2019 NFL Draft Position Review: Safeties

Charlie lays out an overview at the top players from each position for the 2019 NFL Draft. For further information, check out our in-depth analysis of 2019 NFL Draft Prospects by Position.

By Charlie Campbell.
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This page was last updated March 28, 2019. Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

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

2019 prospects vs 2018
Minkah Fitzpatrick
Derwin James
Terrell Edmunds
Johnathan Abram
Taylor Rapp
Juan Thornhill
Darnell Savage
Nasir Adderley
Jessie Bates
Justin Reid
Mike Bell
Chancey Gardner-Johnson
Tracy Walker
Ronnie Harrison
Deionte Thompson
Troy Apeke

Last year there was a top heavy safety class. While this year does not have the top shelf talent that last year did, this year has more depth with a lot of good safety prospects for the second day of the draft.

In merging these classes Minkah Fitzpatrick, Derwin James and Terrell Edmunds were better prospects than the top safety this year. However, the 2019 NFL Draft has five safeties who would go ahead of last year’s second-round safety Jessie Bates. Mike Bell and Chancey Gardner-Johnson are on a par with Tracy Walker and Ronnie Harrison. Deionte Thompson is not as good of a prospect as Harrison was last year, but better than Troy Apeke.

Safest Pick: Johnathan Abram, Mississippi State
Previous Picks:
2018: Minkah Fitzpatrick
2017: Malik Hooker
2016: Jalen Ramsey
2015: Landon Collins
2014: HaHa Clinton-Dix
2013: Kenny Vacarro

My track record here is pretty good. Fitzpatrick had a decent rookie year. Hooker was tremendous before his rookie season was robbed by an injury, and last year, he was solid. Ramsey is a stud, albeit at corner. Collins and Clinton-Dix are both quality safeties, while Vacarro is a solid starter although not overly impressive.

This was an easy pick with Abram. He plays the game the right way as a physical force. Abram is a tough run defender who is able to do a variety of things in pass coverage. While he is not an elite coverage safety, Abram is flexible to play some zone and man, and be interchangeable between free and strong safety. He is a well-rounded player who should become a quality starter in the NFL.

Biggest Bust Potential: Deionte Thompson, Alabama
Previous Picks:
2018: Ronnie Harrison
2017: Jabrill Peppers
2016: Darian Thompson
2015: Gerod Holliman
2014: Ed Reynolds
2013: Eric Reid

My track record here is solid. Eric Reid is the blemish because he has turned into a quality NFL player. Reynolds, Holliman and Thompson didn’t work out. Peppers struggled as a rookie, but he played better in his second season before being traded. Harrison was a backup last year.

Thompson looked like a future first-round pick early in 2018, but that turned out to be a flash in the pan as he really struggled in the second half of the season. Thompson stopped making plays on the ball, missed tackles, missed interceptions, and ended up getting picked on deep downfield, including in ugly performances against Georgia, Oklahoma and Clemson. His vision, ball skills, and tackling looked like liabilities going against NFL quarterbacks and receivers. Thompson could still end up going in the early rounds, but I think Thompson carries significant bust potential.

Safety Rankings by Attributes

Man Coverage:
NFL prototype: Earl Thomas, Ravens
  1. Nasir Adderley
  2. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson
  3. Darnell Savage
  4. Juan Thornhill
  5. Johnathan Abram
  6. Mike Bell
  7. Deionte Thompson
  8. Taylor Rapp

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.

Some teams feel that Adderley could start at nickel corner in the NFL and they like his ability to play man. Some teams also feel that Gardner-Johnson is a nickelback only for the pro game, but he has man-coverage ability on slot receivers.

Savage and Thornhill also can play man coverage, with Thornhill having experience playing cornerback. Both of them could handle some man coverage on slot receivers if necessary.

Abram did play man on slot receivers and did okay, but that is not his strong suit for the NFL. Bell is similar in that he could do it somewhat, but really should be used in other ways. Thompson should not be used in man coverage.

Rapp could play some man coverage on tight ends in a pinch, but he has limitations. He is more of a strong safety who needs to be around the line of scrimmage. Rapp has some lower leg tightness, so he really is not a man-coverage safety.

Zone Coverage:
NFL prototype: Eric Weddle, Rams
  1. Nasir Adderley
  2. Darnell Savage
  3. Juan Thornhill
  4. Johnathan Abram
  5. Mike Bell
  6. Deionte Thompson
  7. Taylor Rapp
  8. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson

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 looks bad in zone, and they all are good in zone.

As a zone free safety in the deep part of the field, there is a lot to like about Adderley. He has very good instincts and covers a lot of ground in the back end. Adderley is very rangy to be a deep centerfielder who covers up wideouts trying to go vertical and is adept at breaking up passes downfield. He has quality hands to snatch interceptions and times contact extremely well to break up receptions. Adderley is a very good in zone coverage.

Savage is good zone coverage safety who free safety potential for the NFL. He can play the deep centerfield and cover a lot of ground. With his good instincts, speed and athleticism, Savage is an asset in zone coverage.

Along with good instincts, Thornhill shows good range. He covers a lot of ground in the deep part of the field, utilizing his speed and athleticism to get to the sideline from the middle of the field on deep throws. Thornhill is a true pass-coverage free safety who can serve as a single high safety and reliable deep centerfielder to lock down the deep part of the field.

Abram is good in zone coverage, using his instincts to be around the ball and make plays. He also is an enforcer in the middle of the field who will punish receivers for crossing the middle. Abram should be a real asset as a zone safety in the short to intermediate part of the field.

Bell is a quality zone safety who does a nice job of breaking on the ball while flashing range on the back end. He played free safety in college and could be a zone free safety in the NFL.

Thompson did well in zone coverage early in 2018, but struggled late in the year. He will need development. Rapp can play some zone coverage in the middle of the field, but his best attribute is blitzing, so he is better playing closer to the line of scrimmage. Gardner-Johnson could play some zone, but some team sources feel he is a nickel only for the NFL.

Run Defense:
NFL prototype: Landon Collins, Redskins
  1. Johnathan Abram
  2. Taylor Rapp
  3. Mike Bell
  4. Darnell Savage
  5. Nasir Adderley
  6. Juan Thornhill
  7. Deionte Thompson
  8. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson

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 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.

In the ground game, Abram is excellent. He is a good tackler who comes downhill aggressively with zero hesitation to meet backs in the hole or backfield. Abram is very dangerous with plays in front of him while attacking. As a pro, Abram has enough size and plenty of physicality to be the eighth man in the box. He should be an asset as a run defender and will help to make his team much tougher to run on. With his strength and tenacity, Abram can take on big backs. His speed and tackling technique make him adept at taking down speed backs. Abram could be one of the better run-defending safeties in the NFL during his career.

For the NFL, Rapp would fit best as a strong safety, and he looks like he could be a starting strong safety early in his NFL career. While he is not a thumper, Rapp has good instincts that turn him into a good run defender. Rapp is a quality tackler and run defender who plays well near the line of scrimmage. As a pro, Rapp should be a solid run defender and eighth man in the box.

Bell is really good coming downhill as a run defender, plus is a good tackler. He is put together well and is adept at getting ball-carriers to the ground even when he is unable to wrap up.

While Adderley is undersized, he runs around the field and smacks people. He is a physical defender and willing tackler. He misses some tackles, and for the NFL, he does not have the size to be the eighth man in the box. Adderley should not be assigned to be a downhill run defender, as he could struggle to tackle pro backs in that role.

In the ground game, Thornhill has some issues with missed tackles from time to time. However, Thornhill will flash times when he fires downhill to make some good tackles in space. He is a willing tackler, and some of the missed tackles can be coached out of him with NFL expertise. Some team sources say that Thornhill’s willingness to tackle is encouraging for him to improve that issue, and he is not one of those defensive backs who avoids tackling or is hesitant to get physical. After some time getting coached in the NFL, Thornhill’s tackling could no longer be a liability.

Thompson and Gardner-Johnson are not consistent enough as run defenders. Both of them could have issues tackling in the NFL.

Ball Skills:
NFL prototype: Eddie Jackson, Bears
  1. Juan Thornhill
  2. Nasir Adderley
  3. Darnell Savage
  4. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson
  5. Mike Bell
  6. Deionte Thompson
  7. Johnathan Abram
  8. Taylor Rapp

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 talent for creating turnovers.

This year’s class has a few ballhawks, led by Thornhill, who he has excellent ball skills and very good hands. He is a dangerous threat to take the ball away with his instincts and ability to break on the ball. Thornhill notched 10 interceptions with 19 passes broken up over the past two seasons. He possesses excellent ball skills.

Adderley is just a notch below, and he totaled nine interceptions over the past two seasons. He has good hands and instincts, plus covers a lot of ground to hunt down the ball on the back end.

Savage showed some ball skills in 2018 with four interceptions. He plays the ball well and is a threat to take it away. Gardner-Johnson had only two interceptions and two breakups in 2018, but he showed more ball skills in previous seasons as well.

Bell can make some plays on the ball in the middle of the field. He breaks on the ball well, showing a nice ability to play the ball rather than going for knockout blows like many big safeties. In 2018, Bell had some clutch breakups while totaling three interceptions and eight passes broken up.

Thompson looked like he had serious ball skills at the beginning of 2018, but his ball skills were dreadful late in the year. Abram is a solid well-rounded safety, but one who does not produce a lot of plays on the ball. Rapp had four interceptions as a freshman but just three over his final two seasons. He was quiet for plays on the ball in that time.

Tight End Defense:
NFL prototype: Earl Thomas, Ravens
  1. Juan Thornhill
  2. Darnell Savage
  3. Nasir Adderley
  4. Johnathan Abram
  5. Mike Bell
  6. Taylor Rapp
  7. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson
  8. Deionte Thompson

Recap: Coaches are looking for safeties who can match up against the dangerous receiving tight ends who have become the 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 had 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.

The top four really stand out as being capable, but none of them are truly exceptional. Thornhill is fast enough to run with tight ends and has sufficient size to compete with them. The same holds with Savage, as he is put together well with cover skills to run with tight ends.

Adderley has the ability to run with tight ends and prevent separation. However, he is not a big safety, so size is going to be problem for him because tight ends could box him out and/or make catches over him.

Abram has the ability to play man on tight ends. He has the speed to run with them and athleticism to maintain coverage. He also is very physical, so tight ends won’t be able to bully him around. Abram can have some vision issues in coverage, missing some steps, so the others are rated higher.

Bell has the size to matchup on tight ends due to being a fluidly smooth athlete. He could use some development for playing man on tight ends but the potential to do it is there.

Rapp could play some man coverage on tight ends in a pinch, but he has limitations. He is more of a strong safety who needs to be around the line of scrimmage. Rapp has some lower leg tightness, so he really is not a man-coverage safety.

Gardner-Johnson and Thompson should not play man coverage on tight ends. Both of them are too inconsistent in coverage.

Tackling & Hitting Ability:
NFL prototype: Derwin James, Chargers
  1. Johnathan Abram
  2. Taylor Rapp
  3. Mike Bell
  4. Darnell Savage
  5. Nasir Adderley
  6. Juan Thornhill
  7. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson
  8. Deionte Thompson

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 getting worse considering how much players are restricted on hitting. It seems that tackling is getting worse in the NFL. It isn’t hard to see why; 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 NFLPA has restricted contact and teams want to avoid injuries. Tackling is becoming a lost art.

There are a few safeties who can really swat in this class. Abram is the hardest hitter, and there isn’t a close second. Abram really puts his body into hits and knocks back the ball-carrier or receiver with authority. He is a violent defender who can strike fear into the middle of the field. He is a true enforcer and can separate the ball with the force of his hits.

Bell is a physical hitter, which was evident as a junior, and he showed a nice ability to come down hill on ball-carriers. Bell is a physical defender who will hit hard even though he isn’t the thickest of defenders. Entering the next, level Bell is a quality tackler.

Savage and Adderley will throw their bodies around, and both of them can dish out some big hits even though they aren’t the biggest of safeties. Adderley is generally a good tackler, but he does have some misses.

Thornhill flashes some physicality, but he is not a true enforcer. After some time getting coached in the NFL, his tackling could no longer be a liability, because he is a willing tackler but needs work on his technique. Both Grander-Johnson and Thompson are not hard hitters, and each of them have issues with missed tackles.

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