2016 NFL Draft Position Review: Safeties

Charlie lays out an overview at the top players from each position for the 2016 NFL Draft. For further information, check out our in-depth analysis of 2016 NFL Draft Prospects by Position.

By Charlie Campbell.
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This page was last updated March 22, 2016. Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

Position Review: Safeties

Safety Class
Early-round talent: B+
Mid-round: B-
Late-round: C+
Overall grade: B

2016 prospects vs 2015
Jalen Ramsey
Keanu Neal
Landon Collins
Karl Joseph
Vonn Bell
Jaquiski Tartt
Darian Thompson
Jeremy Cash
K.J. Dillon
Jordan Richards
James Sample
Clayton Geathers
Ibraheim Campbell
Miles Killebrew
Mykkele Thompson
Kyshoen Jarrett

Last year, safety was one of the weakest positions in the draft; to the point I wrote, “WalterFootball.com knows teams that feel no safety is worthy of going in the first round.” That was proven true as the first true safety to come off the board was Landon Collins in the Round 2. While this year’s safety class is much better, it still isn’t a banner year at the position. However, there is definitely more talent and better prospects for all three days of the draft than a year ago.

In merging these classes, Ramsey and Neal are better prospects than Collins. Karl Joseph could be ahead of Collins if Joseph hadn’t suffered a torn ACL last fall. To illustrate how weak last year’s class was, the eighth safety drafted went all the way down in the sixth round. This year, there are other talented safety prospects who could go in the third and fourth round ahead of Jayron Kearse. Those players include Clemson’s T.J. Green, Clemson’s Jayron Kearse, West Virginia’s K.J. Dillon, Samford’s James Bradberry and LSU’s Jalen Mills.

Safest Pick: Jalen Ramsey, Florida State
This was a slam-dunk easy pick with Ramsey. As a safety he looks like a special player with the ability to defend tight ends and big wide receivers, tackle in the box, blitz off the edge, and play the deep center field. If Ramsey plays safety and not cornerback the majority of the time, it would be a recommended for him to add weight to be between 215 and 220 pounds to handle tackling NFL running backs. Aside from Ramsey, I think Keanu Neal and Karl Joseph are safe prospects to turn into good pros.

2015 Pick: Landon Collins
2014 Pick: HaHa Clinton-Dix
2013 Pick: Kenny Vacarro

Biggest Bust Potential: Darian Thompson, Boise State
This was a tough decision because no safety stood out to me with bust potential. I chose Thompson because he could be selected as a top-60 pick, but I see some limitations to his game when studying him. To me, he looks at his best when the play is in front of him. That along with lacking speed means I don’t think he could be a deep center fielder and is limited to playing strong safety. That would cut him off from playing for teams that like interchangeable free and strong safeties. I think Thompson could get picked on in coverage and give up some plays downfield.

2015 Pick: Gerod Holliman
2014 Pick: Ed Reynolds
2013 Pick: Eric Reid

Safety Rankings by Attributes

Man Coverage:
NFL prototype: Earl Thomas, Seahawks
  1. Jalen Ramsey
  2. Vonn Bell
  3. Keanu Neal
  4. Karl Joseph
  5. K.J. Dillon
  6. Jeremy Cash
  7. Darian Thompson
  8. Miles Killebrew

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.

Ramsey is far and away the best of the safeties despite playing cornerback in 2015. Along with being a top safety prospect, he is a press corner who can smother big receivers and prevent separation. Smaller, fast receivers give Ramsey some problems, but that is typical of defensive backs his size. Ramsey could move around from receivers, to backs, to tight ends and play man coverage.

In college, Bell played some cornerback as well, so he has the ability to cover receivers in one-on-one. Neal also lined up in man against receivers and tight ends. He has speed, athleticism, and upside to develop in this regard.

Joseph and Dillon both showed the ability to play some man coverage. Early in the 2015 season, Joseph was very impressive in this category and prevented receivers from getting open. He has quick feet and loose hips.

Cash is better helping a cornerback than lining up in man coverage. Taking a back out of the backfield was fine for Cash, but he isn’t a safety who can isolate on a quick slot receiver in man coverage and prevent separation.

Thompson lacks the speed to run with receivers and is more of a strong safety who is at his best playing zone with the play in front of him. Killebrew is last because at the Senior Bowl he showed that he can react a step late, which allows separation. The faster and more athletic receivers in the NFL could pose a real problem for him.

Zone Coverage:
NFL prototype: Jarius Byrd, Saints
  1. Jalen Ramsey
  2. Vonn Bell
  3. Karl Joseph
  4. Keanu Neal
  5. Jeremy Cash
  6. K.J. Dillon
  7. Darian Thompson
  8. Miles Killebrew

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. None of these safeties looked bad in zone.

Ramsey is definitely the best. As a sophomore, he was tremendous in zone coverage. He picked up receivers in the middle of the field, covered a ton of ground, and made a plethora of clutch open-field tackles. He was a dynamic play-maker in the middle of the field for Florida State.

Bell and Joseph are very good in zone coverage. They have reaction skills that are strong. Neal covers a lot of ground because of quickness and his instincts. All three of the first have the speed and athletic ability to help defend the deep part of the field.

In the middle of the field, Cash is quick and physical with the instincts to make plays. He should be an asset as a zone safety in the NFL. Dillon, Thompson and Killebrew are strong safeties who are reasonably sound in zone coverage.

Deep Help:
NFL prototype: Glover Quin, Lions
  1. Jalen Ramsey
  2. Vonn Bell
  3. Keanu Neal
  4. Karl Joseph
  5. K.J. Dillon
  6. Jeremy Cash
  7. Darian Thompson
  8. Miles Killebrew

Recap: This is a must to be a good free 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 are beaten 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 some good options in the 2016 NFL Draft.

Of this group, once again, Ramsey in particular stood out. He is the best considering his size, instincts and speed. In the deep part of the field, Ramsey should be a real asset for his defense.

Bell did a good job as the last line of defense for the Buckeyes last year. They had a few hiccups early in the year, but by the end of the season, Bell had the back end locked down. Playing deep and off the ball was one of the reasons why his tackles and interceptions were down but his passes defensed were up from his sophomore season.

As a sophomore in 2014, Neal showed the ability to be a center fielder who roams the deep part of the field and covers a lot of ground. As a junior, teammate Marcus Maye was vastly improved so Neal was playing strong safety. Neal is versatile and well-rounded.

Joseph was a reliable deep free safety. Cash has some versatility, but will need some development to play free safety in the NFL.

Thompson and Killebrew are in-the-box safeties rather than a deep field defenders. They could be big liabilities in pass coverage as deep free safeties.

Run Defense:
NFL prototype: T.J. Ward, Broncos
  1. Miles Killebrew
  2. Jeremy Cash
  3. Keanu Neal
  4. Karl Joseph
  5. Darian Thompson
  6. Jalen Ramsey
  7. K.J. Dillon
  8. Vonn Bell

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 solid run defenders in this draft class. In fact all eight of these safeties have shown the ability to be quality run defenders.

Killebrew is a tough run defender. He attacks the ball-carriers and can lay some serious wood. As a tackler, Cash is very good and he makes a lot of stops. Cash has good diagnosis and read-and-react skills to get him in position to make stops. Last year, Neal was an excellent run defender for Florida. He could play dime linebacker in the NFL as well. Neal is very decisive and attacks the line of scrimmage.

Joseph is a good run defender. As a freshman starter, he had over 100 tackles and was all over the field. In his last complete season of play, he topped 90 again. Joseph is a good tackler and can make some big stops.

Thompson didn’t have a big tackle total (65) last season, but at the Senior Bowl, he looked like a superb fit as the eighth man in the box. He is very physical and got in position to make tackles in the ground game.

Ramsey isn’t a downhill safety, but he was solid against the run as a sophomore. Dillon hits hard and is very physical, but he could stand to improve his run defense for the NFL.

Coming from the Big Ten and Ohio State’s defense, Bell is a quality run defender as expected. He wasn’t a thumper safety for the Buckeyes, but he was reliable to contribute to run defense – totaling 92 tackles as a sophomore.

Ball Skills:
NFL prototype: Eric Weddle, Ravens
  1. Vonn Bell
  2. Darian Thompson
  3. Jalen Ramsey
  4. Keanu Neal
  5. Karl Joseph
  6. K.J. Dillon
  7. Jeremy Cash
  8. Miles Killebrew

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 a great asset. Elite safeties have a knack for creating turnovers.

This category has two ballhawks in Bell and Thompson. The past two seasons, Bell produced quality interception and passes defended totals. Thompson was tremendous at creating interceptions as he racked up 12 over the past two years. He has good hands and breaks on the ball really well. Thompson’s ball skills and turnover potential are his biggest assets.

Ramsey and Neal didn’t produce a lot of interceptions last year as Ramsey had zero while Neal had one, However, they showed more ball skills the previous season. Both players made some clutch interceptions and breakups. Ramsey has 22 passes defended over the last two years, and one would like if could he turn some of those breakups into picks. Still, with their instincts and hands, either could produce some nice interception totals as a pro.

Joseph didn’t show a lot of ball skills over most of his career, but as a senior, he was leading the nation with five interceptions when he tore his ACL a month into the season. Joseph showed a huge improvement to take the ball away. Dillon picked up the slack some with some decent ball skills. He had eight breakups and two interceptions last year.

Both Cash and Killebrew had a goose egg for interceptions last year. They aren’t devoid of ball skills, but snatching the ball away isn’t either’s strength.

Tight End Defense:
NFL prototype: Earl Thomas, Seahawks
  1. Jalen Ramsey
  2. Keanu Neal
  3. Karl Joseph
  4. Vonn Bell
  5. Jeremy Cash
  6. K.J. Dillon
  7. Darian Thompson
  8. Miles Killebrew

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, Jimmy Graham and Greg Olsen have been so effective that defensive coordinators have to come up with game plans to defend against them. Safeties who can cover tight ends are one of the best ways to hobble those play-makers.

This was a no-doubter, Ramsey is a phenomenal cover safety for defending tight ends. With his height, length, speed, athleticism, and leaping ability, he is tremendous at defending tight ends down the middle of the field. He could run with the fast tight ends and keep the big ones from making catches over him. When it comes to tight ends who are receiving problems, Ramsey should be a real solution for his defense.

Neal has the speed and agility to run with tight ends downfield, but also has the strength to battle them. He could be develop into an asset to guard the receiving tight ends in the NFL.

Joseph and Bell have the quickness and agility to run with tight ends down the field, but lack some size and height. That puts Joseph and Bell below the top two.

Cash, Dillon and Thompson all demonstrated some coverage ability to help on tight ends. They could be okay against average tight ends, but would be in trouble against the top talents. Killebrew might develop that ability, but right now, he needs coaching up after coming from a smaller school. He shouldn’t be trusted to cover athletic tight ends in man.

Tackling and Hitting Ability:
NFL prototype: Kam Chancellor, Seahawks
  1. Miles Killebrew
  2. K.J. Dillon
  3. Keanu Neal
  4. Karl Joseph
  5. Darian Thompson
  6. Jeremy Cash
  7. Jalen Ramsey
  8. Vonn Bell

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. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that tackling is seeminly getting worse considering how much players are restricted on hitting. It isn’t hard to see why as players don’t get to practice tackling very often. Even in the rare padded practice, players very rarely take a ball-carrier to the ground. The union has restricted contact, while teams want to avoid injuries. Tackling is becoming a lost art.

There are a few safeties who can really swat in this class. In my opinion, Killebrew is the hardest hitter. The 6-foot-1, 219-pounder puts his body into hits and knocks back the ball-carrier or receiver with authority. In some ways, he is a throwback safety to old era. Killebrew is a very good tackler, notching 132 stops last year.

Dillon is a vicious hitter, and that was evident at the Senior Bowl as he consistently thumped offensive players in practice. Dillon looks like he could be a true enforcer who can be an intimidating presence in the middle of the field.

Neal is an absolute missile on the field who is looking to blow up offensive players. He delivers massive shots in every game. The hits that Neal dishes out are loud, and he arrives with violence to the ball-carrier. Throughout his two years as a starter, Neal showed the ability to separate the ball from the receiver, or ball carrier. The reason that Neal isn’t ranked first is because sometimes as a tackler, he looks to deliver the knockout blow rather than wrap up. That led to some missed tackles last year when he should have had stops. When Neal wraps up, he is a good tackler.

Jospeh, Thompson and Cash all are physical players. All three of them are willing hitters who can blast offensive players when given the opportunity.

Ramsey and Bell are the last two, but both can flash some hard hits. Ramsey will throw receivers down with violence and in no way is he a finesse player. The reason these two are last is because of size translation to the NFL. As safeties, they should add some weight to tackle the big running backs coming downhill in the second level.

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