After looks at the top defensive ends and leading cornerbacks in the 2016 draft class, our series continues with a look at the top safety prospects who expect to hear their names called in next April's annual selection meeting. As has been noted in these posts, teams can exploit the depth presented in rich positions, which is one of several ways to generate value in a give draft; this value is increased when a team has need at a deep position. And lo and behold, the Cowboys look to have need at safety.
How so, you ask? Well, we know that they are continuing to search for that rarest of birds, the "true" Earl-Thomas-style free safety; J.J. Wilcox's game looks more like that of a dynamic strong safety. On top of that, Dallas is thin at the position, with only three legitimate safeties on the current roster (Danny McCray is a special teams ace who wears a safety's number), but Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox, the incumbent starters, are both slated to be free agents in 2017. With that in mind, it would be prudent to find at least one replacement in 2016, rather than having to find two the following year.
As was the case with the pass rushers and corners, most of the better safeties are juniors (although there are a couple of very intriguing senior candidates, who have received four years of seasoning in smaller schools). Another intriguing facet of this year's safety class is that several of them have played cornerback. With NFL teams increasingly valuing position flex, especially in the defensive backfield, the corner/ safety hybrid should prove to be a very valuable commodity.
Note: Juniors are designated with an *
Jalen Ramsey*, Florida State (6-1, 204):
As a freshman in 2013, Ramsey started on Florida State's National Championship team at safety and cornerback, recording 49 tackles and an interception. The following campaign, playing at safety, he totaled 79 stops (9.5 TFLs), 12 passes broken up, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. For much of the season, he was the Seminoles' best defensive player.
Ramsey has an ideal NFL body: tall, good weight, long arms. Plus, he boasts good speed and terrific explosiveness; he's an Olympic-caliber long jumper. Moreover, he is strong and plays with an edge. That said, it's an open question where he'll play next year in Tallahassee, much less in the NFL. The FSU coaches might well move him back to corner, where he has the talent to be the best in the country. At present, we'll place him as the top-rated free safety safety on the board.
If Ramsey can harness his immense talent and convince scouts that he fits an NFL position, he can be a top-10 pick next April.
Su'a Cravens*, USC (6-1, 225):
From the top-rated free safety, we move to the number one strong safety, where we have a Darren Woodson clone. In his first two seasons at USC, Cravens has played both strong safety and outside linebacker, and has excelled at each spot. As a freshman safety, he logged 52 tackles, four interceptions, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery; as a sophomore linebacker he had 68 tackles, including a staggering 17 for loss, with five sacks, nine pass deflections, and three interceptions.
Cravens is superb coming downhill, especially in the running game (want a remarkable stat? How about 17 tackles for loss!). And, as a former high school wide receiver, he understands routes and has the skillset to turn and run with receivers. He flashes the ability to drop and drive on throws and displays great hands.
Cravens is a candidate for the Butkus, Lombardi, Bednarik, Nagurski and Lott Awards as well as All-American acclaim. If he continues to play as he has in his first two seasons, he'll add a lot of hardware to his trophy case, including a first round selection in the upcoming draft.
Jalen Mills, LSU (6-1, 189):
In 2012, Mills was thrust into a starting role as a true freshman due to the suspension of Tyrann Mathieu and immediately proved up to the task, recording 57 tackles, three passes broken up and two interceptions. He followed that up with 67 stops a year later, including three sacks, and tied for the team lead with three interceptions. Late in the 2013 season, he was moved to safety, where he played all of 2014, recording 62 tackles with five passes broken up and an interception.
Mills has the fluidity and frame of a corner, while boasting awareness, range and reliable open-field tackling skills so critical to playing safety. He has light, quick feet and fluid hips and has proven to be a secure tackler, if not an explosive hitter. He's capable of lining up anywhere in the secondary, a quality that recent drafts have shown is valuable to NFL front offices.
Mills was suspended over the summer prior to his junior year for allegedly punching a woman and knocking her unconscious. The charge has since been reduced to a misdemeanor amid reports that Mills wasn't involved. If he can put that incident behind him and show scouts another good year of tape, Mills should continue the tradition of LSU defensive backs becoming high NFL draft picks.
Karl Joseph*, West Virginia (5-10, 200):
As a freshman in 2012, Joseph led the Mountaineers' defense with 104 tackles (seven TFLs), adding two interceptions, three forced fumbles, six passes broken up, and a sack, enough to earn WVU Defensive Player of the Year honors. The following campaign, he notched 68 tackles with four passes broken up and an interception, garnering Big 12 Honorable Mention laurels. In 2014, Joseph was a first team All-Big 12 pick after recording 92 tackles (including 18 versus Alabama in the opener), three forced fumbles and an interception.
Joseph doesn't have ideal size, but he plays much bigger than his measurable. He loves violent contact and times his hits well to strike through his target, jarring the ball loose (joseph has accounted for a school record eight forced fumbles over his career). Add in explosiveness, quick reflexes, great instincts, play-making skills and the demonstrated ability to play deep as a free safety, and its understandable why Joseph has piqued scouts' interest.
Joseph is similar to successful box safeties like Baltimore's Matt Elam or Tampa Bay's D.J. Swearinger, who were drafted with the 32nd and 57th overall picks, respectively. If Joseph can show scouts improvement in his coverage game, he can exceed these men's draft status come April.
Best of the Rest
Tony Connor*, Ole Miss (6-0, 217):
In 2013, Connor earned Freshman All-American and SEC All-Freshman honors after totaling 66 tackles (five TFLs), one sack, one interception and seven passes broken up. In 2014, he registered 69 tackles with nine tackles for a loss, an interception and two passes broken up. While he's primarily a strong safety, Connor has the ability play cornerback or safety; the Ole Miss coaches line him up all over the place from slot corner, outside corner, in-the-box safety, outside linebacker and even as an edge rusher. He uses his length to jolt receivers at the line, and has shown the ability turn and run with them as well. Connor is a heady player who has amassed a lot of experience; look for him to improve his draft stock in 2015.
Nate Andrews*, Florida State (5-11, 210:
As a true freshman in 2013, Andrews racked up a team-leading four interceptions, forced three fumbles, eight passes broken up and 35 tackles; he also had 10 special teams tackles and was a core player on the Seminoles' coverage units. In 2014, he logged 93 tackles, with three interceptions and five passes broken up on the year. Andrews is an intelligent, ball-hawking safety who has a knack for turnovers: he's led the Seminoles in both interceptions and forced fumbles each of his two years with the team.
Jeremy Cash, Duke (6-2, 205):
Cash started out his career at Ohio State and, as a freshman, saw the field in five games in 2011. After sitting out the 2012 season due to his transfer to Duke, Cash made a big impact for the Blue Devils, racking up 121 tackles (9.5 for loss), two forced fumbles, four interceptions and four passes batted away. In 2014, Cash had 111 tackles (10.5 TFLs), seven passes broken up, four forced fumbles and two interceptions. In Duke's system, Cash plays a hybrid linebacker/ safety role in which his primary responsibility is to make plays in the box. As might be expected, therefore, he'll need to show scouts some ability in pass coverage - especially in the slot - to be selected high next April.
Deon Bush, Miami (6-1, 205):
Bush was terrific as a true freshman in 2012, playing in ten games (with six starts) and making 34 tackles, three pass break-ups and finishing tied for second in the ACC with three forced fumbles. As a sophomore, he served in a platoon role, recording 31 tackles with two sacks, an interception and one pass broken up. Last season, he logged 53 tackles with three pass broken up and four interceptions. As his five forced fumbles in 2014 attest, Bush is a big hitter. More importantly, he has shown scouts the rangy, all-field game they want out of a free safety. If he can continue in that vein in 2015, he'll join former Miami safeties as early round draft selections.
Darian Thompson, Boise St (6-2, 210):
After a redshirt year in 2012, Thompson started each of the Broncos' thirteen games the following year, finishing with 63 tackles and four interceptions. The following season, he logged 71 tackles (five for loss) and received All-American and All-Mountain West First Team recognition after picking off seven passes (giving him fourteen in his career). Thompson has legit NFL size, shows great instincts and range and provides a physical presence. Another impressive season will cement his status as one of the best all-around safeties in the 2016 selection meeting.
Vonn Bell*, Ohio State (5-11, 205):
Bell got his first start in the 2013 Orange Bowl, where he logged seven tackles and an interception, and hasn't looked back. Last season, he recorded six interceptions (four in the final six games) with 92 tackles and six passes broken up as the Buckeyes stormed to an impressive national title. Bell displays good speed, ball skills, and instincts, and is a willing tackler.
Eddie Jackson*, Alabama (6-0, 175):
As a freshman corner in 2013, Jackson totaled 19 tackles with two passes broken up and a pick. Last year, despite tearing his ACL in spring practice, he came back in time to reclaim his starting role register 41 tackles with six passes broken up and an interception and two forced fumbles. The word out of Tuscaloosa is that Jackson will move to safety, a position that will allow him to use his physicality and evident toughness.
Kevin Byard, Middle Tennessee (5-11, 207):
Although Byard has been productive and oft-decorated (earning All-Conference USA honors in 2014), the real story lies in his instincts and ball skills. In his three-year career in Murfreesboro, he has increased his interception totals from four in 2012, to five (2013), and six (2014). More impressively, he has returned four of those picks back for touchdowns. Beyond his nose for the ball, Byard also is a willing tackler and a consistent playmaker, with eleven career PBUs.
Orion Stewart*, Baylor (6-2, 200):
As a redshirt freshman in 2013, Stewart played all thirteen of the Bears' games (two starts), registering 39 tackles, an interception (which he returned for a score) and four PBUs. He was one of the Bears' top defenders as sophomore in 2014, totaling 82 tackles, four interceptions and three passes broken up, and earning First Team All-Big XII honors. Stewart has legit NFL size and, with 26 games played, a slew of experience.
Doug Middleton, Appalachian State
After a collegiate career interrupted by an ankle injury that necessitated a 2012 redshirt season, Middleton emerged as a First Team All-Sun Belt selection in 2014, after logging 74 tackles, 10 PBUs and four interceptions. He is a versatile player (with starts at both corner and free safety) and impressive recognition skills. His work in post-season All-Star games will go a long way in determining whether he can play with the big boys on Sundays.
As I mentioned above, the Cowboys can benefit from positions that promise rich yields in a given draft. When a position is strong, and the majority of teams are drafting for need (which they are), it means that players at these strong positions will fall. When pursued over the long term, therefore, a strategy of drafting to positional strength yields greater value. In terms of safeties, therefore, the controlling idea shouldn't be that they must, or will, draft one in the first round; rather, it should be that safety promises the desirable combination of need, opportunity and value that allows smart teams to improve their roster in an environment wherein resources are limited.
Next: the 2016 running back class.