Zach's Draft Corner: Safeties

Welcome to Zach’s Draft Corner, where it’s always amateur hour.

It might seem like the 2018 NFL Draft was just yesterday, but in just two short months, college football will once again be underway and fans will be clamoring to find their studs and sleepers of the 2019 draft class. For the next few months, I’m going to give you my names to note for the upcoming season at every position, along with a mini scouting report and where I’d like to see the prospects improve this season if they want to hear their name called early come April. Given in no particular order, these will be the prospects that, at least at the beginning of the season, will be generating the most buzz. Consider this a primer for the upcoming season of Saturdays, and a potential guide for your television if you aren’t sure which game to watch. Previously, I tackled the linebackers. This week, I am finishing up the defensive side of the ball by looking at the safeties, along with some surprise additions afterwards.

Jaquan Johnson - University of Miami, Junior

Remember how the linebacker class wasn’t deep? Not only is the safety class even less deep than the linebacker class, but it is also lacking the top-end talent that makes this one of the worst position groups in the 2019 draft class. There may not be a single safety taken in the first round. If the class has any hope of getting a safety taken early, it may be Jaquan Johnson, the 5'11", 190-pound safety out of the University of Miami.

Johnson is a very well-rounded safety prospect who could be a potential fit in a lot of different systems and be adequate. However, his best spot may be as a free safety in a scheme that keeps both safeties deep. Johnson doesn't have the range to play centerfield, but if you cut down his zone responsibilities, he's excellent. Johnson also plays strong and is a reliable tackler. He’s athletic enough to be a starter in the NFL, and has the type of motor that will lead a defense. Outside of the lack of truly elite athleticism to be a single-high safety, the main issue is that he doesn't play with the anticipation of a true playmaker at the safety position. He will watch the quarterback, wait to see where he is throwing, turn his head to the receiver to see the route, and then finally break on the route. To become more of a playmaker, he needs to recognize the routes being run in his periphery so he can start his break immediately upon seeing the throw. If he can do so, he will be a first-round prospect, and maybe the only one in this class.

J.R. Reed - University of Georgia, Junior

Please excuse me if this starts to become redundant as this preview continues, but J.R. Reed is more like the type of safety that you will commonly see in this class. His best role will be as a strong safety who has average side and some serious holes in his game. This version of that safety measures in at 6'0", 195 pounds, and plays in the SEC.

What separates Reed from some of the other strong safety prospects in this class is that he has the intelligence and instincts to operate in zone coverage, but simply lacks the athleticism and range to be considered for the free safety role in the NFL. He will generally get himself in the best position possible, but his lack of elite speed keeps him from getting that extra step to change a tackle into an interception or pass breakup. His lack of athleticism also means he won't punish the ball carrier, but he is going to bring them down when he gets there. Overall, Reed is a tough, smart player with all of the fundamentals you could ever ask for, but he is simply not athletic enough to truly take advantage of that. If he can increase his speed and quickness, he may be able to morph into more than a box safety who excels in coverage in that area, but that seems like an unlikely development.

Andrew Wingard - University of Wyoming, Senior

Hailing from the land of Josh Allen, Wingard may be my best bet for the safety that has the most realistic path to seeing a marked improvement in his draft stock between now and next April. The 5'11", 209-pound Colorado native has become the true leader of an underrated Wyoming defense. As a senior, there is still plenty of room for improvement, but I have faith that Wingard may become more than the defensive player with the best hair in the nation.

If Wingard simply maintains his current production rather than improve, he is a prototypical strong safety who can man up on running backs and tight ends, but has some issues with processing route combinations in zone coverage. Wingard is supremely physical, as he pursues and tackles with force with a combination of punishing hits and reliable form. If I was to boil down Wingard’s game to a single phrase, I’d say that he is a great one-on-one safety. By this, I mean that if it's him against a ball carrier or him against a non-WR in coverage, he'll usually win. I am a little concerned about how he'll fit into playing more of a team role, as his game seems to be more of a sideline-to-sideline “attack the ball carrier” role. I want to see his processing improve and for him to get stronger in zone coverage, but he has the intelligence to do so. He just needs to become more natural and less analytical.

Taylor Rapp - University of Washington, Junior

Taylor Rapp is yet another prospect who, at this point in his career, is more of a strong safety than a playmaking free safety. The 6'0", 212-pound Rapp may be the most limited in zone coverage of any of the prospects, as his top-end speed is extremely lacking. What keeps Rapp afloat is that what he lacks in athleticism, he more than makes up for by playing supremely intelligent football.

Rapp is a mathematician on the field, taking perfect angles in pursuit to overcome his athletic deficiencies. Rapp has perfect tackling form and reliably brings down the ball carrier by himself, but in a way that will preserve his health at the next level. Rapp’s best trait might be his savviness when the ball is in the opponent's hands, as he forced multiple fumbles on guys who were already engaged with a defender where he snuck in and provided an extra hit or rip at the ball when others may have stayed out of the way. He is good enough to survive in man coverage, but his lack of elite athleticism can get him beat too frequently. Rapp is for sure going to be a coach someday, but his future as a football player may be limited.

Deionte Thompson - University of Alabama, Junior

If I’ve started to become a broken record in this article, now is the time go head on and break it off with a little preview of the remix in Deionte Thompson. He’s not a brand new song in that he again is better suited as a strong safety than a free safety at this point in his career, but this time we have a freak athlete at the position. The 6’2”, 194-pound Thompson is the best combination of size, strength, and speed in the class, and has elite length for a safety. If you want a physical specimen, then he’s your guy

Thompson is similar to teammate linebacker Mack Wilson in that his first career start came in the College Football Playoff, so his inexperience means he could rise or fall quicker than almost anyone in the draft depending on what he does with his extended reps he’ll earn as a starter. He is more strong safety than free based on his tape so far, as his first instinct is to punish the receiver or ball carrier. If there is a jump ball, Thompson is the type of safety who will try to put a big hit on the receiver rather than make a play on the ball. This limits the amount of playmaking you’ll generally see out of him, but a player like him is still valuable for any defense. Thompson is average in man coverage, but is not good processing route combinations in zone at this point. He may get better with experience, but he’ll need to prove it. As is typical with someone of his athletic nature, he relies on his athleticism too much at times rather than football fundamentals. He is more of a hitter than tackler, which can lead to broken tackles from offensive players with good balance and strength. If Thompson wants to raise his level of play to meet his potential, he needs to play smarter in 2018.

Lukas Denis - Boston College, Senior

Finally, we are changing the album entirely and looking at one of the few safeties in this class who has the potential to be a high-end centerfielder in the pros. While slightly undersized at 5'11" and 185 pounds, Denis is a true playmaker. In 2017 alone, he came down with seven interceptions and had an additional ten pass breakups. Denis has displayed game-changing ability in a Power Five conference, but even he has some holes that need to at least be plugged if he wants to have success.

Better than most anyone in this class, Denis attacks the ball in the air and wants to either intercept the ball or dislodge it from the receivers’ hands before they secure the catches. Denis is the best ballhawk in this class and an ideal centerfield prospect with his instincts, size, and skills. He is also reliable in most man coverage situations, but his smaller size means that bigger receivers or tight ends can outmuscle him and negate his ability to stay on their hip. Denis is also not reliable in run defense or tackling the ball carrier after the catch, which is not what you want from the guy who will be your last line of defense. If he wants to improve his stock, I need to see him bulk up and become more reliable in tackling. I can overlook the man coverage deficiencies given his projected position, but he needs to be able to tackle if he wants to go high in the draft. However, his ballhawking ability might put his floor in the third round.

Juan Thornhill - University of Virginia, Junior

Juan Thornhill is a rare story, and not in a good way. Typically, when a player in a power-five conference starts his career at cornerback and then moves to safety, it’s because he is an intelligent player that lacks the elite athleticism needed to stick with receivers one-on-one in man coverage. The issue with the 6'1", 195-pound Thornhill is that his athleticism is so poor that his lack of speed and range will make playing in the deep zones nearly impossible in the NFL, meaning he is yet another prospect who might excel as a box safety more than a free safety despite his early career as a cornerback.

Thornhill does have the length and strength to cover most any tight end or running back in man coverage. He understands coverage, but he just doesn't have the athleticism to truly excel in that area. Thornhill is very physical, coupling punishing hits with reliability as a tackler. Maybe the best trait Thornhill has shown is his ability to work through traffic on his way to the ball, all but cementing his future as an in-the-box safety. Unless his athleticism magically increases, though, his ceiling is limited.

SMALL SCHOOL SLEEPER - Chris Johnson - University of North Alabama, Senior

Nobody will blame you if you have never heard of Chris Johnson before now. I certainly hadn’t until I started looking through potential prospects in the 2019 draft class. Tape from North Alabama is tough to come by, but in the bit I’ve seen on Johnson, I wouldn’t be surprised if he works his way up into being the first safety taken next April. That is even despite him starting his career at FCS University of Albany before transferring to the slightly stronger FCS program that is North Alabama.

Measuring in at 6'2" and 194 pounds, Johnson may also be the only safety in the class that can challenge Deionte Thompson for the freak athlete crown with the size and length to be special in the NFL. What pushes Johnson up to the top of the class is that he is a great fit as a single-high free safety, having the speed and strong instincts to cover the deep part of the field from sideline-to-sideline and the ball skills to make a play on the ball when he gets there. He's a playmaker through and through, with six interceptions in 2017. The biggest issue with Johnson is that he is really lean and lacks the strength to be a reliable tackler. Right now, he tries to rely on his speed and the momentum that it can generate to lay down a big hit rather than wrap up and bring the ball carrier down. While I marked this as an issue with Lukas Denis, I’m not as worried about it with Johnson. He has the frame to put on more bulk, and it may be as simple as getting out of Albany or North Alabama and into a pro weight room. Strength is one thing I can overlook at these smaller schools, because they typically don’t have the facilities and strength coaches to allow players to fully develop. With so many strong-safety types in this draft and a lack of coverage, centerfield-type safeties, Johnson's stock could quickly rise with another productive season. He also has the traits to be the best safety of the bunch.

SPECIAL TEAMS SPECIAL - Matt Gay, Kicker - University of Utah, Senior

Who’s ready for some specialists? There obviously isn’t a ton of focus on kickers and punters in the scouting world, and very few people watch college football games hoping to see these guys all that often. However, in my desire to give you a complete preview of the upcoming season, I couldn’t leave you completely hanging.

It’s generally hard to scout kickers because so much of kicking is mental rather than physical. I value accuracy over power, because accuracy tends to give a better picture of the kicker’s mental fortitude than kicking the ball as hard as you can and getting lucky. Of the returning kickers, Matt Gay the most accurate in 2017, and did so with one of the largest sample sizes in the country. In their 13 games, Utah attempted 34 field goals, and Gay missed only three of them. He was 21/22 in attempts under 40 yards, and 9/12 in attempts over 40 yards with long of 56 yards in 2017. He also won the Lou Groza Award for the best kicker in the nation. It’s hard to put a lot of faith into kicking evaluations (I’m looking at you, Roberto Aguayo) but Gay is likely the best bet of anyone in this class.

SPECIAL TEAMS SPECIAL - Corliss Waitman, Punter - University of South Alabama, Senior

Alright, so it's rare that a punter is actually drafted. Michael Dickson out of the University of Texas was seen as one of the best punting prospect of all time, and he wasn’t taken until the fifth round. This year, if I’m going to pick any punter to hear his name called in Nashville next year, I am picking Corliss Waitman out of South Alabama.

The Jaguars punted a lot in 2017. Seventy times, actually. Even with this level of offensive ineptitude, Waitman managed a 45.2 yards-per-punt average. Of those 70 punts, only 23 were actually returned, and Waitman put enough hangtime on these punts to allow only 6.61 yards per return on the punts in which a return was actually attempted. Even better, only three of the 70 punts were touchbacks. All of this equates to a net average of 43.02 yards per punt, which would have been good for 7th in the NFL in 2017. Although you can argue that the returners will be better in the NFL, he will also have better coverage units supporting him. I see Waitman with the ability and the résumé for being a successful NFL punter. So if you’re really bored and have an affinity for masochism, tune in to South Alabama games next year to see some smooth punting skills. Rich Eisen would be proud.


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