We continue our position-by-position preview of the NFL Draft with the safeties.
This is not an immediate need for the Green Bay Packers, who will have another season with Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix as the starting pair. However, versatile backup Micah Hyde left in free agency and Burnett is entering his final season under contract. With two promising undrafted free agents, Kentrell Brice and Marwin Evans, on the roster, general manager Ted Thompson might feel like he’s got the shelves stocked. If not, he will find plenty of talent in this draft class — including some safeties with slot-coverage experience.
History might be an important guide. Thompson has drafted seven safeties. They have averaged a 4.56 in the 40 and a 4.17 in the 20-yard shuttle. Tyrone Culver (2006) ran the slowest shuttle at 4.35; everyone else was 4.22 or faster. Size matters, too. Marviel Underwood (2005) is the shortest defensive back ever drafted by Thompson at 5-foot-10 1/4. Green Bay prefers well-rounded safeties rather than just the traditional strong or free safety.
With that as a backdrop, here are our top 19 prospects. Times slower than 4.65 in the 40 and 4.35 in the shuttle were discarded from the top part of our rankings.
Note: Run-stop percentage, tackling efficiency and pass-coverage numbers are from ProFootballFocus.com’s Draft Pass. Run-stop percentage measures impact tackles (less than 40 percent of needed yardage on first down, less than 60 percent on second down and short of the line to gain on third and fourth down). Tackling efficiency measures attempts per missed tackle. The rankings used in this story are based on the top 18 prospects (Pro Football Focus does not have data for one small-school player), plus four other top players who might be eliminated based on testing.
Jamal Adams, LSU (5-11 3/4, 214; 4.56 40; 4.13 shuttle; 6.96 3-cone; 31.5 vertical): Junior. Adams was honored after each of his three seasons: freshman All-American, second-team all-SEC as a sophomore and first-team all-conference and All-America as a junior. In 2016, he had 76 tackles, including one sack and 7.5 for losses, plus four passes defensed, one interception and one forced fumble. He is without a doubt the best all-around safety in this class, which is why he could go in the top 10 picks. According to PFF, Adams ranked eighth in run-stop percentage and tackling efficiency (seven misses). In coverage, he allowed a 51.3 percent completion rate and a 68.6 passer rating. Adams had a career-high four interceptions as a sophomore. Adams led the secondary in tackles as a freshman even though he only started two games. Adams hits hard — always has. “Dad taught me to play aggressive. I was always flying around the ball. I got kicked out of a lot of leagues because I hit so hard.” He is the son of George Adams, a running back selected by the Giants in the first round in 1985.
Malik Hooker, Ohio State (6-1, 206; DNP testing due to labrum surgery): Redshirt sophomore. Hooker was a first-team All-American during a breakout season in which he intercepted seven passes — including a FBS-high three for touchdowns. He added 74 tackles, 5.5 tackles for losses and four passes defensed all while playing through a torn labrum and hernia that required surgeries that prevented him from going through testing. Hooker is the best coverage safety in the draft. He allowed a 56.1 percent completion rate and 41.4 rating. He didn’t do much at the line of scrimmage (16th in run-stop percentage) and was a horrible tackler (18th with 13 misses). Missed tackles at safety in the NFL can turn into six points. He really only played one season so the hope is he can grow into a more efficient tackler while keeping the big-play barrage. He’ll need to get stronger, too, with the fewest bench-press reps among safeties at the Combine. Hooker was considered a Division I basketball prospect before he joined the football team at New Castle (Pa.) High School for his junior year. Early in his time at Ohio State, Hooker asked himself two huge questions: Do I love football? Should I quit Ohio State and pursue basketball? He’s got enormous hands — 10 3/4 inches; only one other defensive back at the Combine had hands of more than 10 inches.
Jabrill Peppers, Michigan (5-10 7/8, 213; 4.46 40; 4.11 shuttle; 6.99 3-cone; 35.5 vertical): Junior. Peppers did almost everything at Michigan. During his final season, Peppers finished fifth in Heisman Trophy voting and won the Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player and the Lott IMPACT Trophy. He was a unanimous first-team All-American and incredibly became the first player in Big Ten history to win three individual awards — Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year, Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year and Rodgers-Dwight Return Specialist of the Year. On defense, he had 72 tackles, four sacks, 16 tackles for losses, one forced fumble and one interception. Impressively, he ranked fifth in run-stop percentage and ninth in tackling efficiency (six misses). Peppers yielded a 74.1 percent completion rate and an 80.2 rating. On special teams, he averaged 26.0 yards per kickoff return and 14.8 yards per punt return with one touchdown. On offense, he carried 27 times for 167 yards (6.2 average) and three touchdowns. Versatility and athleticism are obvious strengths. However, critically, Peppers intercepted only one pass in his three seasons. He’s got a lot to learn but is sort of a blank slate. It’s easy to see him playing the Hyde role as a rookie while being a starter-in-waiting as he develops. The Packers love shuttle times and Peppers’ shuttle was the second-fastest among our safeties. He certainly can’t play linebacker on a regular basis in the NFL and he might be too short to play safety. When Peppers was 7, his father was sent to prison. When he was 14, his brother was shot to death. In high school, he became only the second boy to win both the 100 and 200 meters at the New Jersey state meet in consecutive years. On Monday, it was reported Peppers will enter the NFL's drug-testing program after he tested positive for a diluted urine sample at the Scouting Combine.
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Marcus Williams, Utah (6-0 5/8, 202; 4.56 40; 4.20 shuttle; 6.85 3-cone; 43.5 vertical): Junior. Williams started 30 games in three seasons. As a sophomore, he was first-team all-conference with five interceptions, five pass breakups and 66 tackles. As a junior, he was second-team all-conference with five interceptions, two forced fumbles, three breakups and 64 tackles. Williams ranked 14th in run-stop percentage but fifth in tackling efficiency (five misses). Quarterbacks didn’t throw his way often and they didn’t have much success when they did, with 46.7 percent accuracy and a 53.5 rating. His three-year totals were 188 tackles, 11 interceptions and four forced fumbles. He’ll need to get stronger and add some bulk to deal with physical play. But athleticism is not an issue. While out recruiting, a Utah coach became sold on Williams after he watched him dunk over three defenders. That showed up in that 43 1/2-inch vertical. He posted the fifth-fastest shuttle.
Marcus Maye, Florida (6-0, 210; 4.50 40; 4.25 shuttle; 7.10 3-cone; 33.5 vertical): Coming off first-team All-America honors as a junior, huge things were expected out of Maye in 2016. However, he sustained a broken arm in a November game against South Carolina. In nine games, he had 50 tackles, one interception and six breakups. Statistically, he is the best tackler in this class with just one missed tackle. He ranked 10th in run-stop percentage while allowing a 31.6 completion percentage and 50.3 passer rating. Those numbers pale to his junior-year production of 82 tackles, two interceptions, five forced fumbles and six breakups, when he impressed the coaches by playing safety and linebacker. As a senior, he allowed one touchdown pass; he yielded four in each of the previous two seasons. While he put up good coverage numbers at Florida and occasionally worked in the slot, he’s probably better suited for action at the line of scrimmage. In that regard, he sounds a bit like Burnett — an intelligent combo safety who is better at the line of scrimmage than when in coverage. From the get-go, he’d probably feel at home as the dime linebacker.
Obi Melifonwu, Connecticut (6-3 7/8, 224; 4.40 40; 4.30 shuttle; 7.03 3-cone; 44 vertical): Melifonwu is pure projection based on his outrageous combination of height, speed and explosion. He was a four-year starter who finished his career with a bang by posting 128 tackles and four interceptions. That includes a 24-tackle game against Tulane. He ranked ninth in run-stop percentage and sixth in tackling efficiency (nine misses). For a big guy, he plays well in space — as shown by the tackling numbers. But for a player with his size and range, his coverage numbers are disappointing (71.4 percent, 88.5 rating). There’s talk of him playing corner; at the very least, he’d be a matchup guy against tight ends. For a 48-game career, Melifonwu piled up 351 tackles, 11 tackles for losses, two forced fumbles and eight interceptions. Melifonwu’s parents are from Nigeria and Henry William Obiajulu Melifonwu was born in London. He was a 1,400-yard rusher in high school.
Josh Jones, N.C. State (6-1 3/8, 220; 4.41 40; 4.32 shuttle; 7.05 3-cone; 37.5 vertical): Junior. After a self-described “bad year,” Jones posted big numbers — 109 tackles, 3.5 tackles for losses, three interceptions, eight pass breakups and one forced fumble — in his final season. Jones was an all-around impact performer. He ranked second-in run-stop percentage and 11th in tackling efficiency (13 misses), and yielded a 54.3 percent completion rate and a 50.0 passer rating. In three seasons, he posted 229 tackles, eight interceptions, 17 pass breakups and three forced fumbles. That includes four interceptions as a freshman, when he was a Freshman All-American. He led the Combine safeties with 20 reps on the bench but his so-so times in the shuttle and three-cone drill could portend issues in coverage and in space.
John Johnson, Boston College (6-0 1/2, 208; 4.61 40; 4.18 shuttle; 6.72 3-cone; 37 vertical): Johnson was a two-year starter who turned in back-to-back seasons of three interceptions. As a senior, he had 77 tackles, including 2.5 for losses, and broke up nine passes with one forced fumble. He was an all-around impact player at safety and in the slot, as he finished 12th in run-stop percentage and second in tackling efficiency (five misses). In coverage, he allowed a 65.9 percent completion rate and a 97 passer rating. As a junior, when he finished the season at cornerback, he had 63 tackles, three pass breakups, two forced fumbles and one blocked kick. While he didn’t run a good 40, his three-cone time was tied for the fastest in our safety group and posted the fifth-fastest shuttle. The combination of above-average production, intelligence and versatility offer an easy comparison to Hyde. He’s also been an ace on special teams.
Xavier Woods, Louisiana Tech (5-11 1/8, 197; 4.54 40; 4.13 shuttle; 6.72 3-cone; 33.5 vertical): Woods led Conference USA and tied for 13th in the nation with five interceptions. A weapon at safety and in the slot, he ranked second on the team with 89 tackles and added 6.5 tackles for losses, six pass breakups, three sacks and one forced fumble. Woods ranked 15th in run-stop percentage and 10th in tackling (10 misses). Quarterbacks completed 57.8 percent with a 60.4 rating. He tied for fourth among active FBS players with 14 career interceptions. Like Hyde, Woods has shown a nose for the ball and the quarterback as a blitzer. He also forced six fumbles. Woods tied for the fastest three-cone drill and the third-fastest shuttle. He is small and has the shortest arms in our group of safeties. With that, he might never be a full-time starting safety but he could be close to a full-time player.
Delano Hill, Michigan (6-1, 216; 4.47 40; 4.27 shuttle; 6.96 3-cone; 33.5 vertical): Hill was a two-year starter, including as a senior, when he was second-team all-Big Ten. All three career interceptions came as a senior, when he added 52 tackles, 4.5 tackles for losses, three passes defensed and one forced fumble. Hill ranked 13th in run-stop percentage but third in tackling efficiency with only four misses. In coverage, he allowed 56.4 percent accuracy and a 62.6 rating. Hill tested better than the production showed. He can run with receivers but lacks the ability to close in a flash. As a sophomore, he missed the start of the season with a broken jaw and was suspended for one game. Younger brother Lavert Hill, a cornerback, just completed his freshman season at Michigan
Justin Evans, Texas A&M (5-11 5/8, 199; 4.57 40; DNP shuttle; DNP 3-cone; 41.5 vertical): The junior-college transfer started for both seasons at A&M. After a solid junior campaign of 78 tackles and one interception, he emerged as a senior as an all-around playmaker. He tallied 87 tackles, including five for losses, intercepted four passes, broke up eight, blocked one kick and averaged 28.5 yards on kickoff returns. Evans is at home in a center-field role. He ranked 18th in run-stop percentage and a woeful 20th in tackling efficiency (an unsightly 23 misses). Adding weight and strength would help his tackling, as would a year with a position coach to hone his fundamentals and curtail his go-for-the-big-hit mentality. That’s why he ranks so far down our list. However, he allowed a 59.6 percent completion rate and a 53.1 rating because he’s got great range and jumping skills to erase should-be completions. Simply, the Packers value two-way safeties and Evans is not that kind of player. Evans was viewed as more of a prospect in baseball, with a 90-plus-mph fastball.
Chuck Clark, Virginia Tech (6-0, 208; 4.54 40; 4.07 shuttle; 6.85 3-cone; 34 vertical): Clark was a three-year, do-it-all starter in the Hokies’ secondary. As a senior, he had 94 tackles, including 2.5 for losses, with two passes defensed and one forced fumble. Clark ranked seventh in run-stop percentage and 12th in tackling efficiency (11 misses). Clark statistically was more productive as a junior, when he had 107 tackles, including three sacks and 10 for losses, plus one interception and eight passes defensed. As a sophomore, he had one interception, 11 passes defensed and 8.5 TFLs. Clark’s coverage numbers got worse throughout his career: 65.5 percent and a 120.0 passer rating as a senior, 59.6 and 95.2 as a junior and 44.4 percent and 66.6 as a sophomore. That he only got his hands on two passes as an experienced senior probably isn’t a good sign. Still, his versatility gives him a chance to serve in a Hyde-type role. Also of note, the Packers love shuttle times and Clark ran the fastest among the safeties.
Eddie Jackson, Alabama (6-0 3/8, 201; DNP 40, shuttle, 3-cone due to broken leg; 36 vertical): Jackson intercepted 10 passes during his four seasons. Jackson moved from cornerback to safety as a junior and responded with six interceptions and 46 tackles. His school-record 230 yards of interception returns included two for touchdowns. Big things were in store for his senior season but he suffered a broken leg against Texas A&M in October. In eight games, he had one interception — a pick-six — and two more touchdowns with a 23.0-yard average on 11 punt returns. Jackson ranked only 21st in run-stop percentage and 16th in tackling efficiency (four misses). In coverage, he allowed a 63.6 percent completion rate and a meager 38.8 rating. As a sophomore, he suffered a torn ACL in spring practice but still wound up starting 11 games. He’s still relatively new to the game, having played wide receiver in his only year of high school football. Big-play production from a big-time program will get a player drafted early. Big-time injuries and big-time tackling issues will make a player slide.
Montae Nicholson, Michigan State (6-2 3/8, 212; 4.42 40; DNP shuttle; DNP 3-cone; 35 vertical): Junior. Nicholson started as a sophomore and junior with similar production in both seasons — 83 tackles, 2.5 tackles for losses, one forced fumble, three interceptions and two pass breakups in 2015; 86 tackles, two tackles for losses, one interception and two pass breakups in 2016. Nicholson ranked 11th in run-stop percentage but 17th in tackling efficiency (14 misses). That’s too many missed tackles for a player his size. He wasn’t great in coverage, with a 58.6 completion rate and 83.0 passer rating. He’s got great size, length (33 3/8-incn arms) and athleticism, having placed sixth in the long jump at the Big Ten indoor meet in 2015. However, while he skipped the agility drills due to a torn labrum that was repaired via surgery in March, he probably wouldn’t have fared well in them.
Rayshawn Jenkins, Miami (6-1, 214; 45.1 40; 4.19 shuttle; 6.95 3-cone; 37 vertical): Jenkins started for three seasons. He had three interceptions as a sophomore in 2013 but sat out all of 2014 following back surgery. Jenkins returned to intercept three passes as a junior and earned honorable-mention all-ACC as a senior with two interception, 76 tackles and seven passes defensed. Jenkins finished 17th in run-stop percentage and 19th in tackling efficiency (15 misses). Those numbers don’t speak fully to the strength of his game: Jenkins is a big-time hitter with the agility to develop into an all-around safety. In 2013, he changed his number to No. 26 to honor the late Sean Taylor. He is one of 16 — 16! — children.
Jadar Johnson, Clemson (6-0 3/8, 206; 4.60 40; 4.20 shuttle; 6.90 3-cone; 33 vertical): Johnson didn’t start until he was a senior but made that season count, posting 61 tackles, five interceptions, two forced fumbles and seven passes defensed to earn first-team all-ACC honors He had nine interceptions in his career. He is much better in coverage (54.5 percent accuracy and 47.1 rating) than at the line of scrimmage (dead-last 22nd in both run-stop percentage and tackling efficiency, where he missed 15 tackles). The lack of big-time speed and the lack of tackling ability push this ballhawk down our board.
Damarius Travis, Minnesota (6-1, 206; 4.61 40; 4.28 shuttle; 7.08 3-cone; 33 vertical): Dealing with the bitter cold of Minneapolis is hard for anyone, let alone someone from Pensacola, Fla. But that was nothing compared to dealing with what happened in 2015. In the opening game of that season, with the NFL on Travis’ radar, he suffered a season-ending hamstring injury. He returned in 2016 with a team-high 83 tackles, two interceptions, four pass breakups and five tackles for losses. He ranked sixth in run-stop percentage and 14th in tackling (15 misses). More quick than fast, he’s a better player at the line of scrimmage or in the slot. Travis was part of Pensacola (Fla.) High School’s 2009 state championship team that included Damarious Randall.
Shalom Luani, Washington State (5-11 3/8; 4.55 40; 4.21 shuttle; 6.87 3-cone; 31 vertical): The junior-college transfer posted a pair of all-Pac-12 seasons. He intercepted four passes in each of those seasons. As a senior, he added 68 tackles, 8.5 tackles for losses, six pass breakups and once forced fumble. Luani ranked fourth in run-stop percentage but 21st in tackling efficiency (20 misses). Luani was born in Pago Pago, American Samoa, and is one of five children. Before there was football, he was a standout in soccer. He scored during American Samoa’s first FIFA-sanctioned win — the game-winner in a World Cup qualifier against Tonga in November 2011. He was 17. He scored again in another victory, an incredible feat considering the country had a 30-match losing streak.
David Jones, Richmond (6-1 1/8, 205; 4.43 40; 4.32 shuttle; 7.31 3-cone; 34 vertical): Jones got himself squarely on the map as a junior. Yeah, it’s FCS but nine interceptions are nine interceptions. As a senior, he played in on y six of 14 games due to a broken arm — the second injury to that arm — and had 29 tackles and two interceptions. PFF does not keep stats for small-school players. His height, athleticism and production make him an interesting late-round play.
Potentially off the board
Washington’s Budda Baker (5-9 5/8) and Iowa’s Desmond King (5-10) automatically are off the board because of height, as is St. Francis’ Lorenzo Jerome, because he tested so poorly. None of those three were used in our Pro Football Focus stat rankings. Colorado’s Tedric Thompson (4.36 shuttle), Nebraska’s Nathan Gerry (4.37 shuttle), Louisville’s Josh Harvey-Clemons (4.59) and Miami’s Jamal Carter (4.49) might be off the board because of their shuttle times. Thompson and Gerry posted shuttle times faster than the undrafted Brice, though Brice blew them away in the 40 (4.44) and vertical (42), so perhaps there’s some give-and-take for exceptional vs. subpart test results. We will include the last four from this list below. They were used in our PFF stat comparisons.
Tedric Thompson, Colorado (6-0, 204; 4.60 40; 4.36 shuttle; 7.11 3-cone; 32.5 vertical): Thompson tied for third in the nation with seven interceptions and tied for first with 23 passes defensed. He added 63 tackles, including three for losses. All that got him was second-team all-Pac-12. Thompson ranked 20th in run-stop percentage and 16th in tackling efficiency (11 misses) but showed better-than-the-stopwatch range by allowing a 40.0 percent completion rate and 21.3 rating. Thompson picked off three passes as both a sophomore and junior and finished with 13 career interceptions. Thompson feared his career might be over after suffering a season-ending concussion in 2014. An older brother, Cedric, played safety for Minnesota and was drafted in the fifth round by Miami in 2015.
Nathan Gerry, Nebraska (6-2, 218; 4.58 40; 4.37 shuttle; 7.14 3-cone; 30.5 vertical): Gerry’s career ended with a bang. And a thud. As a senior, Gerry capped a tremendous run at Nebraska by being named an All-American and first-team all-Big Ten. He posted 74 tackles, including seven for losses, four interceptions and eight passes defensed. He was a three-time all-Big Ten pick who finished his career with 13 interceptions, 19 passes defensed, three forced fumbles and 273 tackles. The 13 picks were one shy of the school record. However, he was academically ineligible for his final game, the Music City Bowl. He also was suspended for the opening game. For his final season, Gerry ranked first in run-stop percentage and seventh in tackling efficiency (seven misses). In coverage, he allowed a 66.7 percent completion rate and a 70.7 rating. He wins on smarts and instincts rather than athleticism.
Jamal Carter, Miami (6-0 7/8, 218; 4.64 40; 4.49 shuttle; 7.15 3-cone; 35 vertical): Carter went from key reserve and one of the team leaders in tackles as a junior to starter as a senior. He tallied 85 tackles (one sack, one tackle for loss) and three passes defensed. Carter ranked 19th in run-stop percentage but fourth in tackling efficiency (six misses). In four seasons, he intercepted two passes and didn’t force a fumble.
Josh Harvey-Clemons, Louisville (6-4, 217; 4.75 40; 4.59 shuttle; 7.09 3-cone; 31.5 vertical): Harvey-Clemons started 11 games as a sophomore at Georgia in 2014. But that accomplishment was lost in the dark shadow of his role in Auburn’s miracle 73-yard touchdown during a late-season showdown. It only got worse with a suspension from the following bowl game and, eventually, being dismissed from the team. Forced to sit out the 2014 season due to NCAA transfer rules, Harvey-Clemons learned about hard work in the “real world.” After the transfer, Harvey-Clemons started for two seasons. As a senior, he had 61 tackles, including two sacks and four for losses, and two passes defensed. He ranked third in run-stop percentage and ninth in tackling efficiency (six misses). Harvey-Clemons picked off three passes as a junior. With his size and length (35 3/8 arms), he might project as a dime linebacker but his shuttle time wouldn’t match Green Bay’s history at linebacker. Our best guess is he would not be a consideration but we kept him here for the sake of this discussion.
The bottom line
The Packers, like many teams, prefer two-way safeties rather than free safeties and strong safeties. This is a strong group, with Peppers, John Johnson, Woods, Hill, Clark and Travis having ample slot experience. Ultimately, Thompson’s decision to draft (or not draft) a safety will speak volumes about the future of Burnett and what he thinks about Brice and Evans.
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Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.