The Philadelphia Eagles enter 2019 with a chance to add youth and depth to their safety group. They should not pass up the opportunity.
Last year they thought they had the answer when they brought back Corey Graham to be their third safety. After the injury bug hit that band-aid signing proved incapable of plugging the gaping wound. Some hurried to tout the play of Tre Sullivan after the Wild Card win over the Chicago Bears. Those takes were thrown in the freezer only one week later. Rookie Avonte Maddox was forced to play out of position and while he played admirably the Eagles should still be looking to bolster the group.
The Eagles want to play “big dime/nickel” to combat 12 personnel sets. To ensure they can do so throughout the season and into the future, safety should be a strong focus. With that in mind, here are my top ranked safety prospects in the 2019 NFL Draft class.
Important Context You’ve Already Scrolled Past:
- Height/weight listings are from (probably unreliable) school listings unless otherwise noted.
- Players listed have at least 3 games of film study done.
- Final Grade results from a formula that takes into account universal factors (play strength, mental processing, etc.) and position-specific traits (range, man coverage, run support, etc.)
- Grading not final. More film may be required & athleticism score includes elements of athletic testing.
1. NASIR ADDERLEY - Delaware (Senior Bowl: 5’11 7/8”, 195)
Range? Check. Physicality? Check. Competitive toughness? Check. Adderley has everything you want from a center-fielder and more.
Forget the fact that he plays for the Blue Hens. You’d be hard pressed to find better film from this defensive back class. His ball skills are constantly on display and have led to him picking off opposing quarterbacks nine times in the past two years. That’s even with teams shying away from him in 2018.
How did he remain so productive? Diving and circus catch ball skills help.
Reminder that Delaware safety Nasir Adderley is a round 1 talent - pic.twitter.com/JmVPStULlZ— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) January 20, 2019
Adderley should test like a plus athlete with his straight-line speed and back-of-the-spoon smooth hips. The biggest question remaining is his ability to cover slot receivers in man coverage. He struggled with this at the Senior Bowl, but individual drills like that favor offense. He has experience in that world having played corner earlier in his career and has enough positive flashes on film to not be concerned.
In a class missing rangy free safety types that can handle single-high responsibilities, Adderley stands on the top of the mountain.
Summary: Immediate starter at free safety.
Grade: 77.7 (Mid/Late 1st Round)
2. DEIONTE THOMPSON – Alabama (6’2”, 196)
It’s important not to allow recency bias color evaluations, especially with Deionte Thompson. Late in the season he showed a propensity for concerning mental errors, but that’s not the whole story.
For the most part his tape shows a solid player with the requisite range to play single-high safety without issue. He also flashes a willingness as a physical tackler, though his technique lacks form. When given the chance to show his ball skills, Thompson does not disappoint.
It’s pretty simple: Don’t throw deep on Deionte Thompson pic.twitter.com/DNqCdX3BfX— The Draft Network (@DraftNetworkLLC) September 15, 2018
There seems to be a divide on Thompson when it comes to his NFL Draft stock. Some major analysts have left him out of the first round in their early mocks. Other scouting circles place him towards the top of the class and a first round lock. What’s the cause of the differing opinions?
I’m not entirely sold on Thompson’s speed, even though he has desirable short-area quickness. I’m also not sold on his listed weight of 196.
Would I be shocked if he ran in the low 4.5s and came in at 195? No. Would I be shocked if he ran in the 4.6s and weighed 185 pounds? No. The NFL Combine will answer those two questions and no matter the results, I’ll likely return to his tape to double check my work.
Summary: Eventual starting free safety with additional vetting required.
Grade: 73.4 (Early 2nd Round)
3. DARNELL SAVAGE JR. - Maryland (Senior Bowl: 5’11”, 199)
Savage has one of the most exciting physical/athletic profiles of this group. His high grade reflects a portion of that projection but may end up being too low if he develops as a single-high safety over time.
He’s an aggressive, uber-competitive ball of energy. His mentality works both for him and against him, leading to excellent downhill plays and slip-ups when he gets caught peeking. This limits his ability to contribute as a center-fielder right away. Savage wants to get downhill and make the *now* play. Teams should let him do that from a nickel/robber role at the beginning of his career.
Maryland $ Darnell Savage Jr. - oh we're starting off the film session like this? I'm IN - pic.twitter.com/V9gajhmUtm— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) February 1, 2019
In his game against Temple you’ll see the ceiling for Savage. There are several reps that had me literally jumping out of my seat. Those moments came from him sniffing around the box and firing his gun.
Conversely, if you look close enough you’ll stumble through the floor. The Michigan game showcased mental issues concerning processing speed and route recognition.
This is where Savage gets into trouble.. rolls down to take the TE, but gets caught up peeking the backfield action. Savage wants to make the *now* downhill play, which leads to some mental mistakes - pic.twitter.com/r4jmEbl0H7— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) February 1, 2019
His career may start like a rollercoaster if pressed into deep zone coverages, but if the lightbulb clicks on it’s going to be special. He has the range to do it, but his mental processing needs to align better with the athletic profile.
The question is, how much are you willing to invest on a gamble? Savage has a cathedral ceiling, but is he religious?
Summary: Immediate nickel/strong safety starter with eventual single-high safety potential. Special teams demon.
Grade: 69.8 (Late 2nd Round)
4. CHAUNCEY GARDNER-JOHNSON – Florida (6’0”, 208)
One of my longer film sessions; it takes a while to get a feel for CGJ’s game. In 2017 you saw more free safety reps and maddening consistency issues. In 2018 those tackling issues were largely cleaned up, but came from alignments closer to the line of scrimmage.
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson at his best pic.twitter.com/ch5ynOxKTH— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) December 30, 2018
That’s what makes CGJ exciting and concerning. You can feel comfortable projecting him to a box and nickel role, but is the tackling 100% corrected? You feel like he has the range to dabble in single-high, but what of his tracking and angles to the ball from that alignment?
There’s a lot to like from his tape and enough versatility to ignore the blemishes. It also helps that there’s clear evidence that man coverage won’t be a weakness. He can wear a lot of different hats, but will they stay on consistently? I’m willing to bet they will and that CGJ will make a meaningful impact to a team’s defense backfield no matter where they line him up.
Summary: Can start early as a strong safety that doubles as a nickel in “big packages”. Capable of eventually handling increased single-high responsibilities.
Grade: 68.4 (Late 2nd Round)
5. TAYLOR RAPP - Washington (6’0”, 202)
Will be limited to an in-the-box/two-high role at the next level, but Rapp still brings plenty of value. A sound of a tackler, Rapp loves contact and is at his best coming downhill. Can be trusted to blanket tight ends and running backs and work underneath zones in coverage.
Things will get hairy against shiftier slot receivers due to some stiffness in his hips. Rapp has excellent short area explosion despite taking an extra beat to pop out of his stance, which projects well to covering tight ends. Excellent in pursuit with solid angles that set him up for success. Reliable piece that will excel if not asked to play out of his comfort zone too frequently.
Washington safety Taylor Rapp's closing speed ♂️ pic.twitter.com/ITwLG3gHbk— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) November 3, 2018
Summary: Eventual starting strong safety with box/two-high roles. Should excel on special teams.
Grade: 64.8 (Mid-3rd Round)
Rounding Out the Group…
Utah’s Marquise Blair has incredible tools but they’re scattered all over the garage. He’ll need to land with the right coaching staff to form a coherent toolbox. Physical presence that would do well to play under more control.
Virginia’s Juan Thornhill has a ton of ball production and just missed out of the main group. He graded out pretty evenly across the board and can start sooner than later. Combine will be important but film shows a prospect with just enough range to play single-high.
Iowa’s Amani Hooker, the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year, is an extremely smart player with questions about his athleticism. Not unlike Desmond King, if you allow Hooker to play hook zones and underneath areas, he’ll be a solid plug-and-play piece. Teams got hung up on King’s slow 40-yard dash and size but ignored his solid explosion testing, leading him to inexplicably dropping to the fifth round. Is Hooker as good as King? I don’t believe so, but I wouldn’t bet against him making a similar impact.
Iowa $ Amani Hooker - good processing on this play reading through to the QB and undercutting for the INT. Smart player & Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year - pic.twitter.com/VKDcMnc6CF— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) February 2, 2019
Mississippi State’s Johnathan Abram is a pure box safety with too much inconsistency in coverage/tackling but can bring some thump. Developmental project.
Boston College’s Will Harris doesn’t have any stand out traits. If he sticks on a roster can develop into a reliable depth piece in time.