The "Triple Take" team breaks down of the safeties. In this installment of this draft prospect preview by position, the Steelers Radio Network trio of Matt Williamson, Dale Lolley and Mike Prisuta give their takes on the top prospects at the safety position. If you want to hear the audio version of "The Triple Take" click here.
The opinions of these Steelers Radio Network personalities do not reflect the views of the Steelers organization.
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Dale's Take ...
Boxing in safeties simply as free or strong is a thing of the past. Today's safeties should not only be interchangeable, but able to step up and cover a slot receiver, as well.
In fact, that isn't just something teams would like to have, it's a necessity.
The beauty of using a safety in the slot is that he's more physical than most cornerbacks, which makes him better capable of handling a detached tight end or some of the bigger receivers who also line up inside the numbers. And they're also better able to help out in the running game.
#5 - Jartavius Martin, Illinois (5-11, 194 lbs.) - Martin aligned in the slot on 493 snaps last season, but also saw 177 snaps as a deep safety. He's exactly what a lot of teams are looking for in today's NFL with his size and speed as a slot corner with safety skills. Martin ran a 4.46-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine and had a ridiculous 44-inch vertical jump. Martin is a versatile chess piece who could see early playing time in the NFL. He also filled up the stat sheet last season with 63 tackles, 11 pass defenses, a sack and three interceptions.
#4 - Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M (6-2, 198 lbs.) - A box safety with some size, Johnson also lined up in the slot 280 snaps in 2022 after playing 603 snaps there in 2021. Didn't have great ball production in college with just seven pass breakups and one interceptions in three seasons, though he had 150 combined tackles the past two years. He ran a 4.52-second 40-yard dash at the Combine, which is more than good enough to fill his role.
#3 - Sydney Brown, Illinois (5-10, 211 lbs.) - The twin brother of running back Chase Brown, Sydney Brown has a lot to like. He ran a 4.47-second 40 at the Combine with a 40.5-inch vertical jump. That athleticism shows in his tape as he flies around whether in the box or lined up in the slot. Had six interceptions last season to go along with 59 tackles. Also had four forced fumbles the past three seasons. He's a playmaker. But Brown also will be 23 when the draft rolls around. He'll miss a tackle here and there because of his overaggressiveness, as well.
#2 - Ji'Ayir Brown, Penn State (5-11, 203 lbs.) - Brown brings premium ball skills to the position. He had 10 interceptions with three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries over the past two seasons at Penn State. He also had 4.5 sacks in 2022, showing nice timing on blitzes. Has played deep safety, in the box and at slot corner, often in the same game. The big question is his overall speed. He ran just a 4.65-second 40 at the Combine, but his playing speed looks faster.
#1 - Brian Branch, Alabama (6-0, 190 lbs.) - Played all over Alabama's defense. Is fluid enough in coverage that he was asked to work out with the cornerbacks at the Combine. In three seasons – basically as the starter the past two – Branch had three interceptions with 23 pass breakups and 4.0 sacks. Also had 19.5 tackles for a loss, including 14 last season. He's just a football player. A true junior, Branch also just turned 23. Most of his playing time came in the slot the last two seasons, but he's instinctive enough to line up deep and physical enough to play in the box. His 4.58-second 40 at the Combine won't wow anyone, but there are no real weaknesses in his game.
Mike's Take ...
The best safety playing college football last season might end up playing slot corner in the NFL next season. But no matter where Brian Branch most often applies his craft, it's an interesting class.
And, much like inside linebacker, safety is becoming a position from which much is asked. The best need to cover well enough to stay on the field in passing situations and hold up well enough against the run not to be a liability there.
That explains why some safeties are starting to migrate to linebacker, or at least a hybrid, linebacker-like role.
#5 - Jammie Robinson, Florida State (5-11, 191 lbs.) - Robinson is a hitter, as evidenced by his having led the Seminoles in tackles in each of the last two seasons. He was also a First-Team All-ACC selection in each of the last two seasons, which made Robinson the first FSU defensive back to be so honored in back-to-back campaigns since Jalen Ramsey. Not a bad progression after spending his first two seasons at South Carolina. Robinson is a good blitzer from the vicinity of the line of scrimmage and he impressed those he was practicing against at the Senior Bowl.
#4 - Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M (6-2, 198 lbs.) - Johnson wasn't overly impressive in limited testing at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis (a 4.52-second 40-yard dash, eight reps of 225 pounds in the bench press). But his tape intrigued from a versatility and a ferocity standpoint. Whether he was coming off edge, lined up in the slot or in downfield-coverage responsibility, Johnson demonstrated an ability to go into attack mode once his recognition kicked in.
#3 - Ji'Ayir Brown, Penn State (5-11, 203 lbs.) - NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah has acknowledged Brown is "not the fastest." Brown's 4.65 40 has, as well. But when Brown has been asked to track the ball, he's shown the ability to "accelerate, locate and play the ball," Jeremiah maintained. "That is not easy and he made it look easy." Brown was the only player in FBS with at least four sacks (four-and-a-half) and at least four interceptions (a team-leading four) in 2022.
#2 - Sydney Brown, Illinois (5-10, 211 lbs.) - Illinois' resurgence from 5-7 in 2021 to 8-5 in 2022 was no fluke. The Illini had players and Brown and his twin brother (running back Chase) were two of them. Their backstory of overcoming adversity while emigrating from Canada to Florida is compelling. So is Sydney Brown's words-to-live-by mantra as delivered by NFL Network reporter Stacey Dales: "Take risks without regret." Brown is an explosive hitter and has range in coverage. He'll start sooner rather than later in the NFL.
#1 - Brian Branch, Alabama (6-0, 190 lbs.) - Branch ran and worked out with the cornerbacks in Indy, an indication slot corner may be where he's headed next. He seemingly did a little of everything at Alabama and inspired comparisons to former Crimson Tide star Minkah Fitzpatrick while doing it. He didn't tear up the track in the 40 (4.58) but that wasn't something anyone was anticipating. "His eyes and his instincts are what his game's all about," Jeremiah said. "He's not a 4.3 guy. He's a 4.5 guy but he plays to that speed at all times and he has excellent ball skills and he trusts it." Branch also has a fascinating playing philosophy as expressed to Dales: "When I take the field it's almost like I'm allowed to release some sort anger in me, but it's legal anger. I can't do it on an everyday basis, but when I'm able to make contact with the opposition it makes me able to express myself."
Matt's Take ...
There isn't a star true safety prospect in this draft. And there might not be many drafted in the first two rounds.
Safety is one of the weaker positions in this draft, but history shows that finding starters at this position in the middle rounds is very feasible and that could once again be the case this year.
Many safeties in this class will have to make their bones on special teams and in sub packages before getting a crack at a starting job.
#5 - Christopher Smith II, Georgia (5-11, 192 lbs.) - Smith has been a catalyst on an elite Georgia defense. He doesn't have great size or elite speed. Smith reads the field very well though and is very tough physically as well as with his leadership. He is reliable and like most top safeties, has versatility to his game. Smith can play in the deep middle, but also is a downhill player near the line of scrimmage.
#4 - Jammie Robinson, Florida State (5-11, 191 lbs.) - Robinson is a little undersized and his arm length and hand size are worrisome. But he is also extremely productive. He is tough and reads the game very efficiency with very few wasted steps. While he is smaller, Robinson throws his body around and attacks downhill. He has good quickness, which aids him well as a slot defender. Robinson has gotten better every season in college and is a very solid tackler.
#3 - Ji'Ayir Brown, Penn State (5-11, 203 lbs.) - Brown is a very productive football player. He is a playmaker. Brown shows excellent versatility. You can ask him to cover slot receivers, play in the box or even handle deep middle responsibilities. He hunts ball carriers with aggression and plays the game hard snap after snap while embracing the physical aspects of the position. He's a hitter and has 10 interceptions over the past two years. Brown isn't a fantastic athlete, but his head for the game helps him greatly in that regard.
#2 - Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M (6-2, 198 lbs.) - Johnson was an immediate contributor for the Aggies as a true freshman and had a storied college career. His size is the first thing you notice with Johnson, and he uses his height and length well to his advantage. Although, with his style of play, he might be better served by adding more weight. Johnson can play on the third level but is at his best near the line of scrimmage in a traditional strong safety spot or as a slot defender. Johnson has minimal experience as a deep middle player. He is a downhill player that attacks the run and also profiles well against NFL tight ends. Johnson finds the football.
#1 - Brian Branch, Alabama (6-0, 190 lbs.) - Branch was Alabama's quarterback of the defense. He is very smart and a student of the game with a great understanding of what offenses are trying to accomplish. Branch can play all over a secondary from single high safety to two deep, to playing in the box. But lining up in the slot might just be what Branch does best. He is a phenomenal tackler and is very fundamentally sound. Branch didn't test particularly well at the Combine. However, athletic testing doesn't always translate to great NFL players at the safety position, or even at slot cornerback. And Branch's tape is just fantastic. Call him whatever you want, Branch is just a great football player and would be a huge asset to any NFL defense. He will be an immediate contributor and is a potential star.