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2016 NFL Draft: Top 10 Safety prospects

The 2016 safety class features an interesting collection of players from both big-time programs as well as talented small school prospects.

The 2016 safety class features an interesting collection of players from both big-time programs as well as talented small school prospects. The majority come with questions and incomplete games, but we think there’s a potential star at the top of the list. Sr = Senior, Jr = Junior, So = Sophomore. An “r” prefix indicates a redshirt year (sat out for a year without playing, usually their first year of college).

1. Karl Joseph, West Virginia, Sr. 5ft 10, 205 lbs

1st Round A combination of his size not suiting the minimum requirements at safety for some teams, missing the majority of the 2015 season with a knee injury and the sheer strength in depth at the top of this draft all could result in Joseph not hearing his name called Thursday night on the first day of the draft. That might prove to be a league-wide error should it occur, as Joseph is one of the best pure football players in this year’s class. Last year I adamantly backed linebacker Erick Kendricks as one of the ten best prospects in that draft; this year I’m insisting on Joseph as a high first rounder. The Mountaineers safety has clocked a lot of playing time in his college career, starting all 13 games as a true freshman and going on to start all his first three years with the team. He’s an absolute rocket with superb range to fly all over the field both in coverage and in run support. Despite being relatively short, he’s not slightly built, and is known in particularly for his intensely physical style of play that sees him flatten ball carriers, that is after showing off his incredible closing speed. While that results in a highlight reel that looks outstanding played back to back, his 2014 junior film was also interspersed with far too many missed tackles and leaving wide open space as he abandoned some assignments, making him somewhat of a liability at times as a result. Joseph is an intelligent guy though and fully realised that he needed to be less wild in his playing style, and made a lot of effort in the off-season before the start of his senior year to improve his discipline. It certainly paid off as well; in his opening 3 games of the season, Joseph’s play was sensational, looking much more disciplined and controlled, while not losing any of his elite playmaking ability. That made it all the more gutting when after collecting 5 interceptions in those first 3 games, he suffered a non-contact injury to his knee in practice that ended his season. While he’s well on his way to fully recovering, he still wasn’t quite ready to take part in the combine just past, but still made a positive impression when interviewed, showing his passion in his desire to be out there competing and proving that he’s the best. Joseph is a complete safety, who has outstanding awareness, vision, and understanding to position himself to make plays. He is equally adept at charging downfield to support the run with his devastating hitting, as he is covering deep, whether it’s reading the QB to even playing man coverage over a slot receiver. This is a great talent and is going to make teams pay if he’s still on the board on day two of the draft.

2. Darian Thompson, Boise State, rSr. 6ft 2, 208 lbs

2nd-3rd Round Few defensive backs this year, at either corner or safety, will enter the NFL with as much production as the three-and-a-half-year starter for the Broncos. With 19 interceptions, including five this past year and seven in 2014, he has proven his ability to impact the passing game and create turnovers. His all-round game extends to moving downhill to take down ball carriers who hit the second level with 136 combined tackles over the last two seasons, with 13.5 tackles for loss (TFLs) over that period. All within a stout frame built to hold up at the next level. However, his athletic traits have been brought into question following the combine, that saw him run one of the slowest recorded times among safeties present, which could hurt his chances of going in the top two rounds, depending on how teams let that impact their grade on him. He certainly gets in good positions to make plays on film. Having said that, another criticism of his game is how often he takes chances, making guesses that don’t always pay off and catches him either out of position or being late to the action due to having to recover from taking a few false steps in the wrong direction. The sheer amount of time he spends around the ball though suggests that such a question shouldn’t be over-stated, and the quality of some of his interceptions and the ball skills he shows speaks to his talented playmaking skills. He will miss some tackles, but is generally reliable when in position to wrap up. While the combine wasn’t the most positive weekend for his stock, his performance at the Senior Bowl prior to that certainly was, in particularly during the game itself. In the first half of that all-star contest, Thompson was seemingly around the ball on every play. On top of that, Thompson really impresses with his character and attitude, something that reports suggest came through very well during interviews at the Senior Bowl, adding to his good week there in Mobile. He has his limitations, and likely isn’t going to ever reach Pro Bowl status or the like, but has the size, production and playmaking ability desired.

3. Miles Killebrew, Southern Utah, Sr. 6ft 2, 217 lbs

2nd-3rd Round If someone can match Joseph when it comes to hard-hitting highlight reel moments, that would be Killebrew, part of a very strong Thunderbirds defense that will see several players drafted this year. He may come from a small school against lower competition level, but did the necessary requirement of dominating at that level, and piled up 132 tackles as a senior, with 2.5 TFLs and 7 pass breakups (no interceptions this year), and also has blocked a number of kicks on special teams too. He certainly comes with NFL-level size as well. That said, another ideal box to check off that he belongs is proving himself against better opposition at an all-star game. Killebrew attended the Senior Bowl, but underwhelmed during the practices which is a concern, as is the fact that he reportedly didn’t impress during some of his interviews with teams present. The question of performing at a higher level therefore still remain a bit of a concern. He bounced back to some degree in February at the combine though, in terms of showing enough athletically with solid runs and jumps, amid questions that some even wondered if he’d make a weakside linebacker if he tested poorly. There’s no doubt that he is at his best playing down in the box against the run and challenging anyone who dares to enter the middle of the field on short to intermediate routes in the passing game. He’s not a major liability deep in coverage; he understands his job and reads the field well, but it’s certainly not his strength. The play in the box isn’t perfect either in all honesty, with the occasional poor positioning and bad angle taken. He might need a bit of time to sharpen his game enough before being a big part of the defense he becomes a part of. He’s got a great on-field demeanour about him though, and it’s hard not to fall in love with his game.

4. DeAndre Houston-Carson, William & Mary, rSr. 6ft 1, 201 lbs.

3rd Round Another small school safety, and another outstanding one too with excellent game film. While he’s possibly not quite athletic enough to play there at the NFL level, his good football IQ has seen him perform impressively at corner for the Tribe for three seasons before converting to free safety for his senior year. In both roles, regardless of where he lines up, he consistently has shown really good discipline and positioning, uses polished technique both in coverage and when tackling, with good angles taken and brings some physicality too. As a corner, he put his good eyes and play reading ability to line up off man and play in zone coverage concepts. Playing off was required due to lacking ideal deep speed to stick with faster receivers on go routes, and facilitated the move to safety. That likely would have happened in the NFL even if he’d continued at corner for William & Mary his final year, but the fact that he got a full season of experience there and performed to a high level is a big plus. Even if he does need a bit of time to learn and adjust, he can contribute early on special teams in the meantime, where he’s had a big impact on all units despite being one of the teams most talented starters. He even went on a run of blocking 3 kicks in 3 consecutive games at one point. Houston-Carson is a decisive safety, quick to make his move downhill with an aggressive playing style. He’ll take a few chances playing that way that opens up gaps behind him, but hopefully can find a good balance that doesn’t curb his instincts too much. He can make plays on the ball as well, and has 10 interceptions to his name over his college career. The talented defensive back has the experience to possibly contribute and cover at several spots in the secondary, with a great work ethic and attitude both on and off the field. In fact, something that has emerged over the course of this process so far has been many people talking very highly of Houston-Carson’s character, that he speaks well and impresses those he meets. There’s plenty to like about this prospect, both as a player and person.

5. Vonn Bell, Ohio State, Jr. 5ft 11, 199 lbs

3rd Round Some view Bell as the top safety in this class, and in terms of understanding his role in coverage, is certainly very strong in that area. The film constantly leaves me frustrated over and over again with his at times awful effort against the run and lack of hustle. Watch the Michigan State film, Ohio State’s only loss of the year, from start to finish and you shall see a player who quits on far too many plays, shying away from contact and taking it way too easy. Players are known to take snaps off, but to do so that much in the most crucial game of the season raises real concerns. At the combine, Bell was asked frequently about his poor play versus the run and quite bluntly stated “sometimes you get lazy”. Doesn’t sound like a guy with the right mental attitude required and it’s reflected in his game film, not just this season but before. Undersized like Joseph, the difference between how they approach their game is night and day. Another disappointment is a significant drop in the production this year from Bell’s sophomore season. After posting 92 tackles with 6 INTs and 6 pass breakups, his numbers dropped to 65 tackles and 2 INTs, though in fairness with 9 pass breakups. More positively, and as referred to before, there’s no doubt that he has good instincts for playing in coverage, an area that a lot of college safeties often struggle a bit with. The potential to line him up as a 3rd safety or nickel fits a need in every NFL defensive system currently, in addition to playing deep. His range is good to cover the sidelines, and has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He has experience of big games and pressure as with all the other multitude of players the Buckeyes have in this year’s draft class, after being part of the national championship side of a couple seasons ago.

6. Jeremy Cash, Duke, rSr. 6ft 0, 212 lbs

3rd Round From an Ohio State safety to a former one. Cash started there, before choosing to transfer to the Blue Devils where he has played outstandingly well for the past three seasons, putting up some massive numbers, in particularly in the tackles-made column. He’s hit triple digits in that category each year, totalling 333 stops over those three seasons, as well as 18 TFLs in this season alone. Cash is a tricky fit for the NFL. He is essentially a linebacker in Duke’s system, playing exclusively in the box and almost never dropping back. In his first season with the team in 2013 he had a few more opportunities to drop back and play more in space, with 4 interceptions and 4 pass break ups that season, so he has proven capable of doing a role in coverage, but it’s far from a strength. Those plays tended to still involve starting up near the line of scrimmage and dropping back, rather than starting deep and working downhill. In addition, he’s quite frankly too stiff in his movements to realistically do much of a job there at the next level regardless. All that said, Cash has superb instincts that led to the huge production, around the ball constantly, then making the game-changing tackles for loss, forcing turnovers and mistakes. The effort is non-stop each snap. His size isn’t ideal for a guy who spends so much time in the box, and isn’t the strongest either, which likely will see him get stuck on blocks and controlled in the NFL. He’s a natural playmaker though who can be moved around as a versatile piece on defense, as well as contributing on all special teams units. His film is special, even if it’s necessary to keep realistic when taking a step back and projecting just how well it all translates to the pro game. But with his instincts, he’ll surely find a way to make it work and adapt, he’s that kind of player.

7. Keanu Neal, Florida, Jr. 6ft 0, 211 lbs

3rd Round Rangy and violent, that’s Neal in a couple of adjectives. The aggression he plays with leads to some great play as a downhill safety, exceling in the run game where his physicality and directness quickly end plays in emphatic fashion. The Florida Gators defense was one of the best in the country this season, dragging their lacklustre offense to an SEC title game, and for a while challenging for the playoffs despite being so reliant on just the one side of the ball. Neal was one member of a stacked secondary, and while the corner pairing that included Hargreaves and the equally talented Jalen Tabor received more attention, Neal had a strong enough season to warrant declaring early as a junior. Despite missing a couple games, Neal finished the year with 96 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 2 sacks, 1 INT and 1 pass breakup. Those stats do hint at not being the best in coverage, which is fair to say, as it’s not his strength. He does move well and smoothly in space though, even if he’s not a stand out athlete, and can be trusted to cover a good area of the field. That said, moving downfield to take down ball carriers is his primary role. The instincts and general awareness are not quite there yet, and it’s not certain right now if he is one to read a QB or the situation and anticipate in order to be a more effect player beyond his hard-hitting fly to the ball carrier style. He could develop that area of his game, or might just not have the natural high football IQ to ever have a true complete game. His durability is in question as well, having missed time on and off over his career. There’s a lot to love about what he does do well though and his general attitude, with a good frame for the position to start and continue to be productive.

8. Sean Davis, Maryland, Sr. 6ft 1, 201 lbs

3rd Round When you can play equally as well at practically any position across the secondary, that kind of versatility and ability to fill in brings so much value and ensures such a player won’t last on the board too long. Playing at safety his first two seasons with the Terrapins, Davis continued there early in his junior year as well before shifting to corner mid-season, where he stayed for his final season as a senior. That has seen him pile up experience over 50 games, and in that time surpass 300 tackles. His 2015 season at cornerback saw him pile up 88 tackles, 3 interceptions, 3 pass breakups and 5 forced fumbles, continuing to make an impact in multiple areas from that spot as well. During his time at safety, Davis was known for his hard-hitting style. As a corner, his big frame made him a constant matchup problem. It was thought that perhaps the combine would provide a bit of insight into where he might best fit at the next level. However, that didn’t work out as he measured in with a build more than suited to play in the middle, but then proceeded to run a superb fast 40-yard dash of 4.46 seconds with a 1.56 10-yard split. To do that at his size and strength (21 reps in the bench press too) is outstanding and will appeal to practically every team who focusses on taking longer corners (see the Seahawks as an obvious example there). There’s some technical bad habits right now when playing corner, so while there’s loads to like and a heap of upside, there’s still some work-in-progress about his game. He can be caught out by intricacies by both quarterbacks tricking him with his eyes, and by receivers with clever movements to shake him and gain a step or two of space. He’s certainly a project.

9. Jalen Mills, LSU, Sr. 6ft 0, 191 lbs

3rd-4th Round One prospect who did start to perhaps indicate where his best fit could be for the pros is Mills. The LSU defensive back is another who has played at both corner and safety, as well as having a “tweener” build. Running a 4.61 dash time at the combine could well see some teams decide that that defines him as a safety. His size is marginal for the position however, hence the problem of not ideally fitting either spot. That said, he plays with solid speed on the field in pads, with his fluid movements helping to reduce some issues with the straight line speed. The problems that limit Mills’ stock extend beyond just where to play him though. He’s struggled to stay healthy, missing a lot of games over his time with the Tigers. That included missing time at the start of his senior season while continuing to recover from a leg fracture and damaged ankle ligaments. Even more concerning that will put off some teams, is the incident in 2014 where he was charged with battery leading to probation, bringing up character red flags. The on-field play, while healthy, has been at a high level though, joining the tradition over the last decade of LSU providing next-level talent from their secondary. He has football smarts, being referred to by teammates as being like having an extra coach on the field. He shows good vision and understanding of playing in a zone scheme, as well as good anticipation and timing to make plays in the backfield on corner/safety blitzes. There’s a heck of a lot of traits and skills that absolutely translate to the NFL game, provided he eases concerns in both his interviews and with his medical.

10. Justin Simmons, Boston College, Sr. 6ft 2, 202 lbs

4th Round Playing on a poor team can make it difficult to receive attention, even when it’s greatly deserved. Standing out against quality opposition will certainly help though. Simmons made the most of his game against the eventual national title runners up Clemson with a superb performance that included 9 tackles and an interception against the Tigers. He has been a very steady performer all year and over his career beyond that, with a game based around disciplined play, high effort, great vision and sound technique, especially as a reliable tackler. There’s no real weaknesses to his game, and brings good size for the position. He’s unquestionably a safety in the NFL, but having filled in and playing well at corner as well at times is still a positive to note. The only real question was whether he had the athleticism to continue his good play at the next level too, and he certainly answered that in some style at the combine. with explosive jumps of 10ft 6 in the broad (tied 8th among all DB’s) and 40” in the vertical (3rd best). Just as impressive were his change of direction speed which were reflected in his 3 cone time of 6.58 seconds and short shuttle time of 3.85 seconds, both of which led all safeties in attendance. He’s checking off a lot of boxes over the course of this pre-draft process, as he had a strong week at the East-West Shrine all-star event as well just before the combine. He’s a smart player who sees the field well, doesn’t make mistakes and brings a clean character and a very good work ethic to get the most out of his abilities. His senior year resulted in 67 tackles, with 5 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recovers, and 2 pass breakups. He’ll make a pretty safe middle round selection.

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Rebecca Rennie

RealSport College Football Editor, as well as writer and NFL Draft analyst, while occasionally contributing to the NFL section as well.  A fan of most sports and enjoy discussing with fellow fans, so do please comment on articles and interact.  A big fan of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and of the Central Florida Knights in college.

2016 NFL Draft: Top 10 Safety prospects

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