• Zach Pratt

Zach's Draft Corner: Safety Position Breakdown

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

While this was one position that many thought the 49ers would address early in the draft, the re-signing of Jimmie Ward decreases the need for an immediate, impact player. That is not to say the 49ers won't address this position at all, however. Jaquiski Tartt is going into the final year of his contract and will be 29 next offseason. Ward is 29 now, and the 49ers have an out in his contract after the 2021 season that they are almost sure to take. A replacement at one or both of strong safety and free safety will be needed soon, and I wouldn't be shocked if the 49ers address this position anywhere in the draft if the value is right.

What will it take for the value to be right? Well, if any of these players are on the board at the time I indicate in their profile, don't be surprised if their name gets called.

Xavier McKinney, Free Safety, Alabama

6’1”, 200 pounds

Pros

McKinney is good at pretty much everything. He is a plus player in both zone coverage and man coverage, he can contribute to run defense, he has enough range to at least play in a cover-two system, and can make plays when the ball is in the air. He is an above-average athlete and is on the bigger end of sizes when it comes to free safeties. McKinney is the ultimate jack of all trades for a defense, very similar to how Minkah Fitzpatrick did everything pretty well while at Alabama.

Cons

I'm not sure that McKinney has an elite trait. In contrast with Isaiah Simmons, who has shown that he can play multiple positions at an elite level, McKinney is merely good at everything. When the level of competition jumps, will he remain "good" at everything, or will he decrease to merely being "average" at everything, similar to how Jimmie Ward played in the first few seasons of his career? As for a fit in the 49ers system, I'm not sure McKinney has the range or athletic profile to play single-high. I always worry about players whose elite trait is merely their versatility, but he could be worth a shot.

When to Draft: 31st overall pick

Grant Delpit, Free Safety, LSU

6’3”, 201 pounds

Pros

If you are looking for a free safety, Delpit is the prototypical fit at that position. His length and athletic profile allows him to truly play a single-high role and to make plays when doing so. You can put Delpit on the back end of the defense and be comforted that he won't let receivers get behind him, while also being excited about the possibility of him jumping a route in front of him. Delpit is a willing tackler, and his combination of size and speed brings a lot of force to his hits.

Cons

Delpit is the victim of high expectations. People were expecting a Sean Taylor-esque season that had Delpit drafted in the top five, and anything less than that would be a disappointment. Delpit showed a few flaws, and that lack of perfection meant an overreaction to knocking his value. He goes for big hits as opposed to reliable tackles, meaning he can occasionally whiff on tackles. He also can get turned around in man coverage, though I don't mind a deep safety who has the occasional issue in man coverage.

When to Draft: 31st overall pick

Antoine Winfield Jr., Free Safety, Minnesota

5’10”, 195 pounds

Pros

Winfield is a playmaker. For a team that surprised a lot of people this season, Winfield always seemed to be the player making the game-sealing or game-winning play for the Gophers. That "it" factor means something. If I wanted a free safety who was truly elite in all aspects of coverage, paired with a monster football IQ, Winfield is that guy. He can shut down whatever coverage responsibility you want to give to him, whether that's man, a robber role, or single-high.

Cons

Winfield is smaller for a free safety, and has had some injuries in college. Durability will certainly be a question mark for him. That smaller stature also makes it difficult to project him playing a physical brand of football, limiting his overall value as a 3-down player. You ideally don't want your free safety making too many tackles, but you also have to be worried about him if relied upon to make a tackle. Winfield is the ultimate finesse player, and has the downsides that go along with being a finesse player.

When to Draft: 31st overall or early day two after a trade back

Ashtyn Davis, Free Safety, Cal

6’1”, 195 pounds

Pros

If you are talking strictly about ceilings, Davis has as high of a ceiling of just about anyone in this class not named Delpit. Davis combines good size with elite athleticism, making him a dangerous weapon. He has shown flashes of excellence at a high level of competition, which lets you know that the superstar potential is there. If he can get in the way of a pass, it will usually end with an interception, as Davis has excellent ball skills.

Cons

When he's not showing those flashes, it can be rough. Davis has a tough time processing route combinations, leaving him generally guessing on a play. If he guesses right, it can be a big play for the defense, but he can also give up big plays when he guesses wrong. You love the potential, but unless Davis can learn to read, analyze, and become educated in his guesses as opposed to simply making a guess, he could be a frustrating player to put on the back end.

When to Draft: Day two after a trade back

Jeremy Chinn, Strong Safety, Southern Illinois

6’3”, 219 pounds

Pros

If you want a giant player with the best athletic profile of everyone in this class who can lay the smackdown on a defender, then you'll love Chinn. Though he played at a lower level of competition, you can still see how his physical domination would translate to players that are a little stronger overall. In pass defense, Chinn excels at making plays in front of him, breaking on crossing routes and dig routes with ease and understanding his role in the box. Chinn has the potential to be an elite strong safety for many years.

Cons

Chinn's hips are not flexible. In man coverage, he has a tough time turning and running with a receiver or tight end, and can be slow to react to their breaks. When playing a deeper role, he has a tougher time reading the quarterback and is slower to react to passes along the sideline. Though he has the athletic profile to run and make plays deep, you don't want to rely on him in a free safety role. The further away from the box he gets, more uncomfortable he seems.

When to Draft: Third round after a trade back

Kyle Dugger, Free Safety, Lenoir-Rhyne

6’1”, 217 pounds

Pros

Another player coming from a low level of competition, Dugger is the free safety equivalent to Chinn at strong safety. Dugger plays zone coverage very well, and is typically in the position he needs to be in to make a play. His athleticism is second only to Chinn in this class, and he uses every ounce of that athleticism to be a playmaker on the back end of a defense.

Cons

Dugger can be a twitch slow to react, generally playing conservatively and waiting until the quarterback lets go of the ball to break. That has served him just fine in Division II, where the lack of arm strength from the quarterbacks, the lack of physicality from the receivers, and his elite athleticism allowed him to still make the necessary plays. This will be a big jump for him, and the GM who drafts him will be gambling that his late breaks are just due to conservative play rather than slow processing.

When to Draft: Third round after a trade back

J.R. Reed, Strong Safety, Georgia

6’1”, 194 pounds

Pros

Reed is what you expect from a player who will be limited to a strong safety role. He can play well on balls in front of him, has trouble turning his back to the quarterback, and hits really hard. He is a small step down from Chinn size-wise and a decent step down athletically, which moves him a few rounds further back in draft prioritization.

Cons

The typical detriments of a small safety apply here. Reed showed in college that he excelled at the box role and got in trouble when he was asked to do more than that. Reed is a safe pick who is, at worst, a core special-teams player and, at best, an average NFL starter.

When to Draft: Middle of day three

Jaylinn Hawkins, Strong Safety, Cal

6’2”, 210 pounds

Pros

I actually like Hawkins a bit more than Reed. Looking at his traits, he can do everything Reed can do, but is a bit longer, a bit thicker, and a bit more athletic. He paired with Davis to make a playmaking tandem at Cal, and I can see him doing the same thing as a pro.

Cons

While I like Hawkins more than Reed, I can see why Reed is rated higher. Hawkins and Davis played a more traditional cover-two style defense at Cal, and Hawkins’ range is dicey. This led to Hawkins having some bad tape where he didn't make it to the sideline and gave up a big play because of it. When the coverages would rotate to him playing a robber role, which is typical of a strong safety in a cover-three defense, Hawkins flourished. It takes a little more projecting the traits of Hawkins due to the tape and role he played at Cal, but I can see him being a high-quality starting strong safety.

When to Draft: Middle of day three

Tanner Muse, Strong Safety, Clemson

6’2”, 230 pounds

Pros

This is one of my favorite strong safety values for the position that he can be taken at. Muse is every bit as big and almost as athletic as Chinn. He has shown flashes of being very adept at playing the pass when he can rely on everything being in front of him, and has played at a National Championship level throughout his entire career at Clemson. When you simply look at the traits he displays on the field, it's crazy to think that a player like him could fall to the end of day three.

Cons

The issue is that Muse is almost an extreme version of Hawkins. The Clemson Tigers had K'Von Wallace to play the box safety role, but Tanner Muse was one of the eleven best players on the Clemson defense. That means Muse saw the field, but in a deep safety role. To be frank, Muse was not great in that role. Being played out of your best position in college can be a death knell to many football careers, but I think it says something about his potential that he is still being considered a draftable prospect. Move Muse into a box role, and I think he could flourish in the pros.

When to Draft: Late day three

Jordan Fuller, Free Safety, Ohio State

6’2”, 205 pounds

Pros

Fuller does well in zone coverage, and is comfortable playing a deep safety role. He has a decent athletic profile and very good size for a player available this late in the draft. He may not catch the ball in the air, but he can make sure the receiver doesn't, either.

Cons

You obviously want more of a playmaker on the back end rather than just a safety net, so you want to get Fuller on a Jugs machine. You also want to see him improve his tackling technique. At the next level, Fuller is going to have issues once the ball is in the ball carrier's hands. He is more of a hitter than a tackler, and his hits are not quite forceful enough to be reliable consistently in the NFL. If Fuller plays against the 49ers, he would be a prime candidate for a jaw-dropping truck from a player like George Kittle.

When to Draft: Late day three or undrafted

Nigel Warrior, Free Safety, Tennessee

6’0”, 186 pounds

Pros

Warrior is going a bit under the radar because he wasn't invited to the combine. However, on tape, Warrior seems to be plenty athletic to play the free safety role as a pro, even in single-high systems. His instincts are stellar, and he has enough juice to get into throwing lanes all over the field. His IQ is also a plus, as he seems to Plus, isn't the name fantastic?

Cons

He doesn't pop out as being immediately athletic, and he may have flunked geometry class. These issues are connected in that he takes very weird and inefficient angles to his spot. If he was able to judge these better, his athleticism would show. He also may improve his ball skills, as he tends to arrive just as the ball gets there rather than slightly before. More time to square up to the ball may lead to turnovers as opposed to deflected passes, and also may improve his tackling. It's a major issue, which is why he may go undrafted. However, if he is able to improve on his angles, he could be a diamond in the rough.

When to Draft: Late day three or undrafted

Jaquarius Landrews, Free Safety, Mississippi State

6’0”, 200 pounds

Pros

Landrews is the epitome of a raw prospect. His arms are a marvel, making him play much bigger than his 6'0" height measurement. He also is very athletic, and this combination gives him at least the physical capability to play a single-high role. Landrews is a physical player in run defense, meaning he should have at least a floor of being a capable special-teams player.

Cons

Coming from the JUCO ranks, Landrews has a lot of work to do in processing higher level offenses. Landrews is very much a reactionary player right now, making him late to his spots and unable to make the plays he needs to. If he is able become a more cerebral player, then the sky is the limit for a player of his physical acumen. He just has a lot of work to get to that point. Landrews could be a prime candidate for coming in as an undrafted free agent and developing on the practice squad while the 49ers still have Jimmie Ward under contract.

When to Draft: Undrafted

James Wiggins, Strong Safety, Cincinnati

6’0”, 202 pounds

Pros

Wiggins is a fun prospect to watch. His strength jumps off the tape, as he is one of the few prospects who is able to get away with using the hit stick on every play. When he is around the ball carrier, you know a highlight, old school football hit is about to happen. Wiggins combines that strength with some blazing speed and above-average size. For such an explosive hitter, he still has some valuable experience in coverage as well, making some big plays and forcing some big turnovers for the Bearcats. You can see the potential oozing out of a player like Wiggins when he steps on the field.

Cons

Wiggins is very singular on the football field. You can tell that he knows his assignment on a play and his only focus is on that assignment. He bites too often on play actions, keeping his focus on the ball and wanting to run up and make the tackle on the running back. In man coverage, his athleticism makes up for a lack of understanding of routes, but that will be more exaggerated when he is dealing with NFL receivers. In zone coverage, he sticks too long to guys entering his zone, failing to pass them off at the right point and having to play catchup on others entering his zone. Wiggins will need a lot of refinement to understand his role on defense and how to play opposing offenses. At the very least, he will be a special-teams ace. If he can develop, he could be the next Emlen Tunnell as an undrafted free agent safety making a big impact as a professional.

When to Draft: Undrafted

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