according to PFF and is tough to get away from when he can square you up.
Gilman has experience with a multitude of coverages – deep middle, halves, robber, man in the slot and others. In deep coverage, he stays balanced for the most part and has pretty good short-area quickness to disrupt the catch point. He shows no hesitancy to attack the football in the air either. The former Irish almost made a crazy pick against Stanford as a junior, when he leaped over two teammates and opponents respectively, but it was called back due to contact by his guys. Gilmore was blitzed off the edge a few times, with 64 pass-rush snaps over these last two years combined. His 4.6 in the 40 at the combine was just average, but he had some of the best change-of-direction drills there, as he finished third among defensive backs in both the three-cone and 20-yard shuttle. I always really liked the way he stayed over the top of the ball as a deep safety.
You obviously like the physicality and competitiveness, but this guy was holding receivers basically the entire route when matched up against them at Senior Bowl practices. Throughout his career with the Irish, he got exposed going up against wide receivers, allowing 11 of the 14 targets his way to be caught last season when matched up against them. Gilman simply isn’t the kind of loose, fluid athlete in space to succeed as a center-fielder or one-on-one versus the premiere slot receivers in the pros. The fact he went from four missed tackles in 2018 to 14 last season is also a bummer, since that was one of my favorite things about him.
Gilman was much better going up against backs and tight-ends, not allowing a single completion of 20+ yards to one of them last season. I had the Notre Dame standout as one of my top five college safeties heading into the 2019 season, but some issues in terms of being able to stay with dynamic athletes in space have popped up. While I don’t believe that missed tackle-number from last season quite represents his game, I think he should play closer to the line of scrimmage, where he isn’t put in such tough spots. Whoever gets this kid should love his motor and he could quickly earn playing time through special teams.
Jordan Fuller, Ohio State
This former Gatorade New Jersey Player of the Year and four-star recruit had his choice of several big-name programs coming out of high school. He contributed as a reserve his freshman season and took over as a starter for the last three years. Over that stretch he recorded five interceptions and ten passes broken up. In 2019 he was a first-team All-Big Ten selection for his best play yet. Fuller was also a team captain in each of the last two years.
Full presents great size at 6’2”, 205 pounds. He played a bunch of different spots for the Buckeyes early on and actually lined up a whole lot in the box in 2018, before making the transition to free safety primarily last season, when he spent 88 percent of the snaps in a deep alignment. Fuller shows excellent instincts and range as a single-high safety, while being able to flip his hips with ease. He plays the ball in the air exceptionally well and he can also separate receivers from it by putting his shoulder right at it. He did so on what looked like a sure-fire touchdown by Michigan’s Donovan Peoples-Jones at the end of the first half of that matchup last season. Fuller puts some big hits on receivers to make them second-guess if they should extend for it again next time. Altogether he held opposing QBs to a passer rating of just 44.4 last season when targeted. In 2018 he also covered guys in the slot quite a bit, where he looked pretty comfortable playing off, and was used in some two-high shells.
In addition to that, Fuller is looking to get involved against the run and quick underneath completions as soon as he knows there is no threat over the top. He takes really good angles towards the sideline, where I like the way he doesn’t just open his shoulders all the way, in order to protect against cutbacks towards the middle of the field. Fuller is a very dependable tackler in space, who pulls down ball-carrier by whatever he can grab and shows a ton of grip strength that way. This resulted in only missed six attempts last season. When he isn’t in those tough one-on-one situations on the back-end, he can lay the wood as well. You see him show up in the flats a whole lot despite lining up 15-20 yards off the line of scrimmage initially.
It’s a whole lot easier to play safety, when you have a trio of corners with the names of Jeffrey Okudah, Damon Arnette and Shaun Wade in front of you. Fuller plays way deeper than the deepest a whole lot and tends to open his hips prematurely, before the deepest receiver is even close to him. At the combine we might have gotten an indication of why that is, when he ran a 4.67 in the 40. While I certainly don’t believe he plays that slow, that number is very concerning for somebody who played his best as a single-high free safety. Fuller also plays a little too upright for my taste and it limits his change-of-direction ability to some degree.
That 40 time in Indy really threw me off and I had to go back to the tape. That’s where some of those conservative tendencies showed up. With that being said, Fuller has improved every single year and looked most comfortable as a true free safety in 2019. He might not ever be a big play-maker from that spot, but he should be a really dependable last line of defense and won’t be burnt over the top on too many occasions.
Right behind them:
Tanner Muse (Clemson), Josh Metellus (Michigan), Antoine Brooks Jr. (Maryland), Jalen Elliott (Notre Dame), Jaylinn Hawkins (California), L’Jarius Sneed (Louisiana Tech), Brandon Jones (Texas), Daniel Thomas & Jeremiah Dinson (Auburn)
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