With the excellent quarterbacks flooding the NFL, team will need to find as many talented defensive backs as possible to slow opposing offenses down. After tirelessly watching tape and writing profiles this draft season, Dave Archibald is ready to hand out his 2016 NFL Draft safety superlatives.
Best Deep Coverage
Many of the best free safeties in the NFL were college cornerbacks, and it would not be a surprise to see the same apply to this class. Joseph is the only one listed here with prototypical centerfielder speed, and he plays more recklessly than one would like out of a backline defender. Perhaps a corner like Virginia Tech’s Kendall Fuller or Notre Dame’s KeiVarae Russell will become a top free safety at the next level.
1. Darius Thompson, Boise State
Facing the quarterback, Thompson makes the best use of his timing, understanding of passing concepts, and ball skills to break up and intercept passes from a variety of coverage looks. I would like to see more plays where he ranges from between the hashes to the sideline to break up a pass attacking the honey hole, which would allay concerns about his poor Combine testing.
2. Vonn Bell, Ohio State
Bell is an experienced zone defender who runs well and has good awareness of route concepts and his responsibilities. He played more two-high safety shells than one-high but shows good range.
3. DeAndre Houston-Carson, William & Mary
The Tribe often used Houston-Carson as a deep centerfielder and he showed good aptitude in this area. Has good instincts and awareness of developing routes and the explosiveness to drive downhill and make plays. Houston-Carson looked less comfortable in two-high-safety looks, playing a bit tentatively and not showing the same nose for the ball.
4. Karl Joseph, West Virginia
Joseph played a lot of deep zone in both one- and two- high shells at West Virginia and shows range and recognition to make plays from deep. He is a bit more tentative in two-high shells. He possesses solid coverage skills, but his tendency to go for splash plays rather than play it safe can be exposed downfield.
5. Deon Bush, Miami
Bush played both deep and in the box for the Hurricanes and showed the range to help on sideline routes from centerfield. He can drive forward and make jarring hits to disrupt deep dig routes or comebacks. Like Joseph, he will need to improve his consistency and reliability to succeed as a backline defender in the NFL.
Other opinions: Bill Carroll agrees with Thompson, Bell, Houston-Carson, and Joseph, but also makes the case for Georgia Southern’s Antonio Glover, Middle Tennessee State’s Kevin Byard, and Boston College’s Justin Simmons:
— Bill Carroll (@elevenbravo138) April 18, 2016
Best Man / Underneath Coverage
The rise of spread offenses at the college level means that many safety prospects have extensive experience lining man-to-man on slot corners and tight ends. A number of these players are hybrid cornerback / safeties, including Ramsey, Mills, Notre Dame’s KeiVarae Russell, and Maryland’s Sean Davis. Clemson’s Jayron Kearse and West Virginia’s K.J. Dillon stand out for their press man coverage against opposing tight ends.
1. Jalen Ramsey, Florida State
Ramsey’s ability to recognize routes and drive on them shows on the inside as well as on the outside. He demonstrates good awareness – he understands game situation, route concepts, and where his help is. His size and physical play makes him an ideal solution to match up on modern move tight ends like Jimmy Graham.
2. Vonn Bell, Ohio State
Bell runs well and shows the ability to pick up tight ends and slot receivers in man-to-man coverage, following them through breaks and vertical routes.
3. Karl Joseph, West Virginia
Joseph has the quickness and agility to stay with slot receivers in coverage. He lacks ideal size for defending tight ends.
4. Darius Thompson, Boise State
Boise State frequently used Thompson in the box or in the slot to cover tight ends and slot receivers. He is aggressive jumping routes and can stick tight with receivers through breaks and extended plays. Very quick players can give Thompson trouble – the long touchdown against Virginia running back Taquan Mizzell illustrates that he has no business covering certain receivers.
5. Jalen Mills, LSU
Extensive experience at slot cornerback. He has good press man skills and can stick with receivers downfield, though quick cuts from small players can give him trouble.
Not every team utilizes their strong safety in the pass rush, but, for those schemes that do, these players can make a difference with their blitzing.
1. Jeremy Cash, Duke
Cash often shoots gaps at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the offense, on both passing and running plays. Cash’s anticipation often makes him the first player reacting at the snap, putting him in the gap before blockers can react. He accelerates downhill and hits top speef very quickly. This acceleration helps him on designed blitzes, as well as delayed or green dog blitzes, and when keying and penetrating on running plays. Like most defensive backs, Cash doesn’t have an advanced pass-rushing repertoire and his frame doesn’t pose much of a challenge against offensive linemen in pass protection. When he times the snap and shoots a gap unblocked, Cash is disruptive; when his rush is picked up, offenses block him without much difficulty.
2. Jalen Ramsey, Florida State
The 21-year-old shows burst moving towards the quarterback and good agility working his way around blocks. As one might expect from a defensive back, Ramsey doesn’t have much of a repertoire if he’s picked up in the blitz. When blocked, he stays aware of the quarterback’s movement and reacts accordingly. If the offense waits to snap the ball, he can telegraph his rush. Perhaps his best quality blitzing is that same length that makes him so dangerous in press coverage; his reach cuts down on throwing lanes even if he can’t get to the quarterback, and he’s often able to deflect throws by jumping and swatting them.
3. Karl Joseph, West Virginia
Joseph lines up at outside linebacker at times and rushes from there. When he has a free release he can get after the quarterback in a hurry. He does not have moves to disengage from blockers, though he can occasionally fake out a blocker before he engages.
4. Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech
Fuller has experience blitzing the quarterback from the outside and from the slot, logging 3.5 career sacks. He disguises his rush well and accelerates quickly. Fuller stays aware of the run and reacts to handoffs. He looks for the strip sack when possible.
5. Jayron Kearse, Clemson
Kearse shows nice burst and acceleration on delayed or green dog blitzes and can make an impact rushing late in the down. He keeps contain and lane integrity on his rushes. Like most defensive backs, he does not have a pass-rushing repertoire to defeat blockers.
Other opinions: USC’s Su’a Cravens, like Cash, is a player some teams will evaluate as a safety and some as a linebacker. I did not evaluate him for this list:
@davearchie if you consider Su'a Cravens a safety then you've got your man. he's Deone Buchannon with better zone cover skills in my opinion
— Ikenna (@IkeEgbuch) April 23, 2016
Best Tackler / Run Defense
College defenses continue to blur the line between cornerbacks and safeties. Responsibility in the run game is one of the few areas where the groups differ.
1. Jeremy Cash, Duke
Cash is an outstanding tackler, dragging ball carriers down with force and technique. When he gets his hands on a running back or receiver, that player almost never breaks free. He can force fumbles with active use of his hands and solid technique. He keys and recognizes quickly in the running game, with few false steps. For the most part, Cash takes efficient routes to the ball, even from long distances. He can avoid cut blocks and congestion to get to the ball carrier. At times, Cash tries to dart inside to avoid blocks and loses outside contain. He moves well downhill, but his change-of-direction is less impressive and quick players can elude him in the open field.
2. Keanu Neal, Florida
Neal has prototypical strong safety size and can stop even big running backs in their tracks with his punishing hits. He often looks to deliver the big blow and does not always wrap. He has the strength to bring down ball carriers even if he can only grab an ankle. Neal takes on blocks too upright and does not bring his whole strength to bear to disengage from blockers. He is a steady tackler in the open field.
3. Karl Joseph, West Virginia
For a little guy, Joseph is a missile; his powerful hits can ruin a ball carrier’s week. He has strong arms and hauls down bigger players with wrap tackles, though he does not wrap consistently. He can cover ground in a hurry and makes diving tackles even after it looks like he’s beaten. Joseph struggles to disengage from blocks in the run game, arguably the only place in his game where his lack of size shows up. He is also susceptible to open-field jukes, yielding big gains.
4. Vonn Bell, Ohio State
Bell isn’t a thumper but is a solid wrap tackler, rarely missing a tackle or getting juked in the open field. He will come from deep zones to make stops in the run game, though his hits lack the violence to keep running backs from falling forward.
5. Kavon Frazier, Central Michigan
Frazier is a tone-setter who plays with a physical edge. He wraps well and can deliver the big blow as well. From a high safety position, he takes good angles to force ballcarriers out of bounds. He needs to do a better job avoiding blocks and working free of them.
Best Ball Skills
This is a great class for playmaking safeties. Bell, Bush, Maryland’s Sean Davis, and Boston College’s Justin Simmons all show a proclivity for making impact plays on the ball as well.
1. Karl Joseph, West Virginia
It seems like every game, Joseph makes two or three highlight-reel plays. He can break up passes or pick them off from man or zone coverage. No one in the class has better hands.
2. Darius Thompson, Boise State
Thompson is a playmaker from everywhere on the field: deep zone; underneath zone; man-to-man. He grabbed 19 interceptions for the Broncos, including five in 2015.
3. Kevin Byard, Middle Tennessee State
Byard was a high school wide receiver and catches the ball like a wideout, even plucking passes out of the air in traffic. His 19 career interceptions are a testament to his ball skills.
4. A.J. Stamps, Kentucky
Like Byard, Stamps is a former wideout who displays the catching form of a receiver and can make the spectacular grab as well. He also excels at knocking the ball away from receivers at the catch point.
5. DeAndre Houston-Carson, William and Mary
Houston-Carson shows good anticipation of routes and moves well downhill driving from off man coverage. He possesses good instincts and awareness of developing routes and the explosiveness to drive downhill and make plays.
DB Sean Davis, Maryland
DB Deiondre’ Hall, Northern Iowa
DB KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame
S K.J. Dillon, West Virginia
S T.J. Green, Clemson
S Tyvis Powell, Ohio State
S Justin Simmons, Boston College