We are back with our final defensive positional breakdowns, as we move on from tight-ends earlier in the week to the safety class. That means we are only one group away – and it’s a big one, talking about quarterbacks – from revealing my combined big board of the top 100 overall prospects in the draft.
As far as this group of safeties goes, the more guys you watch, the more you like it seems. My top ten could all easily go within the first two days, even though there may be only one selected on opening night. Especially with a position like this, there a lot of different skill-sets they may offer and roles they could play at the next level, so I will always try to explain at the end, what I envision them to be.
I also put out a video version of this breakdown. And make sure to check out all the other positional breakdowns I have already put out and come back next Tuesday, for my analysis of the top quarterbacks.
1. Richie Grant, UCF
5’11” ½, 200 pounds; RS SR
Only a two-star recruit back in 2016, Grant was a large part of the rotation as a freshman and then put up crazy numbers in his first year as a starter (2018), with 109 total tackles and six interceptions, to go with a couple of forced fumbles. Over 21 combined games these last two years, he has recorded 150 more tackles, picked off four more passes and broken up another 13, to go three forced fumbles. That made him a first-team All-AAC selection all three years as a starter, while being a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe and Chuck Bednarik awards this past season.
According to UCF coaches, the work and athleticism for Grant are off the charts – and you see it pay off on the field, as he seems to always be around the football. He split time between the wide side of the field in split-safety looks and as the extra defender in the box, where he is often brought off the edge. I love how he runs the alley and shows great pursuit from the backside. He may not have the mass to deliver big hits too often, but he is far from an ankle-biter, looking to attack. He doesn’t mind sticking his face in the fan as a tackler and displays crazy hustle chasing after the ball from behind. His 33 run stops over the last two seasons are the most among all draft-eligible DBs, while he also only missed six of 78 tackling attempts in 2020 – that’s one of the best rates among all college safeties. Grant was one of the most impressive blitzers off the edge at any positional, with excellent timing of the snap. That way he chases down a lot of run plays and has some wiggle to get around blockers in the pass game, while he also doesn’t mind running through the back in passing situations, to take the direct path. And you saw that all-around skill-set during Senior Bowl week as well, moving out to corner a few times, making plays in run support and forcing incompletions downfield, by coming over late and raking the ball out of the hands of receivers.
Grant sees plays develop at a highly advanced level and understands where his help is in underneath coverage, not allowing routes to draw him away from his responsibilities and tracking the eyes of the quarterback. He had an outstanding one-handed PBU against Cincinnati last season, when he redirected, as Desmond Ridder tried to throw across his body off a scramble. Grant does well to pick up receivers downfield that were funneled towards him as a deep-half defender. And he has the instincts be put in single-high duties, where he trusts in what he sees, so he can sprint all out to where he expects the ball to go. He had one play in the Tulsa game last season, where he was on the left hash and made an interception all the way at the right numbers. The versatile safety does a great job of driving on routes in quarters coverage and as a robber, while showing the quick burst to wrap up the pass-catcher just as the ball arrives there. Grant also has plenty of experience covering inside receivers in man, where his footwork is springy and active, enabling him to click and close quickly. He has some beautiful coverage reps on tape in man against the number three on trips, especially breaking out to the sideline, where he flips and works through the mitts of the receiver. He’s not afraid of sitting on big slot receivers and breaks up a bunch of quick in-breaking routes from off-alignment. While he dropped a couple of interceptions in 2019, he is certainly a plus defender at the catch point, getting his hands in late and ripping the ball out routinely. Overall, he held opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 32.3 when targeted last season, with less than half of the targets his way to be completed, for one TD compared to three INTs.
With that being said, Grant can get shook at times by dynamic athletes and he overestimates his speed a little bit at times, with the aggressive angles he chooses in run support. In terms of top-end speed and fluidity, Grant is behind a few guys in this class and he lacks elite physical traits in general. Because of those things, he might not be the most dependable last line of defense and some teams that ask their free safeties to cover a ton of ground in single-high alignments, may not be fully sold on him in that role. He could be a little more active with his hands as a pursuit defender, to not allow defenders to take him off track. And he is faulty of getting drawn in by play-action and vacating his area.
I get that there are more physically gifted athletes in this class and safety is usually one of the positions I differentiate myself the most at, but Richie Grant is an absolute baller. I just love the instincts, the smarts, the aggressiveness and the consistency he provides. I think he can legitimately play strong, free and big nickel, as a versatile piece in the secondary, who will produce in all three areas (defend the run, cover and blitz). He is also one of eight players in this draft with at least 500 career snaps on special teams (533) and his energy will be a boost to those units right away, to go with the multi-faceted the defender he is already.
2. Trevon Moehrig, TCU
6’1”, 200 pounds; JR
A former top-500 overall recruit, Moehrig saw very limited playing time as a freshman, but recorded his first interception. In his initial season as a full-time starter in 2019, Moehrig recorded 43 solo tackles, four interceptions, 11 PBUs and a couple of fumbles forced. Last season his numbers went down ever so slightly in two less games, with 30 solo stops, two picks and nine more passes broken down, repeated first-team All-Big-12 accolades and received the Jim Thorpe award, which goes to the top defensive back in the country.
Moehrig was primarily deployed as their field-side safety with a lot of two-high looks for the Horned Frogs. He stays balanced throughout plays and won’t get sucked up by play-fakes or backside bubbles, but once he sees the ball actually come out, he’ll get there in a hurry. And in 2020 I feel like his trigger got quicker altogether. He can cover a lot ground and then work around the action with shuffle-steps to put himself in position for a tackle. And he has that sudden burst and slipperiness to work around picks/rubs and blockers on screen passes. Every once in a while, TCU’s coaches ask him to come down late and rush off the edge, where his speed really stands out. And when they roll his into the deep middle, Moehrig has turned himself into a much more reliable last man, who can deal with the tough job of having to bring down dynamic players with a lot of space to work with. He has only 15 misses over 100 tackling attempts these last two years combined. He had a tremendous game against Oklahoma State in their regular-season finale, when he made a couple of key stops and had a huge interception in the end-zone, when the Cowboys were about to take the lead.
In quarters coverage, Moehrig is great at anticipating and jumping on curl and dig routes, never just leaning back on his heels and waiting to commit, plus he has the oily hips to flip and run with them, as they try to go over the top. When the ball gets thrown up the seams or on slot fades, he plays through the receiver, but with his eyes on the ball, to dislodge it. Moehrig was asked to cap over slot receivers and take them in man quite a bit when the Horned Frogs blitzed their nickel, or match number three’s in trips alignment. In one-on-one coverage, he is not afraid to squat on routes and has great short-area burst to contests slants, but also the speed to trail receivers across the field. Either way, he sticks with his man even when the play is extended and won’t just freelance. Moehrig also plenty of experience rotating into the deep middle in free-man situations, where his range allows him to make plays anywhere between the numbers. His football IQ and awareness as a zone defender are really illustrated by the way he can match patterns and anticipate routes, but also just grasping what head coach Gary Patterson asks from their safeties, in terms of all the different pre- and post-snap adjustments. Therefore, he allowed just under half of the targets his way to be completed last season (20 of 41), with one touchdown compared to two INTs and eight forced incompletions, for a passer rating of 51.7.
When he is in man-coverage, Moehrig takes a couple of steps down and totally sits on the receiver, which allows some guys to blow by him with a running start. Texas’ Devin Duvernay did so in 2019 for a touchdown of almost 50 yards. It makes him susceptible to double-moves, plus him needing to put hands on the receiver at the top to stay in position will be flagged at the next level. Last season, I thought he found himself around the catch-point a lot, but couldn’t make a play on the ball, which is due to him not very imposing in that regard. Moehrig is still certainly a bit an ankle-tackler, who dives at the legs of the ball-carrier instead of wrapping up. Some inconsistencies in that area could be a question-mark for single-high duty, which he is projected to play by most evaluators, in part because a certain physicality is missing to his, in order to play closer to the line of scrimmage. He also has to do a better job of protecting the inside when he is approaching the ball-carrier at the sideline.
Still, to me Moehrig is the best true single-high safety prospect in this class, which is a type of player that is highly sought after in the NFL. He may not have sideline-to-sideline range like those elite free safeties we have seen in the past, like Ed Reed or a prime Earl Thomas, but he can control everything in-between the numbers, he brings high intelligence and awareness to the table, has already shown major improvement as a space-tackler and was voted a team captain for every single game these last two years at TCU. I expect him to be the first safety off the board and possibly the only one came Thursday night of the draft.
3. Andre Cisco, Syracuse
6’0”, 205 pounds; JR
Barely a top-1000 overall recruit in 2018, Cisco started all but two games his freshman year and has been one of the most productive safeties in college football since then. He was named the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year and a first-team all-conference selection, thanks to being tied for the nation-lead with seven interceptions (first true freshman to do so in almost 70 years), to go along with line for passes broken up and 60 tackles. While the numbers did go down slightly, he still deflected and picked off five passes each (one returned to the house), to go along with a fumble forced and recovered each, earning second-team All-ACC honors. Last season he unfortunately tore his ACL two games in, when he had one pick.
Especially as a freshman, Cisco played a ton of single-high free safety and consistently stayed deeper than the deepest. However, the Orange started out in two-high looks a large amount of time and rolled one of them into the deep middle, which brought Cisco down into the flats or as a robber, plus of course staying in quarters to some degree. The speed and fluidity in the hips are excellent for this young man. He shows good sink in his lower half and a very easy pedal to gain depth, but once he reacts, he can cover a lot of ground in little time. You see him drift one way and then flip and run over to the opposite numbers, before high-pointing the ball on multiple picks in his career. When he has to turn his back to quarterback up the post initially as a receiver is pushing that way, he does a great job re-locating the ball and getting a hand on it. Plus, he has the anticipation and situational awareness to come up from depth and shut down mesh concepts and stuff like that, to avoid easy third-down conversions. That feel for when to shoot downhill is something really jumped off the screen on a few occasions. Cisco is just a play-maker, who knows what to do once the ball is in his hands, as he recorded 143 interception return yards in his career.
While I – and probably the NFL as well – like him best at free safety, he has the size and skill-set to take on box duties, plus he was brought down as a robber quite a bit as well, where he cut in front of several receivers, as he saw the quarterback release the ball. When he drives on routes underneath, he hits with the shoulder through the side of where the ball is placed, in order to knock it loose, if he can’t get his own hands on it. And covering underneath, he is a threat to undercut any routes out to the flats, especially if quarterbacks don’t drive the ball as hard as they can. Cisco wasn’t always put in the best situations, playing 15 yards deep and getting matched up against slot receivers with a two-way go. He also has quality reps in man-coverage against tight-ends and number three’s in trips, where his speed and loose hips allow him to stick with his guy throughout the pattern and leading into scramble drills, as he is threat to step in front of those late passes, when QBs try to still force something. While he won’t always just shoot up the alley in run support, the Cuse’ young standout was surprisingly effective with his ankle tackling and thanks to his range could limit some potentially explosive plays. He has the size to bring down big running backs in solo-fashion and deal with tight-ends working up to him in the run game.
Yet, Cisco’s angles and breakdowns in run support need plenty of help, being made look foolish on several occasions. As a tackler, he constantly allows extra yardage due to leaving his feet. Cisco doesn’t come downhill against the run very aggressively, but at the same time gets drawn in by play-action way too much I feel like. He doesn’t play up to his size as a box-defender and also in the open field, he is not looking to attack blockers. As crazy as it may sound for a guy who led the nation in picks, I think Cisco is a little too passive when the route pattern has developed and there’s a chance to drive on routes in front of him. And for as many plays as he made on the ball for the Cuse, he also was responsible for quite a few as well. PFF charged him for six TDs in 2019, including getting beat across his face on a post route by Tutu Atwell for a 90-yard touchdown in the Louisville game. When you watch his career interception reel, five or six of those 13 basically were thrown right into his hands, either off a deflection or just bad ball-placement – not saying the other ones weren’t impressive.
Even though I have already proclaimed my love for UCF’s Richie Grant, I think Cisco is one of the better combo safeties we have seen come out recently, with plenty of ball-production to his name. Rarely do I think players actually live up to the kind of numbers Cisco has made on the ball, but while there are some less-impressive ones, he also creates some big ones. You can do a lot with him in terms of coverage rotations and being interchangeable with multiple positions. Of course health will be a factor in the evaluation, but ACL surgeries are nothing major nowadays and his size makes injuries less of a concern.
4. Elijah Molden, Washington
5’11”, 190 pounds; SR
The son of former NFL defensive back Alex Molden and former top-200 overall recruit, Molden played in all 27 games his first two years in the Pacific Northwest as a backup, before he really broke onto the scene as a junior, when he led the Huskies with 79 tackles, 5.5 of them for loss, four INTs and 12 passes broken up, earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors. Last season UW only played four games, but Molden added another 26 tackles and a pick, while repeating first-team all-conference honors.
Molden basically played pure nickel for the Huskies in 2019, primarily on the wide side of the field, before he was actually used in some more deep safety assignments this past season. He displays tremendous acceleration and can carry slot fade routes down the field. Therefore, he is not scared of getting beat down the seams, putting his body in front receivers, and then he has the light feet to stop right there against curl or hook routes, while using those subtle jersey-tugs that don’t get flagged, to help himself. When receivers snap their head around, as they break inside after pushing vertically, Molden gets his eyes on the quarterback as well to see if the ball is coming out, while staying in phase with his man. He is super physical against underneath routes and even with outside leverage in man-coverage, he will not get picked on with shallow crossers, sticking with slot guys and bringing them down right as they catch the ball for minimal yardage. And he has the great mobility in his lower body, to be caught a little bit off balance, but quickly get back into position, flipping around by nearly 180 degrees when receivers stem one way and then break the other. Molden was even asked to man up against H-backs and wings, trailing them on motions and sift blocks. Over these last two years combined, he has allowed 72 of 111 targets his way to be completed, but only for 675 yards and two touchdowns, compared to five picks (over 600 coverage snaps). And his passer rating surrendered has gone down all three years with the Huskies.
Being used more in two-high shells for quarters coverage and be more deceptive with their defensive rotations last season. Molden has experience with a variety of responsibilities in zone coverage. He excels at driving on routes from those deep alignments or rotating down as a robber and he was even blitzed all the way 10-12 yards off, as the Huskies switched to a single-high coverage. When covering shallow zones (hooks and flats), he displays active feet and high football intelligence, to decipher through route patterns. His hips may stay square to the line of scrimmage, but he drifts sideways ever so slightly, to not give open throwing windows to somebody right behind him. He does a good job of slightly re-routing receivers and putting his hands on them, before passing them on to the next area. This guy plays with his hair on fire, when he sees an opportunity to get to the ball. He quickly transitions forward, as the ball is thrown underneath, and hits receivers at the hip level. Molden fights hard to get around blocks in the screen and perimeter run game. I love the way he shoots downhill and throws his body around, often times dipping underneath bigger bodies to get to the ball – even with offensive linemen getting out there. Yet, at the same time, he doesn’t blindly jump on bubbles on the backside of run plays, but rather keeps his shoulders square and shuffles along. And you can rely on him to bring down the guy with the ball, illustrated by only 22 missed tackles on 172 career attempts.
When Molden can get his hands on receivers and stay over the top, he can make it tough for them to get into their routes, but if he gets his back towards the quarterback and the receiver can break either way, he can lose them at times. He can get a little impatient against stutter releases and prematurely open his hips. And then he tends to get caught trying to reach for receivers when he just gives up one step of separation instead of continuing to pump his arms, in order to maximize his speed and actually get back into phase. While I believe Molden could play more safety at the next level, he doesn’t have a lot of experience at the collegiate level and his lack of length at 5’10”, with only 29 ½-inch arms could present some issues.
With that being said, I’m not one to get scared off too much by measurements, if they aren’t required for a certain role. I wouldn’t expect Molden to be matched up tight-ends on passing downs a whole lot, but he has the recovery skills and competitiveness to be a pest for slot receivers. With 18 plays on the ball in the 17 games over these last two years, he has proven to be an impact player in that regard. And while his role was pretty limited at UW, the athletic ability and smarts aren’t missing. Molden could be one of the better nickels in the league as a rookie and take on more responsibilities, as he develops.
5. Jamar Johnson, Indiana
6’1”, 200 pounds; JR
Just outside the top-1000 overall recruits in 2018, Johnson saw just 15 snaps on defense as a freshman, doing most of his work on special teams. In year two, he split snaps at slot corner, recording three sacks and two interception, with one of them taken back to the house. This past season as a junior, he started all eight games at free safety officially, even though he played all over the field, recording 42 total tackles, four interceptions and four more passes broken up, which earned him first-team All-Big Ten notice.
Johnson was basically a nickel in 2019, who played just over 300 total snaps, but then last season became a versatile piece for that Hoosier defense. He did everything from single-high, two-deep, box duties and even blitzed from deep alignment a few times. He is a self-proclaimed see-ball, get-ball type of player, who brings a lot of energy to the table. Johnson plays with great verocity and never seems to shy away from contact. You see him rip underneath blockers a lot, in order to create an angle to the ball, and when he is walled off, he will blow through tight-ends and doesn’t mind mixing it up with offensive linemen even. Johnson does a great job of setting the edge in the run game, squeezing down to not allow any crease, while keeping his weight shifted to the outside. His shoulders stay square versus backside bubbles or when shuffling with RPO. So I would stay, he takes care of his assignment, until it’s time to commit, and then he chases at full speed. Plus, on top of that, he is sneaky with his alignments and body language, to not be accounted for properly in the run game. He has sudden shiftiness as a blitzer, dipping underneath blockers, but he also won’t hesitate to run through somebody in his way. You see him chase down running backs from behind and make quarterbacks uncomfortable that way. He was all over the field in the Ohio State game last year, baiting the offense to run the ball by acting like he was bailing out, disguising coverages, picking off Justin Fields twice and he ran over running back Master Teague on a blitz, who outweighs him by a good 20 pounds.
When Johnson is playing deep safety, you routinely see quarterbacks pull the ball down and get off post routes and stuff like that. He has the oily hips to play some single-high and flip around when he sees the quarterback try to go down the opposite hash of where he is leaning towards. Indiana blitzed their corners quite a bit and Johnson was asked to cap over the top. However, I like him better when using his ability to drive on routes in quarters or coming down as a robber and taking away passing lanes. In shallow zone coverage, he is following the eyes of the quarterback and drops underneath routes on the sideline, if there’s nobody in his area. And he is crafty with giving quarterbacks different looks, to check in and out of plays. His experience as a slot corner certainly helps his value, where he is physical with carrying receivers down the seams. And he has the burst to get back into the action after having to bubble over the top against mesh concepts and wrap up the receiver on the shallow crosser, as the ball arrives there. He had an incredible play just like the in the 2019 Ohio State game, where he stood up his man and allowed a secondary defender to put a hit on the ball, which created a fumble. Plus, he excels at playing through the hands of receivers with his back to the ball. Over the course of his career, Johnson was targeted in coverage 44 times – he didn’t allow a single touchdown and intercepted seven of those passes. Last season, quarterbacks who targeted him in coverage, had a passer rating of 27.5
However, Johnson’s experience is fairly limited, with just under 800 total snaps in his career. He has 18 missed tackles on 80 career attempts, where he just dives at the legs of ball-carriers too much, especially approaching from deep alignments. And when he’s coming from over the top, he sells out for making plays on the ball, without securing the tackle first. While I appreciate how physical Johnson is for a 200-pound guy, because he lacks length (barely 30-inch arms), he has a problem with blockers getting right in his face, especially lining up right over the slot. He misses the jam and lunges in press-coverage against inside receivers on a few occasions, plus then tries to grab desperately, which automatically draws a flag. Running the 40 in 4.58 at the Hoosier pro day does not match up with the tape, but is of course not a glowing endorsement and he had pretty averge numbers across the board. So I don’t think he will deployed as a single-high safety a whole lot at the next level.
This was one of my favorite safeties to watch in this class, because of how much bigger he plays than his size indicates, how deceptive he is, his understanding for the game and the play-maker he has already been at the collegiate level. Johnson’s long speed and overall athleticism are average, but he more than makes up for it with those smarts, to be a step ahead of the competition. I believe he should be utilized more around the line of scrimmage by his future NFL team and if his coaches can teach him not go for those feast-or-famine press reps as much, he can be a highly valuable nickel as well, who would be a threat to blitz off the edge on any given play.
6. Ar’Darius Washington, TCU
5’8”, 180 pounds; RS SO
A three-star recruit in 2018, Washington barely saw action in four games as a freshman and therefore was able to preserve his redshirt. Then, he really broke out in year two, recording 35 solo tackles and five interceptions and was eligible to win Big-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. In nine games this past season, he couldn’t haul in any picks, but did break up four passes and come up with 25 more solo stops, making him an honorable mention all-conference selection.
First and foremost, his size does not define Washington as a player, much like it didn’t with quite a few of the these smaller safety prospects in recent years. He was primarily used as the boundary side safety in TCU’s defense, but also has experience as the plus one in the box, with Trevon Moehrig taking on single-high duties. Washington shows no hesitation of running through a lane, when it opens up in front of him and meeting the ball-carrier in the hole created off toss or sweep plays. When he’s operating closer to the line of scrimmage, I love the way he positions his body to take care of his own assignment and then is able to chase once his job is done. He is an outstanding open-field tackler, who throttles down to a balanced position and clamps the legs of the ball-carrier, to where there’s no getting away from him, plus he uses the sideline as a friend with the way he leverages himself and takes away space. His success at bringing down running backs – which usually outweigh him by quite a bit – is remarkable. Against Texas last year on a third-and-short, Washington banged so hard into the slot receiver trying to block him, that guy actually looked back at his own quarterback with the ball, who was trying to get out to the edge (even though the Longhorns still converted, simply because Sam Ehlinger is such a load to bring down).
In terms of coverage duties, TCU played a lot of quarters, where you see Washington race up quickly, in order to contest any in-breaking routes, but also seems to have no issue turning and running with slot fades. He trusts his athleticism to squat at that ten-yard depth and defend the sticks, if he ends up being matched up one-on-one. That also shows because the Horned Frogs like to blitz their corners on that short side and the safety caps over the top. And then Washington was asked to drop down into the slot and cover in man quite a bit as well, where he has the change-of-direction and speed to be highly effective, plus he is very competitive at the catch point and in general and attacks the ball at its highest point. Washington has that quick twitch to undercut a bunch of in-breakers and the speed to work over the top of mesh concepts and be right there again as the receiver catches the ball. No matter his task in coverage, his ability to close down space in a hurry is a big factor in not allowing plays to actually break open. And his ball-production went down so much last season, because I feel like teams didn’t really throw a whole lot in his direction. Since the start of the 2018 season, this guy has been responsible for just seven first downs in coverage. And similar to what I said about his now-former partner in crime Trevon Moehrig, the defensive coaching staff put a lot on his plate and Washington’s intelligence, in combination with his feel for the position, allowed him to succeed.
With that being said, his aggressiveness in run support bites him in the butt at times, as he gets drawn up and the back bounces outside, where there’s nobody left on that side of the field he is responsible for, and it comes down to him and the corner trying to chase down the ball-carrier from behind. It also makes him vulnerable to play-action, where he then has to recover from putting himself out of position. Washington’s lack of size shows up, when he actually has to deal with blocks and his limited length makes it hard to disengage. In terms of how it affects him in coverage – when bigger bodies have position him, they don’t allow him to get his hands on the ball, by shielding him with their frame. And he could be a target for jump-balls despite the way he approaches the ball, just because the average NFL receiver has five inches of height on him. Some teams may project him as a free safety or nickel prospect only, but he only played 113 snaps in single-high alignment last season.
This young man arguably has the best instincts in this draft class. The size definitely a limiting factor, but Washington plays much bigger. He offers plenty of versatility, if you can just protect him from matching up against big slot receivers a whole lot. His size didn’t really hurt him at the collegiate level, so there is some projecting to be done. At his size to be running a 4.61 and then for the missed-tackle numbers to go from six to almost 18 percent is concerning, but considering the entirety of his career, he is still far above-average in that regard. I believe if he had prototype size for the position, Washington would be a first-round pick.
7. Jevon Holland, Oregon
6’1”, 200 pounds; JR
A former four-star recruit, in his two years as a starter with the Ducks, Holland has combined for 71 solo tackles, nine interceptions (including one pick-six) and ten more passes deflected. He became the first player for Oregon to lead his team in interceptions in back-to-back seasons since Jairus Byrd (2006 & 2007), yet somehow was also an honorable mention All-Pac-12 selection in 2019 and then opted out of this past season, when the conference only decided to “join the party” late.
While Holland shows up here in the safeties, he basically played pure nickel for Oregon, where he was put in a lot of off man and some shallow zone-coverage. When he is responsible for the flats or hook areas, he does not flinch when the receiver across from him pushes vertically, but rather just opens up a little bit to pass him on to the deep safety, and when he sees quarterbacks initiate their throwing motion, he quickly opens that way and chases down the receiver. In off-man, he stays very patient, sitting on receivers and re-routes them when they get to him, where he displays physicality, when those guys try to get into their breaks. However, he also has pretty fluid hips, to flip multiple times on a play. And he leverages receivers well, where he may open with an outside release, but keeps that inside position, to force them to work across his face and then uses the sideline as that extra defender. Then, when the ball hangs up in the air, he feels comfortable finding and attacking it, or plays through the mitts of the receiver at full extension. He had a beautiful one-handed pass- breakup in the 2019 Pac-12 title game against Utah down the middle of the field.
Holland is usually a very dependable edge-setter in the run game, especially when he comes into the box, as his man is put in-line, actively working upfield rather than sitting and waiting back there. He plays with good extension through blocks and keeps vision on the ball-carrier. What really stands out is the closing burst he displays, racing up on scrambling on quarterbacks to force throw-aways or slipping underneath the blocker and shutting down screen passes. He is a highly reliable tackler in space, but you also see him do a nice job of hitting through the ball as it arrives at the target, to separate the two from each other. While he didn’t do a ton of it, Holland also offers some extra as a punt-returner, where he had a near punt-return touchdown against Auburn in the 2019 season-opener and averaged 15.3 yards on his 16 returns. While Holland did allow 44 of 69 targets his way to be completed in 2019, only two of them went for touchdowns and he picked off four passes himself, for a passer rating of 69.2.
With that in mind, Holland won’t be able to play off and just shove or catch receivers at the next level, simply because there’s a penalty for illegal contact in the NFL. He is rarely in press-alignment and actually dictates the stem of routes. And for a true nickel, he doesn’t necessarily have that lightning quick change of direction or loose lower body, to attach to the hip-pocket of his man right out of the break. Holland made some pretty darn impressive plays on the ball as a freshman, but when you look at his 2019 interception reel, it is very underwhelming and more about him being in the right place at the right time. He got one on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half against Cal, where the ball died on the QB, a late throw over the middle on third-and-forever versus Washington State, an underthrown ball down the seams against Stanford and another one on a slot fade versus Auburn, which was probably the best one. And I think he has to do a better job of not allowing receivers to stack him on slot fade routes.
This is the one name of this safety class, that everybody seems to have universally accepted as a top three or at least top five prospect. Holland just had an impressive pro day showing, highlighted by a 4.46 in the 40, and I don’t want to take anything away from him, but let’s just acknowledge that he had a full year to just prepare for that one day. To me what it boils down to is a player, who basically was a pure nickel corner in college, who has a little bit of stiffness in the lower body for that specific spot and whose athletic testing does not translate to the field in the same way. I think the physicality and tackling skills in the run game, as well as the ability to attack the ball down the field are there to play more safety at the next level, while offering value as a chess piece against big slot receivers, but the tape didn’t blow me away.
8. Hamsah Nasirildeen, Florida State
6’3”, 215 pounds; SR
Just outside the top-100 overall recruits back in 2017, Nasirildeen played for extended stretches as a freshman already and then started in 11 games each of 2018 and ‘19. As a junior, he recorded 61 solo tackles (just over 100 total), three interceptions (including a pick-six) and PBUs each, to go with three forced fumbles, before tearing his ACL late in the year, which also sidelined him for all but two games last year. In 2019, he was named a second-team All-ACC selection.
A more unique athlete like this brings tremendous versatility to a defense, to play pretty much anywhere in the secondary or drop down into the box. Nasirildeen was largely deployed as a single-high safety in 2019, before FSU played more quarters coverage last year and lined him up over the slot. In man-coverage on inside receivers, Nasirildeen has the explosiveness to squeeze underneath them on in-breaking routes and make plays on the ball. Having a 34 ½-inch arms (83-inch wingspan) – which is just stupid for a safety – allows him to just get his fingertips on the ball or knock the ball out of the receiver’s mitts. And what excites me most, where that length is a major plus, is playing press-coverage, where he can dictate route-stems, against tight-ends especially. Last season, he allowed 15 of 24 targets his way to be completed, with one touchdown and pick each, for a passer rating slightly below 70. While the Seminole coaches put him closer to the line of scrimmage last season and that’s where I envision him to make more of an impact at the next level, putting a safety of Hamsah’s dimensions in the deep middle is due to the incredible range he presents, to go with nice fluidity and ball-skills, to get involved at the catch point. And his pure speed allows him to beat blockers to the spot, when the sees a delayed screen throw underneath.
Nasirildeen shows a lot of urgency to get to the guy with the ball and takes him down effectively. He usually stays under great control and keeps his shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage, when he comes downhill, especially effective out of those split-safety looks. His speed to close the distance to the ball-carrier from deep alignments is crazy and he brings some thump, when he can square those guys up- Just watch the first two series from FSU’s 2019 season-opener against Boise State, when he ends the first one by putting his helmet right on the ball to force a fumble and then literally blows through his cleats when he made another tackle on the latter one. You see Nasirildeen at times make contact with running backs as he tries to get through the playside B-gap, coming all the way from the opposite hash. At the same time I love how patient he is with breaking down and wrestling down ball-carrier as an open field tackler, plus he uses very consistent angles, which manifests itself in only 22 missed tackles on 233 attempts in his career. However, don’t you mistake him for some kind of drag-tackler – he will lower the boom when he can get a clean shot on somebody over the middle. First defensive play of the Duke game last season, the Seminoles have the running back stood up and the play is basically over, but you just see the force of Hamsah has, when he arrives there late and basically bowls the whole pile over. His length also is an asset in clean his frame clean against blockers. And I love what I saw, when the Seminoles sent him on blitzes from depth and the way he charges down like a rocket.
On the flipside, Nasirildeen is too conservative in deep coverage and doesn’t really trust his eyes yet. When he plays quarters or buzzes down, he plays a little flat-footed at times, which limits how quickly he can get from zero to 100. When he can put hands on people at the line and control their routes from the start, Hamsah can be very effective in man-coverage, but when he has to play off, there is some stiffness and uncomfort that you can identify. His size will always give him some issues in that regard. You saw that against some of the dynamic receivers during Senior Bowl week. There is a lack of ball-production, with only 13 combined passes defensed in his career and his one interception last season came off a deflection, right into his hands. And of course, we have seen a bunch of these sort of body types, who are described as hybrids, have a tough time sticking at one spot at the next level. Mostly, they need a coaching staff that has a clear vision for him, rather than letting his play dictate it.
The best thing Nasirildeen did down in Mobile was playing press-man against tight-ends. You saw a glimpse into what could be his specialty in the league. To me he projects best as a versatile piece, who can be deployed in multiple ways depending on down and distance, but you have to find a defined role on base downs for him. Whether it’s as a box safety or maybe even SAM backer/big nickel, depending on his future team’s scheme. Hamsah has also has logged over 500 snaps on special teams, which is big for a guy whose coaches might want to limit his responsibilities early on, and with a guy, who has been called “war daddy” and very coachable by his college coaches, you know you have something to work with.
9. Tyree Gillespie, Missouri
6’0”, 205 pounds; SR
A former three-star recruit, after barely seeing the field his freshman year, Gillespie has been one of the best safeties in the SEC these last three seasons, even though he never received any all-conference recognition, because he simply didn’t put up the stats to back up his play. Over that stretch, he recorded 100 solo tackles, two sacks and 12 pass break-ups. The only start he missed since mid-October of 2018 was due to a targeting penalty and he has excelled in the SEC since then.
Gillespie played a ton of single-high free safety for the Tigers (76.8 percent of snaps last season as a deep safety), where he was very dependable at coming upfield and bringing the ball-carrier to the ground, even running backs, who outweigh him by a significant margin. He takes great angles towards the sideline on any outside runs and uses it as that 12th defender. Because of that, he ends up taking away a lot of big-play opportunities. When he has to rotate down due to motion, he won’t get caught out of position, because he gets to the right spot before the ball is snapped and can stay balanced. Gillespie is an outstanding open-field tackler overall, who wraps up and takes down ball-carriers to great effect. He only missed 25 of his 171 career tackling attempts, despite having to bring down some of these great SEC backs, often in solo fashion, and you see him come into the screen late constantly, when you watch the tight camera angle on the All-22. He has also been blitzed all the way from a deep middle alignment and got to the quarterback in a hurry a few times.
As a deep middle free safety, Gillespie wasn’t only expected to make those high-difficulty tackles in space, but also limit what teams can do with going over the top in the passing game. He has no issues drifting from one hash to the other, nor do you see him stumble when executing speed-turns, if his hips are opened the other way, and he finds the target or attacks the ball himself. And when he is matched up with somebody downfield, Gillespie usually doesn’t panic, turning his head around and sticking a hand out, to knock the ball down. The versatile Mizzou safety can also man up against big-bodied tight-ends to great effect, the few times he was deployed that way. He held Florida’s Kyle Pitts in check pretty well for example. However, he really showed out against Alabama last season, lighting up and separating Devonta Smith from the ball on a slant route, tracking down Jaylen Waddle on a jet sweep from deep middle alignment for minimal yardage and making some keep stops on Najee Harris, including one at the goal-line.
The elephant in the room here for any defensive back – Gillespie did not have a single interception in his collegiate career. I don’t remember the last time a safety with no picks was selected before day three and even then, I can’t come up with any notable name in recent years either. Gillespie needs to anticipate throws and actually attack routes more aggressively. He is also susceptible to letting quarterbacks move him to some degree or force him to open up the other way, that guy wants to go with the ball. There are some limitations in terms of range for a true deep-middle safety and he doesn’t have the rapid change-of-direction to be a major asset in man-coverage against slot receivers. You saw that to some degree during Senior Bowl week, where he had a tough time staying phase with a few guys there.
Still, you are talking about a high post safety, who is impeccable with choosing the appropriate angles and limiting big plays on the ground, doesn’t allow receivers to get behind him and is an all-world tackler. Gillespie surprised me with a 4.38 in the 40 at the Mizzou pro day, even though the other numbers across the board were all slightly below-average. He may not have been a play-maker in college, but there is something to be said about a safety playing the position safe-ly. If you are looking for that type of piece at the back-end of your defense, I think Gillespie deserves consideration to be picked late on day two.
10. James Wiggins, Cincinnati
6’0”, 205 pounds; RS SR
A former top-1000 overall recruit, Wiggins redshirted his first year on campus and then barely saw the field as a freshman. In year two, he entered the starting lineup and became a second-team All-AAC selection right away, with 54 total tackles, four interceptions, with one them taken back to the house, and five more passes broken up. Unfortunately, he missed the 2019 season with a torn ACL, but then came back last year and turned himself into a first-team all-conference player, coming up with a pick and six more PBUs.
Wiggins made Bruce Feldman’s freak list three years in a row and was also called “The Freak” within Cincinnati’s program, while coaches spoke glowingly about the young man. After primarily being deployed in the slot in 2018, Wiggins pretty much evenly split time between deep safety, in the box and slot respectively last season. He accelerates up the alley with his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage and while it won’t look impressive on the stat sheet, he makes a lot of stops for four/five yards, as the running back gets past the second level. From two-high alignments or the edge of the box, he shows some suddenness to work around blockers and wrap up the ball-carrier from the side, as that guy tries to go through the hole. As a nickel in the Bearcats defense, Wiggins is super-effective at using his hands t
o not let blockers to touch him at all. He does a great job of squaring up ball-carriers as a tackler, initiating with low pads and shooting his hips through contact to limit any additional yardage, while effectively wrapping up their legs on an angle. Plus, when quarterbacks go over the middle late, when he can race up from depth, they can give their receivers some headaches, because Wiggins will blow them up. Overall, he only 11 missed tackles on just under 100 attempts his last two years combined.
As a coverage defender, Wiggins is really light on his feet and has some heat under his ass when he drives on the ball. You see him in split-safety looks with a 15-yard cushion on the slot receiver and not even be in a pedal, but push that guy out of bounds right after he catches a short out route at times. Yet, at the same time, he legitimately has the range to widen in cover-two and cover multiple vertical routes on the trips side. That also makes him a valuable deep middle safety, where he looks so comfortable moving backwards and shutting down anything down the post, to go with punishing any late throws, when he can target receivers in front of him with a runway. You saw that in last year’s UCF game, when the ball was slightly behind Marlon Williams and he heard Wiggins’ footsteps, which ended with the receiver getting blown up anyway and fellow safety Darrick Forrest coming up with a huge pick, down three, early in the fourth quarter. As a nickel, he shows no fear of squatting on routes, because he knows he has the explosion to get back into the receiver’s hip pocket on underneath stuff or back into phase on vertical patterns, while often forcing them to go through his body. You saw that in the 2018 SMU game, where he lined up five yards off James Proche on a quick-in route and undercut the pass for a game-winning pick-six in overtime. He is certainly not the type of guy you target on slot fades and stuff like that, because you think you can get chunk plays against him. Last season, Wiggins allowed pretty much half of the targets his way to completed last season (20 of 39), with two TDs and one INTs, for a passer rating of 70.7.
However, at times, Wiggins comes in too hot when he’s lined up over slot receivers on quick hitches or smoke routes, because he is so eager to bring them down for no gain. His superior athleticism allowed him to see routes develop and just beat receivers to those spots, but against NFL guys, he will be tested much more and put on his heels. And when he does have to move backwards, there’s a hitch before he gets moving forward again. I saw multiple miscommunications or missed assignments on pick-plays and switching receivers between Wiggins and the outside corner. When defending the run, if blockers can cut off angles to the ball and he has to actually engage, Wiggins is much less effective and won’t impact the play on many occasions.
Like I already kind of mentioned, Wiggins is a freakish athlete, which he illustrated once again at Cincinnati’s pro day, where he had a 4.40 flat 40-yard dash, 38-inch vert, 10-foot-7-inch broad jump and 22 reps on the bench. In his case in particular, he will be tested more in the NFL, but the capability to cover players in space is certainly there. I believe Wiggins can truly play any spot in the secondary other than outside corner. He can cover in man, drive on routes as a zone defender, effective in run support as well as bringing ball-carriers to the ground and he hits harder than his size would indicate. We just have to see how it will transfer to the next level.
Just missed the cut:
Richard LeCounte, Georgia
5’11”, 190 pounds; SR
Once the number two safety recruit in the country, LeCounte was a backup as a freshman, but then took over as a starter and has been one of the best safeties in the country these last three years. Over that stretch (33 games), he recorded 161 total tackles, 6.5 of them for loss, eight interceptions, 11 PBUs, four fumbles forced and six recovered. It took him a while to get recognized for his play, but he was finally a first-team All-SEC selection this past season, after he could have easily entered the 2020 NFL draft.
The measurements don’t blow you away at 5’11”, 190 pounds, but if anybody told him so, he didn’t listen. LeCounte has long arms and plays like a 220-pound box safety. This guy is just a flying missile on the field, He does not hesitate to race up the alley and force jet sweep or end-arounds back inside by taking on the outside shoulder of a blocker at full. You routinely see him throw his body around and funnel the ball back to his help, I just love the physicality and energy he plays with, his angles depth really limit the free yardage surrendered and he uses the sideline as that extra defender, LeCounte rarely takes the worst of collisions and brings down bigger bodies at a high rate, delivering some big shots if he has a runway to the ball-carrier. LeCounte was utilized on several occasions as a blitzer from distance and has a little wiggle to make the back miss, while pursuing the ball with an attitude. After missing 15 tackles in 2018, he has cut down that number pretty well these last two years, with 14 combined on 87 attempts. LeCounte has experience with pretty much any responsibility in coverage – single high, quarters, matching number three’s in man in trips sets. He is smooth in his pedal and natural with his ability to anticipate route patterns, Lets the quarterback’s eyes lead him to the ball and blows up several receivers coming across the field from a deep alignment. Plus, he hits across the body of receivers and tight-ends coming down the seams and dislodges the ball that way. And when the target is slightly overthrown on those, he is a threat to catch it himself. LeCounte allowed only half of the ten targets his way to be completed last season, with one touchdown compared to three interceptions. He came up with the game-sealing pick against Baylor in the 2020 Sugar Bowl and he made a great diving INT to start the Alabama game early in 2020. In man-coverage, he plays with good patience and feels comfortable turning his head against slot fade routes, while Georgia asks their safeties to rotate late a whole bunch, looking to be deceptive to the offense, which put a lot of pressure on those two guys, who were still racing to certain spots, as they read the play develop
However, at times he gets overzealous and doesn’t throttle down to make tackles, which leads to a few misses. He can get a little too aggressive with his angles and gets sucked inside, plus then he doesn’t have that top-end speed to make up for it necessarily. Lecounte doesn’t have true free safety range and I wouldn’t trust him against really dynamic receivers in man-coverage, because despite being a little undersized, he doesn’t have that twitchy ability to change directions. His feet get stuck in the mud at times, when slot receivers jab to the post and then break on a corner route. I think he had one rep against Jaylen Waddle in the 2020 Alabama and almost tackled him immediately. Running in the high 4.7s at the Georgia pro day might cost him a couple of rounds.
This whole situation reminds me a lot of Rams safety Jordan Fuller coming out of Ohio State last year, who ran in the high 4.6s and made me shy away from quite making him a top ten safety in that class, even though his smarts in coverage rarely put him in bad positions – and he ended up being one of the top rookie safeties in the league. LeCounte is very similar to me and I’m kind of annoyed at myself already for having him just on the outside looking in. Those testing numbers are usually borderline undraftable, but man, do I enjoy watching his brand of football.
Divine Deablo, Virginia Tech
6’3” ½, 225 pounds; RS SR
A former top-500 overall recruit as a receiver, Deablo saw action in every game as a freshman, but only caught one pass, to go with his work on special teams. He transitioned to defense in year two, but suffered a season-ending injury four games in. He missed two games each in 2018 and ’20 due to injury and COVID protocols respectively, but started every other one. As a senior, he collected four of his six career interceptions and four additional passes broken up. Over the course of his career, he was also a negative-play specialist from the safety, recording 12.5 tackles for loss.
This is a massive safety prospect, whose height and weight are both in the 98th percentile for the position. Deablo spent 82.5 percent of snaps between box safety and the slot these last three years (slightly more box and slot), as the Hokies’ field-side safety or on the strong side, depending on where the tight-end lines up. He lays with a good bounce to his step as a box defender and shoots through gaps without hesitation. He’s an outstanding edge-setter when lined up there, shuffling along with wide zone plays, while keeping his shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage and being able to work against the flow, once the running backs puts his foot in the ground. When he’s matched up with H-backs, they shift sides and create a new gap in the run game, Deablo has the speed to flow there and still get back under control to make a stop in the hole. He was also blitzed quite a bit on run downs and produced negative plays that way, by being kind of slippery and finding a way to wrap up the ball-carriers. He is a very effective tackler, breaking down on ball-carriers to his side in split-safety looks, or coming across the field, to limit big plays. Deablo quickly gains ground when widening in cover-two and won’t let anybody get behind him. Overall, he stays under great balance in zone-coverage, while having the burst to quickly close distances when the quarterback locks his eyes on the throw. He was routinely put over tight-ends and showed the ability to carry them across or down the field with tight coverage in man. He was asked to cover slot receivers with the nickel blitzing quite a bit, where he was playing way off, but displayed a pretty sudden burst to undercut out-routes. When you watch Deablo’s plays on the ball, he attacks it at full extensions and displays natural hands, where those 33-inch arms are definitely a plus. He only allowed 14 of 25 targets his way to be completed last season, with one TD compared to four picks, for a passer rating of 50.7. Among those, he made an incredible interception against Trevor Lawrence in the red-zone last season, where the Hokies were in a two-high shell and he came all the way over to the opposite hash, to high-point it. And he shows nice situational awareness, not blindly driving on quick-breaking routes on third-and-long.
At the same time, Deablo is not nearly the kind of wrecking ball as a deep safety, playing the run overly conservative from those alignments. He appears a little heavy-footed as a tackler, to where you see him struggle with the practical version of the run-shuffle-run drill on the field. He gets his eyes lost in the backfield at times and he only had one year of real ball production. While the athleticism at his size is impressive, I don’t think you Deablo will cover too many really quick slot receiver or be asked to carry them down the seams. And his testing numbers are better than his on-field speed. He doesn’t look very comfortable pedaling straight back and he doesn’t have that eyes-in-the-back quality, to where he feels routes behind him in shallow zone coverage and drift underneath them. Some teams may look at him as a safety/linebacker tweener and he won’t fit too many two-high heavy defenses.
This pre-draft process has been great for Deablo. First, he showcased quick feet and fluid hips at nearly 220 pounds during Senior Bowl week, and then he ran a 4.42 and had an 10’6” broad jump at Virginia Tech’s pro day. To me, he is that prototype strong safety in a Seattle-style cover-three defense, who also brings value covering tight-ends in man-coverage on passing downs. Deablo was a team captain for the Hokies and already was a key member of special team coverage units, with 739 career snaps and 17 tackles in that area.
Caden Sterns, Texas
6’1”, 205 pounds; JR
The number one safety recruit in the nation back in 2018, Sterns had a stellar debut season for the Longhorns, recording 62 tackles, three of them for loss, four interceptions and four more passes broken up. That made him the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year and a first team All-Big 12 honoree. In year two, he was limited to nine games due to a sprained knee and his ball-production dropped off dramatically (one pass defensed), even though he recorded four TFLs. Last season, he played the first seven games, before opting for the rest of the year. At that point he had picked off one pass and broken up another three.
The Longhorns coaches moved this guy more and more away from the ball, to use his play in space, spending 65.5 percent of snaps last season as a deep safety. Sterns has the range and instincts as deep-middle safety to make plays way outside the numbers routinely, while also bringing the ball-skills and leaping ability to high-point passes over the heads of receivers. You see him at times dead-center in the middle of the field and the offense throws a one-step fade, where the ball comes out immediately, and he puts a hit on the receiver going up for it right at the sideline. Because of that, you see quarterbacks place go routes and slot fades way outside consistently or just pass up opportunities to go down the sideline, when he widens in cover-two. And when the ball is thrown in front of him and the receiver has to elevate for it, that guy better really want it, to be able to hold onto it, as Sterns flips him. The former Texas safety also shows pretty good awareness for underneath routes as a robber and has the explosive burst, to cut underneath throws. That also allows him to make plays when playing man against inside receivers. While Sterns was used a lot in deep coverage, on passing downs especially, the Longhorns brought him down low from two-high looks at a pretty high rate, to create that plus one in the box, as you see him fill the B-gap without hesitation. From those split-safety looks, you can also watch him charge up the alley against outside runs and not them cross the line of scrimmage, when he’s unaccounted for. And when he arrives to the party late, he makes sure the ball-carrier goes backwards. From a free safety perspective, he has the burst to take away angles to the sideline despite working up rather aggressively against the run. At the same time, he has become reliable at breaking down on ball-carriers in space, and he doesn’t shy away from running into blockers in space. Plus, he also has the quickness to get around them and force ball-carriers to cut back towards the pursuit.
Unfortunately, like it is with a lot of big hitters, Sterns still tends to leave his feet too much and somebody has to tell him that he’s allowed to actually use his arms as a tackler, when racing up from distance. Overall, he has missed 31 of just over 200 career attempts, and he attacks the wrong shoulder of blockers routinely. He is also too aggressive with angles working down when trailing receivers across the field, allowing them to run by him at times, or when he should actually bubble over the top on pick-plays. In two-high shells, Sterns gets caught flat-footed and allows post routes to get behind him, even though they may be the responsibility of the opposite safety, but he should help deep. And while he has improved in that regard, he still allows quarterbacks to move him with their eyes in single-high duty, to open up throws down the opposite hash. His career PFF grade of 54.6 in man-coverage is very underwhelming. Sterns underwent a procedure on his patellar tendon early in 2019 and shoulder injuries could be common with the way he approaches ball-carriers.
I had this guy as a top-five safety in college football coming off his freshman year. However, while he has improved in some areas, I don’t know that he has objectively gotten better overall since then. I love the range and physicality he presents, he was put in a lot of tough situations and his athletic ability allowed him to still make plays. His pro day numbers once again reminded us of the athlete he really is, when he ran a 4.4 flat in the 40, had a 42-inch vert and an 11’1” broad jump. So while I wouldn’t count on him as a quality starter year one, he is an investment worth taking at the top of day three, if you can work on his anticipation in coverage.
The next names up:
Darrick Forrest (Cincinnati), Paris Ford & Damar Hamlin (Pittsburgh), Joshuah Bledsoe (Missouri), Talanoa Hufanga (USC), Jamien Sherwood (Auburn) & Shawn Davis (Florida)
For more coverage around the NFL and college football go to my page https://www.halilsrealfootballtalk.com and my Youtube channel