TEAM NEED: It seems like every year the Vikings are looking to upgrade at safety to go along with Smith. At first it was Robert Blanton. Now it’s Sendejo, both of whom were given the starting jobs but always had to look over their shoulders. The team has some decent depth –Harris has played well when injuries forced him into the lineup and Kearse is a huge player who could be used in sub packages. If a player the Vikings believe can be a starter is available in the second or third round, they may jump, but they have the players they need to succeed if Smith stays healthy and continues to play at a Pro Bowl level.
POSITION ANALYSIS: This is a very strong year for the position and could easily see three players come off the board in the first 15 to 20 picks. Malik Hooker and Jamal Adams are likely locks to come off in the first 10 picks and Jabrill Peppers will be a controversial pick whose talent jumps out at you even if he doesn’t often play like a pure safety. The second and third round has consistent talent as well, making this one of the stronger safety classes in recent years.
THE CREAM OF THE CROP
Malik Hooker, Ohio State, 6-1, 206 – Third-year sophomore…One-year starter who had 74 tackles, 11 passes defensed and seven interceptions in 2016…Had two surgeries in January (see below)…Has elite reaction speed, explosive burst and body control…Has sideline-to-sideline range…Has long and huge hands…Has ideal ball skills for a center patrolling safety…Doesn’t always take good pursuit angles and will miss tackles…Only a one-year starter so he still has some nuances to learn…Needs to add some weight to his frame and can add 10 pounds without sacrificing speed…Did not work out at the Combine while recuperating from a Jan. 31 hernia and labrum tear. PROJECTION: An elite safety who is only scratching the surface of his ability, he made not be ready for training camp and might start the year on the PUP list, but his upside is so high he will likely be the first safety off the board in the top five picks or so.
Jamal Adams, LSU, 5-11¾, 214 – Third-year junior…Two-year starter who had 143 tackles, 10 passes defensed, five interceptions, two forced fumble and one fumble recovery in that span…His father, George, was a first-round running back with the Giants in 1985…Is very instinctive and loves blowing up running plays…An ideal blend of size, speed, athleticism and strength in one package…Is an intimidating presence because he will deliver the big hit…Aggressive when the ball is in the air and will fight any receiver for the ball…Is a little smaller than most NFL safeties and had the advantage of playing with some elite cornerbacks…Trusts his instincts too much and will get caught out of position when he bites on fakes…Doesn’t have elite speed and can be a step late arriving to the ball…Ran a 4.56 40 at the Combine with 18 reps of 225 pounds, a 31½-inch vertical jump and a 10-0 broad jump. PROJECTION: A case can be made that Adams should be the No. 1 safety off the board. He has a couple flaws in his game, but the positives are great and he likely will be off the board in the top 10 picks.
THE NEXT LEVEL
Jabrill Peppers, Michigan, 5-11, 213 – Third-year junior…A two-year starter who had 117 tackles, 10 passes broken up and one interception in that span…USA Today Defensive Player of the Year as a high school senior…Won the Hornung Award and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2016…Has excellent field awareness, instincts and closing speed – a dangerous combination…Did just about everything at Michigan, playing safety, cornerback, linebacker, running back, wide receiver and kick returner…Plays with a lot of fire and intensity and is an on-field leader who leads by example…Some will see him as a ’tweener – too small for a linebacker, too big for a safety – but the NFL is morphing into a league that has a spot in certain defenses for that type of player…Despite all his talent and playmaking ability, one career interception can be seen by some as a red flag…Doesn’t have elite speed to cover deep routes to the sideline…Didn’t lift at the Combine, but ran a 4.67 40 with a 33½-inch vertical jump and a 10-1 broad jump. PROJECTION: Anyone who watched Michigan games couldn’t help but notice Peppers. He is a tackling machine and a true intimidator who, in the right scheme, can be used as a safety or a linebacker. He may need the right fit, but he shouldn’t make it out of the first round.
Obi Melifonwu, UConn, 6-4, 224 – Fifth-year senior…Started all 48 games of his college career, finishing with 348 tackles, 16 passes broken up, eight interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries…Was the heaviest of all defensive backs who worked out at the Combine…Looks like a linebacker with his musculature and has a gigantic wingspan that helps him knock passes away…Has good playing speed and will deliver the highlight hit often…Had arguably the best Combine performance of any player who tested, running an impressive 40 time and the best vertical jump and broad jump of any defensive back who tested…Doesn’t have great instincts and often doesn’t react on a deep ball until the pass is thrown…Is raw in terms of coverage skills and will need some refinement to his game…A long strider who needs a couple of steps more than some to get to full speed…Ran a 4.40 40 at the Combine with 17 reps, a 44-inch vertical jump and an 11-9 broad jump. PROJECTION: A unique player who brings massive size and good intangibles to the table. He made a lot of strides in his senior season and will be on a lot of radars when the draft hits the second round.
Marcus Williams, Utah, 6-0¾, 202 – Third-year junior…Two-year starter who had 130 tackles, eight passes broken up, nine interceptions, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries in that span…Will be a 21-year -old rookie…Has very good awareness and football I.Q. and can get quarterbacks to look away from his spot in fear of getting picked off…Is very smooth and fluid in his movements and can change directions with ease…Has good field speed and can cover from sideline to sideline…Is not an intimidator and doesn’t have great strength or explosive pop in his hits over the middle…Is not overly strong in run support…Will lose too many jump balls with big receivers…Ran a 4.56 40 at the Combine with 14 reps of 225 pounds, a 43½-inch vertical jump and a 10-9 broad jump. PROJECTION: More of a finesse player than a big thumper, Williams does a lot of things right and, if he adds 10 pounds of bulk and muscle, he could be a dominant player if coached up right at the next level. A second-round talent.
Budda Baker, Washington, 5-9¾, 195 – Third-year junior…Started all 40 of the career games he played, finishing with 200 tackles, 22 passes broken up, five interceptions and three forced fumbles…Has good speed and burst and can cover a lot of ground in a hurry…Plays bigger than his size and can deliver big hits and take on blockers on his way to the ball…A durable three-year starter in a pass-happy conference that tested his skills week after week…Is undersized and doesn’t have the kind of frame that can add 10 to 15 more pounds without sacrificing speed…Will lose on some contested passes with tall receivers and will get targeted…Doesn’t play with explosion and needs to improve his tackling power and technique…Ran a 4.45 40 at the Combine with 15 reps, a 32½-inch vertical jump and a 9-7 broad jump. PROJECTION: A versatile, undersized player who has developed into a very good college player, his lack of size with be something of a detriment, but he has the ability to be a strong nickel back in the slot and a rangy safety in the deep secondary. He’ll go on Day 2, but where exactly is the subject of debate.
Justin Evans, Texas A&M, 5-11¾, 199 – Fourth-year senior who spent his first two seasons at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College…Started all 25 games he played at A&M, recording 165 tackles, 16 passes defensed and five interceptions…Has good playing speed and can make plays all over the field…Is a fluid mover and has excellent body control and change-of-direction skills…Gets from his spot to the ball quickly and works his way through traffic with relative ease…Doesn’t have ideal safety strength or bulk and doesn’t have the type of body that can simply add 10 pounds of mass or bulk strength…Misses a lot of tackles…Plays a punishing style and, given his size and lack of upper-body strength, it will raise some durability questions…Didn’t run or jump at the Combine with a right quadriceps injury, but did 14 reps of 225 pounds. PROJECTION: An intense, big-play safety who can fit in any scheme, he has all the needed skills to be a very good NFL safety. He could be a guy who goes higher than we have him ranked, which is as a middle to late second-round prospect.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Marcus Maye, Florida, 6-0, 210 – Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter who recorded 194 tackles, 20 passes defensed, four interceptions, seven forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries…Played nine games in 2016 before suffering a season-ending broken arm…Is a strong player with very good instincts who attacks in run support…Good in coverage, whether playing man coverage in the slot at the line of scrimmage or in deep zone coverage…Has very good awareness and has the ability to jump routes and make big plays…Is overaggressive at times and will get lured out of position and either miss plays or commit penalties…Needs to improve his ball skills – he could have had triple the number of interceptions he had if not for drops due to his not being a natural hands catcher…Did not work out at the Combine while rehabbing his broken arm. PROJECTION: Another player who could come off the board on Day 2. In a down year for safeties, he would be rated much higher than this, but this is a stacked class and he makes too many mistakes to checker-jump some of the guys rated ahead of him.
Rayshawn Jenkins, Miami, 6-1, 214 – Fifth-year senior who missed the 2014 season after having surgery to repair a herniated disc…Three-year starter who ended up with 116 tackles, 16 passes broken up and eight interceptions in that span…A very smart player who is committed to his craft, putting in the needed time (and more) on the practice field, weight room and in film study…Has a good combination of size, speed and range…An experienced three-year starter who has refined his instincts and always seems to be heading toward the ball…Doesn’t always play under control because he’s always looking for the blow-up hit at the expense of his fundamentals…Didn’t play much man coverage and will have a learning curve in front of him…Has a long list of significant injuries dating back to high school and durability will be a big concern…Ran a 4.51 40 with 19 reps, a 37-inch vertical jump and a 10-8 broad jump. PROJECTION: A versatile safety who will have to work hard to win an NFL starting job, but he has the ability to have a good NFL career. He likely will have to wait until the very end of Day 2 or early Day 3 to get his named called.
John Johnson, Boston College, 6-0½, 208 – Fourth-year senior…Two-year starter who had 140 tackles, 18 passes defensed, six interceptions, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries…Missed time as a sophomore after having left wrist surgery…A smooth mover who can flip his hips with ease and get to top speed in two steps…A versatile player who was a starter at strong safety, free safety and cornerback and made himself some money at the Senior Bowl…A sound technical wrap-up tackler…Is a lean player who doesn’t have the frame that can add much more in the way of bulk or muscle…Has difficulty sticking to shifty slot receivers…While an efficient tackler, he doesn’t play with a lot of pop…Ran a 4.61 40 at the Combine with 14 reps, a 37-inch vertical jump and a 9-11 broad jump. PROJECTION: A player who is strong in run support and will have a future in the NFL, but he may have to start off a core special teams player to make an impact, which will likely push him into being a premium pick in the third round.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Chuck Clark, Virginia Tech, 6-0, 208
Nate Gerry, Nebraska, 6-2, 218
Josh Harvey-Clemons, Louisville, 6-4, 217
Delano Hill, Michigan, 6-1, 216
Eddie Jackson, Alabama, 6-0½, 201
Lorenzo Jerome, St. Francis, 5-10½, 204
Montae Nicholson, Michigan State, 6-2½, 212
Fish Smithson, Kansas, 5-10¼, 197
Tedric Thompson, Colorado, 6-0, 204
Damarius Travis, Minnesota, 6-1, 206
Xavier Woods, Louisiana Tech, 5-11¼, 197