Football season is right around the corner! Not only in the NFL, but at the college level, too. As a resident guru of the Saturday standouts, Chad Reuter provides the top draft-eligible college players at each position in a 10-part series. Today's group is the safeties.
Think about the job asked of a top-level safety. They are asked to cover a large share of the deep part of the field against elite passing offenses, line up against slot receivers and tight ends becoming more integral parts of those schemes, take on blockers in the run game, and be an efficient and powerful last line of defense. And sometimes they have to accomplish more than one of these duties in the same play.
Not an easy job description.
The required agility, speed, ball skills, and power to become a difference-maker at the position are why few safeties are picked in the early rounds of the draft. The only position aside from kicking specialists with fewer first-round and second-round selections over the past five drafts than safeties (18) are tight ends (11).
Alabama's Mark Barron rose up boards during the draft process last spring to become the third Southeastern Conference safety in the past six drafts to receive the rare elite grade at the position. Barron went seventh overall to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, joining former LSU Tiger LaRon Landry (Washington Redskins, 6th, 2007), and Tennessee Volunteer Eric Berry (Kansas City Chiefs, 5th, 2010) as SEC defensive backs picked in the top 10 picks of their respective drafts.
But despite the talent of Barron and fellow first rounder Harrison Smith of Notre Dame (Minnesota Vikings, 29th overall), the depth of last year's safety class was simply not very good. NFL scouts will be much happier with the available talent throughout the top half of the 2013 draft -- especially if all of the back-half defenders listed below meet expectations with their play this fall.
Eric Reid, 6-2, 208, LSU
The next SEC safety on which scouts have their eye, Reid brings the size, athleticism, intelligence and toughness to become an impact player in coverage (five passes defended in 2011) as well as against the run (LSU's leading tackler last year with 76).
NFL Comparison:*Mark Barron
Tony Jefferson, 5-10, 199, Oklahoma
Though shorter than most scouts prefer, Jefferson's leadership skills, physicality around the line of scrimmage (14.5 tackles for loss the past two years) and nickel corner-like coverage skills (four interceptions in 2011) will entice teams despite those average measurements.
NFL Comparison:*T.J. Ward
Kenny Vaccaro, 6-1, 215, Texas
Vaccaro is a confident, athletic All-Big 12 performer with first-round potential as a combo safety (14 pass break-ups the past two seasons, often playing as a nickel back) if able to prove his instincts as a last line of defense.
NFL Comparison:Michael Griffin
T.J. McDonald, 6-3, 205, USC
The son of NFL Pro Bowl safety Tim McDonald earns All-American recognition for his big hits and hands in coverage (six interceptions in 2010-2011), but needs to show better agility and instincts to be considered an elite prospect capable of handling NFL receivers in coverage.
NFL Comparison: Deon Grant
Shawn Williams, 6-1, 220, Georgia
A probable starter at strong safety in the NFL, Williams combines a thick build, fiery attitude, and very good athleticism to be an intimidator over the middle and in the run game (led Georgia with 72 tackles last season), as well as create turnovers (four interceptions in 2011).
NFL Comparison: Sean Jones
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Micah Hyde, 6-1, 190, Iowa
Hyde usually lines up at cornerback for the Hawkeyes, but has played just enough safety to show he can be a physical presence and a threat to play as a centerfielder (he has seven picks over the past two seasons) to potentially make the switch, if his new team deems it necessary.
NFL Comparison: Sherrod Martin
Robert Lester, 6-2, 210, Alabama
Although Lester's overall agility might not wow scouts, he is a productive leader on a defense filled with NFL-caliber talent and possesses the ball skills (10 interceptions in 2010-2011) and toughness against the run to earn a starting role at the next level.
NFL Comparison: James Butler