2016 Preseason All-American Projections: Safeties

By Charlie Campbell
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Heading into the 2016 college football season WalterFootball.com will debut our projections for the nation’s leaders during the fall. The All-American teams always have some surprises and the stars of next fall could be the headlining players next April in the 2017 NFL Draft.

First-Team Safeties:

Jamal Adams, LSU

Of all the players returning to college football, Adams might be one of the best all-around players and top talents for the NFL. As a sophomore, he had six passes broken up and four interceptions. Adams recorded 67 tackles last year, mirroring his freshman year total of 66 stops.

Scouts have told WalterFootball.com that the 6-foot-1, 211-pound Adams looks like an exciting player with his size and coverage skills for the next level. He has versatile size to cover big receivers or tight ends and tackle in the ground game. In speaking to some sources from a playoff team that has every reason to believe it will be in the postseason again, they say that Adams is going to be gone by the time they are on the clock. Their early impression is that Adams is on a par with Karl Joseph and Keanu Neal as a top-20 talent. If Adams has a big junior season, he could be a high first-rounder.

Jabrill Peppers, Michigan

Last year, Peppers was one of the most versatile and dangerous players in college football. He was all over the field for the Wolverines as he contributed on defense, offense, and special teams. Defensively, Peppers mainly played safety, yet also lined up at cornerback. He totaled 45 tackles with 10 passes broken up. On offense, Peppers was a gadget player with 18 carries for 72 yards and a touchdown. He had eight receptions for 79 yards as well. Peppers also averaged 11.4 yards per punt return.

The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder has some man-coverage skills on slot receivers to go along with instincts to be a disruptive defender near the tackle box. There is no doubt that he is a fantastic athlete with a ton of upside. Peppers could play safety or maybe be a press-man corner. NFL sources have said that they think Peppers is a better athlete than the freaky Florida State cornerback/safety Jalen Ramsey, who was the fifth-overall pick to the Jaguars in the 2016 NFL Draft.

Second-Team Safeties:

Eddie Jackson, Alabama

Jackson (6-0, 194) massively improved after a move to safety from cornerback. He had six interceptions, 46 tackles and two passes broken up there in 2015. Jackson has looked natural as a coverage free safety who can cover in man and play the deep centerfield. As a sophomore, he totaled 41 tackles with six passes broken up and one interception. Jackson had 19 tackles with two passes broken up and a pick in 2013. It was impressive that he saw the field so quickly for the Crimson Tide, but Jackson was a much better player at safety in 2015 than how he performed at corner in the previous seasons.

Marcus Maye, Florida

Like Adams, Maye could have been a first-round pick if he was in the 2016 NFL Draft. However unlike Adams, Maye decided to return for his senior year while Adams wasn’t draft-eligible. In speaking with NFL sources, there were some teams that liked Maye more than teammate Keanu Neal for how he translates to pass coverage at the next level.

In 2015, Maye totaled 82 tackles, six pass breakups and two interceptions. He was a solid free safety for Florida and generally a good deep center fielder, but he had an ugly performance against Alabama in the SEC Championship and didn’t finish well against Michigan in the bowl game. Sources say Maye has good free safety pass-coverage potential for the NFL with the ability play some man coverage on tight ends and receivers. They feel that Maye can really do anything asked of a safety, but he has an occasional mix-up that leads to allowing some big plays.

That was the case in 2014 as well when Maye was a sophomore. If Maye can eliminate some of those mistakes, he could be a valued NFL prospect next April and also one of the best safeties in college football during 2016.

Third-Team Safeties:

Tony Conner, Ole Miss

Conner had 17 tackles in 2015, but only played in five games. He tore his meniscus against Alabama and missed the majority of the season. The 6-foot, 217-pound Conner is a versatile defender who lines up all over the place, so it is hard to designate him at one positions in particular. Conner lines up as a safety, slot corner and outside linebacker. Overall, safety is probably his best fit, but there is no doubt that Conner is a dangerous weapon to attack offenses.

Conner totaled 69 tackles with nine tackles for a loss, an interception and two passes broken up in 2014. A year earlier, Conner (6-0, 217) was a Freshman All-American and SEC All-Freshman while totaling 66 tackles with five tackles for a loss, one sack, one interception and seven passes broken up. Conner has excellent instincts and could be a big-time player if he’s healthy in 2016.

Fish Smithson, Kansas

Despite being on an 0-12 team last season, Smithson led the nation with 7.9 solo tackles per game for 87 solo tackles. He also totaled 111 stops with two interceptions, five passes broken up and one forced fumble. Smithson was a Second-Team All-Big XII selection, and sources have said that Smithson is a player who really impressed them. One general manager told WalterFootball.com that in studying pre-draft tape, Smithson really jumped out at them and they’re excited to watch him this fall. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Smithson will probably be all over the field again for Kansas and could rack up postseason honors despite not playing for a winning program.

Honorable Mentions: Virginia’s Quin Blanding, Auburn’s Johnathan Ford, Georgia’s Quincy Mauger, Baylor’s Orion Stewart, Louisville’s Josh Harvey-Clemons, North Carolina’s Donnie Miles, UCLA’s Randall Goforth, Notre Dame’s Max Redfield and Florida State’s Nate Andrews.

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