2017 NFL Draft Preview – Top-5 Safeties

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Jamal Adams

Continuing with our series in previewing some of the prospects for the upcoming 2017 NFL Draft. This week we take a glimpse at the top-five safeties who look to be available come the Spring of 2017.

The 2017 safety class looks to be one of the more talented and deepest position group in recent drafts. Teams with a demand at safety should be able to fulfill their needs with this 2017 draft class. There are liable to be starting caliber NFL safeties still waiting for their names to be called on day three, of this draft, then we have had for quite some time.

1. Jamal Adams, LSU

Adams is a well-built physical safety with good speed and strength that excels at or near the line of scrimmage. A two-year starter and a 2016 first team All-SEC and a second team All-American (as voted on by the AP) Adams was the leader of the Tigers backfield and a team captain. His combination of size and play speed allow him to make plays both in the run game as well as in coverage. He is a solid off-coverage safety who can diagnose and attack downhill with quickness and burst to wrap up and secure the tackle. With his speed, he displays good range with the ability to go from the hash marks to the sideline and provide over-the top help. He can cover a tight end in the slot and will get physical with them at the top of their routes. Adams also brings a swagger and enforcer type mentality to the defensive backfield.

However, there is no doubt that where Adams is most impactful is at the line-of-scrimmage where he is both instinctive and competitive, able to deliver some explosive hits with terrific timing, and anticipation. He is an aggressive run defender able to chase down ball carriers and make plays sideline-to-sideline. Lining him up inside the tackle box is like having an extra linebacker out on defense that the opposing offense must deal with.

While there is some unease in terms of his coverage ability (not a lot of plays on the ball when scouting his film), plus struggles with quick change of direction, as well as too many missed tackles due to his over aggressiveness in pursuit, Adams heads into the draft process as the top-rated safety on many draft boards.

The combination of very good football character, speed, athleticism, and impactful plays will have Adams on the field early as a rookie with the potential to develop into a cornerstone player on defense for any team that selects him.

2. Jabrill Peppers, Michigan

Jabrill peppers is one of the more talked about and scrutinized prospects in the 2017 draft due mainly to questions surrounding a true positional fit for him at the next level. However, the 2016 Big-Ten DPOY and recipient of the Ronnie Lott Impact Trophy is a hybrid player who can be used on all three phases of a football team.

Peppers projects best as a hybrid LB/SS a position that has become more popular in the NFL the past few seasons. As a safety Peppers has shown the ability to press tight ends at the line-of-scrimmage as well as bigger receivers outside the numbers in red zone and goal line situations. As a corner (limited reps in 2015) he displayed quick-feet and hip flexibility to open and run with a receiver in man coverage downfield. He does a good job of getting his hands on them altering their routes, and positioning his body between them and the ball. In off-coverage he uses his very good short-area burst and open-field tackling ability to minimize the yardage on anything caught in front of him. As a run defender, he appears comfortable and instinctive as a in the box strong safety who can quickly locate and chase down ball carriers with his speed. He is willing to come up and set the edge to help funnel runners back inside towards his lineman. As a blitzer Peppers was very effective coming in off the edge or on delays from a linebacker position.

Where Peppers struggles is with downfield coverage as his ball reactions, and awareness leave something to be desired. He has trouble with quick receivers and will at times play slower than his stopwatch numbers may indicate.

While safety will most likely be the position where he sees the most snaps at during his NFL career, Peppers versatility allows a defensive coordinator to disguise coverages and utilize his athleticism in several different ways from multiple positions. Allowing Peppers to line him up and see snaps at all three levels on defense might be the most effective way for him to make an immediate contribution defensively as a rookie.

3. Malik Hooker, Ohio State

In 2016 Hooker was a redshirt sophomore and first-year starter for the Buckeyes. In that one season though Hooker was named a first team All-American and All-Big Ten defender as he led the Big-Ten with seven interceptions, returning three of them for scores – which topped the FBS.

Hooker is a coverage safety who is best suited to play free safety at the NFL level. He possesses a combination of quickness, speed, balance and short-area burst. A good athlete Hooker is very good transitioning and attacking downhill using his speed and change-of-direction. He is effective playing a single-high set or a two-deep zone safety. He is instinctive when playing the pass with range to either side. Hooker can cover receivers in the slot or carry a tight end up the seam. He also demonstrated very good zone cover skills and can key on the QB eyes to jump routes, and use his natural hands to pick-off the ball with a nose to find the end zone.

As a run defender Hooker can get slowed down with play-action or RPO plays causing some hesitation with his reaction times. He can struggle to jolt and shed blockers (needing additional strength), can take some bad angles in pursuit, and doesn’t always arrive under control which led to missed tackles. He also tends to duck and lead with the crown of his helmet coming downhill to tackle a ball carrier which, in the NFL, is a good way to end up seriously injured.

Hookers play-making ability and overall athleticism gives him a shot to be the top-rated safety heading into the draft. However, he currently stands third on this list mainly due to his struggles defending the run, coupled with just one-year starting experience, and his postseason injuries. Hooker, is scheduled to miss the scouting combine as he recovers from a couple of surgeries, one in which repaired a torn labrum while the other a sports hernia. How he recovers from both operations will go a long way in determining how high Hooker will get drafted. However, it is never a good thing, especially for a safety, to enter the NFL having already gone through a major surgery on his shoulder.

4. Budda Baker, Washington

A three-year starter on defense for Washington and a NCAA Consensus All-American in 2016 Budda Baker was one of the more fun prospects to scout. Baker is quite simply a play-maker in the defensive secondary. Whether he was lined up at safety or as a slot corner Baker was all over the field demonstrating innate playmaking ability. He possesses terrific anticipation, timing and zone awareness. Along with lateral quickness, agility, and quick-feet, Baker has excellent balance and body-control. He can mirror and cover receivers (in the slot) off the LOS. Displays instincts and awareness in coverage as he can quickly diagnose and locate the ball. Very smooth in his transition able to plant-and-drive quickly, which when combined with his ability to seamlessly change directions, and open field tackling makes him very effective in zone coverage. Despite a lack of ideal size Baker plays bigger than his measurable might indicate. He is an aggressive tackler and packs a wallop when he hits his opponents. His aggressiveness makes him very good blitzing off the edge as he gets there quick, and makes his presence felt. As a run defender Baker is quick to read and react, displaying no concerns or issues coming downhill and attacking ball carriers. He is a highly intense, aggressive, and competitive football player when asked to defend the run.

The main concern with Baker revolves around his lack of size. Listed at 5’10” Baker looks to be a couple of inches shorter than that. Which makes it hard to envision him as a full-time starting safety. Instead what Baker offers is a strong, hard-hitting physical presence with ideal hip flexibility, speed, and fluidity to be a playmaker from the nickel/slot position. Drawing favorable comparisons to Arizona Cardinals DB Tyrann Mathieu.

5. Marcus Williams, Utah

Even though Marcus Williams was a three-year starter and an All-PAC 12 defender for Utah many may consider him a bit of a sleeper at the safety position. Williams is a rangy safety with length and speed to go along with his fleet feet and lateral agility. His backpedal is smooth and balanced which makes Williams look, at times, like a corner instead of a safety. While in coverage he is quick to read and react, able to zoom around the field playing in a single-high safety set, which allows him to stand out on tape. He possesses good speed and fluidity allowing him to keep pace with receivers and tight ends. Shows good range off the hash, to either side, taking direct angles to the ball. He can break on throws, showing good short-area burst to close. With 11 career interceptions Williams demonstrated quick soft hands, like a receiver, to snatch interceptions.

While a solid downhill defender Williams is a bit high-cut, and will play too tall failing to get low and wrap up the ball carrier’s legs. He was also inconsistent on his downfield ball reactions with his back to the throw preferring to keep everything visible to him.

Overall, Williams is an active, aggressive defensive back who is at his best reacting to plays in front of him. He possesses good size/speed combo coupled with range, and sure-hands that allow him to be a “centerfield” type playmaking safety.

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