2013 NFL Draft Position Review: Safeties

Charlie lays out an overview at the top players from each position for the 2013 NFL Draft. For further information, check out our in-depth analysis of 2013 NFL Draft Prospects by Position.

By Charlie Campbell.
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This page was last updated April 24, 2013. Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

Position Review: Safeties

Safety Class
Early-round talent: A
Mid-round: A
Late-round: A-
Overall grade: A

2012 prospects vs 2013
Mark Barron < Kenny Vaccaro
Harrison Smith < Jonathan Cyprien
Tavon Wilson < Matt Elam
Brandon Taylor < Eric Reid
Brandon Hardin < Philip Thomas
Christian Thompson < D.J. Swearinger
Jerron McMillian < Bacarri Rambo
Matt Johnson < T.J. McDonald

Safety is one of the strongest positions in the 2013 NFL Draft class. There is talent for the first round and a lot of superb depth on the second day that will spill into Day 3. The 2012 class was a weak year for safeties. Only three were selected in the first two rounds. This year, three could go in the top 32.

If you were to merge the two classes, I think Vaccaro is the best safety even though he won’t go as high as Barron did in the 2012 NFL Draft. The reason is Vaccaro is much better in pass coverage, plus has some man-coverage skills. Barron is a hard-hitting run-stuffer, but he is regularly late getting to receivers downfield. I think Vaccaro is going to be the more valuable defender in the passing-driven NFL. Barron would go between Vaccaro and Cyprien.

Smith would go after Elam and ahead of Reid. Wilson, Taylor and Hardin would go behind Rambo, but ahead of McDonald. Thompson, McMillian and Johnson would all go behind McDonald.

There were so many good safety prospects to choose from; it was hard to chose the eight for this review. Other potential safeties to include are Syracuse’s Shamarko Thomas, Nevada’s Duke Williams, Georgia’s Shawn Williams, Alabama’s Robert Lester, Oklahoma’s Tony Jefferson and Georgia Southern’s J.J. Wilcox. All of them could be quality mid-round picks.

Safest Pick: Kenny Vaccaro, Texas
This was a tough call because I believe that Vaccaro, Elam and Cyprien will all be very good pros if they can stay healthy. Vaccaro was the choice due to his well-roundedness. He is an asset in pass coverage in a multitude of ways. It is hard to find safeties with Vaccaro’s man-coverage skills. The league needs safeties like that with the weapons who are being deployed at tight end and slot receiver. Vaccaro also does well blitzing and defending the run. He looks like a safe pick to be a good starter in the NFL.

Biggest Bust Potential: Eric Reid, LSU
Sources have told WalterFootball.com that even NFL teams are split into love/hate groups regarding Reid. The ones that like him consider him to be a safe pick because he is big, smart, fast and is clean off the field. The ones that don’t like Reid see him as stiff and that being why he was constantly burned in pass coverage in 2012. He is big and stiff in my opinion. I think Reid is going to struggle in pass coverage in the NFL, and as a result, he will be limited in how he can be used schematically. I wouldn’t be surprised if Reid doesn’t pan out.

Safety Rankings by Attributes

Man Coverage:
NFL prototype: Earl Thomas, Seahawks
  1. Kenny Vaccaro
  2. Jonathan Cyprien
  3. D.J. Swearinger
  4. Matt Elam
  5. Philip Thomas
  6. Bacarri Rambo
  7. T.J. McDonald
  8. Eric Reid

Recap: The NFL is a passing-driven league, and safeties with the ability to play some man coverage are a hot commodity. Many safeties are too stiff to match up against a slot receiver, a tight end or a receiving running back. Offenses seek out those mismatches, so good safeties have some man-coverage ability.

Vaccaro was an easy choice as the top man-cover safety in the 2013 NFL Draft. He was regularly had successful man coverage for Texas. Vaccaro matched up against slot receivers in man. He did well in man in his biggest test of 2012 against Tavon Austin and West Virginia’s high-powered offense. It was very impressive considering what Austin did to the vast majority of corners this year. In the NFL, Vaccaro’s ability to line up against a receiver in the slot or pick up a receiver downfield in man coverage should be a great asset.

Cyprien’s coverage ability at the Senior Bowl was extremely impressive. There were plays that made one ponder whether he could play some cornerback. Cyprien is fast and agile, and superb at covering receivers downfield.

Swearinger and Elam both flashed the ability to cover receivers in college. That isn’t what either does best, but both players are quick and athletic enough to get the job done. Swearinger spent some time at corner because of injuries on the Gamecocks. Swearinger and Elam should seek to improve it, but each has the capacity to play some man at the next level.

Thomas showed some man-coverage ability in college and at the Senior Bowl. He doesn’t quite look as fluid as the higher-ranked safeties.

McDonald and Reid don’t have much man-coverage ability that should translate to the NFL. They are both straight-line defenders. McDonald was better at covering tight ends than Reid, but playing in a Tampa 2 didn’t put McDonald in too many man situations. Reid really struggled in pass coverage in 2012. The junior was beaten all year in man and zone. I think Reid’s pass coverage could be a serious liability in the NFL.

Zone Coverage:
NFL prototype: Jarius Byrd, Bills
  1. Kenny Vaccaro
  2. Bacarri Rambo
  3. Matt Elam
  4. Philip Thomas
  5. Jonathan Cyprien
  6. D.J. Swaringer
  7. Eric Reid
  8. T.J. McDonald

Recap: The ability to play well in zone coverage is a must in the NFL. There are teams that weigh this heavier than others due to scheme. Zone safeties need to be intelligent, and cover a lot of ground while playing disciplined and instinctive football. They have to be able to pick up receivers who work through the short and intermediate part of the field.

Vaccaro is also the top zone safety in the 2013 NFL Draft. He covers a ton of ground because of his quickness and his instincts. Rambo is very good in zone coverage, too. His reaction skills are superb, and he was all over the field for Georgia the past two seasons.

Elam was very good in zone coverage in 2012 and showed improvement over his sophomore season. Zone schemes will like the fit with the junior. Thomas and Cyprien both should be good safeties to play zone. Each can cover ground and doesn’t get caught out of position.

Reid does better in zone than man, but he could have issues picking up the NFL’s speed receivers in the deep part of the field. Swearinger is strong in zone coverage. He has the size and speed to operate in any part of the field.

McDonald has a lot of experience in zone due to having played for Monte Kiffin in college. McDonald looks to have a good understanding of everything the zone scheme asks of him. However, I’m not sure that he will make the transition athletically as well as the players above. Thus, McDonald is rated behind them.

Deep Help:
NFL prototype: Eric Berry, Chiefs
  1. Jonathan Cyprien
  2. Matt Elam
  3. Philip Thomas
  4. Bacarri Rambo
  5. D.J. Swearinger
  6. Kenny Vaccaro
  7. T.J. McDonald
  8. Eric Reid

Recap: This is a must to be a good safety in the NFL. Safeties are the last line of defense, so excelling in the deep part of the field can keep points off the board. Those who get beat downfield, frequently find their way to the bench in a hurry. Defending the deep part of the field also includes stopping running backs who break free. Thus, safeties need to be good tacklers in the open field. Luckily for teams seeking this type of defender, there are a lot of good options in the 2013 NFL Draft.

Cyprien was excellent about defending the deep part of the field at the Senior Bowl. He is quick to break over to the sideline to reach speed receivers. Cyprien also has the strength and physicality to take down running backs in the open field. His presence in the deep part of the field should be an asset right away.

There isn’t a real drop off to Elam. He was a play-maker in the deep part of the field and intimidated receivers with his propensity to punish receivers downfield.

Rambo was quick and instinctive in the deep part of the field for Georgia. The reason that he is lower is because he gambles on occasion. Thomas and Swearinger both were solid deep defenders in during their careers.

The Texas defense was disappointing this year, and Vaccaro made a lot of touchdown-saving tackles in the run game and pass game. However, he rarely lined up deep and was typically lining up in the tackle box. He is going to need some development as a deep safety.

McDonald has straight-line speed to cover ground, but he isn’t that agile or fluid in the deep part of the field and that holds him back. Reid is an in-the-box safety rather than a deep-field defender.

Run Defense:
NFL prototype: T.J. Ward, Browns
  1. Eric Reid
  2. T.J. McDonald
  3. D.J. Swearinger
  4. Kenny Vaccaro
  5. Matt Elam
  6. Bacarri Rambo
  7. Jonathan Cyprien
  8. Philip Thomas

Recap: The NFL doesn’t have as large of a need for the big, physical safeties of the 80s and 90s who were mini linebackers. Still, coaches want safeties who are good tacklers and run-defenders who are capable of playing in the box. There are a number of good run-defenders in this draft class.

Reid and McDonald are both really good at defending the run. McDonald had 112 tackles this year while Reid had 91. Part of the difference was because Kevin Minter made a ton of tackles in front of Reid, but either McDonald or Reid are perfect to play in the tackle box. Both are big, physical and can stick running backs with violence. Reid is faster than McDonald, so I gave him the edge for the NFL.

Vaccaro was a very good run-defender the past two seasons. He made a lot of clutch, open-field tackles. Swearinger and Elam are good run-defenders, but they have the habit of not wrapping up backs sometimes because they’re looking to knock them out. Sometimes that backfired for them, Elam more so than Swearinger.

Rambo’s run defense was excellent as a sophomore in 2010. His tackle totals went down during the past two seasons because he was lining up deeper. Cyprien is a good run-defender, but I think he’ll need some adjust time in the NFL compared to the backs that he’s used to going against.

Thomas had 82 tackles in 2012. He is solid, but unspectacular, defending the run.

Ball Skills:
NFL prototype: Ed Reed, Ravens
  1. Bacarri Rambo
  2. Philip Thomas
  3. Matt Elam
  4. Jonathan Cyprien
  5. D.J. Swearinger
  6. Kenny Vaccaro
  7. T.J. McDonald
  8. Eric Reid

Recap: The NFL is always on the look out for safeties with a knack for picking off passes. Safeties with the ball skills to catch errant throws or slap passes away from receivers are great asset. Elite safeties have a knack for creating turnovers.

Rambo definitely has the best ball skills of any safety in this class. He is a straight-up ball-hawk in the back end. Rambo is always around the ball and that leads to good things for his defense. He is very adept at reading the quarterback’s eyes and breaking on the ball. An overthrow in the middle of the field is dangerous with Rambo in the back end. He totaled 16 interceptions and six forced fumbles for the Bulldogs. His ball skills and ability to create turnovers are his best attribute.

Thomas isn’t far behind; he had eight interceptions as a senior and totaled 13 picks in college. Thomas also had six forced fumbles. His ball skills are one of his selling points.

Elam has a knack for causing turnovers. He snatched four interceptions in 2012 and came close to others. Elam should be even better at picking off passes in the NFL. Cyprien also had four interceptions last year with seven in his career. He should get his share of picks in the NFL.

Swearinger recorded two interceptions in 2012 and was able to create some turnovers in other years. Vaccaro a total of five interceptions the past three seasons and ball skills aren’t one of his claims to fame.

McDonald had eight picks over the past three seasons, but he’ll probably be more of an in-the-box safety as a pro. Reid wasn’t a ball-hawk in college. He had two interceptions last year.

Hitting Ability:
NFL prototype: Donte Whitner, 49ers
  1. Matt Elam
  2. D.J. Swearinger
  3. Eric Reid
  4. T.J. McDonald
  5. Kenny Vaccaro
  6. Jonathan Cyprien
  7. Bacarri Rambo
  8. Philip Thomas

Recap: Even though the NFL is trying to reduce the knockout shots that put some safeties in the Hall of Fame, a safety who is a hard hitter and can separate the ball is loved by coaches. There are a few safeties who really swat in this class.

Elam is an absolute missile on the field who is looking to blow up offensive players. He delivers massive shots in every game. Elam is a ferocious hitter.

Reid, Swearinger and McDonald all are very physical players. All three of them are hard hitters who can blast offensive players when given the opportunity. However, Reid and McDonlad are more straight-line players, which is why Swearinger is ranked second.

Vaccaro and Cyprien can all flash some hard hits. Cyprien will throw his body around. Rambo and Thomas aren’t shy about dishing out hits, but they don’t hit with the authority of others.

Tight End Defense:
NFL prototype: Earl Thomas, Seahawks
  1. Kenny Vaccaro
  2. Jonathan Cyprien
  3. Philip Thomas
  4. D.J. Swearinger
  5. Bacarri Rambo
  6. Matt Elam
  7. T.J. McDonald
  8. Eric Reid

Recap: Coaches are looking for safeties who can match up against the dangerous receiving tight ends who have become a rage in the NFL. Starting with the likes of Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, there is currently a pursuit of receiving tight ends. Ron Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis have been so effective that defensive coordinators have to come up with game plans to defend them. Safeties who can cover tight ends are one of the best ways to defend those play-makers.

Vaccaro has a real ability to defend tight ends. He possesses some quickness, size and agility. Vaccaro not only can run downfield with tight ends, but also has the strength to battle them. He could be a big asset to guard the receiving tight ends in the NFL with his skills in man coverage.

Cyprien demonstrated real coverage ability at the Senior Bowl. He has enough size, speed and agility to defend tight ends in the middle of the field.

Thomas, Swearinger, Rambo and Elam all could develop into safeties who can defend tight ends well. Thomas and Swearinger are more naturally suited to man coverage. Rambo is a little stiff. He would be better picking up tight ends who run toward him rather than turning and running with them. Elam has the speed and physicality, but is shorter and doesn’t have as much length.

McDonald has good size, but I question his speed and agility to run with receiving tight ends. It was clear last year that Reid does not possess the ability to cover a high-caliber receiving tight end.

NFL prototype: Adrian Wilson, Cardinals
  1. T.J. McDonald
  2. Matt Elam
  3. Bacarri Rambo
  4. Kenny Vaccaro
  5. Eric Reid
  6. Jonathan Cyprien
  7. D.J. Swearinger
  8. Philip Thomas

Recap: The NFL has seen a lot of good safeties lose their value because of injuries. It is such a physical position and requires a combination of speed and strength. Bob Sanders is the prime example, but there have been other safeties like Troy Polamalu and Louis Delmas who are really good players but have a hard time staying on the field. Durability is a key attribute for a safety to possess.

McDonald has been a mainstay in the lineup for USC the past three seasons. He has the size and toughness to handle the NFL. Despite his physical style of play, Elam hasn’t missed a game in three seasons with the Gators. That is especially impressive the past two year when he was logging a ton of snaps between defense and special teams.

Vaccaro and Reid were all durable players in college. Cyprien was durable for Florida International, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he will have less success staying on the field in the NFL. Swearinger stayed in the lineup and played through some minor injuries in college.

Thomas had a broken leg and dislocated ankle in a non-contact drill three days before the 2011 season opener. That caused him to miss the entire year. He has had the most injury problems of the eight safeties listed above.

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