Chronologically, this may fall out of order, but hear us out. While we know that most Eagles fans are knowledgeable on all fronts, we felt as if, generally speaking, many are interested in the skill position, and less caring of the trenches. Because of that, we thought it would be beneficial to jump back and forth between offense and defense, keeping you, and us, on our toes throughout the entire pre-Draft process. This week, we decided to flip the field and take a look at some of the ball hawks coming into the NFL in nine weeks. For time purposes, there will be certain positions that will be bulked into a larger positional group. The safety position is one such example. While there are two safety positions, it is more efficient for us to call all roaming defensive backs, safeties. You’ll notice this occurs again when we hit guards, tackles and linebackers.
Much like last week, and in the coming nine weeks leading up to the NFL Draft in Dallas, Liam and Tyler will provide their top five at each position and a breakdown of their strengths and weaknesses. They may even throw a pre-Draft landing spot or round projection if the pair are feeling additionally bold.
Tyler’s Top 5 Safeties
5. Trey Walker, Louisiana-Lafayette
Trey Walker, or Tracy Walker, depending on if you’re checking him out on NFL’s Draft stock site or his UL profile page, looks every bit the part of an NFL safety. While he is not the fleetest of foot (runs an unofficial 4.5), Walker, standing at 6’2″ and 200-pound, isn’t slow and has the build and frame to play at the next level. He also lays down the law with the best heavy-hitters in college football, dropping opposing receivers crossing over the middle of the field. Walker saved his best performance for his final Sun Belt campaign, starting all 12 games, recording 97 tackles, two interceptions and six pass breakups on his way to a third-team all-conference selection. Walker’s biggest asset could come in his flexibility, as he could be able to play that recently formed “roaming” safety spot, made famous by the likes of Troy Polamulu and Brian Dawkins, in which he plays in the secondary as a safety, up at the line of scrimmage as an additional blitzer or at the slot corner position in press coverage. That 4.5 straight line speed isn’t totally indicative of Walker’s acceleration and lateral range on the field, however. His draft stock has taken a hit because many scouts see him as a step slow to the football, taking more time than necessary to close out. Walker probably will be a third day selection, but could be the surprise of the defensive backs’ class if put within the right scheme. Look for the heavy hitter to be a fourth-fifth round pick, allowing him to play with that vaunted chip on his shoulder in his first NFL season.
4. Marcus Allen, Penn State
Call me slightly bias if you’d like, but I’m putting bias aside when I put Marcus Allen in the top five safeties category. Two years ago, you’d likely be able to call me a homer with this selection, but the final two seasons of Allen’s Big Ten career have rocketed him into consideration. Allen recorded 320 tackles in four seasons in State College, including 181 of them in his final two years on campus. He notched his first career interception earlier this season. He’s most commonly known throughout college football as the one to have blocked Tyler Durbin’s field goal attempt that allowed Grant Haley to scoop and score late in an upset bid over Ohio State in 2016. Allen, in the purest sense of the word, is a bulldozer. Allen delivers NFL-esque punishing hits on receivers and runners alike. Allen’s work ethic alone has propelled him into a second day selection. Allen has worked with Nittany Lion wideouts to ensure better route recognition. He also has strengthened his coverage ability, making him a more formidable matchup for tight ends at the next level. Top end tight ends will still expose Allen over the middle of the field, as he doesn’t have the second-level explosion that defensive coordinators are looking for in their coverage safeties. That route recognition only goes so far, as Allen does have a tendency to attack the football, leaving him exposed to play action on occasion. It’ll be interesting to see where Allen goes in this year’s Draft, as some are predicting as high as second round, and some as low as the fifth. I’d venture a guess and say somewhere closer to the former. I’m assuming a third round pick is the fate of Allen.
3. Armani Watts, Texas A&M
In terms of shear athleticism and ability to play the game of football, Watts may be one of the best players in this year’s NFL Draft. Watts was a four year starter for the Aggies, posting 324 tackles in his career, including 126 in his sophomore year. The rangy safety picked up ten interceptions in four season, as well. His 87 tackles, four picks, two fumble recoveries and two blocked kicks propelled Watts to a second-team all-SEC selection this past year. Watts and Walker are near-polar opposites when it comes to their play style. Watts is explosive to the ball, quick off the line and more athletic that Walker, but is not the sure tackler that Walker is. Watts also doesn’t have the ability to deliver the punishing blow like Walker does. He can also be jumpy at times, leading to some big offensive plays for the opposition. Despite his jumpy nature, there’s something truly special about an athletic specimen who has plenty of starting experience in the nation’s best defensive conference. His utter athletic ability will mask his shorter frame. Should Watts become a more sure tackler, he’ll become a successful safety to boot. I’d expect Watts to be a second day selection with a ton of upside. I’d not be afraid to go out on a limb and say Watts will not only break camp as a rotational safety, but the starting safety for whichever team selects him on Friday, April 27.
2. Ronnie Harrison, Alabama
The top two are pretty predictable at the safety position this year. Harrison is the lesser of the “top two”, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a top-tier talent. It’s simply an accolade for the number safety this season. Harrison was named to the second-team All-SEC after posting 74 tackles, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions. He has all the intangibles an NFL defense could ask for. Standing at 6’3″, weighing 214 pounds, Harrison is one of the bigger safeties in this year’s Draft class. He’s a physical hitter that doesn’t look to impose his will by foregoing form, and that’s why he is the second best safety of 2017. He doesn’t sacrifice his position to deliver that crushing hit, but instead, gets in the right position to deliver the hit. Despite his size, Harrison has slick footwork, with the ability to get out of his back pedal quickly and into coverage. This allows the safety to jump routes quickly, leading to his seven interceptions in three seasons at Alabama. He does play wildly sometimes, which forces him out of position while over-pursuing. Much like Marcus Allen, Harrison can get baited by the play action at times, forcing him out of position. Unlike Allen, though, Harrison has the recovery speed at his disposal. Harrison is a fringe first-day safety, who could go in the latter stages of the first round. If he doesn’t get picked on day one, he’ll be a hot commodity in the second round. My expectation is he’ll hear his name somewhere between picks 25 and 40.
1. Derwin James, Florida State
Derwin James was the consensus best safety in college football going into 2017, and nothing was going to deter that short of a ravaging injury. There simply is not a more NFL-ready safety than James in this year’s Draft. James, much like his former Seminole teammate Jalen Ramsey, is highly sought after for his incredible talent. James finished 2017 with 84 tackles, including 5.5 for a loss. He also finished the season with two interceptions. He was chosen as a second-team All-American, as well as given first-team All-ACC honors. If Walker is the kind of safety that is modeled after the aforementioned Hall of Fame safeties, than James may be the next great ones, as he’s effectively a more talented Walker. He’s faster, more physical and more athletic than Walker. James will be able to play anywhere on the field without fear. He’s a punishing hitter, a solid cover saftey and closes out of the football with great footwork and speed. There are few knocks on James, who will almost assuredly be a first round pick this April. One downside of James’ play is something he wasn’t able to control: namely that he played in just 26 collegiate games, missing all but two in 2016 due to an ACL injury. Progressive medicine and recovery treatments should limit this to a near non-factor. He has a tendency, at times, to not step up in the run game, which is something that NFL defensive coordinators will be able to fix by sending big backs directly at him in training camp. He isn’t the kind of player to back down, so he’ll be forced to step up and make plays. James could go as high as the top ten, but will certainly go on day one.
5: Marcus Allen, Penn State
The Penn State safety, as Tyler mentioned, is a one-man wrecking crew. He may not be a ballhawk like some of the other names in this article, but Allen’s nose for the ball is complimented by tenacious hits and an aggressive demeanor. The 6’2, 215 lbs bowling ball is exactly that. He’s not the most athletically gifted and will overshoot on some plays once his radar is locked in. But for a box-defender who has amassed 181 tackles in his last two years with the Nittany Lions to have such a strong impact on the back-end against opposing tight ends and more physical wideouts, it’s hard not to mention him in this list.
4: Justin Reid, Stanford
The world is apparently still sleeping on Justin Reid and that’s okay, but Eric Reid’s younger brother isn’t just here to take part. With 94 tackles in his junior year and 6.5 for a loss, you will struggle to find a more well-rounded Safety prospect. Five picks and six PBU’s add to his arsenal of statistic, with Reid showing his ball skills and Football IQ throughout the year. At 6’1, 204 lbs, Reid was able to make plays hanging over the top, or blow up the run by playing in the box. He has great athleticism and is built in a very similar vein to Malcolm Jenkins (in both frame and playing style). I can see Reid’s stock really rising over the next few weeks. His sideline-to-sideline range and exceptional athleticism make him an intriguing prospect for any NFL defense.
3: Derwin James, Florida State
The latest in a long line of starlit defensive backs out of FSU, Derwin James could be one of this year’s draft darlings. After a torn left lateral meniscus ended his 2016 campaign, James bounced back to record 84 tackles, 2 interceptions and 11 passes defensed in his final year as a Seminole, leading him to FWAA All-American honors.
6’3, 215 lbs. James uses every last inch and pound of his imposing size to wreak havoc, terrorizing receivers, running backs and even signal callers. Refusing to fall for eye manipulation, James’ ability to jump routes and diagnose the play is far beyond his years. I think Tyler did a great job of breaking down what makes James so special, but I don’t think he will be the number one safety in this draft.
2: Ronnie Harrison, Alabama
One of my several draft crushes (of whom we will also have an EXCLUSIVE interview with), Harrison is a product of Nick Saban’s defense, which should tell you all you need to know. Again, Tyler hit all the right nails on the head, but I’d surmise it by saying this. What is the difference between a good safety and a great one? As the last line of defense, you’re expected to have the upmost composure, complete command of the defense and a willingness to risk it all to save the day. Ronnie Harrison PERSONIFIES those traits. His tackling angles, positioning, ability to narrow the field is just remarkable. There is no questioning Harrison’s potential and when you factor in his accolades while at Bama, the rest speaks for itself.
1: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama
I’m cheating a little bit here because nobody really knows whether Harrison’s running mate will declare as a corner or a safety. The bold take however is that he will be the best DB off the board, wherever he lines up. Fitzpatrick was used all over the defense. A swiss-army knife who forces offenses to account for his presence wherever he lines up, Fitzpatrick has the ability to sting you from anywhere. He consistently takes good tackling angles in the open field and is able to keep plays ahead of him in zone coverage. His lone weakness may be that his 6’0 size and hesitant play in man/press looks could limit him into a nickel role if forced to play cornerback. I don’t want to give too much away as I may or may not be working on a complete cornerback guide as we speak…
but Fitzpatrick is easily the most dominant DB in this class.
Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports