Scouting the Draft: Safeties

After four safeties went in the first round last year, the top-end talent isn't nearly as deep in this year's draft. Perhaps only seven will go in the first three rounds.

In Part 17 of our Green Bay Packers draft preview, we examine the safeties.

PACKERS AREA OF NEED (1 TO 10)

Four: The Packers have their starting tandem set with Morgan Burnett and HaHa Clinton-Dix. Burnett had a big bounce-back season with a team-high 125 tackles. His resurgence was sparked by the addition of first-round pick Clinton-Dix, who finished second on the team with 95 tackles even though he was a part-time player to start the season. They each had one interception in the regular season but combined for three in the playoffs.

Sean Richardson, a restricted free agent, was retained at the ritzy price of $2.55 million. With that big of an investment, expect him to be used more on defense — potentially in a dime “linebacker” role that mimics how the Cardinals used their 2014 top pick, Deone Bucannon. Chris Banjo returns, too.

IT’S WORTH NOTING

At cornerback, general manager Ted Thompson hasn’t drafted a player shorter than 5-foot-11. He might have a bit more tolerance at safety. In 2005, he took Marviel Underwood (5-foot-10 1/4). Banjo, who was signed before camp in 2013, measured in at 5-foot-9 3/4 at SMU’s pro day in 2012. Of the five safeties drafted since Underwood, four were at least 6-foot 3/4 and the fifth, Jerron McMillian, was 5-foot-11 1/8. Culver, a with a 40-yard time of 4.62, was the only safety slower than 4.58.

From a league-wide perspective, four safeties were taken in the first round last year. This year, only one will go in the first and maybe just two in the first two rounds. That is, unless Utah’s Eric Rowe, LSU’s Jalen Collins and Connecticut’s Byron Jones wind up safety rather than cornerback. They rank third, fourth and fifth on this year’s safety board, according to rankings provided by the league’s head scout, Dave-Te’ Thomas. Rowe and Jones were starting safeties before moving to corner later in their careers.

THOMPSON’S SUCCESS RATE

It’s kind of been all-or-nothing. Nick Collins was a star, Burnett’s rebound was a positive development and Clinton-Dix looks like a quality starter. On the other hand, there’s Underwood, Culver, Aaron Rouse and McMillian.

ROUND 1

Landon Collins, Alabama (6-0, 228; 4.53): Collins is the latest high-profile safety from Alabama and is considered a better prospect than Clinton-Dix. He’s bigger, faster and more explosive than Clinton-Dix. In his lone season as a full-time starter, the true junior and former five-star recruit led the team with 103 tackles and three interceptions, with 4.5 tackles for losses and seven pass breakups. He was a consensus first-team All-American and a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Award, which goes to the nation’s top defensive player. He was second-team all-SEC as a sophomore, even while starting six games at safety and three at dime.

“He reminds me a little bit of Deone Bucannon last year who went late to Arizona,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “I love the way Arizona used him, which was kind of a strong safety in their base coverage, and then dime linebacker in their nickel and dime, big enough to take on a run but certainly quick and athletic enough to cover running backs and tight ends, and that's what I see with Landon Collins.”

Collins is the rare combination of run-stopping acumen and centerfield skills. He led all major-college defenders with 10 touchdown-saving tackles coming out of his area.

“With the pro safety positions becoming increasingly interchangeable, Collins is a nice fit for either position, as he is a physical tackler when attacking inside the box but also has the backpedal skills and mirror ability to stay tight on the hip of receivers playing in the deep zone area,” reads part of Thomas’ scouting report. “The field general’s range was evident, as he not only led the team in interceptions but also paced the Tide in tackles.”


CLICK HERE FOR THE FULL SCOUTING REPORTS from the NFL’s head scout, Dave-Te’ Thomas.


ROUNDS 2-3

Shaq Thompson, Washington (6-0, 228; 4.64): How’s this for a stat line for the “running backer”: 81 tackles, five passes defensed, three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries on defense, and 61 rushes for 456 yards (7.5 average) on offense. Thompson scored six touchdowns, two as a running back and four on defense (one interception return and three fumble returns). Thompson has told scouts he wants to line up at linebacker but he seems far too small for what the Packers have done under Dom Capers. Then again, Julius Peppers seemed a square peg in a round hole upon his signing. Thompson’s best fit might be in the role the Cardinals created for Bucannon — part safety, part linebacker. His versatility should be an asset rather than a curse.

“Thoughts for moving Thompson to the defensive backfield in the NFL is perhaps due to his incredible foot speed and ability to keep plays in front of him, as he has drawn lots of comparisons to former Dallas great Darren Woodson from scouts that covet him as a strong safety,” reads his scouting report. “The junior has that rare speed and acceleration (for a linebacker) to close in a hurry and the range to run sideline-to-sideline. With his high motor, he is explosive getting through trash to cut off the outside runners.”

Damarious Randall, Arizona State (5-11, 196; 4.46): Randall earned some All-American honors during a senior season in which he tallied 106 tackles, two forced fumbles and three interceptions. His 85 solo stops rank fourth in school history. Randall hoped to follow his brother’s path in professional baseball but a sore shoulder had him exploring his options. He picked off 15 passes in four seasons and was the quarterback of the defense.

“Randall has the closing burst you look for in a speedy free safety,” reads his scouting report. “He plants and drives quickly and is at his best closing on the ball in front of him. He makes up ground when the ball is in the air and displays very quick feet. I would not consider him ideally fluid as a cornerback, but his coverage skills are better than average for the safety position.”

Jaquiski Tartt, Samford (6-1, 221; 4.53): Tartt earned FCS All-American honors for a third consecutive season. As a senior, Tartt was second on the team with 62 tackles, including 53 solo stops, and one interception. That ran his career total to 277 tackles (199 solo) and six interceptions. He was the first player in school history tabbed for the Senior Bowl. It was an impressive career for a player who didn’t start playing football until his senior year of high school.

“Jaquiski Tartt is a big, strong, tough kid from a non-Division 1 school who I was impressed with his movement skills at the Senior Bowl,” Mayock said. “He's a big 220-pound safety that moves better than I thought.”

In his biography, Thomas noted that Tartt allowed just 12 receptions as a senior, with the 1.62 yards allowed per target leading all starting defensive backs on the collegiate level.

Said the Senior Bowl’s Phil Savage, a former NFL general manager and scout: “He has outstanding size, showed up around the football and certainly has the athletic upside to be a potential starter in the league at some point in the future.”


CLICK HERE FOR THE FULL SCOUTING REPORTS from the NFL’s head scout, Dave-Te’ Thomas.


James Sample, Louisville (6-2, 209; 4.56): After two injury-plagued seasons at Washington and a season at a junior college (in which he didn’t play football), Sample was a hit at Louisville. Sample made up for close to three years of inactivity by leading the team with 90 tackles, picking off four passes and deflecting eight others on the way to earning All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors.

“Sample is a very productive run support defender with the size and power base to deliver pop on contact,” reads his scouting report. “He is a tough player with good top-end speed to close on plays in front of him. He has the body control and proper pad level to string plays wide and enough agility to redirect and neutralize the cutback lanes. He shows no hesitation coming up to fill the rush lanes and shows good urgency making plays along the line. His weakness is exposed in pass coverage. While he has a smooth backpedal, he is high in transition and has enough hip stiffness to cause him to struggle when trying to quickly turn and run on the ball.”

Derron Smith, Fresno State (5-10, 200; 4.61): Smith had 93 tackles and just one interception as a senior; he entered the season leading all active FBS performers with 14 picks but didn’t get much action as quarterbacks mostly avoided him by attacking the rest of a weak defense. Smith had an incredible junior season with seven interceptions, eight tackles for losses and four sacks. Not bad for a player who received only one scholarship offer because he was deemed too small.

“I like his ball skills,” Mayock said. “He's more of a centerfielder, catches the ball well, tracks it well, good feet, good movement skills, will tackle. The only downsize is his size. That worries me both from a tackling situation and also matching up with tight ends.”

He’s not just a ballhawk. Smith ranks second among this year’s defensive backs with 221 solo tackles.

“Where Smith truly stands out is with his quick ball-reaction skills, evident by 33 passes defended during his career (18 break-ups, 15 thefts),” reads his scouting report. “He has a good forward burst to close, whether in front of him or moving laterally, but just average ability to close ground and catch up when the play gets behind him. He demonstrates good range off the hash, along with the quickness to close on the ball when working underneath.”

Adrian Amos, Penn State (6-1, 218; 4.56): The versatile defender was a three-year starter — at cornerback as a sophomore, corner and safety as a junior and safety as a senior. He was honorable mention all-Big Ten as a senior with his 42 tackles and a team-leading three interceptions and 10 passes defensed.

“Amos is equally effective vs. the run and pass and that versatile skill-set, with his ability to handle man coverage assignments, in addition to stepping up with force playing in the box makes him one of the more polished underneath zone defenders in this draft class,” reads his scouting report. “He does a very good job of reading the quarterback, showing balance to level off and anticipate the pass. Amos has that “linebacker mentality,” as he can come up quickly on perimeter run support and is an all-out battler when trying to get through the stalk-block, as his 21 reps in the 225-pound bench press prove that he has good strength and can set the edge.“

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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