It was long thought that safeties don't belong near the top of the draft. ‘You can find them anywhere, or just convert an aging cornerback,’ the reasoning went. But the perception of need at the position is slowly changing. The evolution of the pass-catching, split-out tight end and the volume of four and five wide-receiver sets is turning up the heat on finding athletic, versatile players in the deep middle of the defense.
To account for the growing importance of safeties, this article will rank the safeties and cornerbacks as a composite defensive backs list rather than separate positions, showing more clearly how the values of the top safety prospects in this draft compare to their cornerback counterparts head-to-head.
I've provided comparisons to other NFL defensive backs, but keep in mind these are parallels based on style, not necessarily talent level.
1. Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama (6-0, 201)
4.37-second 40-yard dash
Career: 6 INTs, 41 passes defended, 1 TD
Milliner is going to be the first player in this group off the board, and rightfully so. He possesses prototypical size and speed for the position and played a major role on the National Championship team in the country's toughest conference. He also gets a boost coming out of Nick Saban's system which gives Milliner an edge as far knowing pro concepts and improving his odds of being an impact player immediately. His size will allow him to play press coverage against even the league's biggest wide outs. He's clean in and out of his breaks, stays tight to his man, and has the speed to run deep and recover. He's not great at leaping and attacking the ball at its highest point, but just about everything else here is a thumbs up. I expect Milliner to be off the board in the top-five by the time the party commences in New York.
NFL Comparison: Carlos Rogers
2. Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State (6-1, 210)
4.43-second 40-yard dash
Career: 8 INTs, 31 passes defended
On talent alone, Rhodes could reasonably climb into the top-10. He's a big, physical corner that every NFL team needs and craves these days. He thrives when leveraging his size in press coverage, but he breaks on the ball quickly for a big guy and could fit in a zone-scheme as well. Particularly for such a big corner, Rhodes transitions from press to a sprint effectively. Rhodes is a leaper and can go get the ball in traffic. He's also a solid tackler in run support. The knock on him is his durability. He has a lack of deep speed – Michael Floyd of Notre Dame (and now the Cardinals) ran past Rhodes in 2011 – but I expect a team to bite on the upside he possesses somewhere between picks 8 and 15.
NFL Comparison: Antonio Cromartie
3. Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU (5-9, 186)
4.50-second 40-yard dash
Career: 6.0 sacks, 4 INTs, 19 passes defended, 11 forced fumbles, 4 TDs
Yes, there's a whole lot of risk involved with taking Mathieu with a top pick. He was dismissed from LSU last year due to repeatedly failing drug tests. On the bright side, he's been entirely forthcoming about his struggles with substance abuse, and he showed up to the Combine in very good shape, indicating that he worked hard and stayed focused once kicked off the team. Mathieu is special on the field. He's undersized, but fearless. He can play in the box and attacks ball carriers with everything he's got. He's not blazingly fast, but he's quick and instinctive and will thrive in the slot. He's also a dominant blitzer and a skilled returner. He always finds a way to make a play, either on a jump ball, a big hit, or a strip tackle, a pick, or a return. He won't match up in press on the outside against the biggest guys, and he lacks the technique and speed to stick on the fastest guys, but he'll "get his," as he famously said when asked if he can cover Calvin Johnson.
NFL Comparison: Cortland Finnegan with return ability
4. Jonathan Cyprien, S, Florida International (6-0, 217)
4.64-second 40-yard dash
Career: 365 tackles, 13.5 TFL, 6 INTs, 28 passes defended, 1 TD
Cyprien is a big, strong athlete who can lower the boom and will make his presence known on the field. He's a solid tackler and can play up in the box, but he has decent range in coverage as well. He has a nose for finding the ball and good hands to reel it in when he gets there. He's not super fluid in his transitions, and isn’t a burner, but Cyprien is still one of the standout athletes in this draft, which is among the strongest safety classes you’ll see. That said, he should be a reliable starter in the NFL with plenty of upside to develop.
NFL Comparison: DaShon Goldson
5. Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State (6-2, 185)
4.61-second 40-yard dash
Career: 4.0 sacks, 15 INTs, 41 passes defended, 5 forced fumbles, 4 TDs
I tried not to punish Banks for the missing ‘a’ in his first name, but I did have to push him down a few spots for his lack of speed. At some positions slowness can be overcome, but cornerback is certainly the hardest spot to thrive while giving up a step. Though Banks lacks ideal deep speed, he brings a lot to the table otherwise. He's a tall and lanky corner who can size up height-wise with the big receivers in the NFL. He's an exceptional playmaker with great hands and good instincts both on coverage reads and as a runner. He does play a bit tall at times and lacks the strength to play physical at the line of scrimmage, but he has the frame to add muscle. He doesn't have exceptionally quick feet or elite change-of-direction ability, but Banks’ length gives him the range necessary to be in the right place at the right time.
NFL Comparison: Slower Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
6. Eric Reid, S, LSU (6-1, 213)
4.53-second 40-yard dash
Career: 199 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 6 INTs, 17 passes defended
The draft is about speculative gambling on prospects. Guys who produce in college don't always do so in the pros, and vice versa. Although he disappeared at times in college, Reid is a prospect with the physical talent to play in the NFL. His play at LSU was inconsistent and he has yet to live up to the high ceiling his physical gifts present, but that doesn't mean it won't happen. He's big and fast, displaying fluid movements with a smooth backpedal and good transitions. He's good at finding the ball and his serious hops help him to play the ball at its highest point, a trait that should serve him very well covering the freakish tight ends dotting the league these days. He lacks lateral quickness and will be better suited as a center-fielder zone coverage type than a guy you can lineup in man coverage, but if it all comes together for Reid he should be a very good pro.
NFL Comparison: Kerry Rhodes
7. Jamar Taylor, CB, Boise State (5-11, 192)
4.39-second 40-yard dash
Career: 10.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 7 INTs, 24 passes defended, 6 forced fumbles, 1 TD
Taylor is a strong-built, well-rounded corner. He plays tough and shows some swagger. He's a solid tackler in the open field and has a proven ability to make plays in the backfield and is effective blitzing off the edge. He has the strength to play press coverage and gets a good jam at the line of scrimmage. He has the speed to cover deep, but he's not especially fluid or economical with his movements and he'll need to work on his backpedal and his footwork. Taylor doesn't display good hands or particularly impressive ball skills. No one skill stands out as being "plus" besides his toughness, but he'll be a solid plug-and-play corner in the league.
NFL Comparison: Jason McCourty
8. David Amerson, CB, North Carolina State (6-1, 205)
4.44-second 40-yard dash
Career: 17 INTs, 33 passes defended, 3 TDs
Amerson is the type of guy who is going to drive coaches crazy. He's going to win some games with his playmaking skills, but he'll lose some getting burnt, too. He's a big body with very good range who is excellent at high-pointing the football. He competes at the point of the catch and is good at hand-fighting and knocking the ball away if he can't get the interception. Amerson's anticipation skills are impressive and he will excel in a zone-coverage scheme. He has good test speed and the size to plan man, but he's a bit stiff in the hips, can be a bit slow out of his breaks, and isn't smooth if he needs to turn and chase after a misstep. He can also get caught peeking into the backfield and fooled on double-moves. He'll be great, and he'll be awful, depending on the day.
NFL Comparison: Sean Smith
9. Matt Elam, S, Florida (5-10, 208)
4.54-second 40-yard dash
Career: 176 tackles, 23.5 TFL, 5.0 sacks, 6 INTs, 19 passes defended
Elam is a firecracker. Not a lanky bottle rocket, but a compact, powerful M80. Put him in an enclosed space and he'll do some damage. He's undersized (no one told him) and might struggle in man-to-man coverage, but Elam has the range to cover a lot of ground. He's very good at filling holes and closing on plays in front of him. He has good speed and displays relentless effort. Sometimes his aggression can work against him, though, and he goes for the big hit too often instead of making a sound tackle.
NFL Comparison: Quintin Mikell
10. D.J. Swearinger, S, South Carolina (5-10, 208)
4.67-second 40-yard dash
Career: 244 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 6 INTs, 22 passes defended, 4 forced fumbles, 3 TDs
Swearinger is an enforcer. An old-school, throwback safety who's out there to take someone's head off. He might not exactly fit where the league is going, but there's always a place for a tough guy on defense and having a big-hitter to patrol the middle of the field has it's advantages. He's aggressive filling downhill to plays in front of him and he wraps up well as a tackler. He competes for the ball and shows good instincts, but his lack of long speed will show up if he has to cover half or more of the field. Swearinger does stand out in his short-area movement, however, and has consistently shown the ability to cover from the slot. Swearinger will need to show better composure and judgment in the NFL, as he’ll quickly gain the attention of NFL refs if he taunts and hits as indiscriminately as he did at South Carolina.
NFL Comparison: Reggie Nelson
11. Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas (6-0, 214)
4.63-second 40-yard dash
Career: 231 tackles, 14.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 5 INTs, 24 passes defended
Many experts have Vaccaro as this class' top-rated safety and the second-rated defensive back, and most consider him a lock to be a first-round pick. I just don't see it. He spent most of his career at Texas playing in the box near the line of scrimmage and he's pretty effective at it. He's a decent tackler and he closes well on plays in front of him. He has good size and plays aggressively, but I wouldn't say he hits particularly hard, and for a high-energy, downhill player he's not a very good blitzer. One of the main selling points with Vaccaro is his wealth of experience covering receivers from the slot, but his lack of long speed makes him a questionable fit for that task in the NFL.
NFL Comparison: Patrick Chung
12. Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington (6-0, 190)
4.38-second 40-yard dash
Career: 8.5 TFL, 6 INTs, 38 passes defended
Trufant is another guy who's very high on a lot of draft boards. He has an NFL pedigree with two of his brothers already playing in the league and he measures well, but on film I don't see much skill. He has good speed, and he's quick too. He gets in and out of his breaks in a hurry and he excels at staying close to his receiver in shadow coverage, particularly in traffic. He plays smaller than his listed height, however, and he's not very physical. He will have a hard time getting a good jam at the line of scrimmage at the next level and he's not a very good, willing, or aggressive tackler. He finds the ball well in flight, but often poorly times his jumps and has poor hands. Trufant’s athleticism and last name will keep him in the first round, but such a selection might be based on perceived long-term upside rather than his current skill set.
NFL Comparison: William Gay