In 2016 I watched many safety prospects, but rather than rank them sequentially I wrote up my cornerback “superlatives,” ranking players in various categories. Miami’s Rayshawn Jenkins and Colorado’s Tedric Thompson are very different styles of players, and it’s almost nonsensical to rate one as “better” than the other. These categories paint a better picture of the strengths and weaknesses of the class. These are are all my personal takes, not necessarily those of the rest of ITP. “Don’t be mad at me, that’s just one man’s opinion.”
Best Deep Coverage
Last year there were few true free safety types, but this there are several. None of these five players are perfect, but teams looking for a true free safety will seek to pick up one of these safeties.
1 Malik Hooker, Ohio State
Hooker makes plays at times that are almost unbelievable, plays that few NFL safeties could make. His interception of Clemson’s Deshaun Watson in the end zone is perhaps the most remarkable defensive back play of 2016. He isn’t 100% consistent but his tools are undeniable.
2 Tedric Thompson, Colorado
Playing free safety is a balance between staying disciplined enough to avoid being beaten deep and aggressive enough to make plays when you have the opportunity. Thompson walks this line almost perfectly, staying in good position as a post defender and anticipating and driving on the passes he can make a play on.
3 Marcus Williams, Utah
The Utes relied on Williams as a post defender, and the junior played as much deep zone as any safety in college football. He has good range and can make plays, though he struggled tracking sideline passes and can be fooled by play action.
4 Eddie Jackson, Alabama
Jackson played a ton of deep safety in Nick Saban’s complex scheme and capably patrols the middle of the field. He does not possess top range and is often late to the sideline.
5 Justin Evans, Texas A&M
Evans played a lot of one-high for the Aggies and shows sideline-to-sideline range and quality angles. He clicks-and-closes well on action in front of him, and can drive on seam routes effectively. His poor tackling makes him a liability as a last line of defense.
Honorable Mention: LSU’s Jamal Adams and UConn’s Obi Melifonwu project more as strong safeties, but each lined up deep at times and did a solid job, even if they don’t have true single-high range.
Intriguing: At 5’10”, 195 pounds, Washington’s Budda Baker is built like a free safety but spent most of his time in the box. Can he make the transition to free safety in the NFL? His movement skills suggest he can, but he rarely lined up deep for the Huskies.
Needs Improvement: Virginia Tech completed a deep post over Boston College’s John Johnson’s head when he lined up in one high, which is a “you had one job” moment. Johnson has some intriguing attributes but must improve in this area.
Best Man / Underneath Coverage
College spread offenses have divided safeties into three camps: Free safeties, strong safeties, and “strong slots,” who often line up on slot receivers in nickel, the prevalent personnel group (think Tyrann Mathieu of the Arizona Cardinals). This category is for more traditional strong safety coverage duties – robber zones and matching up on tight ends.
1 Jamal Adams, LSU
Adams lined up on the slot quite a bit and showed good press technique and quick hips to react to cuts. His change-of-direction skills are strong and he has the long speed to carry vertical routes.
2 Obi Melifonwu, Connecticut
There’s a reason some teams are considering Melifonwu at cornerback. Few players with his 6’4” frame have the kind of hip fluidity the redshirt senior displays.
3 Eddie Jackson, Alabama
Jackson is a former cornerback and shows mirroring skills in underneath, even against wide receivers like USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster. He recognizes route concepts from zone coverage and attacks.
4 John Johnson, Boston College
The Eagles think highly enough of Johnson’s man-to-man skills that he got three starts at cornerback in his junior season. He shows some press skills at the line of scrimmage.
5 Delano Hill, Michigan
Hill got a lot of work against tight ends for the Wolverines and showed the change-of-direction skills to mirror them through cuts. At 6’1”, 216 pounds, he’s got size, too.
Honorable Mention: Virginia Tech’s Chuck Clark converted from cornerback prior to the 2016 season. While he struggled defending wideouts for the Hokies, he looked much more capable against tight ends.
Intriguing: Josh Jones of NC State surprised many by running a 4.41 40 yard dash at the Combine. He was inconsistent, but flashed a press jam in a handful of games at cornerback. He’s an interesting option for matching up on tight ends.
Needs Improvement: Florida’s Marcus Maye has the athleticism to play decent coverage, but he commits too early and struggles reacting to cuts and recovering.
Best Tackler / Run Defense
Run D is a problem for some top safeties. Alabama’s Eddie Jackson and Utah’s Marcus Williams struggle with play strength. Justin Evans of Texas A&M will make highlight-reel hits but misses a ton of tackles, flying in out of control, or going too high and getting dragged.
1 Jamal Adams, LSU
Adams has explosive athleticism and can punish a ballcarrier when he hits him with a full head of steam, especially when he sniffs out a screen. Adams loves to deliver shots to blockers and shows a nose for working through traffic when pursuing to the sideline.
2 Obi Melifonwu, Connecticut
At 6’4”, Melifonwu has tremendous length and his long wingspan just seems to engulf ballcarriers. While many college safeties fly from deep alignment with little control, Melifonwu appears to just glide in, eating up ground but able to react to cuts and jukes.
3 Josh Harvey-Clemons, Louisville
Harvey-Clemons is a staggering physical specimen, with 35 ⅜” arms. He wraps consistently and can also deliver a big pop when he gets a head of steam. His change-of-direction skills mean he can be juked out in the open field. His future may be at linebacker.
4 Delano Hill, Michigan
Hill might be the most fundamentally sound tackler in the class. He doesn’t have the wingspan or power of some other guys, but he consistently wraps up and makes tackles in the open field.
5 Josh Jones, NC State
Jones uses solid wrap form and can also deliver big blows. He’s not shy about taking on blockers and uses his hands well to disengage. He can improve his assignment discipline and his control charging in from deep zones.
Honorable Mention: Miami’s Rayshawn Jenkins and Nebraska’s Nate Gerry will deliver big hits, but can get sloppy with technique.
Intriguing: Washington’s Budda Baker and Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers are both terrific athletes and fine tacklers, but neither takes on blocks in the run game. They were largely able to get away with dodging around blockers in college, but they will have a harder time in the NFL.
Needs Improvement: Colorado’s Tedric Thompson has some of the ugliest run defense tape I’ve ever seen, with missed diving tackles, poor efforts to take on blockers, and a lack of play strength.
Best Ball Skills
1 Malik Hooker, Ohio State
Hooker’s highlight reel will make teams drool. He has rare athleticism to make the spectacular interception and knows what to do with the ball in his hands. He hauled in seven interceptions for Ohio State on the season, many of them jaw-dropping.
2 Eddie Jackson, Alabama
Jackson was a high school receiver and catches like one, leading the SEC with six interceptions in 2015. He boasts soft hands and attacks the ball, high-pointing passes or cutting in front of receivers. He also looks to make the big return after the pick.
3 Tedric Thompson, Colorado
Thompson led the Pac-12 with seven interceptions, and finished second with 16 passes defensed. He anticipates and tracks the ball in the air as well as anyone in the class.
4 Justin Evans, Texas A&M
Evans can jump out of the gym and make the spectacular interception. He nabbed four interceptions and defended eight passes in 2016.
5 Xavier Woods, Louisiana Tech
Woods led Conference USA in interceptions as a sophomore in 2014 and again as a senior this past season. He looks like a cornerback at the catch point, looking back for the ball and high-pointing for the tip or interception.
Honorable Mention: Nebraska’s Nate Gerry attacks the ball aggressively and has soft hands, leading to 12 career interceptions.
Intriguing: Utah’s Marcus Williams shows playmaking ability, with five interceptions in each of his past two seasons, but struggles tracking the ball when sprinting the sideline. If he can improve this dimension of his game, he’ll be a real weapon at free safety.
Needs Improvement: Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers had only one career interception and only one pass break up in 2016. Some of that was how the Wolverines used Peppers, playing him in a linebacker-type role, but his NFL team will want to see him get his hands on more balls.
Best Special Teamer
1 Jabrill Peppers, Michigan
Peppers led the Big 10 by averaging 14.8 yards per punt return. He goes for the home run too much often but hits plenty, showing rare acceleration and the vision to pick his way through traffic. He has plenty of long speed for kick return duties, as well.
2 Justin Evans, Texas A&M
Evans averaged 28.5 yards on 15 kick returns in 2016. He hits the crease hard and can put together moves to elude tacklers in space. He has the athleticism to jump over the line of scrimmage on the field goal block team.
3 Desmond King, Iowa
King returned kicks and punts for the Hawkeyes. His change-of-direction skills and balance let him make would-be-tacklers miss on punt returns, though he lacks ideal straight-line speed for kick returns. He also played on field goal blocks.
4 Eddie Jackson, Alabama
Jackson only returned 11 punts in his senior season, but took two of them to the house. His speed, fluidity, and vision make him a threat any time he has the ball in his hands – he also returned three of his ten career interceptions for scores.
5 Lorenzo Jerome, St. Francis
Jerome doesn’t have the best change-of-direction, but he showed nice vision and burst on kick returns. He also plays on kick coverage units.
S Jamal Adams, LSU
S Budda Baker, Washington
S Chuck Clark, Virginia Tech
S Justin Evans, Texas A&M
S Nate Gerry, Nebraska
S Josh Harvey-Clemons, Louisville
S Delano Hill, Michigan
S Eddie Jackson, Alabama
S Rayshawn Jenkins, Miami
S Lorenzo Jerome, St. Francis
S John Johnson, Boston College
S Josh Jones, NC State
CB Desmond King, Iowa
S Malik Hooker, Ohio State
S Marcus Maye, Florida
S Obi Melifonwu, Connecticut
S Jabrill Peppers, Michigan
S Tedric Thompson, Colorado
S Marcus Williams, Utah
S Xavier Woods, Louisiana Tech