2023 NFL Draft Position Review: Safeties

Charlie lays out an overview at the top players from each position for the 2023 NFL Draft. For further information, check out our in-depth analysis of 2023 NFL Draft Prospects by Position.

By Charlie Campbell.
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This page was last updated April 20, 2023. Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

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

Merging the 2023 and 2022 prospects
Kyle Hamilton
Brian Branch
Daxton Hill
Lewis Cine
Jalen Pitre
Jaquan Brisker
Quan Martin
Cam Mitchell
Antonio Johnson
Bryan Cook
J.T. Woods
Nick Cross
Jordan Battle
Brandon Joseph
Demarco Hellams
Sydney Brown

Just to be clear, this article and series is all my opinion based off my own study and information I’ve gotten from general managers, directors of college scouting, national scouts, area scouts, and NFL coaches who know way more than I do.

Last year had a quality class of safety talent, with three of them being selected in Round 1 and a deep group that extended late into Day 2. The 2023 NFL Draft has a big drop-off, with the talent at safety being very thin.

Kyle Hamilton was by far the best safety prospect over the past many years. He was on a par with other top-16 prospects like Jamal Adams, Malik Hooker, and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Thus, it is not surprising that he is rated first in this collation. Branch is really good football player who is a better prospect than Daxton Hill or Lewis Cine. Hill, Cine, Pitre and Brisker were better prospects than Quan Martin, the second-rated safety in the 2023 NFL Draft, in my opinion. Martin, Cam Mitchell, and Antonio Johnson are better than Bryan Cook, who was a late second-rounder in 2022. Nick Cross was a better prospect than Jordan Battle, Brandon Joseph, Demarco Hellams and Sydney Brown are.

Safest Pick: Brian Branch, Alabama
Previous Picks:
2022: Kyle Hamilton
2021: Jevon Holland
2020: Xavier McKinney
2019: Johnathan Abram
2018: Minkah Fitzpatrick
2017: Malik Hooker
2016: Jalen Ramsey
2015: Landon Collins
2014: HaHa Clinton-Dix
2013: Kenny Vacarro

Branch was not a difficult choice because he is a very good football player. Branch is an excellent tackler to go along with size, strength, instincts and versatility. He can play nickel corner or be a starting safety. With his instincts, Branch is a real weapon and is always around the ball. He has the potential to be a very good NFL defensive back.

Biggest Bust Potential: Brandon Joseph, Notre Dame
Previous Picks:
2021: Caden Sterns
2020: Ashtyn Davis
2019: Deionte Thompson
2018: Ronnie Harrison
2017: Jabrill Peppers
2016: Darian Thompson
2015: Gerod Holliman
2014: Ed Reynolds
2013: Eric Reid

This was a tough decision because no player really jumped out at me. Joseph looks like he has some risk, plus he could go on Day 2 of the 2023 NFL Draft. As a freshman in 2020, Joseph broke out for Northwestern with six interceptions. He was not as good over the ensuing seasons, and with Notre Dame in 2022, he only collected 30 tackles and an interception. Joseph was very quiet while playing for the Fighting Irish. He looks like a potential “flash in the pan” prospect who have never lived up to his tremendous start.

Safety Rankings by Attributes

Man Coverage
NFL prototype: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers
  1. Cam Mitchell
  2. Brian Branch
  3. Antonio Johnson
  4. Quan Martin
  5. Brandon Joseph
  6. Sydney Brown
  7. Demarco Hellams
  8. Jordan Battle

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.

Mitchell is at the top here because along with being able to play safety, he is a gritty cover corner with quickness, agile feet, and instincts. Mitchell is fluid and does a nice job of running the route with receivers to prevent them from gaining separation. He keeps his receiver from coming open and is quick to recover if they get a step. Mitchell has nice hips to turn and run downfield with speed receivers. He also has enough twitchy athleticism to break on the ball and drive down hard on wide receivers. On top of his man-coverage skills, Mitchell is a disciplined corner who does not bite on double moves. Thanks to his eye discipline, Mitchell is skilled at reading receivers and not showing vision issues that lead to falling for play fakes. Mitchell flashed some ball skills at times. He is skilled to slap passes away, and he times his contact well.

A great attribute that Branch possesses is being able to play nickel corner. He does a good job in man coverage with lining up over the slot receiver and preventing separation. Branch also can play man coverage on tight ends, and his pro defense is going to love having him to help neutralize the league’s elite receiving tight ends.

Johnson is a tremendous nickel cornerback. He can run the route and prevent separation, showing fluid athleticism alongside very good speed. Most tall cornerbacks have stiffness that prevents them from playing slot corner, but Johnson is the rare defensive back who is a very tall and long slot corner. Johnson shows very good instincts and route recognition. Those things, in combination with his physical talent, allow him to blanket receivers.

Martin has the ability to line up and cover slot receivers. Martin’s quickness, flexibility, and fluid athleticism allow him to line up at the line of scrimmage or pick up his assignments in off-man coverage. Martin will be a real asset to his defense when going against dangerous slot receivers. In nickel, he is a capable cover corner who can run the route and prevent separation. Martin shows good instincts to play the ball and is very active in the middle of the field.

Joseph showed some man-coverage ability in 2020 and 2021, doing a nice job of running with slot receivers and covering up wideouts in the deep part of the field. He may not be able to cover elite receivers, but against average defenders, Joseph could play some man coverage in the slot.

Brown, Hellams and Battle were not man-coverage safeties in college. They all had teammates who took on that role while they played zone.

Zone Coverage
NFL prototype: Marcus Williams, Ravens
  1. Brian Branch
  2. Antonio Johnson
  3. Quan Martin
  4. Cam Mitchell
  5. Brandon Joseph
  6. Sydney Brown
  7. Demarco Hellams
  8. Jordan Battle

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. They were all good at it.

In zone coverage, Branch, Johnson and Martin do very good job. Each covers a lot of ground, picks up receivers who come into their area, and has the instincts to make big plays. All three enter the next level as valuable middle-of-the-field coverage safeties.

Mitchell, Brown and Joseph all have the potential to be solid zone-coverage safeties. Mitchell and Joseph could have some flexibility to play downfield in a free safety role. Brown is more suited to play in the intermediate portion of the field.

Hellams and Battle were decent zone-coverage safeties at Alabama. They both had some solid moments and some let-downs in 2022. They need more development in order to become NFL starters.

Run Defense
NFL prototype: Justin Simmons, Broncos
  1. Brian Branch
  2. Antonio Johnson
  3. Quan Martin
  4. Jordan Battle
  5. Demarco Hellams
  6. Cam Mitchell
  7. Sydney Brown
  8. Brandon Joseph

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. All of these players showed some solid run defense during their collegiate careers.

In the ground game, Branch can drive downhill and tackle in the box. He is very adept at making open-field tackles and preventing offenses from breaking big plays. He flies around the field and is always around the ball. Branch is a fantastic tackler and will dish out some hard hits. He doesn’t hesitate to get physical in the secondary and rock ball-carriers. For the NFL, it might help Branch to gain 5-10 pounds of muscle to help take down pro backs and receivers. However, Branch is one of the best tackling safeties entering the league in many years.

Johnson is willing to tackle, and he uses his speed to eat up ground in a blur. With his outstanding instincts, Johnson is always around the ball and makes a lot of clutch open-field tackles.

Martin was a good run defender in college, as his tackle totals suggest. He tackles well and does a nice job of weaving through blockers. Martin is smart about how he tackles by taking the legs out from underneath backs. However, Martin is a little light, so he could have some issues with power backs. While is tough and aggressive, Martin’s build could lead to injuries in the NFL.

In the ground game, Hellams is a physical safety who can function well as the eighth man in the box. He is a reliable tackler and willing to take on any back. At 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, he could play some as the eighth man in the box because he is very natural near the line of scrimmage.

In 2021 and 2022, Battle was a contributing run defender. He showed closing quickness and comes downhill quickly to make tackles in run support. Battle was steady and not especially impressive or bad as a run defender.

Mitchell is a willing run defender who will contribute to the ground defense and tackle. He fights off blocks, fires to the ball, and shows nice tackling technique for an undersized corner.

Brown (5-10, 210) is a willing run defender who uses his speed to come downhill and get in tackles. While he is not the biggest of safeties, Brown does not hesitate to get physical and will seek to deliver some hard hits. Sometimes, Brown can get bounced around by blockers though, and his size and physicality will be issues for him at the pro level.

Joseph is not special in run defense. He looked better against the run in the early going at Northwestern, but he had very little presence as a run defender for Notre Dame in 2022, collecting only 30 tackles on the season. Adding more strength to tackle NFL backs would not be a bad idea for Joseph, and adding strength is something that he will probably do as a result of aging while working out in a pro strength and conditioning program.

Ball Skills
NFL prototype: Eddie Jackson, Bears
  1. Sydney Brown
  2. Brandon Joseph
  3. Quan Martin
  4. Brian Branch
  5. Cam Mitchell
  6. Antonio Johnson
  7. Jordan Battle
  8. Demarco Hellams

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 year’s class has a few ballhawks, led by Brown. He showed tremendous ball skills in 2022 with six interceptions and seven passes broken up. Martin was a part of those numbers as Browna and Martin worked well together to help break up passes and create turnovers. Joseph also showed very good ball skills in his career overall with 10 interceptions over three seasons. However, nine of those came at Northwestern in 2020-2021.

Branch displayed solid ball skills at Alabama last year, and Mitchell was similar at Northwestern. Johnson put together more ball production in 2021, and he needs to make the flashes into consistency. Battle and Hellams had some ball production in college, but nothing special.

Tight End Defense
NFL prototype: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers
  1. Cam Mitchell
  2. Antonio Johnson
  3. Quan Martin
  4. Brian Branch
  5. Brandon Joseph
  6. Sydney Brown
  7. Demarco Hellams
  8. Jordan Battle

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. Players like Ron Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Greg Olsen, Tracis Kelce and Darren Waller 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 playmakers.

The top four in this group are good safeties to match up in one-on-ones with tight ends. Mitchell is fluid cover corner who has the size to match up with tight ends. Johnson was superb at covering tight ends and even speed receivers during the 2021 season. Martin did a very good job in coverage on tight ends last fall. Branch is similar, but not quite as fast in the straight line as the top three. All four of these safeties look like future assets at defending tight ends in the future.

Joseph, Brown, Hellams and Battle could contribute in some man coverage on tight ends. Joseph moves the best of the bunch. Brown is short, and that is a problem for tight ends making catches over him. Hellams and Battle are better suited to playing zone.

Tackling & Hitting Ability
NFL prototype: Derwin James, Chargers
  1. Brian Branch
  2. Antonio Johnson
  3. Quan Martin
  4. Sydney Brown
  5. Demarco Hellams
  6. Jordan Battle
  7. Brandon Joseph
  8. Cam Mitchell

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 given that 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, and teams want to avoid injuries. Tackling is becoming a lost art.

Branch is a phenomenal tackler entering the NFL and one of the best form-tackling safeties to arrive at the next level in a long time. He has superb technique to wrap up ball-carriers; he can break down in space; and he is strong enough to stop momentum. With his instincts, Branch flies to the ball and uses his excellent tackling to cut out the legs or wrap up his target. Branch’s tackling is outstanding.

Johnson and Martin are good form tacklers who show steady technique to get ball-carriers on the ground. Brown is a bit of feast-or-famine in this regard. He can dish out some hard hits and punish whoever is toting the rock. However, Brown has size issues that could be problematic against bigger offensive players.

Hellams and Battle are always looking for contact with physicality to lay out ball-carriers. However, they can be a bit scattered at times and need to improve on wrapping up.

Mitchell and Joseph could stand to get stronger for tackling in the NFL. They are willing, but have more of cornerback bodies.

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