Top 5 Safeties Overall in the 2016 NFL Draft
By: Eric Robinson
The evolution of the NFL over the past five or ten years has manifested in every facet of the game from scouting to coaching schematics to versatile skill sets. One of those skill sets in particular, the safety position, has seen safeties develop into hybrid players who show range, instincts, and versatility. In the upcoming 2016 NFL Draft, there are a number of athletes who naturally fit that criteria.
With that said, I present my top five overall safeties in the NFL draft:
1. FS Jalen Ramsey, Florida State, 6’1 204 lbs
There is a reason why Ramsey is considered by some as the best player overall in the entire 2016 draft. Ramsey’s film shows a playmaker who has the versatility to play both free safety as well as corner, but is more of natural fit as a centerfield free safety. Ramsey is a sound tackler as well as a true ball-hawk. His excellent arm length is beneficial in both pass coverage as well as being sent on the blitz where he shows the awareness to bat down passes when unable to reach the QB. Three seasons in Tallahassee, Ramsey totaled 181 tackles, including 15.5 tackles for loss, five sacks and 22 pass deflections.
Some of that athleticism reflects on Ramsey being a track athlete as he won the All-ACC long jump title. He spent the 2015 season at CB and showed some glimpses of his potential. Yet, he also showed some negatives including having trouble holding his own in Cover 1/man coverage. Two games in particular stick out that shows Ramsey’s impact at both positions.
His 2015 matchup against WR Rashawn Scott of Miami highlighted his weaknesses in Cover 1. His initial jam at the line was solid, however his cover techniques were off as he fell victim to double moves, as well as committing the cardinal sin of cornerback play – not getting his head turned around to play the ball.
One of his best games came against those same Hurricanes in 2014 where he shined at the free safety spot. Despite some red flags, Ramsey has shown the ability to cover tight ends and running backs out of the backfield along with his elite range in Cover 2 and Cover 3. Instincts can be a complex skill to teach but that won’t have to be taught to Ramsey. His instincts are consistently on display in run support as well as pass coverage while at free safety.
2. FS Darian Thompson, Boise State, 6’3 210 lbs
Initially you’ll notice the size of Thompson. and at 6’3 210 pounds he’s considered fairly large by free safety standards. Although Thompson has the prototype size of a strong safety, he fits better as a FS based on his exceptional range and ball skills. Similar to Ramsey, Thompson has experience at CB as well, but his lane in the NFL will be as a FS. However, his tools as a former CB can be used when matching him up with bigger WRs and/or athletic TEs. In four seasons at Boise State he racked up 14 INTs.
The combination of his length, versatility, instincts, and speed makes Thompson dangerous. Do not let his size illustrate that he is a one trick pony. His film against Washington displayed how effective he is at covering hooks, curls, and flats when playing the role of SS, as well as well as providing coverage on the deep thirds of Cover 3 at FS. Two items to be aware of are Thompson’s making the right reads on the run play, but taking improper angles which can be considerable issue when playing swift, cutback runners. The second item is Thompson must clean up his tackling as he does not proceed to wrap up on a number of occasions. That is a lack of discipline, however a fixable flaw.
3. SS Jeremy Cash, Duke, 6’2 210 lbs
An “in-the-box” safety with polished instincts. Cash was an obvious playmaker for Duke’s defense. Cash started off as a CB and eventually found his way to strong safety, where the staff placed Cash in a role so his better skills could be on display. Football IQ, as well as his read & react skills, allowed Cash to provide solid run support. No, he’s not the fastest nor the most athletic, but what Cash provides is a well-coached safety with stand-out intangibles.
For those who require production, Cash has three straight seasons of 110+ tackles and in back to back seasons, Cash reached double digit tackles for loss (10.5 in 2014, 18 in 2015). Be aware, Cash is only adequate in coverage, mainly in short to intermediate areas. He can be relied on to defend tight ends for the most part, preferably in zone defense. He tends to struggle at times in man coverage. Outside of that, it’s somewhat wishful thinking. The reason he still maintains a spot in my top five is simply because of his excellent IQ, outstanding tackling ability, and consistency in giving offenses trouble in run support. He is definitely an old school safety, but he has a ceiling to be one of the best safeties in the NFL.
4. SS Vonn Bell, Ohio State, 5’11 208 lbs
Coming from a factory that’s known for producing NFL talent, Bell will be an added addition in the long run to the list of Ohio State professionals. One of Bell’s better qualities is arguably his most underrated one as well. Bell is a sound, reliable tackler. He also displays consistency in sticking his foot in the ground with a motive to disrupt the run game. Bell is another safety with cornerback experience and explains why his ball skills should never to be underestimated.
Even at 5’11″, Mills still has the capability of holding his own in pass coverage due to his polished techniques; from backpedaling, to the fluidity in his hips, to his sound footwork, and pass breakup technique of knifing through the arms of the intended receiver. Bell has superb vision and in many cases sees plays (such as run sweeps) and reacts quickly.
5. FS Jalen Mills, LSU, 6’0 196 lbs
I will admit. I wasn’t initially sold on Mills. It took me two attempts at watching his film to realize that Mills has plenty of range in the passing game. He has the versatility to be rangy on the back end of a defense at free safety and also be used as a nickel or even dime corner. In the scenario of playing slot corner, Mills can stick to a receivers’ pocket when playing man coverage as well as display his underrated ability as a zone defender. With the skills that Mills already possess, the right coaching staff could turn him into a consistent Pro Bowler.
A four year starter at LSU speaks volume with the type of talent that comes through Baton Rouge. One advantage that Mills has over the elite Ramsey is that Mills shows constant effort to get his head turned around and making a play on the ball. Mills also has loose, fluid hips along with a crisp backpedal . Some may believe that Mills may not be an every down safety at the next level, however versatility is difficult to keep off the field. Mills could very well be an asset as a slot corner, but I’m confident that Mills can apply deep range and ball-hawk activity to a defense.