We have reached our final defensive unit of our positional draft rankings series, before we finish up with the quarterbacks next week. Evaluating the safety spot throughout the years, we have largely gone away from the classic distinction of the center-fielding free safety and more of your in-the-box strong safety, which the Seattle cover-three bail system made so popular, to more do-it-all type of players on the backend, as more teams transition to two-high structures.
In this class, there’s a bunch of guys who offer that kind of versatile skill-set, while there’s a bunch of guys further down who could be plugged into more defined roles and find their way onto the field. To me there’s a name at the top that I think has received too much of the hype, which kind of takes away from what I believe is a very close second tier, as I have five total names currently inside my top-50 overall prospects. And I’ll have a couple of sleepers towards the bottom of the group.
So without further ado, here’s my list:
1. Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame
6’4”, 220 pounds; JR
This was the number five safety of the 2018 recruiting class. Following a redshirt year, Hamilton intercepted four passes, of which he took one back to the house, and broke up another six, making him a Freshman All-American. In 2020, his pick-total went down to just one, but he still recorded six PBUs and actually improved quite a bit, while being more involved near the line of scrimmage, with 51 solo tackles, with 4.5 for loss. His final season was cut short after seven games due to a knee injury, but not before picking off three passes, breaking up another seven and getting a couple of TFLs, leading to back-to-back first-team All-American selections.
Hamilton was clearly the second-best player on that Irish defense behind only Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in 2020, flying around and constantly finding himself around the football. Last year he was the star of the show as long as he was available for. This dude presents a legitimate 6’4”, 220-pound frame, along with 33-inch arms and about an 80-inch wingspan, which is unique for any safety. Hamilton is a heat-seeking missile racing up the alley. Running jet sweeps or end-arounds his way when he can trigger down is almost impossible. And he has an impressive ability to almost make receivers miss, who are trying to shield him on screens and stuff like that. If they do manage to get in front of him, he can effectively swipe down their hands to keep his frame clean. However, as a single-high safety, he does an outstanding job of gaining ground, but staying parallel to the line of scrimmage and executing secure breakdown tackles. He makes good usage of the sideline and leverages the ball exceptionally well, in accordance to position on the field and the teammates around him. What’s impressive to me as well is how low he aims as a tackler despite his height and how effective he is at doing so, wrapping those tightly around the legs of ball-carriers and driving through contact and twisting them down. You see quite a few runs that look like potentially breakaways and he’s the last line of defense, but finds a way to limit them to yards or so. In 2021, Hamilton missed just two of 32 tackling attempts.
This guy has crazy size and length for the way he can roam on the back-end, with those absurdly long strides. He’s a super instinctive player, who lets his eyes take him to the ball. Hamilton has such freaky closing burst that he can stay balanced as patterns develop and then just turn on the jets and crowd the catch point, where his length and size are a major plus. He had a couple of interceptions in the 2021 season-opener against Florida State, including an incredible one at the sideline, coming all the way from the opposite hash. You like what he presents as a hang/flat/seam-type of defender, where he can play in-between routes and drift towards one target initially, before he sees the quarterback progress off it and get underneath the higher stretch of the pattern. As a robber, you see him sit on one hash and a hook route being thrown in-between those and Hamilton gets there just as the ball arrives there. His length is a serious make-up tool, where he’s kind of playing in-between routes and can disrupt the catch point for somebody on the sideline.
Last season, he spent just over half of his snaps in the slot last season (227), a quarter of those as a deep safety and a little less than that in the box. You saw him match tight-ends a lot, where his length to disrupt guys off the line, his ability to hang down the seams and the size to not be taken advantage on make him a brilliant projection for that type of role. The same is true for big-bodied, more possession-oriented receivers, particularly rolling his hips against inside breaks, where he doesn’t overreact to how vertical routes are stemmed and attaches to the man’s hip pocket quickly. For his career, Hamilton has been responsible for just 39 completions on 82 targets for 388 yards and one touchdown, while interception eight(!) passes himself. Altogether, that results in a passer rating allowed of 25.9 when targeted. That is the lowest among FBS safeties over that time-span. And of course, his reliable tackling skills, particularly working up from depth, is key in the pass game as well. Notre Dame blitzed him off the edge a couple of times per game, where he can not only chase down the ball from the backside, but has also run over backs in protection and knocked down quick throws by elevating as the QB releases the ball.
While there isn’t a whole lot to criticize about Hamilton in run support, he has to be a little careful as a runner due to his height. He has come in high on numerous occasions and been flagged for it at times. The pass game is much more the area I want to focus on. Playing man against slot receivers, having to turn and run from the slot when not being able to slow them down with his hands was challenging, along with not having great hand-eye coordination to locate the ball at the end. Hamilton’s range at this point is kind of overrated, based on that pick he had against Florida State. I didn’t feel like he had another one like that this past season. When he can play top-down and just trigger on stuff, his closing burst is certainly impressive, but if he has to bail into two-deep shells or rotates into the deep middle, he seems to sort of mindlessly drift into space, where you see the ball clearly being handed off or flicked out on quick passes already. Hamilton to me is kind of a straight-line athlete, without great flexibility to adjust his path, as he triggers on one route and the ball goes somewhere different. And I had to watch those kinds of plays multiple times, but I felt like Hamilton saw the general direction of where the QB wanted to go, but just didn’t see where the eyes went and guessed wrong to some degree. You can also affect him with eye-candy to some degree and create throwing windows for a slant behind him as he gets pulled him up with a screen fake off orbit motion and stuff like that.
This was a very interesting evaluation. I went into the process with the idea of Hamilton being an elite prospect in regard to guys at other position. While he is my SAF1, I came away a little underwhelmed from the tape, with that notion in mind. With a player like this that has pretty much linebacker size, but having played deep a lot, position fit is always a big question. That can be looked at a positive for sure, but I have some concerns about his profile. I was shocked to see him be tied for the worst 40 among safeties at 4.59 (although he was weaving sideways way too much). That 38-inch vert and 10’11” broad jump, plus him having clocked in at 21 MPH on the GPS before (according to Bruce Feldman), doesn’t leave me too worried about that part of his game and I think he’s the best all-around run-defending safety in the class, but in terms of his deployment in coverage, he may offer too much of a narrow skill-set.
2. Jaquan Brisker, Penn State
6’1”, 205 pounds; JR
The number one safety recruit in 2019, Brisker quickly turned himself into a key cog for the Nittany Lions, as over his first two years (22 games), he recorded 88 total tackles, four for loss, three picks and nine more passes broken up. As a junior he set or tied career-bests, with 63 tackles, six of those for loss, a couple of picks and five PBUs, earning second-team All-American honors.
This guy plays downhill constantly and brings the physicality of a linebacker. Brisker confidently steps down and fills gaps against the run as a member of the box, yet he’s quick to shoot up the alley and if a blocker gets in his way, he’s usually the first one to initiate contact and extends his arms, to be able to get off as the ball-carrier approaches. He’s great at setting the edge, stopping tight-ends working up to him at the spot, and keeping backside contain. Against screens, he displays a quick trigger, to where he’s often times not even touched by blockers. Brisker can lay the wood, when he gets a chance to, but he’s also reliable as bringing ball-carriers to the ground, missing just one of his 60 tackling attempts in 2020. This past season that number jumped up all the way to ten, but he was playing through a shoulder harness and you saw his form altered to some degree, not wrapping up properly. I still really like the way he leverages the ball and cuts down his strides, to not allow guys to juke him. You see Brisker come in late and push the pile backwards quite routinely and he shows great pursuit blitzing off the edge or coming from depth.
When he’s rushing off the edge, I’ve even seen him take offensive tackles off balance. He had an incredible chase-down tackle against Ohio State last season, where the Buckeyes’ sensational freshman RB Treyveon Henderson had blown by the play-side safety and all the way from the opposite hash, Brisker despite almost being off the screen even on the All-22 somehow was able to just twist him down at the two-yard line. And he was all over the field in Penn State’s 2021 season-opener against Wisconsin, coming up with several key plays, including pretty much a game-sealing pick, where he was in man-coverage on the back and with that guy staying in protection, had the freedom to float underneath a streaking tight-end. That’s just one of the plays that speaks to his impeccable football IQ.
First and foremost about Brisker in coverage, he shows outstanding awareness of where everybody is on the field. He was deployed a lot as a single-high free safety in 2020, despite being built to play closer to the line of scrimmage and even when lined up in split-looks, he quickly gets towards the middle of the field. I’ve seen him showcase the range to go from one hash to the opposite sideline and hit receivers in the back, as they try to catch corner routes. At the same time, he displays tremendous anticipation for route combinations and is a threat to undercut deep out routes in quarters, if the slot receiver doesn’t really sell vertically. In ’21 we saw a lot more man-coverage, where Brisker was matched up against several different body-types and got the job done, often times versus number three in trips. From off-alignment, he keeps his feet bouncing and is looking to engage contact, to determine route stems. He displays good awareness for targets around him to bracket when needed as a robber, and when playing top-down, he punishes quite a few pass-catchers for having to elevate for the ball or catch the ball in front of him, as he’s breathing down their neck. You see him just blow guys up on slant routes, screaming down from split-safety looks, and think twice about hitting backside digs. His ability to see things coming and fight through the catch-point led to the third-best forced incompletion rate among draft-eligible safeties at 27.3%. And overall, he limited opposing quarterbacks to just 12 completions, 105 yards and one touchdown on 21 targets this past season, while intercepting two of those himself.
With that being said, Brisker can get a little too aggressive with his angles working across the field, in split-safety looks or dropping down as the robber. As a center-fielder on the other hand, he tends to float very deep and give receivers plenty of room to operate behind the underneath coverage, while ball-carriers are given extra yardage because he’s so far off the ball. In general, I’d say he’s definitely better going forward than backwards. In deep coverage, he tends to be manipulated by quarterbacks too easily, instead of his eyes going to the biggest/most imminent vertical threat first, to put himself in position and choose his angle appropriately, before toggling back towards the QB if he’s rotating from a split-safety look. This past season, he was primarily deployed in the box or as a robber – according to PFF’s tracking, he spent over 150 snaps in the slot and deep respectively, while he was in the box for 433. So in an NFL, where you see a lot more two-hell shells and safeties being asked to be interchangeable with playing the deep post, some evaluators may prefer other options.
Personally, Brisker is one of my favorite overall players in this entire draft. His aggressiveness in run-support, the ability to play through in the box, his tackling skills (when healthy) and his overall feel for the game made me a fan. Now, I don’t want to see him be used as a true single-high safety necessarily and at times he needs to be a little more conservative with his angles when he is put to one side, but there’s a lot to like in terms of the talent and demeanor on the field. And I think he cemented himself as one of top safeties with his athletic testing, as he ran a 4.43 at his pro day and improved his vert to 38.5 inches, along with a 10’4” broad jump at the combine and agility numbers above the 80th percentile.
3. Lewis Cine, Georgia
6’1”, 200 pounds; JR
A top-50 overall recruit in 2019, Cine was a rotational player over his six games as a freshman. In year two, he put up 38 tackles and three pass breakups. He finally jumped onto the scene in ’21 for the eventual national champion Bulldogs, featuring one of the all-time defensive units, when he totaled 73 stops (two for loss), an interception and nine PBUs, earning himself third-team All-American accolades.
Cine was primarily deployed as a boundary safety in 2020, was playing closer to the line of scrimmage in ’21, as a robber or in man on slot receivers. This guy trusts what his eyes tell him and he can play fast because of it. Cine will stick his nose in there and bang in-between bigger bodies, as he sees pulling linemen in the run game and works upfield from depth. I don’t think there’s another guy in this group with more urgency to fly up against runs to his side as a safety in two-high looks pre-snap. Speed-options, sweeps and stuff like that towards his side was largely off the table after trying them once. You watch the Alabama game and see him multiple times meet 230-pound back Brian Robinson about five yards past the line of scrimmage and that’s where he’s stopped – dead in his tracks. Cine uses his hands well to knock down the reach of tight-ends and stays pretty unaffected by slot receivers. When he’s shifted into the deep middle, he displays the burst to take away angles to either side, as he outraces ball-carriers to those spots routinely. It’s so fun to watch him fill the C-gap or meet a receiver in-between two blockers on screen passes with no hesitation whatsoever, racing down from deep. Yet, despite his aggressiveness, Cine has always been a reliable tackler, only missing 11 of 159 career attempts. He doesn’t shy away from charging force full at the quarterback as a blitzer from a good ten yards of depth either. His pursuit overall is pretty crazy, to where at times he’s not even in the picture on the broadcast view and he arrives at the ball at full speed, screaming across from the opposite safety spot. And if he’s further away from the action and is caught with a blocker out in front, having to make a stop 20+ yards downfield, he sufficiently fights through contact and limits plays to just big runs, rather than touchdowns.
As a deep zone defender, Cine tracks the eyes of the quarterback and simultaneously can peak at the routes around him. In single-high duty, he consistently stays between streaking receivers and his end-zone, not allowing the ball to be thrown over his head. He’s exceptional at reading route stems and anticipating breaks, finding the right balance between mid-lining and committing to targets. And on tape, you see him kind of play games with the quarterback at times, denying lay-ups on deep crossers with a couple of steps up before backing up again for example. When he’s rotated into the flats or as a robber/rat, he’s quick to fall off his responsibilities as he sees receivers enter a soft spot and the QB setting his feet to deliver the ball. If Cine has to flow with the play-fake initially, he still has the ability to change directions and get to his marks, to not allow quarterbacks to open up throwing windows by manipulating him on the back-end. Once the ball is in the air, Cine can obviously cover plenty of ground and he persistently rips through the hands of receivers as he initiates contact, when the ball arrives there. If he can drive on routes in front of him, he can make the target pay for getting his hands on the ball, by timing things up so he arrives there simultaneously, illustrated by just one flag for pass interference this past season. Overall, he limited opponents to just 6.6 yards per target as the closest coverage defender, with one touchdown versus one pick. Cine’s versatility in that regard is backed up by spending 118 snaps in the slot and 153 in the box, although 534 came at deep safety, allowing the pressure to get home without having to worry much about deep shots killing them.
With that being said, Cine certainly won’t blow anybody aesthetically. He has an extremely narrow frame and skinny build overall. And with the way he throws his body around, you might have some durability concerns. You look the aggressiveness at working downhill from depth, but he can get his feet stuck in the middle a little bit at times, when having to wait for a tackle to some degree. When he has the wideout and slot go vertically in two-deep coverages, Cine has to do a better job of playing in-between those routes and gain depth accordingly. When matched up against a receiver vertically, he can get caught flat-footed a little bit at times, as they kick it into their final year and get a couple of steps on the safety. Two touchdowns by Alabama receivers come to mind – John Metchie running by him off a corner blitz in 2020 and then the famous stutter-fade by Jameson Williams in the most recent SEC Championship game, where he and the corner were supposed to bracket him in cover-two. He didn’t do a whole lot of it and Cine doesn’t seem super comfortable having to play man-coverage on slot receivers and not being able to read from depth.
Cine surprised a lot of with his 40 time of 4.37 at the combine (three hundredths of a second worse than the top safety), along with an 11’1” broad jump, which led the group and ranks in 96th percentile for the position overall. He was also very sudden with the way he could flip his hips and has been rising up draft boards ever since then. I think with his instincts and eyes, he plays up to those explosive measurements. Once again, with a rather slender frame and the things he excels at in coverage, I wouldn’t project him as somebody who will success with frequent man-coverage duties, but in a split-safety scheme, where he has the freedom to attack the line of scrimmage in the run game, can cover one half of the field and protect the post as he’s rolled into the middle, he has the potential to become a Pro Bowler early on. This past season, Cine finished top-ten among draft-eligible safeties in forced incompletions (seven) and coverage stops (12).
4. Daxton Hill, Michigan
6’0”, 195 pounds; JR
The number one safety recruit in 2019, Hill immediately carved out a significant role for himself with the Wolverines. Through his first two years (18 games), he recorded 80 total tackles, two interceptions and seven more passes broken up. In 2021, he put up career-highs with 69 tackles, 4.5 for loss, two INTs and eight more passes broken up, bringing him second-team All-Big Ten accolades.
Despite certainly being a bit undersized, Hill isn’t afraid of sticking his nose in the fan in the run game. You’ll see him two-hand punch into the chest of slot receivers and squeeze the ball inside routinely. He fills well when aligned towards the edge of the tight-end and he blocks away from him on zone-based schemes, to take away the cutback lane. Yet, if he has to stay behind the line, to decipher what’s going on, he remains patience and outside leverage well. He sufficiently utilizes sudden hand-swipes combined with the ability to side-step, in order to knock away the reach of receivers trying to put hands on him. With Hill defending the run as a deep safety, it’s all about positioning himself before the ball gets there. You rarely see him not have his shoulders squared to the line of scrimmage. He does a great job of leveraging the ball and forcing it back towards the help. I’ve seen him end up as the last line of defense and flip ball-carriers in tough open-field situations. And Hill understand that he’s not the biggest guy, but he effectively cuts down larger ball-carriers low with chop-down tackles. Michigan heavily utilized him as a blitzer off the slot, where he doesn’t shy away from banging into the near-shoulder of a tight-end if the ball goes that way, but also the absurd ability to plant his foot and flatten his angle to chase from the backside.
This past season, Hill spent 73.2 percent of his snaps last season in the slot and he shows the ability to play sticky man-coverage against those inside receivers, even against some of the toughest routes to match, like corners and drags, as he sustains contact throughout. He does a nice job of cutting off the angle for receivers to create clean outside releases and stack on slot fade routes as well as deny easy access to the post, with the speed to carry them down the field seemingly effortlessly. Even though Hill barely clears the six-foot mark, he does have 32 ¼-inch arms and that 4.38 speed shows up on tape. Along with that, he showcases the oily hips and short-area burst to open one way according to the stem and not allow separation as his receiver breaks across. In zone coverage, he had a good feel for spacing depending on the pre-snap formation. He communicates and passes off crossers well as a hook/over-hang defender underneath and IDs routes working towards him. Plus, if he has no assignment in his area, he’s looking to sink underneath stuff breaking behind him. In two-high shells, the Wolverine safety rapidly attacks forward and can undercut short out routes. And he can really plant and drive when having to gain depth still. The best area of Hill’s game however might be what you see from him the few times he was rotated into the deep middle (based on certain motions), with how impressive he is at gaining depth in his back-pedal whilst his shoulders stay square to the line of scrimmage, along with finding the biggest vertical threat and bracketing down the field. Altogether, Hill has been responsible for 78 completions on 114 targets over the course of his career, but for a modest 7.6 yards per target and just one touchdown, compared to four interceptions. Last season, he finished top-five among draft-eligible safeties in forced incompletions (seven) and coverage stops (14), according to Pro Football Focus.
With that being said, Hill simply doesn’t have the size to consistently work through contact in the run game. You see tight-ends seal him away from the action fairly easily. If a receiver gets him to turn by selling the take-off in the run game well and then delivering a push, Hill can be sent flying. And while he understands how to minimize his size disadvantage by coming in low as a tackler, he does dive forward a lot and opponents know to keep their legs clean so to speak, there can be some bad whiffs. Last season, he missed ten tackles overall. That slender build also doesn’t allow him to separate receivers from the ball as he arrives at the catch-point, even when he’s in good position. Hill won’t be able to play as much stack-technique in man-coverage as much against NFL receivers and while he can carry routes down the field well, he tends to lose his focus late at times and allow guys to disengage on secondary routes. Coverage numbers – particularly in college – can be deceiving, but a completion percentage of 70.6% is not what you want to see and I could see offenses move the chains by targeting him with big slots on slant routes and stuff like that on third down, where the can shield the ball with their bodies.
While he was slightly below-average in both the jumps, Hill ran a 4.38 in the 40 and the second-best mark (behind only the freakish showing of Sam Houston State CB Zyon McCollum) in both the agility drills – a 6.57 in the three-cone and a 4.06 in the 20-yard shuttle. His hips and speed are elite for the safety position and he can probably be a quality starting nickel from day one. By PFF’s tracking numbers, Hill only spent 80 snaps as a deep safety last season. So his tape in that regard is fairly limited, which is where his biggest value would be. Combine that with some of the size concerns people might have and he’s “only” at number four for me. That’s still good for an early day two pick however, just because of how good this class is at the top.
5. Jalen Pitre, Baylor
5’11”, 195 pounds; SR
Right around the top-1000 overall recruits in 2017, Pitre started his career at linebacker, before transitioning to nickel/safety in 2020. Over his 23 games there, he put up ridiculous production for a member of the secondary (by description), with 135 total tackles, 29.5(!) of those for loss, six sacks, seven PBUs, four INTs and forced fumbles each, which made him a first-team All-American in 2021 and he was named the Big-XII Defensive Player of the Year.
This guy was easily the best nickelback in the country this past season (lining up almost exactly two thirds of snaps in the slot at the STAR position as Dave Aranda calls it), with 50 total defensive stops (most among all DBs) and 25 pressures as a blitzer (second-most). He was also number one among DBs with an averaged depth of tackle (on run plays) of just 0.8 yards. Pitre has a bounce to his step and aggressively approaches the run game. He is so quick to diagnose and get to the ball. You saw line up to the outside edge of the wing-man or just come off the corner late and deliver a strike into that guy’s chest trying to drive him further towards the sideline and then is able to slip off those. Yet, if Pitre is lined up behind the line with more distance, he can sort of slip through creases and create TFLs in that area, while sliding underneath tight-ends on multiple occasions, as he realizes the run is going away from him. And then the Bears liked to blitz him off the corner quite a bit, to take advantage of his speed in backside pursuit, where he routinely timed the snap perfectly. He’s ferocious in that area and didn’t shy away to running into bodies in his way, at times even into offensive tackles. At times you see get pushed upfield significantly by the tight-end and look like he’s taken away from the action, but he doesn’t let up, circles back around and takes down the RB on cutbacks. Overall, this guy loves to fly around the field and puts his body on the line constantly
A lot of times, Pitre lined up with outside leverage on the number two as a hang-/seam defender on a lot of base down and he does an excellent job of positioning himself between high-low. He’s tremendous at deciphering cross-releases out of bunch sets for example and then jumping on whoever he ends matched up on. Pitre is almost like a machine with that back-pedal to stay behind receivers as he’s asked to bail out in like two-high shells. His peripheral vision to see the entire field in deeper zone coverage is tremendous, where he can kind of toggle between three routes and sort of mid-point those. And if receivers threaten down the seams in some kind of way and then snap off their routes, he can stop there himself instead of overrunning it. However, Pitre also has spent plenty of time in man-coverage as well, where you see him match the pace of slot receivers well, as they slowly gear up and try to create some vertical detach. He persistently bothers slot receivers on routes across the field by pinning an arm and holding them back with subtle tugs, to stay right in phase. And then he’s capable of stopping his momentum tremendously well after receivers suddenly stick their foot in the ground and change directions. When he can play with his eyes on the ball, he attacks it well at its highest point, but he also has some tremendous snaps of playing the hands of receivers when he has his back to it in man-coverage. This past season, he was targeted 58 times, but only surrendered 35 completions for 321 yards and no touchdowns, compared to his two interceptions. And he never allowed a touchdown last year, according to Pro Football Focus.
The issue with Pitre however is that he seemingly won’t blow anybody away physically. He ranks in the bottom-23rd percentile across the board for all the measurables for size dimensions, including just 30 ½-inch arms, which limits his ability to lock out effectively against blockers and doesn’t grant him much room for error when swiping at the ball. You see it on multiple occasions, where it looks like he’ll get to the ball at the sideline on longer-developing plays, but he can’t quite shed his blocker. And he can get a little out of control in his finished, which led to 15 missed tackles in 2021. You love the aggressiveness, but Pitre can be to flat with his angles as a blitzer and lose contain in the process. In coverage, he’s very eager to jump the initial break and he doesn’t feature great make-up speed if he gets out of phase early. He almost exclusively lined up in the slot for Baylor these last two years. So we don’t really have any tape on him as a deep middle safety for example, projecting him forward into a scheme, where he’s asked to rotate high at times.
While a lot of his great tape was him charging downhill and blasting guys, during Senior Bowl practices you saw him be able to truly cover man-to-man effectively. He engaged and maintained contact with receivers throughout the pattern, while doing a nice job of swiping through their reach at the end, His lack of height at 5’10” never looked like much of an issue when matched up against tight-ends, while in zone he did a nice job of mid-pointing route combinations. Pitre really stood out among that entire safety group down in Mobile and was voted National DS of the week, showing showed off his all-around skill-set, before coming up with the game-sealing pick in the actual game. Then he had a very good all-around showing at the combine, even though his bench (16) and broad were both below average (35 inches), but he finished in the top-three among safeties in the three-cone (6.74) and 20-yard shuttle (4.18), And he just looked so comfortable changing directions and making plays on the ball in the on-field section. I don’t believe he has the physical gifts of a Daxton Hill in terms of a slot defender or the range/size of some of these more typical safeties I’ve described, but Pitre is a damn good football player. This past season, he was the only player in the Big 12 with 10-plus tackles for loss and two-plus interceptions.
6. Bryan Cook, Cincinnati
6’1”, 205 pounds; SR
Coming out of a Division III high school, Cook’s only scholarship offer came from Howard University. After spending two years with the HBCU in Washington D.C., where he racked up 93 tackles, 17 passes defended, five interceptions and two forced fumbles combined, he took a massive step up in level of competition when he joined his hometown Bearcats. He would broke his ankle and not gain immediate eligibility outside of the team’s bowl game and even in 2020 he was more of a rotational player due to Cincinnati having two eventual draft picks at safety in Darrick Forest and James Wiggins. Only when the latter was ruled out of the Peach Bowl against Georgia did Cook get a chance to shine and he looked like he belonged, making seven solo tackles. This past season he was an impact starter all the way and helped the Bearcats become the first Non-Power Five team to make it to the CFP. Individually, he recorded 96 total tackles, five of those for loss, two pass intercepted and nine more broken up, making him a first-team All-AAC selection.
Cook has the looks and mentality of a box safety, but he’s gained experience with a multitude of coverage responsibilities as the Bearcats boundary safety in 2021. He was used as a true deep middle free safety against three-by-one sets, where he stays balanced while pedaling backwards as he’s deciphering route patterns, but then as he sees quarterbacks load up, he can cover ground towards the numbers pretty well. They also rotated him there a few times to disguise the coverage late and muddy up the picture for the quarterback. Cook picks up streaking receivers down the seams if there’s no secondary threat and you rarely see those guys get behind him. From two-high alignments, you really see him drive on routes in front of him and he wants to separate receivers from the ball. His pursuit towards the sideline as the ball is completed in front of him is outstanding and he chops down tight-ends before they can turn upfield on several occasions. In deep responsibilities, you don’t see Cook just float around in space, but rather position himself accordingly to “catch” routes his way and not just getting deeper in conservative fashion. When put down in the flats and playing over the top, he sees the ball completed underneath to the back and is ready to shut down the runner.
The Bearcat safety was also heavily dropped down as a robber or rat, reading the eyes of the quarterback and taking away easy completions over the middle of the field. I like his ability to put hands on the tight-end off the line and dictate route stems to some degree, where having those 32-inch limbs certainly help. When playing them in off-man, Cook shows the burst to work over the top of deep mesh/cross concepts and get back into phase. He positions himself well when the ball hangs up in the air and attacks it at the highest point. He made an outstanding interception on a deep over route on a ball slightly behind the receiver in the end-zone against Indiana, as well as a nice diving pick on an overthrown pass over the middle by Alabama’s Bryce Young in the CFP semifinal. However, my favorite play of his actually came against Tulsa in 2020, where the QB already gave away where he was going on a fade route into the boundary, when it looked like the Bearcats were in one-man, but they bailed into cover-two late and Cook absolutely BLEW UP the receiver just as he got his hands on the ball. Overall, he allowed 22 of 37 passes to be completed with him as the closest defender in coverage, with no touchdowns, two INTs and seven forced incompletions overall, resulting in a passer rating of just 51.9.
In run defense, Cook keeps his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage. but is ready to fill the hole once the back commits. Then he wraps up low and drives his legs through the tackle, to limit yards after contact. He does not shy away from mixing it up with some offensive linemen and banging into tight-ends in that regard. You see him really fight hard to get around guys in space, at times on some sweeps with the offensive tackle working up to him. Coming from two-high looks, Cook works upfield in controlled manner, but is looking to bring some thunder when he arrives there. Yet, he wraps up consistently and his only real fails in that regard come when he’s chasing stuff at full speed and leading low with the shoulder. He missed just seven of 85 tackling attempts this past season, His pursuit across the field is excellent and you see him run guys down at the opposite sideline as they bounce runs out wide. Cook was involved a little bit in Cincinnati’s blitz packages, rushing off the edge from box/slot alignments as well as charging full speed from depth (particularly in 2020). There’s room for an increased role.
With that being said, Cook doesn’t seem too comfortable against receivers stemming vertically, as they can get him turned the wrong way and beat them across the face, particularly on slot fades or seam routes. He doesn’t have the most loose lower body or quickest feet and likely won’t play much off-man on slots for his future NFL team. More advanced quarterbacks can get Cook leaning the wrong way with his body language in two-high looks, such as eliminating him from the picture when trying to take shots along the sideline, and receivers crossed him up on some double-moves on tape. He can get a little too aggressive with his angles towards the sideline, and playing in the box, Cook needs to be quicker with hitting his punch and working off blocks.
It’s been a long journey for Cook and I still don’t believe he receives the credit he deserves, due to the other great players on that Cincinnati defense, particularly those two corners. He may not be the most fluid athlete, to enable him to match slot receivers for extended stretches, and he’ll need to play with a little more eye-discipline in deep coverage, but I’m a big fan overall of his game. I would personally argue he’s the second-best Bearcat prospect behind only CB Sauce Gardner – even if there is quite a significant gap.
7. Nick Cross, Maryland
6’1”, 210 pounds; JR
A top-five safety recruit in 2019, Cross immediately made an impact for the Terrapins and started every game he was available for (only four in a COVID-shortened 2020 campaign). He set career-highs with 66 tackles, three sacks, three interceptions and two forced fumbles in 2021. And despite not being noticed by the conference coaches, he decided forgo his final year of eligibility and take his talents to the next level.
Cross has a nice bounce to his step as he works down against the run from split-safety and box alignments, whilst maintaining outside leverage. Yet, he doesn’t shy away from filling the C-gap and at times he can also slip inside of blocks from tight-ends when he sees an opportunity. From single-high alignment, he adjusts his approach in terms of how aggressive he is, depending on down and distance. Regardless of that, his range to chase down runs or screens is outstanding. He had one snap in the Michigan game in the red-zone this past season, where the Terrapins were in a split-safety look, where he was outside of one hash with a receiver motioning away from him and the offense sent their three receivers away from him across the field, to open up space for a swing screen basically, yet it was Cross, who ended up banging the recipient out of bounds just ahead of the goal-line. However, Cross does a nice job of pacing his steps as he gets closer to the ball and has to break down in space. I don’t look at his 14 missed tackles as a major issue, because he did have 87 attempts and was put in a lot of tough situations, where the ball-carrier had the width of the field to work with once he second level was cleared, while Cross at times started nearly 20 yards off the field. And even when engaged with a blocker, he often found a way to twist opponents down on an angle. Maryland also sent him blitzing through interior gaps every from depth every once in a while and off the edge fairly regularly, where his closing burst is breath-taking.
In terms of coverage duties, Cross was heavily relied upon as a single-high safety at 15+ yards of depth and doesn’t let anybody take the post off the defense. His range shows up when he has somebody pushing towards the post and then falls off to get towards to somebody wheeling up the sideline. Yet, he can also drive forward in quarters assignment and redirect from a pedal without any delay. Cross displays no fear to get onto his heels as slot receivers push vertically towards him in two-deep coverages and he’s had several impressive snaps matching corner routes despite all the space towards the sideline. You saw him line up in the box (especially in three-by-one sets with the TE as the single) and bail out to cover-two on several occasions, where he made up ground whilst having his hips pointed inside in case the tight-end works down the seams, then square his shoulder to the line of scrimmage and be ready to widen if someone breaks across his face. He has decent length and uses it well to get a hand on high passes to tight-ends or reach around when they try to shield him from the ball, particularly when covering them at the goal-line. And very once in a line he also gets matched up with those guys working down the sideline and he seems to easily stay with them. Cross’ ball production could certainly be even better, if he wasn’t asked as much to line up at free safety 15-20 yards deep and playing top-down on everything.
Lining up at 15+ yards of depth as a single-high safety, Cross tends to give even more ground post-snap and offers too much space to operate in front of him to receivers. Particularly in cover-two, his eye discipline can be hurtful at times, when he’s locked in on one key, such as an orbit motion away from him, whilst a receiver runs by him, as the corner expects help to bracket. And overall, his aggressiveness can bite him in the butt at times, relying more on attacking something he sees, rather than allowing his processing skills to take him to the ball – which are still in development. While he did have those three interceptions, Cross was responsible for a completion percentage of 75% and four touchdowns, for a passer rating of 103.0. He can get himself out of position a little bit as running backs set up wide bounces and pursuing towards the sideline, he doesn’t yet use it effectively as a tool, to take away one side to cut towards and gets beaten across his face at times.
After that group of five at the top, I went with Cincinnati’s Bryan Cook, but I would argue Cross is kind of in that same tier, where he isn’t quite as well-rounded player at this point, but has the potential to be even better, especially considering he won’t even quite have turned 21 once the upcoming NFL season starts, and he didn’t even start playing football until high school. His processing skills and angles need refinement, but the athletic profile is very intriguing. Cross led all safeties at the combine with a 4.34 in the 40 at a beefed-up 212 pounds and he had great numbers across the board, which got him an RAS of 9.9u (modified). You get with the right coach, who understands how to let the talent flourish in a more simplified role early on and then adds to his plate gradually, because he has the skill-set to be a versatile piece in the secondary, and you got yourself a Pro Bowl player potentially.
8. Verone McKinley III, Oregon
5’11”, 195 pounds; RS JR
A top-500 recruit in 2018 at cornerback, McKinley intercepted four passes already as a redshirt freshman, but even though he only grabbed one in year two (about half as many games), he did force and recover a fumble each, on top of 46 tackles and two pass-breakups exactly for a second consecutive season. In 2021, he put up career-highs across the board in total tackles (77), interceptions (six) and PBUs (six), making him a consensus first-team All-American team.
McKinley spent over 150 snaps in the slot and the box each this past season, while the rest (60.5%) were at deep safety. He tracks the ball very well as it goes out to the sideline from two-high looks, aiming at the near hip of the ball-carrier, and overall he effectively takes away angle towards the sideline for ball-carriers on jet sweeps, end-arounds and stuff like that, forcing them to step out of bounds, with the awareness to pull up to avoid flags. McKinley is aggressively looking to meet slot receivers trying to work up to him in the run game and has some unorthodox ways of getting around bodies in space. There’s no lack of willingness to meet lead-blockers near the line of scrimmage on longer-developing plays and shoot through one shoulder to funnel the ball back inside. And he’s not somebody who will just dive at the legs of bigger tight-ends and backs, but rather shows the willingness to get into head-on collisions.
McKinley is the rare combination of a ball-hawk, who rarely allows big plays in the pass game. As a deep middle safety, he showcases excellent tracking of the quarterback’s eyes and progress along with him. When he sees somebody slide inside of the underneath defense or runs a deep crosser and enters that soft-spot in front of him, McKinley shows an understanding for when he can slightly work down already and deny easy completions that way. And when he decides to drive on a route, he does so with great urgency and arrives there quickly. McKinley was capped over the number three in trips from depth quite a bit, keeping deep crossers and benders in front of him. And the Ducks put him in some tough positions when rotating down late and the tight-end having the clear advantage to the inside, yet he gets there against benders and hooks over the middle, playing from outside leverage and locking in on the hips of the target. When covering the flats, he shows good balance between staying in position for lead-outs/slide routes and coming upfield against quarterbacks on bootlegs or as scramblers in general. Overall, McKinley displays tremendous ball-location skills and an innate feel for how to play in the air. He’s put his crazy hand-eye coordination on tape a few times, when he was turned the wrong way based on the arrival of the pass, had to flip around and re-locate the ball, to knock the it down. He’s had top-tier ball production over the last two full seasons, with ten interceptions and nine PBUs. He made several big plays in the Ducks’ upset victory over Ohio State in 2021 and forced the game-sealing incompletion on their goal-line stand against Cal, by pressuring the QB on a blitz through the B-gap. As he closest defender in coverage, McKinley held opposing QBs to just 18 completions for 220 yards on 30 targets, with two touchdowns versus his six INTs last season – and one of the TDs wasn’t necessarily on him, with some confusion about alignment at the goal-line against UCLA.
The big issue with McKinley however is the athletic profile. He finished in the 45th percentile or worse across the board at the combine (jumps and bench-press) and then ran a 4.65 at the Ducks pro day, along with being slightly below-average in all the physical dimensions. That lack of speed shows up a couple of times when fast ball-carriers burn his pursuit angles across the field, as well as in coverage, where he tends to flip fairly early against slot receivers stemming outside him in two-high shells. The other main issue is his tackling efficiency, where too often he launches his pads forward into contact. He has to do a better job of actually wrapping up and making sure he gets guys to the turf, as he missed 18.5 percent of his tackling attempts this past season (17 total). There’s also some inconsistency when forced to take on blockers, where his 30-inch arms deny him vision on the ball if opponents are able to get into his frame and he has a tough time to disengage,
Evaluation reminds me a lot of Rams safety Jordan Fuller coming out of Ohio State a couple of years, where I loved the tape and the fact he always seemed to be in great position, but backed off a little bit and put him just outside my top ten for the position. And he went in the sixth round ultimately, but is now the best safety on a Super Bowl team. I envision McKinley going somewhere in the middle of day three as well and he’ll have to clean up his tackling to stay on an NFL field, but he has the smarts and instincts to become an excellent do-it-all safety at the next level, with tremendous ball skills to create turnovers for his team.
9. Kerby Joseph, Illinois
6’1”, 205 pounds; JR
Not highly recruited (three-star) at the athlete spot in 2018, Joseph was not able to play any of his first three seasons in full capacity, before playing all 12 games in 2021 and earning first-team All-Big Ten accolades, thanks to 57 tackles, five INTs, two more PBUs and a sack.
This guy has such a freaky build, with an absurd 80-inch wing span and 10 ¼-inch hands, while we don’t have an official 40 time, but can assume something in the 4.5-range at least, I would say. Joseph has such easy ability to cover ground as he works upfield from 18-20 yards of depth at times and helps corral the ball-carrier without overrunning it, while changing up his gears as he gets into open-field tackling situations. He has some real pop in his hands as he engages with slot receiver in the run game, being able to hold his ground and lock out with those long arms. And you saw the same a few times when he was lined up in the box, particularly against 12 personnel, while being able to swipe those guys to the side as the back approaches. Yet, he bounces off contact when caught on angle through crack-backs and stuff like that too. When deployed closer to the ball, he shows the burst and willingness to absolutely blow into contact in one of the inside gaps. Joseph has plenty of juice when attacking forward against screens and tracking down scrambling QBs. Most of it came last year, but he has 104 career tackles with only ten misses on defense.
With the length Joseph brings to the table, you would think he’s used a lot in the box, but he actually spent 61.5 percent of his snaps as a deep safety in 2021. He has some of the loosest hips you will ever find for his type of build, effortlessly gliding around the field. And it’s kind of crazy what the Illinois coaches asked of Joseph at times, showing pressure in a gap and then flying all the way out to the deep middle safety spot and actually be the deepest man. Less challenging, but still pretty impressive, he lined up in the box and bailed out to two-high shells quite a bit too. Joseph was used quite a bit as a middle dropper, where he lined up over the furthest receiver to the inside and then sinks between the other safety and a corner in a Tampa-2 like coverage, being able to carry threats down the seams and keeping his head on a swivel if there’s no direct assignment. Then once the ball is in the air, Joseph seems to be able to hit another gear to make a play on it, where his 39-inch vertical and wide receiver-like ball-skills can really shine. This past season, he was top-five among draft-eligible safeties in forced incompletion rate at 26.3%, allowing only nine of 19 targets his way to be completed his way, with two touchdowns compared to his five picks.
I’m sure the Illini coaches asked to stay to just not let anybody behind him in single-high duty, but Joseph gives so much ground that it looks like he’s in a different ZIP code and can’t really make a play on anything in front of him. Even the All-22 camera loses him from the picture at times. Yet, he also allows quarterbacks to open up to the sideline and get him out of position as the ball is thrown towards deeper in-breaking routes. Even on scrambles, with no imminent threat he stays way behind all the potential targets. And I’d say overall, the feel for timing, to decipher through patterns and end up attaching to a target, finding the guy in the soft spot, is a little lacking, when he isn’t necessarily just playing top-down. There were some issues like that in the red-zone in the games I watched. Joseph barely was asked to play in any man-coverage and even his time in the box was very limited, which will probably be where you find him more in the NFL. And it’s head-scratching why Joseph only started his final one of four years in college, not being able to establish himself as a fixture in the lineup for a mostly struggling program.
The lack of man-coverage snaps and how often he wasn’t even part of the play basically, just playing 5-10 yards behind everybody else, makes Joseph a bit of a tougher projecting. During Senior Bowl week, he was super grabby versus tight-ends during one-on-ones, which we should see him be used at a lot in the pro’s and I think he has clear potential to be a matchup piece that way. What he can do early on for sure is get downhill in a hurry against the run, be a reliable tackler and a standout teamer right away. He was a gunner on punt coverage these past two seasons, recording 16 career tackles on special teams and never missing one in that facet of the game. There are some things that are missing from a mental standpoint, but Joseph simply needs more reps, to create that feel in space. There’s only so many guys that long, who can run and flip their hips like this guy and I’m guessing the NFL covets him as a mid-day two pick.
10. Percy Butler, Louisiana
6’0”, 195 pounds; SR
A two-star recruit out of high school, Butler was the No. 357 wide receiver in the 2018 recruiting class. He purely played defense for the Ragin Cajuns, barely seeing the field as a freshman, before starting 31 of 38 games over his next three seasons. Over the latter two, he recorded 105 total tackles, eight out of those for loss, three passes intercepted and 13 more broken up, earning himself honorable mention and second-team All-Sun Belt accolades respectively.
In pads, this kid looks more like one of those hybrid nickels/dime backers and he’s probably capable of fulfilling that role. However, nearly half of his snaps last season were spent as a deep safety. Butler immediately gets into a hop-step as he deciphers through the run action and he’s light on his feet to track the ball across the field, without running himself out of position. I thought last season in particular, he displayed great awareness for how offenses wanted to attack in the run game, knowing when he can shoot upfield, working around crack-backs and stuff like that. When he does trigger and charges up the alley from split-safety looks, you almost hold your breath as you watch his speed to get there, particularly against fly sweeps and stuff like that. I thought this past season, he showed more urgency in that regard with deployment closer to the line of scrimmage in general. Butler has adequate size and play strength to fulfill box duties and I really like his pursuit from the backside in those alignments. Lining up in the slot or in split-safety looks, Butler does a nice job of playing with extension through blocks and not allowing the ball to get outside before slipping those, while from deep middle alignment, he swipes away the hands of receivers and works around them efficiently, when they try to get in front of him on plays out to the perimeter. Butler’s average depth of tackle in the run game of 5.4 is pretty damn good, considering how often he worked down from single-high alignments. And he doesn’t leave his buddies hanging, who are trying to wrestle down the ball-carrier, as he helps to make sure they’re going backwards.
This guy has true free safety range and great acceleration upfield. You see him disrupt the catch point on plays where he starts in-between the hashes and arrives slightly outside the numbers against slot fade routes. Yet, he will also race down towards the flat in the blink of an eye against slide routes on bootlegs, when there’s no imminent threat over the deep middle. Whether he’s the deep safety or robber, he can pick up streaking receivers on benders, seam or post routes without looking uncomfortable and not allowing guys to detach vertically. When he’s put in trail position, he doesn’t panic, but rather tracks the ball’s flight throughout and is ready to attack it at its climax. This past season, we saw Butler be used in man-coverage far more frequently and be able to trail deep crossers and other tough routes across the field. Even when he was turned the wrong way or took a false step, his make-up burst to get back into phase was highly impressive to me. Butler backed up that speed at the combine, when he was just two hundredths of a second off the top 40 time for a safety (4.36), plus he made some good plays on the ball during on-field drills. Overall, the ULL safety surrendered just ten completions on 21 targets as the next-closest coverage defender, with one touchdown and pick each, for a passer rating of 56.1
With that being said, Butler’s missed tackle rate nearly doubled last season compared to the prior two (from 11.3% to 20.3%). He came in too hot in that regard and needs to work on breaking down in space to become a reliable tackler even when charging upfield to create net positive plays for his defense. Along with that, Butler can get his eyes trapped in the backfield at times, where he gets drawn up by play-action and has a receiver run right by him down the middle. Once he sees patterns unfold, he has the quick reaction skills to make an impact, but his anticipation is still developing. And he tends to go for the ball instead of securing the tackle, even when he’s not in perfect coverage position. In man-situations, he’s not yet very efficient with his footwork and there are plenty of wasted steps to be seen. Butler didn’t face many legitimate passing offenses last season and against the most talented team on their schedule – Texas in the season-opener – he had his worst-graded game according to PFF (51.0). Plus, with his rather skinny build, some NFL teams may have durability concerns, particularly with the way he accelerates into contact a lot of times.
I feel like there was a bit of a trade-off with Butler’s aggressive in run support (particularly from depth), as he made a lot more stops near the line of scrimmage, but also missed twice as many tackles. I’ll take that any day, because he has shown the ability to be more conservative when needed and I’m not afraid that he won’t learn how to judge those situations accordingly. There’s some similar lessons he still needs to lean in coverage and only playing man-coverage for extended in one season is something that shows up on tape, but Butler had several impressive one-on-one coverage reps against tight-ends and backs at East-West Shrine practices. A play that stood out in the actual game was him perfectly matching North Carolina RB Ty Chandler on an angle route and breaking up the pass. According to Bowl game direction Eric Galko, he is also arguably “ST1” – if there is something like that – as more than six percent of his special teams snaps last season ended in tackles, which is crazy high when you consider how many of those plays don’t even end in tackles in general.
Just missed the cut:
Reed Blankenship, Middle Tennessee
6’1”, 195 pounds; RS SR
A former three-star recruit in 2017, Blankenship became a starter right off the bat and went on to amass some incredible production over the course of 53 career games, combining for 419 total tackles (265 solo) – a school record, 26.5 of those for loss, nine interceptions, 19 more passes broken up, three fumbles forced, four recovered and a couple of defensive touchdowns. He made first- or second-team All-Conference USA three different times.
I feel like I’ve been tracking the career of this young man as a potential NFL Draft prospect for at least three years now and this time around he finally actually (has to) come out. Blankenship was primarily deployed as a field-side safety, but dropped down into the slot quite a bit as well further into his collegiate career. In the run game, he works downhill in very controlled fashion and attacks low as a tackler. He consistently stays true to his contain responsibilities and maintains outside leverage on the ball, before choosing appropriate angles in pursuit once the ball-carrier crosses the line of scrimmage. Blankenship has an innate feel for how to come off blocks and create angles towards the football, when bodies are in his way. The most impressive part about Blankenship’s game is probably his ability to pursue the ball across the field as a run-and-chase player and bring ball-carriers to the ground, as he logged an impressive 106 total tackles and 10 TFLs during his final season with the Blue Raiders. You see the awareness to change gears, adjust angles and react to cuts across the grain on the fly. He’s an outstanding open-field tackler, who utilizes alligator-rolls and chop-downs in masterful fashion. The amount of stops in the flats for no additional yardage Blankenship made is just absurd. He had several highly impressive one-on-one tackles against Liberty QB Malik Willis last season. MTSU also asked him to blitz off the slot quite a bit in ‘21, showing good pursuit and awareness for when he can slip/bubble around blockers.
Blankenship is one of the smartest, most balanced coverage safeties you will find in college football. He doesn’t just fly off his spot if he has a feel for the quarterback will go the ball, but as soon as the shoulders are pointed at the target, he triggers down. He routinely shut down the potential for yards after the catch on flat, hitch routes, etc. He understands where the weaknesses of the defensive coverage is and as he sees the quarterback’s eyes go there, he rapidly makes sure to negate them. In particular, his work in cover-two is highly impressive, being able to come off his area to hold lay-ups over the middle to minimal yardage, while also displaying the anticipation for how routes while break when ending up isolated down the field, routinely staying in perfect position against deep corners. Blankenship instantly realizes when he doesn’t have a direct assignment as a robber, as the tight-end to his side stays in protection for example, and quickly peaks if there’s a route coming over towards him before taking off to bracket a streaking receiver nearby. As an overhang defender or when rotating down into the flats, he does a good job of staying in position to mid-line routes underneath and see any potential threats. Running stick out of trips or double-slants against him is very dangerous, because he’s ready to jump those routes working towards him instead of allowing himself to void that area with the number two. Overall, Blankenship is a tremendous communicator in zone coverage and doesn’t try to save the day, with just running towards the biggest threat if there’s some confusion, but rather stays true to his job. There’s very little wasted steps and he utilizes speed-turns effectively when his hips are pointed to the wrong target initially. And he has some incredible diving picks to his name, showcases great body-control.
With that in mind, Blankenship has very little experienced in covering the deep middle of the field. I don’t quite see the sudden bursts and overall range to excel in that kind of role. Overall, his anticipatory skills certainly outweigh his pure athletic gifts. And more advanced passers can use Blankenship’s willingness to void his area with staring at a different route and using shoulder-/pump-fakes to their advantage. He’s not the most comfortable in off man-coverage, giving receivers way too much room to operate and shifting his weight onto the heels, which makes it tough to redirect forward. You like his play-style for a potential big nickel role, but probably not in a system, where he has to match up one-on-one against speedy slot receivers. I’d say Blankenship is certainly better at coming forward than having to flip vertically with routes, and he doesn’t find the ball in the air particularly well after having to turn his back to it. His run defense is tremendous, but the one thing he could improve upon is using his hands to play through blocks with extension more regularly when people do get in his way.
I came into Blankenship’s evaluation thinking he was a very good all-around player, who I’ll personally be higher on than the rest, but may not quite be comfortable putting up near the top of my rankings because he’s a somewhat limited athlete. And while I would still say he’s more so adequate in that regard, running a 4.51 in the 40 and putting pretty average numbers across the board at Middle Tennessee State’s pro day, he has some of the cleanest tape you will find from a safety. It’s not hyperbolic to say Blankenship might just be the greatest player in the history of MTSU’s football program and while he’ll be challenged by freakier athletes at the next level, his elite football IQ and tackling skills to me make him worth a very early day three selection, as a number three safety early on, with the potential to quickly become a starter in a defense that doesn’t force him to play a lot of man or single-high, after making the coaches fall in love with his special teams work.
The next names up:
Tycen Anderson (Toledo), J.T. Woods (Baylor), Quentin Lake (UCLA), Bubba Bolden (Miami), Sterling Weatherford (Miami-OH), Leon O’Neal (Texas A&M), Smoke Monday (Auburn), Yusuf Corker (Kentucky) & Juanyeh Thomas (Georgia Tech)