POSITION OVERVIEW: Safeties used to be the defensive equivalent of offensive guards on draft day. The talent pool would get watered down by the inclusion of big cornerbacks who didn't have the foot speed to play cornerback in the pros and undersized college linebackers viewed as too small to continue playing the position. As a result, the waters got muddy and the value of the position dropped so much that only the rare elite safety made it into the first round of the draft, with the majority of the safeties coming off the board in the third round and beyond. But as the NFL has evolved into a pass-happy league in the last decade, the need for athletic safeties has pushed them into the first two rounds routinely on draft day. The Class of 2013 may take that to the next level. A deep draft class loaded with talent, there could be as many as two or three safeties picked in the first round and six or seven that will likely be off the board by the end of the second round. For teams in the market for a safety, this is a great draft class to choose from and is one of the deepest classes in recent years.
VIKINGS SAFETIES – Harrison Smith, Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond, Robert Blanton, Andrew Sendejo.
VIKINGS NEED – Having traded up in last year's draft to land Smith, the Vikings have bigger needs at other positions that may occupy their three picks in the first two rounds. However, if a player they have highly rated falls to them, it wouldn't be a stunner to see the Vikings pull the trigger on another safety as early as the second or third round.
THE CREAM OF THE CROP
Kenny Vaccaro, Texas, 6-0, 214 – Fourth-year senior…A two-year full-time starter who had 186 tackles, 13 passes defended, four interceptions, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery in that span…Has prototype size and athleticism to jump and battle for the ball…Has very good straight-line speed and closes the gap quickly…Has the best coverage skills of any safety in the draft class…Is very scheme-specific and aware – rarely getting caught out of position or a step late…A solid wrap-up tackler…Is very aggressive and overruns plays too often in run support…Isn't a big-play guy, having just five career interceptions…Lowers his head to deliver the big hit and will leave himself vulnerable to missing tackles…Bites on play-fakes too often…Gets pouty at times and loses focus…Ran a 4.59 at the NFL Scouting Combine with 15 reps of 225 pounds, a 38-inch vertical jump and a 10-1 broad jump. PROJECTION: A heavy-hitting safety who has the speed and ball skills, his combine performance solidified his spot as the top safety on the board, likely landing somewhere in the middle third of the first round.
Matt Elam, Florida, 5-10, 208 – Third-year junior…Two-year starter who had 154 tackles, 12 passes broken up, six interceptions and three forced fumbles in that span…His brother Abraham has played for the Chiefs, Cowboys, Jets and Browns…Had two siblings killed in separate incidents…Was the Gatorade Player of the Year as a high school senior in Florida…Arrested twice on underage alcohol-related offenses…A first team All-America in 2012…Has excellent range and makes plays sideline to sideline…Is strong in run support and drops into the box effectively…Is physical and delivers the highlight-film hit…Has the versatility to play either safety position…Is undersized by NFL standards…Struggles to win on jump balls…Isn't overly impressive in one-on-one coverage…Is overly aggressive and will miss too many tackles when the ball carrier stops and changes directions…Doesn't have ideal range…Ran a 4.46 40 at the combine with 17 reps, a 35½-inch vertical jump and a 9-10 broad jump. PROJECTION: Elam is an aggressive player who has flaws that can be corrected, but the biggest flaw is that he is short for an NFL safety, which may be enough to drop him into the second round.
THE NEXT LEVEL
Eric Reid, LSU, 6-1¼, 213 – Third-year junior…Two-year starter who had 167 tackles, 10 passes broken up, four interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries…An All-American in 2012…Has good size and leaping ability to compete for jump balls…Has long arms and uses them well…Is strong in run support…Has good read-and-react skills…Has good closing speed and can deliver the big hit…Played against elite competition on a weekly basis…Isn't always consistent in coverage and will get out of position with play-fakes and pump-action…Plays out of control at times and picks up too many penalties for being too physical…Isn't a consistent tackler and will slide off receivers too often and allow more yardage after the catch…Wasn't a big-time playmaker – he had just two interceptions in each of his seasons as a starter…Played around talented cornerbacks and didn't need to be a leader on the defense…Ran a 4.53 40 at the combine with 17 reps, a massive 40½-inch vertical jump and an 11-2 broad jump. PROJECTION: There is no questioning that Reid is the most aggressive safety in the draft, which can be a blessing and a curse at the same time. If his talent is harnessed, he could be the best safety in this year's draft class. He has a chance to make it into the first round, but more likely will drop into the second round.
Jonathan Cyprien, Florida International, 6-0¼, 217 – Fourth-year senior…Made starts in 45 of 50 career games, finishing with 365 tackles, 23 passes broken up, seven interceptions, six forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries…An on-field leader…Has the prototype size and attitude to be an NFL safety…Plays physical and is a heavy hitter…Has good ball skills and takes the ball away from receivers with ease…Strong in run support and consistently delivers the big hit…Is dangerous when blitzing…Made a lot of money at the Senior Bowl with a lights-out performance in practices and drills…Too often bites on fakes and misdirection…Doesn't have ideal straight-line speed and could have coverage issues at the next level…Grabs too often in coverage and will draw penalties as a result…Played inferior competition too often…Opens himself up to injury with his violent style of tackling…Didn't run or lift at the combine because of hamstring and pectoral injuries, but he did have a 38½-inch vertical jump. PROJECTION: There are two schools of thought on Cyprien. One has it that his style is so conducive to the NFL that he could end up at the very end of the first round. The other has it that he has a learning curve ahead of him with the jump in competition and will drop him into the second round. Our money says once the second round begins he will be a priority pick.
D.J. Swearinger, South Carolina, 5-10½, 208 – Fourth-year senior…A three-year starter who had 225 tackles, 15 passes broken up, six interceptions, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries…A big-time hitter who brings the wood on every play…A team leader who was a team captain and the motivational leader of the defense…Has a well-built frame and plays with a physical style…Has good field awareness and anticipation and jumps plays at the right time…Is willing and strong in run support…Is undersized by NFL standards…Doesn't have the kind of body that can add much more weight or muscle…Plays a little too tight-hipped to take on slot receivers…Holds onto receivers too often, which will get him called for too many penalties in the NFL…Comes in high on tackles and doesn't consistently wrap up…Doesn't have ideal sideline-to-sideline range…Ran a 4.60 40 at the combine with 17 reps of 225 pounds, a 37-inch vertical jump and a 10-4 broad jump. PROJECTION: A physical, slightly undersized safety who, if he was two inches taller and 10 pounds heavier would be a first-round pick. As it stands, he will be a priority pick in the middle of the second round.
Shamarko Thomas, Syracuse, 5-9, 213 – Fourth-year senior…A two-year full-time starter who had 155 tackles and two interceptions in that span…Has dealt with tragedy in his family…His father was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2010 and his mother died in her sleep in 2011…A workout warrior who is always putting in extra time to make his game better…Has a strong body and is willing and able to help in run support…Drops the heavy shot often and throws his body around…A team leader who led by example…Made a lot of money at the combine with an amazing performance (see below)…Very undersized for NFL safeties…Makes most of his plays near the line and wasn't asked to extend coverage often deep down the field…His style of play lends itself to injuries and he has missed time in three of his four seasons due to injury…Isn't a ball hawk who creates turnovers…Bites way too often on play-fakes and gets himself out of position too often…Ran a sparkling 4.42 40 at the combine with 28 reps, a 40½-inch vertical jump and an 11-1 broad jump. PROJECTION: Once thought to be a late-round pick, his incredible showing at the combine could find him ending up in the middle of Day 2 – proving that a player can see his stock rise meteorically when he brings it in Indianapolis.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Zeke Motta, Notre Dame, 6-2¼, 213 – Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter who had 151 tackles, six passes defensed, two interceptions, one forced fumble and three fumble recoveries in that span…Has excellent size and arm length…Is aggressive in run support and a willing hitter…Has good closing speed…Has an excellent backpedal and can flip in coverage to take a receiver deep down the seam…Hasn't missed a game in his football career from high school to college…Doesn't have sideline-to-sideline range and can be a step late arriving on the deep ball…Thanks to Notre Dame's strong pass rush, he didn't have to hold his coverage very long…Doesn't have great upper body strength (see below)…Not a playmaker – had just two interception in 51 career games and one forced fumble…Tackles too high and will slide off running backs too often…Ran a 4.75 40 at the combine with 11 reps, a 35½-inch vertical jump and a 10-6 broad jump. PROJECTION: A hard-nosed player from an elite program, he doesn't have the skill set of 2012 rookie Harrison Smith, but he is a physical safety who could become a dominant special teams player. Has a decent chance of coming off the board before the end of Day 2.
J.J. Wilcox, Georgia Southern, 6-0, 213 – Fourth-year senior…Played wide receiver his first two seasons and running back in 2011 before switching to safety as a senior – recording 88 tackles, three passes defensed and two interceptions…Has good size, long arms and a strong body…Has good quickness moving laterally to cut off throwing lanes…Has good burst and closing speed on the ball…Attacks in run support and delivers big hits…Has experience as a kick returner…Very limited experience at the position…Didn't face elite competition…Isn't a consistent tackler and takes bad angles at times…Doesn't have ideal straight-line speed…Gets caught out of position because he takes too many chances…Ran a 4.53 40 at the combine with 17 reps, a 35-inch vertical jump and a 10-4 broad jump. PROJECTION: He is looking to be the first GSU player drafted in more than a decade, and thanks to a strong showing at the Senior Bowl he has a chance to come off the board in the early portion of Day 3 of the draft.
Phillip Thomas, Fresno State, 6-0½, 208 – Fifth-year senior…Redshirted in 2008 and had to use a medical redshirt in 2011 when he dislocated and broke his left ankle…A two-year starter who had 148 tackles, 14 passes broken up 11 interceptions and six forced fumbles in that span…First FSU player ever to be named All-American, he was a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to college football's best defensive back…Led the country with eight interceptions last year and brought three of them back for touchdowns…Has excellent awareness and reads the quarterback's eyes well to anticipate plays…Has good straight-line speed and agility…Times his jumps well and breaks up passes….Very productive in creating turnovers…Strong in run support…Wasn't asked to play man-to-man coverage and was exposed at the Senior Bowl…Didn't face elite competition often and will need to adjust to the increased speed from what he is accustomed to…Takes too many gambles because of his confidence in predicting plays and has been burned over the top…Doesn't have the quick-twitch speed to handle slot receivers one on one…Is a solid tackler but not a big hitter…Ran a 4.42 40 at the combine with 14 reps of 225 pounds, a 35-inch vertical jump and a 10-2 broad jump. PROJECTION: Scouts always look for players who have a knack for creating turnovers and nobody did that better last year than Thomas. His lack of elite game speed and inconsistent play at the Senior Bowl didn't help his cause and, at this point, he won't be a coveted prospect until the start of the final day of the draft.
Bacarri Rambo, Georgia, 6-0½, 211 – Fifth-year senior…Three-year starter who had 210 tackles, 12 passes defensed, 14 interceptions, six forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in that span…An All-American as a junior when he led the country in interceptions with eight…Suspended the first four games of the 2012 season after failing an offseason school-administered drug test…Is an ideal zone coverage safety…Jumps routes effectively because he is adept at reading the quarterback's eyes and anticipating passes…A playmaker who wins jump balls and comes down with interceptions when other safeties would look to merely break up passes…Has good acceleration and straight-line speed…Has the size and skill set to play either safety position…Not a major contributor against the run…Isn't a strong wrap-up tackler and allows backs and receivers to shake free too often…Will lose sight of the ball when forced to be on the move on passes over the top…Gets caught up in a crowd and ends up on the ground too often…His suspension will scare off some teams considering the price it cost him heading into his senior season…Did not run or jump at the combine due to a hamstring injury, but did 17 reps of 225 pounds. PROJECTION: Has the natural ability to be a starter in the NFL, but doesn't play with the kind of toughness that most NFL safeties possess and isn't the glass-eater type. Given his suspension for drug use, he could easily fall into the final day of the draft but could be a steal if he's on the board in the fourth or fifth round.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Ray-Ray Armstrong, Miami, 6-3, 222
John Boyett, Oregon, 5-10, 204
Tony Jefferson, Oklahoma, 5-10¾, 213
Robert Lester, Alabama, 6-1¼, 220
T.J. McDonald, USC, 6-2¼, 219
Jamoris Slaugher, Notre Dame, 5-11¾, 195
Daimion Stafford, Nebraska, 5-11¾, 221
Jawanza Starling, USC, 6-0¾, 202
Shaun Williams, Georgia, 6-0, 213
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Position Analysis: Safeties
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