We have reached the final defensive position for the upcoming draft – the safeties. In today’s NFL there is a multitude of players with the same name-tag, but completely different roles. You have true seam-controlling free safeties, the counterpart in-the-box strong safeties, two-high players, guys who play the big nickel and so much more. They can be utilized in one certain role or play multiple ones in one scheme. Some teams may only have one actual safety on the field at times, while others may use four to fit certain game-plans (see Chargers vs. Ravens in the Wildcard Round). So when I put all these prospects in one hat, I don’t feel like doing them a disservice, because there would be way too many ways to differentiate between them and a lot of times, they can fit several roles.
I already said it on my Instagram account – Man, is this safety class fun to watch! When I first went on to the tape to specifically analyze what is available at the position, I didn’t think there was a lot of special talents, especially with some of guys I liked a year ago falling off a little, but there are some absolute ballers in this group. My number one guy should definitely be selected in the first round in my opinion and the second guy is largely regarded as the top safety prospect available. After that there are several guys, who I really enjoyed watching and I think could be long-time playmakers in the NFL. The first nine names I will mention here should all crack the top 100.
1. Nasir Adderley, Delaware
As the cousin of Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive back Herb Adderley, Nasir was a three-way star in high school. When he joined the Blue Hens, he immediately entered the starting lineup for all 11 games and led his team with eight pass break-ups. The coaches in the Colonial Athletic Association voted him third-team all-conference in year two before making him a first-team selection these last two years. Since the start of the 2017 season he has led the team with a combined nine interceptions and broke up another ten passes, while also appearing in the return game occasionally.
As soon as you put on the tape Adderley stands out because he just moves a little different than all those other guys in the FCS. He has been a fast riser in the pre-draft process, especially with a strong Senior Bowl performance, where he also had an interception in the actual game. Adderley had two plays that went viral during his time at Delaware – the first was an incredible one-handed interception and the second a kick return where he trucked a defender, stared him down and then went on to take it all the way to the house. The talented safety shoots downhill against the run, where he sorts through traffic with bouncy feet and good balance. He puts a lot of receivers on their butts trying to block him and doesn’t mind burying a shoulder into a tight-end or even get into it with offensive linemen. Adderley shows off very loose hips when altering angles on the move. Usually he doesn’t get overly concerned with eye-candy and stays balanced. Adderley displays excellent form as a tackler, attacking low and shooting his arms when taking down opponents. His speed and hustle bailed out the Delaware defense a whole lot, taken sure-fire touchdowns off the board. You see him jump up after making a play and show a lot of excitement for the game.
Delaware ran a ton of two-high safety alignments, but they rolled into cover-three with Adderley playing deep more often than not. He has the range and instincts to play a true free safety role, which he shows off on several occasions, when you see him close out on deep throws outside the numbers. Adderley’s ability to track passes, his ball-skills and the way he attacks the ball at its highest point are all tremendous. When he can’t turn his head and has to make plays down the field or at the sideline, Adderley plays through the hands of the receiver and breaks up a load of passes. However, he also tries to take off the head of receivers in front of him and separates them from the football. When he has the ball in his hands, Adderley has the mindset of a returner and tries to make an even bigger play. He also has experience dropping down into the box and making receivers pay at the intermediate level. His cornerback background has helped him in man-coverage when lining up in the slot. If you need a statistic to show how dominant he was in the FCS – he allowed a passer rating of 1.3(!) last season. That’s just stupid.
The only real question mark with Adderley is the level of competition he faced in college. A lot of those angles he took and those plays where he bailed somebody out or recovered on a play will definitely look different against the top-flight athletes in the NFL. When I watch him on film there are some inconsistencies with his reads and how he responds to them, plus I could see savvy quarterbacks in the pros manipulate him at a higher rate going forward.
Adderley earned an elite grade for his overall game by Pro Football Focus. He has all the traits to be an interchangeable piece to play multiple spots in the secondary. Adderley has the physicality of a linebacker, but the range of a free safety. He is a true play-maker, is not afraid to get into the face of anybody and was one of my favorite players to watch in the entire draft.
2. Johnathan Abram, Mississippi State
This former Mississippi Defensive Player of the Year and dual-threat quarterback started his career at Georgia, but decided to leave the program to deal with personal matters. After a year at junior college he joined local Mississippi State, where Abram became a leader and impact player with those Bulldogs. In his senior year he stuffed the stat sheet with 99 tackles, nine of them for loss, two INTs, five passes knocked down, three sacks and a fumble forced and recovered respectively, earning himself earning first-team All-SEC and second-team All-American honors.
Abram is a physical downhill safety and absolute maniac on the football field. He only knows one speed and goes all-out for sixty minutes. That kid brings some incredible energy to the table and in a 24-0 loss to Alabama he kept that attitude until the final fourth-down stop with a minute left in that game. Abram flies up against the run and screen passes from single-high and split-safety alignments, looking to thump people and he lets them know after the whistle. There is if or buts to his game and he will find somebody to run into eventually. He is a trash-talker extraordinaire, who says that he actually researches his opponents’ background before their games. Abram makes several stops on plays that seem to be going for a first down and all of sudden he flashes into the screen, showing special closing burst on tape.
The former MSU safety matched up a lot with tight-ends and towards the end of his senior year the coaches put him at nickel primarily. I thought he really shut down Ole Miss’ Dawson Know and made several big plays in that game, such as blowing up a bubble screen and intercepting an underthrown ball. Abram has the long speed to match receivers and can close on throws outside his area when he sees the ball go up. He was heavily utilized as a blitzer on all three downs, where he showed good anticipation for the snap and no hesitation to run into some big offensive linemen. You see great understanding for how to time up his blitzes from different alignments and a lot of times Abrams is already at full speed once the play starts, plus when he straight up stands on the edge, his burst is tremendous as well.
With that being said, Abram leaves his feet to much as a tackler and tries to hit with his shoulder only. He really needs to work on breaking down and wrapping up, plus he takes too many over-aggressive angles and gets crossed back to the inside. His ability to flip his hips not only raises questions when redirecting as a chase-player, but also to some degree in coverage. He doesn’t have elite range or instincts in coverage to play in a true free safety role. Abram’s ball-skills are below-par with several penalties when he has back turned towards the ball and a couple of dropped interceptions in the games I watched.
Abram has all the qualities to be a tone-setter for an NFL team. While you have to keep his craziness under control to some degree (two ejections for targeting, fight in Ole Miss game, ejection from own team’s spring game for crushing hit), this guy’s intensity will rub off on teammates. I think there are some limitations to him in coverage, but if you are looking for an intimidating in-the-box safety who could match up with tight-ends or bigger receivers in the slot, this is your dude.
3. Darnell Savage, Maryland
After winning a state-title as a two-way player for his high school, Savage earned playing time right away with the Terrapins and even started their season finale as a freshman. Over these last three years as a starter Savage has been a highly underrated playmaker, even if he earned honorable mention and second-team All-Big Ten these last two years. Over that three-year stretch he recorded 170 tackles, with nine of them for loss, eight interceptions and two touchdowns.
This kid is a flying missile at 5’11”, 195 pounds. He might move fast on the field than anybody I have evaluated all season long. Savage trusts his eyes and shoots upfield against run plays and any types of screen plays. You see him line up ten yards deep while the offense runs a basic inside zone or dive and he will meet the ball-carrier head-on-head in the hole right at the line of scrimmage. Just forget running toss or sweeps to the outside, when he is over there, because he will fly up in a hurry and make a play in the backfield. He had multiple ones of those against Texas and Temple last season, which just blew my mind. If he doesn’t make the play, he at least shuts down anything going out to the perimeter and forces the ball-carrier back inside.
Savage has quality experience covering guys in the slot, defending the deep half or middle and lurking around the line of scrimmage to take away shallow zones. His ability to sit on routes and then drive on the ball like a rocket is special, plus he is not hesitant to attack routes and jump in front of the pass combined with that. He undercut multiple out-routes in the Temple game and took a pick back to the house shortly before halftime of that game. However, he can also run with guys downfield and you also see an uncanny ability to read the eyes of the quarterback and how he comes off his area when he sees the passer work to his secondary progression. In the Ohio State game Savage was sitting over the top of a hitch route by the tight-end, but once Dwayne Haskins moved on to the slot receiver on that same route, Savage progressed as well, raced in front of the pass and batted it up for one of his teammate to pick it off and take it the distance. Not only can he flash in front of throws underneath, Savage’s make-up speed is also ridiculous, when you see him gaining ground on guys running down the field after stepping up against screen fakes or such as.
That reckless style of play at Savage’s size definitely raises some durability concerns. At sub-six feet he could also be target in the red-zone against the big slot receivers in the league, even with a vertical jump of 39.5 inches. He will have to throttle down occasionally, as he needs to make some more secure tackles and not overshoot a few targets in space the way he did in college. Because of his size he also struggles to get off blocks once receivers get their hands inside his chest. Too easily is Savage taken out of the play by simple bubble fakes to his man in the slot and je will lose his eyes in the opposing backfield at times. Therefore, you will see some guys run by him or him blowing a coverage in favor of jumping some route.
I wouldn’t be able to find a better name for this kid, because he truly is a “savage”. The former Maryland stud needs to bring a little more discipline to the table to avoid big plays on his account, but you see the ability to click-and-close unlike anybody else in this class, he displays all-out pursuit and there is no fear whatsoever to his game. The only question if you look to put him in a strong safety role, where he has to deal with bigger bodies – does he have enough size or how much can he add?
4. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Florida
A former USA Today All-Florida selection, Gardner-Johnson was a monster on coverage units as a freshman and earned three starts on defense later on, highlighted by an Outback Bowl MVP performance thanks to two interceptions, taking one of them back to the house and the second one almost all the way as well. Over these last two years he was an all-around impact performer for the Gators, recording a combined 129 tackles, with 15 of them for loss, six INTs, nine more pass broken up and two touchdowns.
The Gators had a down-year in 2017, but that’s when Gardner-Johnson emerged as the next great leader of the Florida defense. He lines up single-high, covering half-field, drops into the box and sneaks around the line of scrimmage, but his most natural fit might be in the slot. Gardner-Johnson is a very instinctive safety, who shows up out of nowhere at times to make a play on the ball. He quickly hits the switch from his pedal to racing up against the run or quick completions to the back. He takes on blocks in space by receivers or tight-ends with great extension and does a nice job disengaging from them, but he can also slip guys when there’s an angle to get to the ball-carrier. Gardner-Johnson is a determined blitzer, who came off the edge a whole lot and timed those up perfectly. Not only did he put pressure on the quarterback that way, but he also popped up chasing down running backs from behind.
I think Gardner-Johnson is an extremely versatile defensive back, who can do a variety of things in coverage. He mixes up his approach in man, being physical in press, driving on breaks in off or guiding receivers towards the safety help. He displays oily hips and has a wonderful speed-turn, where he shows the ability to re-locate the ball. Gardner-Johnson has a feel for potential receivers coming across the formations and picks up backs or tight-end running into the flats off play-action, when he is assigned the flat area. Moreover, he will try to find work if there is no threat to his area in zone coverage and falls off his original responsibility to make plays on the ball. Gardner-Johnson shows great understanding of different splits and how to replace teammates in space, when they are being utilized as blitzer. He constantly communicates about receivers potentially crossing and makes sure him and his cornerback pick it up correctly. All that led to him allowing an average passer rating below 40 over the last two season. My favorite play by CGJ came in the 2017 South Carolina game, when the Gators were in a single-high alignment and the Gamecocks tried to run off the corner in cover-three with a post route by the wideout. The quarterback put the ball up thinking tight-end Hayden Hurst would be wide-open on a wheel route, but number 23 immediately sprinted that way, picked off the pass and almost took it the distance. That just shows the type of awareness, football IQ and range he possesses from the free safety position.
With all that being said, Gardner-Johnson unfortunately is a horrendous tackler – and there is no other way around it. He needs to learn to break down, as he whiffs on several tackles pretty badly by leaping into the action. Overall he missed 32 tackles over the last two years, which scares some people off, especially when thinking about him as your last line of defense, which afford secure tackling. I also thought he opened his hips prematurely on some plays and the overall consistency is just not there for me to put him any higher than this, as high as I think his upside is.
Gardner-Johnson orimarily played in the slot last season, where he did an excellent job, but I really love the versatility this kid brings to the table. He might not have elite top-end speed, but with his instincts, understanding of the game and ball-tracking ability he could be an outstanding free safety as well. I really feel like this could be a special football player, if only he cleans up his tackling. I thought his angles and finish to his tackles improved a lot heading into last season, but this is still an area for him to work on.
5. Taylor Rapp, Washington
This dual-citizen between the US and Canada with Chinese ancestry was an All-Washington safety and decided to stay in-state to join the Huskies. Playing through a broken hand in spring practices, coaches loved his willingness to fight and inserted him into the starting lineup four games into Rapp’s first season. Not only did he earn Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year and was named a Freshman All-American, he also was the conference championship game MVP with two interceptions. As a sophomore he was a first-team All-Pac-12 performer as well as last season, when he recorded 59 tackles, five sacks, two INTs, five PBUs and three fumble recoveries.
Rapp has been a key-piece to the Washington defense ever since he first stepped on the field for them because of the versatility he presents. Similar to Budda Baker a couple of years, the six foot, 215-pound Rapp lines up all over the field for the Huskies and makes his presence felt. He is a splash-hitter who deliver big shots over the middle of the field and on the sidelines. Still, he wraps up the legs of ball-carriers usually and goes through people on his way to the ball – sometimes even from his own team. You see him completely blow up screen passes when he has a chance to. Rapp runs the alley hard and breaks down ahead of contact exceptionally well. He is extremely dependable at bringing down players in the open field with consistently excellent balance. The young man had the highest tackling efficiency of any safety in this class and missed just two of his 60 tackling attempts last season.
The Washington leader has experience covering slot receivers one-on-one and trailing them across the field. He excels at covering guys down the seams and staying on top of their routes. Overall Rapp very physical throughout the development of routes and never lets receivers dictate in man-coverage. He drives on post and deep-in routes from two-high safety alignments and completely lays out to get his fingertips on balls that seem out of reach. That way he allowed a passer rating of just 28.5 when targeted in 2018. Rapp hits through the ball on dig or slant routes when racing up from his safety spot but still doesn’t forget to wrap up. The Huskie safety already got a couple sacks in 2017, showing tremendous snap anticipation, and he improved on those numbers as he rushed the passer more frequently last season. One 41 blitzes he recorded four sacks and 11 more pressures. He is like the flash when blitzing from deep and he arrives at the quarterback with bad intentions, plus the Huskies straight up rushed him off the edge as well.
However, as a deep safety I’m not a hundred percent sold on the range Rapp presents, especially with that 40-yard dash in the mid-4.7s he ran at the Huskie pro day. That’s probably why you often didn’t see him on the screen when lined up as the single-high safety. He will play so far off everybody else that you rarely see him making any impact plays downfield and it is hard to envision him doing so going forward. I don’t think his potential is up there with those guys ahead of him, because he is not in their ball-park athletically.
Rapp’s lack of top-end speed probably make him more of all-around player in a scheme which doesn’t require him to cover from numbers to numbers. He is an extremely dependable tackler, who plays hard all the time and leads by example. While I think he is at his best around the line of scrimmage and matched up in the slot, he will not let anybody get behind him in deep coverage and shows outstanding pursuit. Rapp recorded PFF’s highest grade among all Power 5 safeties last season for a reason.
6. Deionte Thompson, Alabama
Rarely do you see a top-five safety recruit redshirt for a college program, but that just speaks to the amount of secondary talent at Alabama. His first two years on the field Thompson mainly contributed on special teams before stepping into the starting lineup last season. Starting all 15 games for the Crimson Tide, the talented safety was a first-team All-American and first-team All-SEC selection, posting 79 tackles, two interceptions, six pass-deflections and four fumbles forced.
Thompson played in multiple spots for the Crimson Tide and you can tell he was taught by one of the best DB minds in Nick Saban. He lined up as a true free safety, played half field and at nickel. He can play robber or two-deep and drive on a dig routes to take away those completions or when he is one the hash and the QB telegraphs a throw to the sideline, there’s a good chance that he will make a play on it. However, he is at his best as a true free safety, where he shows not only elite range and closing speed, but more importantly the football IQ to anticipate and put himself into the right position. Thompson shows impressive recognition skills to work through his progressions the way quarterbacks would do, he track the eyes of the passer and then has the fluid hips to turn the other way and break on a ball. Due to that you see very smooth transitions from rolling towards the deep middle to attacking passes in the seam-area. Thompson allowed a reception in his area on every 27th defensive snap only in his one season as a starter.
The young playmaker displays quick transition from sinking deep to coming upfield to run-action or quick completions, where he makes up ground with long strides. Thompson will deliver some big blows when he comes in with a run-up, cuts down bigger ball-carriers right at their roots and takes them off their feet. His tremendous length at almost 6’2” help him grab guys at their ankles or such as. What I really like about him is that he doesn’t shy away from getting in on the action once the ball-carrier is wrapped up, like you see some other guys just walk away. Thompson had an outstanding season-opener versus Louisville last year, when he broke up a couple of passes, intercepted one in the end-zone and made a tackle on the running back in the opposing backfield.
While he was a very consistent performer until the College Football Playoff, Thompson saved his worst for last. In the 2019 National Championship game versus Clemson he was crossed badly once by the electric freshman receiver Justyn Ross and had a couple of other uncommon lapses in coverage. Rarely do you see him actually wrap up and that led to a total of 14 missed tackles over the course of last season. Thompson takes some questionable angles and is forced to round them off a lot, allowing several additional yards that shouldn’t have been picked up. I don’t really see the short-area quickness to take on a larger role in man-coverage. If he wants to have any function in the box going forward, he will need to add bulk to his lanky frame and become a more reliable tackler.
I think Thompson is a free safety prospect only, but he could be a special one. His tackling form is disgraceful at times and he will have to work on bringing ball-carriers down more consistently, but that is something I think that can be corrected. The range, ability to decipher information and directly transition on the move make him a highly intriguing player to control the back-end. While there were some bad snaps, I thought Thompson’s end of the season was a little overblown.
7. Juan Thornhill, Virginia
While the country first got familiar with Thornhill through one of his dunks in high school being shown on SportsCenter, he was also an All-State defender and quarterback for a two-time state champion high school in Virginia. After a reserve role as a freshman, he put up some big numbers for the Cavaliers over the next two years – 108 combined tackles, 7.5 of them for loss, seven INTs and 19 PBUs. However, it was least season that he finally was named first-team All-ACC thanks to an FBS-leading six picks, almost 100 tackles and seven more pass-deflections.
Thornhill converted from cornerback to safety ahead of the 2017 season. He brings a lot of versatility to the table coming from the outside to lining up at either safety spot or being a dime linebacker. At 6’1”, 195 pounds, he lined up in the box quite a bit and has no problem meeting bigger bodies in the hole. Thornhill triggers quickly against runs to the perimeter, but typically plays under good balance. He is at his best when flying up from the deep safety spot and cutting down ball-carriers at their feet. Thornhill also sets up blockers with little nods or jab steps to get right around them and meet the ball-carrier. You see him blitz off the slot and wrong-shoulder pulling guards every once in a while as well. Not only does he contribute in the run game, he also blocked a PAT in the Indiana game and took it back for two points. Thornhill had a crazy good combine with a 4.42 in the 40, 44-inch vertical and an 11’9” broad jump.
The Cavalier safety has plenty of experience covering slot receivers in man-coverage, where he lands stabs to slow guys down and understands when his eyes can wander to the quarterback as the route has developed. He doesn’t really panic with his back to the ball and if it hangs up there and at times even turns his head to find it in the air. From the nickel spot he understands where his deep help is and how to guide the slot receiver that way. You see some patient footwork and he controls the deep middle of the field with ping-pong eyes between the quarterback and receivers crossing his area. While preventing throws over the top consistently, Thornhill anticipates route-patterns exceptionally well and often times beats receivers to the spot, especially in two-deep schemes, where he controls only one half of the field, also showing how he studies his opponents. Thornhill has the length and hops to contest passes at the catch point. He was one of the most well-rounded safeties in the nation according to Pro Football Focus, finishing top 20 in run defense, tackling, pass-rush and coverage grades among the position, earning an elite overall grade.
Unfortunately Thornhill leaves his feet way too much as a tackler and whiffs on some attempts or allows several additional yards with guys stumbling forward. There is some tightness in his hips when changing directions and the Virginia coaches moved him over to safety because of that. However, you also see some of that in deep zones and when closing on passes underneath. While I do think his best fit would be at free safety, Thornhill is still developing his instincts to click earlier and attack routes. With passive tackling, hips that limit him in true man-to-man coverage and some delay to him driving on throws, Thornhill’s best fit can be questioned.
The work ethic and football IQ are definitely there, but you rarely see Thornhill instinctively fly towards the point where the ball will go and make a play on it. The pure explosiveness and overall athleticism are not in question after that combine performance, but I don’t know if the change-of-direction is up to par to survive full-time on the outside. I think if you teach him to play less methodical at times, he can be valuable deep safety, but he is still learning to become a playmaker.
8. Amani Hooker, Iowa
A 2015 finalist for Minnesota’s Mr. Football Award and three-time all-state selection, Hooker primarily contributed on special teams his true freshman season. He started six of ten games on defense the following year between free and strong safety. Last season the Iowa coaches created a safety/linebacker hybrid position for Hooker, which earned him Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year honors due to 65 tackles, 3.5 for loss, four interceptions, seven pass breakups and a safety.
The first thing that sticks out about Hooker is his NFL-ready build and physicality. He is outstanding in run-support and at shutting down wide receiver screens. Hooker shows a quick trigger, throttles down while searching through the trash and aims at the hips of the ball-carrier. He fights through blocks with extended arms and pulls of the jersey to free himself. Hooker is a great edge-setter and will shoot openings when the opportunity arises. He is a strong tackler, who relies on technique and doesn’t let go off guys once he has them wrapped up. When he has a straight shot he can make guys feel it and he doesn’t shy away from jumping on top a pile or running into somebody late either.
Iowa ran a ton of two-high safety shells, where Hooker showed tremendous route anticipation and tried to bait quarterbacks into throws. He excelled at covering that hook-to-curl area and carrying receivers and tight-ends over the seams. Hooker had an outstanding interception in the Northern Illinois game, where he was brought down over the slot late and when that receiver was passed on to the linebacker running a crossing route, he turned his eyes to find the outside receiver on a deeper in-breaking route and high-pointed the ball. The Hawkeye defensive back was moved into the nickel later on in the season due to personnel reasons and had one of the highest snap totals in the slot, while allowing just 0.98 yards per coverage snap in that role. When covering inside guys in man, he shows patient hips and can be disruptive in press, especially on the goal-line. Overall I think he shows a lot of trust in the work he has put on in the film room and won’t hesitate to jump on keys in coverage.
While his combine performance was pretty good all-around, I don’t think Hooker is anything special athletically. His long speed to stay with somebody vertically is a major question mark for me and it’s not like he is necessarily explosive when jumping on breaks either. His role in coverage might be limited to the underneath areas or maybe playing high in a quarters look. Hooker simply doesn’t have the fluidity in his hips to adjust closing angles on the fly against talented skill-position players and that also shows off in coverage.
While I had my troubles really falling in love with Hooker on film because there are limitations to his game, there is nothing that you can really talk bad about with him. He is a rock-solid defensive back prospect, who can fill multiple roles and will play every snap hard, but could be taken advantage of in some spots. As far as his best fit goes, I believe he should be a big nickel for some team, who would instantly upgrade your run defense and bring a lot of football smarts to the field.
9. Marquise Blair, Utah
This former All-State selection from Ohio started his collegiate career at Dodge City Community College, where he was a first-team junior college All-American for two straight years. When Blair joined the Utes, he quickly earned the respect from their coaches and started six of nine games, before missing the rest of the season with a head injury. In 2018 he received second-team All-Pac 12 honors, starting all 14 games and recording 59 tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble, while being a huge piece to Utah’s defense that was second in their conference in terms of points allowed.
Build- and range-wise Blair is very similar to Alabama’s Deionte Thompson with excellent length for the position. When he sees runs heading towards the perimeter, he shows the range from 15 yards deep to fly up there and make stops at the line of scrimmage. What I really like about his approach there is that he always aims at the outside hip to force the ball-carrier back inside if he wasn’t able to finish the tackle. Blair has experience in the box or as a hang-defender as well, where he shows the toughness to take on run fits. As a tackler he attacks low and shoots through the legs of the ball-carrier. He put a big hit on Washington running back Myles Gaskin when they squared up in the regular season last year, as he put that guy flat on his back, but was called for a target penalty (which I didn’t think was the right call). Blair was also rushed off the edge on some occasions, especially at the goal-line, where he has the quick burst to run guys down from behind.
Blair can open up and run better than most players in this class. He won’t let eye-candy fool him and stays disciplined as the single-high safety, consistently staying deeper and the deepest. That kid has tremendous closing speed and I thought his PBU numbers could have been way higher, as he knocked some balls out at the last moment or was just a tad late on several snaps. According to Pro Football Focus, Blair was number two in receptions and yards allowed in coverage among all safeties last season. At the Senior Bowl I thought he showed patience by not opening up his hips prematurely against double-moves in one-on-one drills with the receivers. He definitely has the size and athletic tools to develop in man-coverage, which he looked solid at in limited reps with Utah.
The Utah safety will drift too deep and allow plenty of completions underneath him. His instincts are below-par, as you see him sink in areas where there is no real threat at times. Blair only had one interception and four pass break-ups (two versus Weber State and San Jose State each) during his two years with the Utes, not really being an effective playmaker in the passing game. His angles towards the ball can be a little too aggressive and he has to break down in open space more frequently and consistently. I think Blair would benefit from adding some mass to his slender frame as he is entering the league. He was also ejected three times for targeting over these last two years.
Blair is an intrigiuing prospect because he has the range, aggressiveness and closing speed you want to see from an early draft-pick at free safety. The lack of plays on the ball is concerning if you are looking or a difference-maker on the back-end, but I think he has everything needed to develop. Blair will need to work on his body in the weight room and I need to see a quicker trigger from him before I trust him on the field, but he could be starter material from year two on.
T.-10. Mike Edwards, Kentucky
A three-star recruit coming out of high school, Edwards decided to redshirt his first year at Lexington. He really impressed his coaches as a freshman and started the final five games of the season. Over the last three years he has started all 39 games, in which he recorded 278 tackles, nine interceptions and 21 pass-deflections. While it took until 2018 for the Associated Press to agree on Edwards as a second-team All-SEC selection, he never missed a game for the Wildcats and consistently was among the nation’s best defensive backs.
Edwards brings a serious swagger to the field and daps his teammates up constantly. He was an important run defender for the Wildcats out of the slot or as a hang-defender, where he showed no hesitation to shoot upfield against the run and force running backs to cut back inside. Edwards slips by blockers and forces multiple negative plays (9.5 tackles for loss in 2018). He plays with tenacious pursuit at all times and possesses excellent closing speed. Edwards is a tremendous blitzer off the edge, who doesn’t give anything away, where he can turn the arc and cut ball-carriers down by their feet, chase them down from behind or put heat on opposing quarterbacks. When he can meet a ball-carrier straight up in the open field, he is a textbook tackler.
The former Wildcat star is very hands-on in man-coverage and has the quicks to stay attached to receivers out of their breaks. He took on the challenge of covering Ole Miss’ A.J. Brown one-on-one on several snaps and didn’t back down an inch. Edwards is at his best covering shallow zones and reacting to what is happening underneath. He is excellent at passing on assignments, jumping in-between windows and finding the area quarterbacks want to attack on the fly. Edwards has come up huge when the Wildcats really needed him, sealing three games with interceptions these last two years. During Senior Bowl practice Edwards took several corners rep in one-on-one drills with the receivers and looked very comfortable doing so.
With that being said, Edwards definitely struggles to disengage from bigger bodies and really gets pushed around by some tight-ends. He has missed a combined 54(!) tackles over his three years as a starter and was put on the highlight tape of D’Andre Swift when Edwards came in at full speed, but had the dead-leg put on him by the Georgia running back, who went on for a touchdown. The lack of size the Kentucky safety has makes his susceptible to push-offs by receivers and his style is a little to grabby for NFL officials. Edwards lets pump-fakes take fool him and even take him out of the play on some occasions. However, what will really limit his scheme fits is the fact that he simply doesn’t have the range to be trusted by himself in deep coverage.
Edwards is a tough competitor, who filled multiple roles for Kentucky’s defense. His best fit at the next will either be as a full-time nickel or a scheme that utilizes him heavily in underneath coverage and as a blitzer. I think if used correctly, Edwards can be a valuable addition to a team, but he can be exposed if left on an island all by himself or asking him to protect against true speedsters down the field.
T.-10 Jaquan Johnson, Miami
This former four-star recruit from the Miami area was a special teams demon for the Hurricanes as a true freshman. After earning five starts the following year, Johnson broke out as a junior, being named second-team All-ACC as a turnover-machine with four interceptions, two forced fumbles and another one recovered. That led to him being named the team’s most valuable player from the safety spot. Last season he repeated that second-team all-conference feat despite missing two games with a hamstring injury, as he recorded a couple of INTs and forced fumbles each.
Ahead of the 2018 season I had Johnson as my number one college safety, but other guys emerged and I now have to evaluate him as a future pro. With that being said, I still am a big fan of the former Hurricane standout. At 5’9”, just over 190 pounds Johnson fills the hole when it opens up and when the coaches straight up moved him into the box as a linebacker he looked like one of those guys outweighing him by several pounds. Johnson is an elite run-defender from center field as well as around the line of scrimmage and shows no fear of taking on bigger bodies as they try to block him. In general he just buries his shoulder into the opponent with the ball and tries to knock it loose. Johnson shows no regard for anybody when there’s a pile to run into. That guy always sets the tone and was the source of energy for this Miami defense, approaching collision as if he was a 250-pound linebacker.
While Johnson can cover deep and was used some in a single-high role, he was at his best in that robber role for the Canes, where he could consistently punish receivers for trying to go over the middle. He tracks the eyes of the quarterback and is not afraid of letting receivers run by him. Johnson made an incredible one-handed interception versus Virginia Tech in 2018. On the few snaps he had in man-coverage against slot receivers or tight-ends he was extremely physical and held them up off the snap. He recorded a passer rating of just 44.1 when targeted in coverage. Johnson is a great finisher, whether that it making a secure tackle or sticking his hand in-between the paws of a receiver if he can’t turn around for the ball. He was awarded a top five tackling grade by Pro Football Focus and missed just five of his 97 tackling attempts in 2018. I don’t know how, but this dude always seems to be around the football.
For as effective a tackler Johnson was, sometimes he wants to take somebody’s head off so badly that he forgets that he has arms to wrap up and misses some tackles due to it. There is not too many 190-pound safeties in the league who run 4.69 unfortunately for him. I don’t think Johnson has the range or hips are good enough to play the deep middle at the next level. While his skill-set would indicate a potential move to nickel, at 5’10” with sub-30 inch arms there are definitely some question marks who you can match him up with in that role, especially since there is some tightness in his lower body.
Johnson had a really solid all-around week at the Senior Bowl in coverage and run-support. He would probably be at his best in two-high safety based defense, where he can either focus on the space between the hashes and numbers as well as driving on routes underneath, roll into the flats or act as a robber. Johnson has always won with grit and hard work over athleticism and measurements, but at some point as a pro prospect, these come into the equation. I think he will earn the respect of coaches through his work on special teams and get play some role for a defense.
The next guys up:
Lukas Denis (Boston College), Andrew Wingard (Wyoming), Marvel Tell (USC), Malik Gant (Marshall), Mike Bell (Fresno State), Will Harris (Boston College), Ugo Amadi (Oregon), Sheldrick Redwine (Miami), D’Cota Dixon (Wisconsin), JoJo McIntosh (Washington), Evan Worthington (Colorado), Khari Willis (Michigan State)