BGA: NFL Draft 2015 – Safeties
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Welcome to the 10th instalment of the BGA: 2015 NFL Draft series. As we head to the draft, I’ve been sharing thoughts and observations about draft prospects for each position group. In the previous instalment we covered tight ends and fullbacks, but today we move on to the safety position.
After the jump, I’ll be considering whether the Jets have a need at this position and recapping some of the more interesting prospects in this year’s class.
Remember, these articles are not necessarily meant to be exhaustive, so if you wish to bring some other safety prospects into the discussion, please do so in the comments section below. As ever, please respect one another’s opinions and adhere to our community guidelines.
Jets Needs: Safeties
After using (and some would suggest “blowing”) a first round pick on Calvin Pryor last year, the chances of the Jets using a high pick on a safety would seem remote. However, they’re not exactly set at the safety position.
Marcus Gilchrist was a nice signing to solidify one of the two starting spots, but the other will be manned by Pryor who had a shaky rookie year. If Pryor falters, Jaiquawn Jarrett is waiting in the wings after a 2014 campaign where he didn’t play much, but did put together a tantalizingly impactful performance in the upset win over the Steelers to win a defensive player of the week award. Antonio Allen seemed to fall out of favor last year after being employed as an emergency cornerback early in the season and although he’s had some flashes covering slot receivers and tight ends, he’s struggled in space. The promising but yet to contribute much Rontez Miles is the only other safety on the roster, although in a Todd Bowles defense there is scope to employ a third cornerback with just one safety in some base packages, so the Jets may opt to employ someone like Buster Skrine that way.
The good news is that Gilchrist is versatile enough that he will complement whoever he ends up paired with.
The Jets have found a few starting safeties in the mid-to-late rounds over the last decade or so and could look for similar value here with other positions set to take a higher priority in the first few rounds. Unfortunately, there may not be much value to be found in the mid-to-late rounds at this position, so it won’t be easy.
2015 Draft: Safeties
The safety position is one of the hardest to evaluate. Leaving aside the fact that everyone gets confused over what a strong safety or free safety actually does, it’s always difficult to compare and contrast those players that get a lot of direct coverage assignments with those who provide coverage support or roam deep…especially when you don’t know the coverage assignments being employed by the defense.
This is a safety class that top draft expert Matt Miller called “terrible” and it’s difficult to disagree with that having looked at the film of all the draftable prospects. Trying to find any kind of consensus among the top draft analysts is a hopeless task too, as you’ll find guys near the top of some lists and not even making it onto others.
Last year, when looking at college footage from Pryor after the fact (for my own interest, not for anything I was planning to write), I found myself impressed with his highlights but alarmingly disappointed with his overall film. I wondered if maybe I needed to reset my expectations in terms of what a good safety prospect looks like, because his range and some of the flashes he had were intriguing. However, the concerns I had over some of the angles he took and how he was taken out of plays did manifest themselves during the regular season too.
Looking at this year’s safety class, I see the same things from almost everybody, though. Over-aggressiveness, leading to missed tackles, over-pursuit or biting on misdirection is commonplace. Then again, if you gamble and make the play some of the time, that puts a highlight on film and that’s how you get noticed, so maybe this is the best way for a safety prospect to play. It does seem like some of the players who play that way have been heralded more than a more disciplined player with fewer impact plays might be…and I know what I’d rather have.
Part of me wants to avoid the safety class altogether because many of the best safety prospects might actually be cornerbacks. There are a few with experience of playing safety or that are thought to perhaps project to a role there, including UConn’s combine superstar Byron Jones, Utah’s Eric Rowe and recent DUI-offender PJ Williams from FSU. There’s also Brison Williams from South Carolina, who I mentioned in my cornerback review as someone who played both corner and safety last year.
In fact, when Todd Bowles used a late-round rookie as his starting safety in 2013, that’s exactly what it was. Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu was considered an undersized cornerback who projected best to the slot, which was just as well as he was playing in the slot the majority of the time in his rookie year. Could the Jets target a cornerback prospect with the ability and skill-set to play a similar role?
It’s not just corners that can convert to safety though. What about an athletic and undersized linebacker such as Washington’s potential first-rounder Shaq Thompson or the three sleepers that I identified in my linebacker review; Arkansas State’s Qushaun Lee, South Alabama’s Maleki Harris or Mississippi State’s Matthew Wells? Maybe a player like this could fit into certain Bowles packages like Deone Bucannon did last year. Bucannon, a safety by trade, played plenty of reps as an extra linebacker alongside Larry Foote, although this was probably more out of necessity than by design.
There must be some worthwhile safety candidates out there. Let’s recap some of the main ones.
Alabama’s Landon Collins is the consensus top pick and it isn’t really close. Even so, the 228-pounder is considered more of an in-the-box safety than a coverage safety. A particularly rough game against Ole Miss where he got beaten for two scores and was lucky not to give up a third has dropped him out of the first round for some experts, but actually he had three interceptions and seven pass breakups so he does have some playmaking ability in coverage. As noted, it seems unlikely the Jets would show any interest in drafting a safety that high, so let’s not dwell on him too much.
Beyond Collins, some people have Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt as the next-best prospect. Prewitt is more of a deep safety who typically plays with good discipline and keeps things in front of him. Some experts have suggested Prewitt shies away from contact at times and his stock seems to be all over the place from early day two to the late rounds of the draft.
Another possible day two pick is Samford’s Jaquiski Tarrt. Tarrt is another in-the-box safety at 221 pounds, but the questions about him surround not just his coverage abilities, but also the fact he comes from a small school program. He helped himself in that regard by performing well at the Senior Bowl. He also held his own against TCU and Auburn during the season.
Louisville’s Gerod Holliman is getting a lot of buzz, which is hardly surprising given his incredible 14 interceptions this season. Holliman is an interesting prospect to consider because he replaced Calvin Pryor this year. Just like Pryor, his highlight reel is spectacular, with outstanding range, anticipation and closing speed on many of his interceptions. However, if you watch the footage in more detail, you’ll see weaknesses, again like Pryor. Holliman takes some awful angles and was involved in quite a few blown coverages. Also, unlike Pryor, he doesn’t show much as a tackler.
Could his less-heralded team mate James Sample represent better value on day two? Sample had four interceptions and eight pass break-ups himself and has nice size. He’s much more productive as a tackler and doesn’t miss anywhere near as many as Holliman does.
Of all the guys currently expected to go in the mid-rounds, Damarious Randall of Arizona State could be someone who will represent good value if he falls far enough. Randall lacks size and some scouts apparently believe his 4.46 speed would be better employed at cornerback. Could Randall be someone the Jets might view as a Mathieu type? He does appear as one of the closest comparables according to Mockdraftable.com. You can see his speed in action here:
Another safety with experience as a cornerback is Penn State’s Adrian Amos who figures to go in the late rounds. While he doesn’t quite have Randall’s speed, a slightly better 4.03 short shuttle time suggests he could perhaps handle a slot role. Amos has good size and length and had excellent coverage numbers in 2014.
Two potential late rounders from the ACC who could draw interest are Kyshoen Jarrett of Virginia Tech and Isaiah Johnson of Georgia Tech. Jarrett had a headline-grabbing two-interception performance against Ohio State in one of the biggest upsets of the season, although he he had his ups and downs the rest of the way. Here you can see he (#34) avoids a block to make a stop at the line of scrimmage:
Johnson had an excellent 2012 but missed all of 2013 with an injury. His 2014 season was a little underwhelming in the end but his combination of size and athleticism should draw some interest. Johnson shows nice ball skills in coralling this wayward pass for an interception:
One late round pick that doesn’t disappoint is Virginia’s Anthony Harris who shows good discipline and instincts in coverage. See how he “lurks in the weeds” here to make a nice play on the ball as the quarterback obviously never saw him:
Harris is better in coverage than against the run, where he doesn’t offer much and can be prone to missing tackles. His playmaking ability in coverage will attract teams though, highlighted by his eight interceptions in 2013. He missed a chance to impress scouts at his pro day with an injury though.
Let’s finish up with three projected undrafted players who performed well in 2014 and could potentially sneak into the late rounds; Arizona’s Tra’Mayne Bondurant, Arkansas State’s Sterling Young and Ray Vinopal of Pitt.
Bondurant is a great story who started off the season on the bench after he came close to quitting football altogether following a traumatic off-season. However, he worked his way back into a starting role and ended up being one of the Wildcats’ best defensive players. Bondurant is athletic, can hit and was productive and disciplined during the 2014 season. He also showed good playmaking ability in 2013 with pick-sixes in consecutive games. Scouts may be concerned that he is less than 5’10” and that he played a similar hybrid safety/linebacker role to the one that Allen saw have an adverse effect on his stock back in 2012.
Young has good height, but perhaps needs to bulk up a little because he’s not athletic enough to play cornerback, so he’s probably a long-term project at best. When roaming in centerfield, you like to see players making ground and helping out their corners by breaking up passes and Young impressed by doing that here:
Vinopal again lacks ideal size, but turned some heads at his pro day by putting up 26 bench press reps. He was a consistent every-snap performer for the Panthers this season, having transferred from Michigan and could project as a developmental prospect that is capable of contributing on special teams. Vinopal closes well to the ball, as shown on this impressive fourth down stop:
Finally, I’ll link you to an article about the most-overlooked safety from ex-Jets special teamer turned draft analyst Ryan Riddle. I wasn’t even going to mention this guy, so I guess that proves that, yes, he is being overlooked.
In our next instalment, I’ll be looking at running backs, so I’ll be back here this time next week.