With the NFL Draft process well underway, there is a much clearer picture of the 2023 class than there was even a month ago. With exhibition games and the Combine now in the past, it is easier to build a full profile of this year’s prospects. This safety class may not have the stacked, top end talent of years passed, but it has quite one really good prospect and a few decent players who could contribute early in their careers.
1) Brian Branch, Alabama
Brian Branch wins with a rare set of football instincts. If there’s anything to be learned from recent years, it is “draft the safety that Nick Saban gives the most responsibilities.” Following in the footsteps of Minkah Fitzpatrick and Xavier McKinney, Brian Branch lined up everywhere for the Crimson Tide. Deep safety, slot cornerback, nickel linebacker… wherever Branch played, he played at a high level. He has a veteran feel for the game that allows him to diagnose plays beautifully and flow to the ball. He will make an instant impact on an NFL defense wherever he is lined up.
Brian Branch can take a leap by… Well there are not many holes in Branch’s game. He is a fine, not great athlete which means he will need to be perfect in his reads more often than not. He might be used less as a single high safety if his instincts can’t overtake his athleticism to give him functional range in an NFL defense. That being said, he should be very good very early in his career.
NFL Comparison: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Pittsburgh Steelers
2) Christopher Smith II, Georgia
Christopher Smith II wins with a great feel for the game and a fearless playing style. With all the flashy, great players on the Georgia defense, Christopher Smith served as a steady contributor who quietly held the unit together. He did a great job with back end coverage, remaining disciplined. As a run defender, Smith is happy to come into a lane and take a ball carrier down. He packs a lot of punch for a smaller safety.
Christopher Smith II can take a leap by finding a role that mitigates his athletic shortcomings. Smith is smaller and slower at the position. That makes him tough to bet on, but he did such a great job in UGA’s defense that it’s hard not to believe in him. He could be a great slot defender in the NFL or play deep down the field in some teams. Fit will be crucial for him.
NFL Comparison: Jimmie Ward, San Francisco 49ers
3) Sydney Brown, Illinois
Sydney Brown wins with great athleticism, physicality and a knack for the ball. While Chase Brown starred in Illinois’ offense running the football, his brother Sydney was their defensive playmaker. Sydney Brown plays safety at 100 MPH, constantly making plays around the ball. He bullies receivers in coverage and knocks down ball carriers with ease. He has a muscled up frame that he uses like a bowling ball on defense, just crashing down lanes and taking down running backs. He is an exciting defender that always seems to be making a play.
Sydney Brown can take a leap by tempering his aggressive playing style,a bit. Brown’s play can be described a bit as “all or nothing.” Aggressive angles can take him out of plays or lead to poor tackling. He packs a lot of punch, but is still short for an NFL defender. Combining discipline with his athleticism could make him a high impact safety, in more ways than one.
NFL Comparison: TJ Ward, Denver Broncos
4) Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M
Antonio Johnson wins with plus run defense and tone setting physicality. Antonio Johnson lined up everywhere for the Aggies during his career and saw a lot of his success closer to the line of scrimmage. He diagnoses and plays the run like a linebacker, hitting like one too. He has a big frame with long arms and thrives fighting through contact to attack the run. In coverage, he uses his size well to blanket tight ends and receivers in the short and intermediate game.
Antonio Johnson can take a leap by adding a bit more bulk and fully becoming a strong safety. Johnson played lighter at Texas A&M, probably to help him play quicker down the field. At the NFL level, he is just not the type of athlete to thrive in deep coverage. He would benefit from adding a bit more strength and relishing in being a full time box defender. Johnson could be a really special player in a defense that let him lurk down by the line of scrimmage.
NFL Comparison: Eric Reid, San Francisco, 49ers
5) JL Skinner, Boise State
JL Skinner wins with rare size at the position combined with smooth athleticism and good ball skills. JL Skinner has a big, muscular frame at 6’4” and nearly 210 pounds. One look and you’d swear he is a linebacker or a strong safety. Turn on the tape, and Skinner surprises with how well he moves down the field. His speed and instincts made him a high level coverage player for the Broncos. Skinner can come up and use his size to defend against the run, but he does his best work in coverage.
JL Skinner can take a leap by playing more his size. Skinner has a finesse game that is impressive and works well in coverage. He is also a big hitter in space, often punishing receivers who come into his zone. If he can improve working through blocks to make plays against the run, he will be a very well balanced player at the NFL level.
NFL Comparison: George Iloka, Cincinnati Bengals
6) Jordan Battle, Alabama
7) Brandon Joseph, Notre Dame
8) Jammie Robinson, FSU
9) Jartavius Martin, Illinois
10) Marte Mapu, Sacramento State