(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, set for April 28-30.)
Like so many of the other positions on a football team, safety is evolving as the game changes. In today's NFL, safeties sometimes have to line up and do linebacker-type things and other times they may find themselves asked to line up and do cornerback-type things. The result is that while more demands can serve to make safeties more valuable, those multiple requirements also make safeties harder to find for the NFL teams looking for them.
Here are some of the top safety prospects in the upcoming 2016 NFL Draft according to NFL.com.
Joseph, 5-foot-10, 205 pounds, plays the safety position with a reckless abandon, and the irony of that is he injured his ACL in a non-contact drill midway through the 2015 season. That knee, and Joseph's rehabilitation of it, are the critical issues for NFL teams during this pre-draft process, because the West Virginia safety was leading the nation with five interceptions at the time he was injured, but will he be able to participate with his new team when training camps open in July? A team captain and a leader, Joseph is said to have been a favorite of the Mountaineers coaching staff, and not only for his attitude. He showed himself to be a playmaker, who has both coverage ability and ball-skills. Joseph has done a good job getting his head around to find the football, and he has good leaping ability to fight the receiver for the ball when it arrives. It's believed Joseph is one of the few safety prospects in this draft with the ability to play both down in the box and in centerfield, and he is an eager hitter. Competitive, and with the football character that all solid pros possess, Joseph showed in college that he can make plays in coverage while also being disciplined enough to be trusted playing the deep middle. If he checks out medically, Joseph could be the first safety drafted, assuming Jalen Ramsey from Florida State is considered a cornerback.
Bell, 5-11, 199, ran a 4.51 at his pro day. Bell escaped the Southeastern Conference for Columbus after his high school career in Georgia, and he got on the field right way for Ohio State as a rotational nickel back as a freshman. He started in the Orange Bowl against Clemson at the end of his freshman season, and after contributing seven tackles and an interception in that game, Bell was a full-time starter at safety in 2014, which ended with the Buckeyes winning the national championship. During that season, Bell had 92 tackles, including two for loss, plus six interceptions and six passes defensed. His statistics dropped to 65 tackles, two interceptions, and nine passes defensed in 2015, but the report on Bell as he prepares to enter the NFL is that he's capable in run support while also possessing good ball skills. The question surrounding Bell is whether he will be special in the NFL, as he was in the Big 10, or will he turn out to be just another guy.
Neal is 6-0, 211, but at both the Scouting Combine and at his pro day he showed himself to be not much more than a 4.6 guy in the 40-yard dash. In a different era of football – one in which offenses entered each and every game looking to establish the run – Neal would be much more of a sure thing in his transition to the NFL. But professional football is now a passing game, and Neal's strengths during his college career at Florida had more to do with attacking the line of scrimmage and punishing running backs than they had to do with making the kind of coverage/ball-skill plays required of the safety position in the NFL. Neal has good size, he is athletic, and he is a willing hitter. All of that is a positive, but he didn't always look like he had great awareness against the pass and against the kinds of things NFL quarterbacks will do to safeties. Can Neal be taught, or is it a lack of awareness? He had four interceptions in 26 games. Was that a function of the way he was deployed at Florida, or a reflection of his abilities?
Thompson, 6-2, 208, doesn't have outstanding speed (4.69 in the 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine), but he sure seems to have the centerfield qualifications some teams covet in free safeties. Thompson had 19 interceptions during his four seasons at Boise State, and most of those came in the kinds of situations an NFL team will expect its safeties to be able to handle. He's not necessarily a coverage safety, but Thompson has the body control to get himself in a position to find the football while it's in the air, and then when he gets there he has the hands and ball-skills to finish the play. There is some disagreement among scouts as to whether Thompson has the athletic skill-set to be able to do in the NFL what he did at Boise State, and so his career may come down to being picked by a team with a system that can cater to his strengths and minimize his weaknesses.
Simmons, 6-2, 202, played a lot of football over his four seasons at Boston College, and his numbers indicate he improved over the course of that career. All seven of Simmons' interceptions came during his final two seasons, and in 2014 he even started six games at cornerback when the team had injuries at the position. Simmons was one of the standouts at the Shrine Game, but typically it's third-day draft prospects invited to participate in that one. His special teams ability should allow Simmons enough time in the NFL to learn the nuances of the safety position, and maybe he can develop into a full-time starter. But to do that, he's going to have to work on his body as well as learning the NFL game.
Steelers fans are certain to love Killebrew, if for no other reason that at 6-2, 217, it's common for him to be mistaken for a linebacker. A four-year starter who played in 48 games, Killebrew is an aggressive, hard-hitting safety, but also a safety who had only three interceptions in his college career. Most scouts agree that Killebrew has just average instincts, route recognition, and awareness in the passing game, and those issues are going to determine whether he can become anything more than a backup and a special teams player in the NFL.
THE 2015 NFL DRAFT, DB STATISTICS
Number drafted: 47
Picks by round: 5 in the first; 8 in the second; 5 in the third; 6 in the fourth; 8 in the fifth; 7 in the sixth; 8 in the seventh
Highest pick: Trae Waynes, Michigan State, Round 1, 11th overall by the Minnesota Vikings
Biggest impact: Not even close. There may have been issues hanging over Marcus Peters' head in the run-up to the draft, but once the games started being played Peters seemed to have all of the answers. Peters was the 18th overall pick in the first round, and he was voted Defensive Rookie of the Year after starting all 16 games during which he had 60 tackles, 26 passes defensed, and eight interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns.