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Derwin James leads top 8 CFB safeties to watch in 2017


Editor's note: analyst Lance Zierlein will reveal the top CFB players to watch in 2017 at each position, continuing today with safeties.

NFL scouts are always looking to the CFB ranks to find next-level talent. While we won't speculate about where these potential future NFL stars will go in the draft one day, it's not too soon to take a peek at their game tape and start to stack them as the top players to watch.

At safety, teams look for players who have good instincts and can tackle. There will be plenty of safeties who end up making it in the NFL who have average instincts and ball production, but you won't find many poor tacklers who can make it in the league. If I saw a safety who was either unwilling to tackle or who had a high number of missed tackles relative to their tackle production, I omitted them from this list.

Tackling certainly isn't an issue for either of the first two players on this list. Derwin James is the alpha at Florida State and a big, explosive player. Kyzir White is flying under the national radar, but with his size and ability, I'm not sure why. With Minkah Fitzpatrick making the move to safety, the depth at the top end of this position increased. Quin Blanding has tackle production galore, while Washington's Taylor Rapp could be the next big thing to come from the Washington secondary.

Of course, there is still plenty of work to be done in evaluating each player during and after this season. Of the safeties I've studied, here are the top 8 to watch.

8. Marcus Allen, Penn State

Allen's strength lies in his ability to get after ball carriers. While he still needs to come to balance before tackling to eliminate some of his misses, he's a willing striker who accelerates into his collisions and wraps up what he hits. There are some reps on tape that make me question his ability to run with speed if challenged vertically, which could be an issue.

7. Godwin Igwebuike, Northwestern

Stocky playmaker who appears to be more comfortable and effective playing downhill rather than backpedaling into space. Igwebuike will be a three-year starter with a penchant for physical play and quality coverage against tight ends. He takes efficient, downhill angles to propel himself into position to make tackles near the line of scrimmage. He has the burst to close out targets and challenge the catch. He's not as long as some teams might like and he can be a little bit rigid when asked to play the deep ball.

6. Quin Blanding, Virginia

You can look all day, every day and you won't find a more durable, consistent three-year starter at the safety spot. Blanding has played in 98 percent of his team's defensive snaps since stepping onto the field as a starting freshman three years ago. His 358 career tackles give you an idea of his ridiculous activity and production. For as instinctive and productive as he is in run support, he can be the opposite in coverage. Blanding can be inconsistent in his positioning and will struggle from deep coverage with ball tracking at times. He's outstanding around the line of scrimmage but needs to clean up his coverage.

5. Taylor Rapp, Washington

Rapp is a true sophomore and won't be eligible for the draft in 2018, but the fact that he earned extensive playing time for Washington's talented secondary in 2016 should tell you something. Rapp is a wrap-up tackler who launches his chest into his targets for maximum pop. The tape shows decent athleticism with plus ball skills. He had two pass breakups with well-timed leaps and with his four interceptions, he proved to have sudden hands and an ability to take it away without much time to process. He has some work to do, but he's worth watching this season and in the future.

4. Ronnie Harrison, Alabama

Scheme-flexible safety who appears to be just as comfortable playing around the line of scrimmage as he does as a high safety. Harrison is known for laying the lumber as a hitter, but he'll need to balance the big hits with basic wrap-up tackles to save himself from physical damage that is self-inflicted. He's been a full-time starter for only one season, but Harrison has proven to be a productive safety who can turn the ball over and be a reliable finisher on the back end.

3. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama

Fitzpatrick's consistency and competitiveness made him such an effective plug-and-play cornerback in Alabama's defense. Fitzpatrick is moving to safety this season and that might be his position at the next level, but he still offers nickel cornerback value. He can get to his top chase speed quickly and he gets the most out of his athletic ability. Fitzpatrick has a good understanding and feel for the game. His "ball-man" vision as an off-ball defender is a big reason for his four career interceptions for touchdowns. He is a physical player who will come up and give it to you as a tackler, as well.

2. Kyzir White, West Virginia

Here's another safety who comes gift-wrapped in an NFL-ready frame. White is headed into his second season at West Virginia after becoming the top-rated safety in junior college from 2014-2015. White is at his best near the line of scrimmage as a run supporter, but he showed he was capable of matching up with slot receivers as well. He plays with clear eyes and a quick response time. As a blitzer, White is an absolute freight train looking to pulverize quarterbacks. He is the brother of former Mountaineers receiver Kevin White, the first-round pick of the Chicago Bears in 2015.

1. Derwin James, Florida State

Florida State insiders will tell you James is the absolute alpha in the locker room. He's known to come up to handle film sessions on the weekends and when he talks, players listen. Has the height, weight, speed and explosion teams will be looking for from a top safety. He missed most of last season due to a knee injury he suffered early in the season so he only has one full season in the books at this point; however, his physical traits are off the charts and he has the flexibility to move from single-high safety to outside linebacker.



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