Completing the defensive side of the ball in this top 10 series, this safety class has two elite talents at the top, but plenty of intriguing prospects beyond the big names. To see the rest of the articles in this series so far, click here.
TFL = Tackles for Loss, QBH = Quarterback Hurries, PBU = Pass Break Ups, INT = Interceptions, FF = Forced Fumbles, KB = Kicks Blocked (on special teams), KR = Kick Returns, PR = Punt Returns, YPR = Yards Per Return.
1. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama. Grade: 1st Round
6’0”, 204lbs. Junior. 2017: 60 tackles (38 solo), 8 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, 3 QBHs, 8 PBUs, 1 INT, 1 FF, 1 KB. 1 KR, 39 yards.
Considered a cornerback primarily when recruited out of high school, Fitzpatrick has developed into a versatile defensive back at corner, nickel and safety, as well as special teams gunner on punt coverage (plus a TD on his only career punt return). A big-time playmaker for the Tide, he has proven a knack for returning his picks to the house, doing so four times.
There are bigger, stouter safeties around, but Fitzpatrick has ideal length, and is impressively physical in the tackle, capable of delivering crunching hits. A top athlete with quickness and range, he can line up anywhere from deep, in the box, to blitzing off the edge. He has dangerous closing speed, which factors into the impact of his hits. He’s a true defensive weapon whose style lends to aggressive attacks and creating game-changing moments.
Fitzpatrick runs well in man coverage, keeping in phase, and shows good eyes in zone. His combination of coverage skills, ball skills and ability in the box and backfield is exactly what is sought after in an NFL safety prospect. He does occasionally stray out of position or take a gamble off the snap that he has to recover from, though, has the recovery speed to compensate for some of the errors, even if his enthusiasm can lead to the odd overrun play.
He appears to have been downgraded by some off the basis of pegging him as a slot corner and then declaring his value lesser as a result. This perspective frustrates. Even if he does indeed go on to play, say, 70 percent of snaps from the slot, the ability to move him around, to use him in blitz packages, drop him deep off the snap is invaluable. To be able to not limit your defensive playbook when the offense plays hurry up and there’s no ability to substitute; Fitzpatrick allows the defense to still have every option open in terms of pressure packages and coverage disguises.
2. Derwin James, Florida State. Grade: 1st Round
6’2”, 215lbs. 2017: 84 tackles (49 solo), 5.5 TFLs, 1 sack, 4 QBHs, 11 PBUs, 2 INTs (1 for TD), 1 KB. 6 KR, 170 yards (28.33).
His standing with many seemed to have fallen off a bit from early projections entering the 2017 season, and he had some disappointing moments as part of a down year for the Seminoles, particularly in the early parts of the season. It’s important to remember however, that James was coming off a lateral meniscus tear to his left knee and progressed as the season went on, finishing the season strongly from an individual perspective. His Combine exploits appear to have helped remind those that needed it of what he offers.
James was as impressive and impactful as any defensive player in the country in his only previous season in 2015. It also spoke highly of his mentality and status as a team leader that he continued to travel on every road game and be a part of the squad during 2016. There will have been scrutiny at the Combine during medical testing however, to ensure there’s no long-term durability concerns regarding the knee.
James offers a big frame, to go with an imposing and ultra-physical game. He does a lot of his best work in the box and moving downhill from deep. A versatile playmaker, James will line up off the edge and in positions fitting that of an edge rusher or linebacker, while also lining up deep to play some cover 1.
In addition to having good top speed, acceleration and range, he’s explosive in other ways, particularly on contact. The redshirt sophomore safety has a rare combination of size, power and hitting ability for the position. He’ll make some hugely impressive open field tackles and doesn’t miss much when in position.
Showing solid technique in coverage, James employs his usual physical style at the catch point and challenges for position to disrupt the receiver’s hands and the ball. There’s going to be times that he’s beaten by a step on the run, and offer a yard on route breaks.
Regardless, James is a true playmaker, a difference maker, a fantastic talent to put in positions to succeed and do what he does best. So instinctive, he reads the game well that leads to a big impact on games, affecting plays on every level and piling up stats. He has a strong motor, never stops working, playing with a presence, intensity and fire. If he slips in the draft, someone will grab a bargain.
3. Justin Reid, Stanford. Grade: 2nd Round
6’0”, 207lbs. Junior. 2017: 99 tackles (52 solo), 6.5 TFLs, 1 sack, 2 QBHs, 6 PBUs, 5 INTs.
Showing progress in each of his three seasons in college, Reid has developed into one of the better safety prospects in the country this year, although not without his inconsistencies and question marks to go with some intriguing traits and playmaking moments.
That includes five interceptions this past season, all in the first half of the year, and proving himself at the Combine to be without question one of the most athletically gifted players at his position, blazing through his dash at his size as part of his impressive overall showing in Indy. He backs that up on film in terms of his range to make plays to every level and area of the field.
Working well through traffic to position himself to tackle ball carriers, Reid handles assignments in the box and around the line of scrimmage effectively, handling short field situations and congested areas. The next play he can be covering the open field and making excellent tackles in space with impressive closing speed. He backpedals comfortably, navigates the intermediate areas of the field, in addition to surveying from deep and working forward and laterally.
At one point during the season versus rivals Cal, injuries in the secondary resulted in being asked to fill in at cornerback to close out the first half and again during the fourth quarter. Though he wasn’t really challenged, his trust in his coverage skills, good movement and speed were evident, and though not targeted, tracked his assignments solidly for the brief period he was asked to. His top speed and agility in short areas may offer some versatility across the secondary.
Reid’s energy and motor are clear early on in watching his film. His hustle, closing speed and committing his body in the tackle are positives. That said, some of those situations can arise from getting a little out of position, some false steps on misreads and creating some poor angles for himself to have to recover from.
That speaks to the inconsistency in his game as those moments are balanced out with good reads of the quarterback and quick reactions to position himself to make plays. Overall though, the well-built defensive back has good measurables and an all-round game that should allow him to fit most schemes and to move around the defense in offering some versatility and ability to disguise coverages.
4. Ronnie Harrison, Alabama. Grade: 2nd Round
6’2”, 207lbs. Junior. 2017: 74 tackles (43 solo), 4.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, 4 PBUs, 3 INTs.
While there are some limitations both athletically and in his game, there’s a comfort with Harrison, in knowing you’re getting a safety with an NFL-ready frame who plays both smart and tough. A two-way player in high school, Harrison’s background as a quarterback is perhaps part of what aids the awareness and controlled manner in which he navigates the field. A two-year starter, he contributed well on special teams and as a backup beforehand while awaiting his turn.
Disciplined with the action in front of him, he reads the game well and plays consistent, reliable football. Harrison flows down field efficiently, decisively and quickly, with good angles. A quick decision maker, he anticipates, trusts his reads, and makes his moves toward the action, resulting in being around the ball regularly as an active contributor in run defense and in the box.
He tackles physically, uses his frame well to make technically sound and forceful stops, using his impressive wingspan to aid him. A good open field tackler when in position, can bring down players himself, though shiftier backs can evade him in the open field as he attempts to break down in space.
He is certainly at his best playing forward with the action in front of him, with strong play in run defense, helped by good eyes and overall field vision. He’s aware of his surroundings both pre-snap and as plays develop. Looks very assured of his role each snap and works his way into the right positions.
There’s a little more uncertainty over his abilities in coverage, where he has been burned badly at times, including early off the line of scrimmage, leaving him trailing and struggling to recover. Though a solid athlete, not sold he has the burst, fluidity and top speed to handle some assignments. When required to stop, change direction and redirect, he can be left exposed. There are limitations to his range. His preference for working downhill can lead to biting on play action fakes.
He has some limitations that make him less of a versatile option than wanted from a top prospect at the position. Still, Harrison is very good at what he does do well, and ought to succeed when used correctly, primarily in the box. The first round seems like a stretch, but the former Tide safety should have a relatively safe floor.
5. Kyzir White, West Virginia. Grade: 2nd-3rd Round
6’2”, 218lbs. Senior. 2017: 94 tackles (66 solo), 7.5 TFLs, 1 sack, 4 QBHs, 4 PBUs, 3 INTs, 2 FFs.
The junior college transfer made a strong impression in his first season with the Mountaineers after two seasons at Lackawanna College, starting 12 games and earning All-Big 12 second team recognition. Playing the Spur position in Tony Gibson’s defense, one of the better in the frequently maligned conference on that side of the ball, he built on an impressive 58-tackle junior season with an even more active and productive showing as a senior.
In terms of his NFL prospects, White’s size and physicality are a significant selling point. The big-bodied safety plays with an imposing presence and is an impact hitter in the tackle. He does his best work in and around the box, moving forward and downhill, while also getting himself into the backfield successfully. Mistakes are rare, with a disciplined and consistent game.
Where he is more limited is in his speed and range, where his short area movement, change of direction and acceleration aren’t his best physical traits. With a bit of stiffness and slowness in his backpedal, White isn’t going to be maximized by lining him up in certain coverage situations, even though when able to track downfield from deep starting positions he can make plays on the ball.
He may not have a truly complete skill set with some limitations and may not be an ideal fit in every defensive scheme, but he has a lot to offer when put in situations that make the most of his size and smart play over the middle and in the box. He’s likely to see a versatile role as a combination safety and linebacker, potentially adding a little more weight onto a frame that can take it.
6. Jessie Bates, Wake Forest. Grade: 3rd Round
6’1”, 200lbs. Redshirt Sophomore. 2017: 94 tackles (66 solo), 7.5 TFLs, 1 sack, 4 QBHs, 4 PBUs, 3 INTs, 2 FFs.
While at the time it might have felt like a little bit of a surprise for Bates to be one of the relatively rare redshirt sophomores to take the jump with two years eligibility remaining, he has been an accomplished playing in his time with the Demon Deacons.
After earning freshman All-American recognition in 2016, he backed that up with honorable mention All-ACC votes in 2017 from both media and coaches, despite missing a couple games with injury. A well-rounded athlete, he also played baseball and basketball in high school in addition to football.
Bates has some exciting athletic traits that give him impressive range, closing speed and kick returner ability. Showing off good ball skills, he impresses in coverage with instinctive reads and the range to get into positions as the ball arrives to make plays, helped by his explosiveness taking off toward the action.
Even though it’s where many of his highlight plays have occurred, he has shown issues in his run defense with false steps, questionable angles and his slighter build can lead to missed attempts. Some poor tackling technique factors in as well, including diving ineffectually at the ankles, and is often relying on his recovery speed to make up for some poor initial reads. He shows some positional naivety that can expose space.
Overall, Bates’ mental game, anticipation, reads, and positional discipline are all still developing, particularly in run support, and in spite of good natural instincts that shos up better in his coverage game.
That said, his excellent burst and acceleration, along with a hot motor, still result in an active game around the ball to make impactful plays moving downhill, in addition to his range and special teams ability.
He plays aggressively and often sacrifices his body in looking for the big hit, but has a slighter frame that is at risk of injury through his style, in addition to the sometimes reckless abandon that can cause some bad misses between the highlight reel hits. His strength and punch are not there yet that can lead to slipping off ball carriers, failing to finish, being controlled on blocks and has some struggles working through traffic.
7. Terrell Edmunds, Virginia Tech. Grade: 3rd Round
6’0”, 217lbs. Redshirt Junior. 2017: 59 tackles (29 solo), 2.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, 1 QBH, 4 PBUs, 2 INTs.
The Hokies defensive back is considered a hybrid strong safety and linebacker type in Bud Foster’s defense, but that doesn’t do full justice to the range in his game in which he has the athletic traits to navigate the whole field including deep and to the sidelines. His dynamic performance at the Combine highlighted the explosiveness with a superb dash time and destroying the jumps with a 41.5” vertical and 11’2” broad.
Those measurables are backed up by his energetic nature on the field that leads to active performances that have him around the ball frequently and often allowing him to chip in with some key plays and turnovers. He’ll take some risks but attacks the ball and challenges receivers, that helped him toward a team-leading four interceptions in 2016. He added two more this past year, and overall his numbers were down across the board in 2017, in part due to missing some time with injury.
His superb closing speed is backed up by his direct angles to the action when tracking downhill in run support and he routinely finishes strongly in the tackle, using decent technique, his physical build and his momentum to take down ball carriers. All that said, there’s issues with consistency that also has led to some negative plays conceded.
Some poor initial positioning, incorrect reads and occasional late reactions can lead to being responsible for some chunk plays being surrendered, such as being unable to make the play on West Virginia wide receiver Gary Jennings Jr.’s 60-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the 2017 season opener, and at times can be late to the catch point on sideline targets.
His enthusiasm can affect his discipline, but with a little more control and discipline as he continues to develop his game, this is a defensive back with all the measurables for the next level. He can be deployed on every level of the defense, plays in the box with a linebacker’s mentality and can blitz or line up off the edge around the line of scrimmage. When in position, he's proven he has ball skills at the catch point in contested situations.
8. Marcus Allen, Penn State. Grade: 3rd Round
6’2”, 215lbs. Senior. 2017: 71 tackles (45 solo), 4 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 QBH, 3 PBUs, 1 INT, 2 FFs.
After making an early impact, including seven starts as a true freshman, Allen has built up significant experience on a well-coached defense in one of the top conferences in college football, and has a triple-digit-tackle season on his resume after hitting 110 stops in his 2016 junior season. A senior captain, Allen is a high character and respected teammate that coaches speak highly of both on and off the field.
Allen also offers a sturdy NFL-caliber frame for the position as well as an aggression and toughness fitting of his namesake. A hard-hitting safety, he puts his body on the line in committing to contact, with forceful but fair attempts to bring down ball carriers.
Allen shows a direct approach when taking off downhill. At his best working with the action in front of him, moving forward into the box, and gets involved around the line of scrimmage and occasionally into the backfield. He does have his moments of poor missed tackle attempts and prone to errors that expose open field in the areas abandoned. The occasional bad angle and questionable read highlights some flaws in his instincts and recognition.
What will hurt his stock, significantly with some teams, is average athleticism and limitations playing in coverage, somewhat seen in his production with only 11 pass breakups in four seasons and taking until his final season to make his first career interception.
His recent 4.63 recorded dash time is reflected in his play speed in pads, lacking ideal burst, closing speed, range, and some struggles breaking down in space and changing directions quickly. His cause is not helped at times by having to recover from early movement after the snap in the wrong direction and having to redirect.
9. Godwin Igwebuike, Northwestern. Grade: 4th Round
5’11”, 213lbs. Redshirt Senior. 2017: 78 tackles (51 solo), 1.5 TFLs, 1 QBH, 9 PBUs, 2 INTs, 1 FF.
Introducing himself to the Big Ten and college football in style with a three-interception game against Wisconsin as a redshirt freshman, Igwebuike has gone on to a steady career as a three-year starter, team captain and reliable, productive presence in both the run and passing games. Intelligent off the field, it appears to translate to his smart play on the field.
Known more for his trustworthy style of play and toughness, Igwebuike opened some eyes at the Combine with the athletic numbers he posted, with not just a speedy 4.44 dash, but dominating in the short area agility and change of direction drills in the shuttles and 3-cone.
Those numbers are encouraging for his potential to hold up in coverage at the NFL level and to have the required range. He’s already shown plenty of pluses in pass coverage, making great reads from center field and displaying excellent ball skills when in position and contesting at the catch point. Igwebuike has totalled 16 pass breakups and four interceptions over the last two seasons.
The former Wildcat is a superb open field tackler who breaks down well in space and can be relied on to come through on solo stops. Technically adept in the tackle with textbook form and execution. He plays a smart, disciplined game, positions himself favorably and rarely makes mental mistakes.
He may not truly stand out in any one area, but has a dependable floor, will generally be in the right place at the right time, and is capable of creating momentum changing turnovers.
10. DeShon Elliott, Texas. Grade: 4th Round
6’1”, 210lbs. Junior. 2017: 63 tackles (50 solo), 8.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, 9 PBUs, 6 INTs (2 TDs and 127 total return yards), 3 FFs.
While it was understandable to some degree for Elliott to look to cash in on a big season that included making six interceptions, he now has to face questions on whether that success is replicable on a consistent basis. Several of his interceptions made for nice stat-sheet padding but saw Elliott as the recipient of a little fortune of overthrown and tipped passes landing invitingly within his reach.
After not contributing much in his first couple seasons, partly a result of a fall camp injury in 2015 that limited his early development and impact as a freshman, the Longhorns safety had a significant breakout season in Todd Orlando’s first season in charge of the Texas defense, but will enter the pros with that as his only full season of film to break down.
Putting aside the interception reel, Elliott’s all round game impresses, affecting the game on every level of the defense. Versatile, he lined up and impacted the game from deep, in the box, attacking into the backfield, contributing well both against the run and in coverage, including lining up in the nickel facing slot receivers.
Elliott’s speed and overall athleticism was a question mark entering the pre-draft process. His 4.58 dash time at the Combine wasn't bad, but didn’t fully answer the concern. On film, his burst, short area quickness, and top speed look average at best. There are plus measurables however with a stout frame with length, big hands and tested well in the jumps that suggest sufficient lower body power and ability to get vertical.
He aids his ability to cover a good range and to get into position on time with his impressive reading of the game and of the quarterback. Elliott impresses with his awareness, reads and quick decision making to take off toward the action, and rarely hurts himself with his initial movement off the snap.
Elliott impresses working downhill, taking good angles to the ball carrier and navigating well through congestion. He hits hard in the tackle, wrapping up well and occasionally able to force the ball loose. He offers a presence over the middle of the field, looking to put off playmakers from venturing into his area of the field more than once. He'll likely do his best work in the NFL within the box.
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