Written By Jason Feiner
With the NFL Combine in the rearview mirror and the Draft less than six weeks away, the NFL offseason drought has long since passed as teams, scouts and prospects get set for crunch time. Free agency is upon us and the new league year has officially started. Trades have taken fans and followers by storm, and the NFL salary cap skyrocketing to an unprecedented $177 million, contracts are beginning to exploding. Matt Stafford and Derek Carr’s new deals, just signed last summer, seem minuscule when compared to Kirk Cousins fully guaranteed $84 million deal. This deal is sure to reset the market, and as Doug Baldwin tweeted out, “Kirk Cousins is a hero for all the young player that will follow after him. Now we need players to bet on themselves until fully guaranteed contracts are the norm and not the exception.” The NFL salary cap continues to rise year-after-year and so do player incomes.
As the NFL Combine passed last week and each prospect preps for their pro-day, the NFL season inches closer, and we are sure to see new teams flashing their checkbooks. If these young players have a chance to bet on themselves, maybe they too can eventually gain the elusive fully guaranteed deal, “the exception.”
The 2018 NFL draft features a deep safety class that is begging to be called upon. This position group has a top five talent and potential top-10 overall pick along with immediate starters and potential All-Pros. It will be interesting to see how the draft shapes up and how far these versatile players may rise or fall come April.
Teams are always in the market for a playmaker and that is just what these prospects are.
1. Minkah Fitzpatrick, University of Alabama
Career Stats: 42 career games
Tackles for a loss: 16.5
Forced Fumbles: 2
Passes Defensed: 24
Minkah Fitzpatrick has consistently shined since his freshman season in the Crimson Tides defense, stealing reps from a roster that featured loads of NFL-ready talent. He was the leader of the defense this past season, utilizing his versatility, determination, and talent to succeed in each role Nick Saban used him in. Fitzpatrick was the Swiss Army Knife of Alabama’s defense, gaining experience in the slot as a nickel corner, as the deep-safety watching the quarterback’s eyes, in the box as an extra linebacker, and as a blitzer off the edge. Fitzpatrick was remarkably successful in each area of the field he covered, recording 60 tackles, 1 interception, 8 passes defended, 1.5 sacks, and a forced fumble in 2017. Along with being a highly productive player in Alabama’s defensive system, Fitzpatrick also served as a special teams ace securing 22 coverage tackles through his collegiate career. He was exceptional throughout the nail biter that was the Texas A&M game. Securing five total tackles, his lone forced fumble, a pass defensed and a game clinching fourth quarter interception at the goal line, Fitzpatrick was all over the field. He also recovered the onside kick to close the final chapter of an exciting road win. Fitzpatrick is a do-it-all type of defender with the athleticism and potential to be a star at the next level.
The Swiss Army Knife of the tide is an outstanding athlete with experience playing in all areas of the field. He is extremely competitive and consistently plays to the best of his ability until the final whistle is blown. He displays excellent body control with the ability to put his foot in the ground and drive toward the ball. Fitzpatrick has dangerous speed and elite acceleration that lets him reach top speed in a flash. It was no surprise that he manage to run an official 4.46-second 40-yard dash at the Combine just two weeks ago. His speed and quickness allow him to mirror opposing receivers and match them stride for stride. He has great feet with the ability to transition from his bicycle to a forward motion smoothly, reaching the opposite side of the field fast. The Tide’s safety possesses excellent range when deployed as the deep safety with the ability to cover in man-off coverage as a nickel corner covering the slot, back or tight end. His awareness and ability to read the quarterback’s eyes give him multiple opportunities each game to play the ball in the air. As good as he is in coverage, Fitzpatrick may be even scarier in run-support. His urgency allows him to act on instinct and causes rare hesitation, as he displays a downhill mentality as a hitter. He is a physical athlete with the talent to explode through a ball carrier. Fitzpatrick and can ride a block using it to gain positioning on the back. He is a dangerous blitzer off the edge and can attack the line as the deep safety.
Although Fitzpatrick may be a top 10 talent in this years draft class, he doesn’t come without his flaws. He displays more quickness than explosion and can occasionally lose a defender at the top of their route and generally allows separation out of the receiver’s breaks. Fitzpatrick had an excellent day throughout his Combine workout displaying fluid hips and excellent motion, but he too often shows (on film) hip tightness that limits his lateral movement and inhibits his ability in coverage. His versatility has created a debate on what his true position will be once he enters an NFL system; however, Fitzpatrick doesn’t possess the consistent cover talent to play as a slot corner or nickelback full time. Although Fitzpatrick’s instincts are praised he can still improve on his timing. He needs to improve his reaction speed while playing in zone and specifically when deployed as the deep safety. One of his biggest areas to monitor is his urgency, and although this is a strength of Fitzpatrick’s, he can become too overzealous over pursuing and losing his leverage in the process. He will need to become more patient, while keeping his intensity at its peak.
Minkah Fitzpatrick is a tough player who has the ability to turn his intensity up to its max until the game is over. He is an outstanding athlete with the necessary quickness, speed, power, size and instincts to be a dominant force in the NFL. His versatility and decisiveness give him the flexibility to be deployed in multiple sub-packages and be productive in each area of the field. Fitzpatrick projects to be a do-it-all type player in an NFL defensive scheme, and with his desire to succeed his versatility, and his leadership traits, Fitzpatrick has a great opportunity to make his mark on the NFL early in his career.
Projected Round: 1
Team Fits: Browns, Colts, Buccaneers, Bears
NFL Comparison: Eric Weddle
2. Derwin James, Florida State University
Career Stats: 26 games
Tackles for a loss: 15
Forced Fumbles: 2
Passes Defensed: 15
Derwin James is the heart and sole of the Seminoles defense. He was the leader in the locker-room, and when he spoke, teammates listened. After his freshman season, James was already considered one of the most dominant defenders in the country. He has incredible versatility with the ability to be deployed all over a defense and succeed with flying colors. Although James tore his ACL following his standout freshman campaign, his comeback year was met with determination, hard work and perseverance. James came back this past season stronger and faster as the leader FSU needed. He recorded 84 tackles, 11 passes defended, 2 interceptions and 1 sack throughout the 2017 season. However, his play was by no means flawless. Displaying a strong performance against the eventual National champions in the Crimson Tide, James accounted for six tackles and .5 sacks, but he missed a tackle that ended with a 70 yard rushing touchdown. James is a great athlete and will improve any team that drafts him.
James is an outstanding athlete that has an impressive blend of size and speed. His versatility makes him a dangerous weapon for any defensive coordinator. He has the ability to play anywhere on the field on any given snap. James displays excellent lateral quickness with the ability to plant his foot in the ground and drive to the ball. The FSU safety has dangerous speed, as he displayed the talent to chase throws from the deep middle possessing natural range, or shift his hips and move sideline-to-sideline on instinct. Although his speed was no secret, his 4.47-second 40-time was still surprising when considering his size. Displaying excellent burst, James has the necessary quickness and speed to mirror receivers in man coverage or drive up field to defend the run. He utilizes excellent technique and flexibility when tackling, as he lowers his shoulder on impact and often explodes through contact. His power is evident. The safety is a sure tackler with the talent to wrap up using his long frame. James is careful to leverage the ball carriers to the sideline and doesn’t often present a cutback lane. Florida State used the long safety in a variety of roles including an off the line blitzer, a role he greatly succeeded in. James has the speed and necessary bend to avoid blockers and pressure the quarterback. He is a very smooth and fluid athlete with the talent to cover in the slot showing the capability to drop his hips keeping his knees bent to run with the receiver. He doubled down and showed off his movement ability at the Combine. James is quick to jump routes that cross into his zone, and he has the talent to undercut a route and play the ball in the air when the play crosses his eyes. With his alpha leader personality on and off the field and Grade-A smile, he will become a fan favorite for whichever city rolls the dice with the energetic safety.
Derwin James’ versatility makes him a valuable asset to any team that drafts him, but he may be better suited for the strong safety role assisting in the box and playing man against bigger slots and tight ends. As instinctive as James is, he can often get locked on a receiver’s route losing sight of the quarterback’s eyes. James struggles with reading the QB’s intentions and can be slow to react once the ball is in the air. He tends to wait a step too late to support his teammates over the top and can miss his window to help. James also struggles with run support when playing the deep safety role. He becomes timid and can be cautious allowing runners to get to him, absorbing the hit while becoming flat-footed rather than initiating and exploding through the contact. He will need to improve his pursuit angles, as he can occasionally over-pursue and miss tackles, and as the deep safety, that’s never a good thing (the Alabama game). Despite his intensity levels, he has limited experience and will coast at different times throughout the game. He has all the traits to be a dominant force at the next level, but he will need to fix these flaws in order to be an all-pro.
The All-ACC safety possesses all the desired traits, physical and mental, that make a perennial Pro-Bowler in the NFL. James has the potential to be a game changer utilizing his athletic ability. He is still inexperienced only appearing in 26 games after a torn ACL ended his sophomore season early, and will need to improve as a run defender and in coverage. He has a high football I.Q. and his potential is through the roof if his playing ability can catch up to his talent and physical traits. Although the talented safety was a do-it-all defender in FSU’s defense, James is best suited as the strong safety playing an active role near the line of scrimmage to take on run support, blitzing, and physical coverage responsibilities. He has the ability, charisma, and potential to be an unstoppable force in an NFL system; he will just need to grow and learn as a player.
Projected Round: 1
Team Fits: Buccaneers, 49ers, Raiders, Seahawks
NFL Comparison: Eric Berry
3. Ronnie Harrison, University of Alabama
Career Stats: 42 Games
Tackles for a loss: 7
Forced Fumbles: 1
Passes Defensed: 17
Alabama had two of the top three safeties on their roster this past year. Ronnie Harrison has been a contributor on Alabama’s elite defense since his freshman year where he gained playing time right away for the eventual national champions. He became a starter as a sophomore, and in each of the past three seasons Harrison’s game has evolved. In 2017 the hard-hitting safety recorded 74 tackles with 2.5 sacks, 4 passes defended and 3 interceptions. He is a punishing safety that has the ability to play either of the two safety spots for an NFL team. Harrison possesses an outstanding combination of size and speed. He is a prototypical safety that plays with a downhill mentality, as he became a centerpiece of Alabama’s feared defense. He played exceptionally well in the blowout win against Arkansas, exploding to each area of the field as he accrued 10 total tackles and a batted pass. He has had trouble with man coverage throughout his career, as Clemson’s Hunter Renfrow has gotten the best of him in recent years, but this past season he made a stride in coverage. If Harrison can continue to improve his coverage ability and slide into a team’s strong safety role, he will become a starter and potentially more.
Harrison’s size and speed give him the potential to thrive in both of the safety roles. He is comfortable and experienced both in the box and deep covering the top. The Tide defender displays fast feet and a quick pedal with easy transitions to break from his bicycle in a hurry. Harrison’s recovery speed presents him with the ability to undercut routes, as he can plant his foot in the ground and drive toward the ball. Harrison can read the quarterback’s eyes, while not getting overly focused on the receivers or complex routes. Harrison has the capability to drop under the route and utilize his length to knock passes away. With a passion for contact, Harrison will take a rapid downhill angle in run support. As a physical player, he has punishment set as his default. He attempts to dismantle each player that enters his zone or that crosses his path. Harrison has an outstanding ability to find the ball carrier in a crowd and fight them to the ground. He possesses the range to track down a back from behind if his pursuit angle goes askew. Harrison has developed into a physical athlete with experience near the line and in the box. He attacks the ball with a desired level of aggression and has the talent to get after the quarterback. He is a feisty player with good instinct and power.
Harrison is a powerful and explosive player that feasts on contact, but he tends to overreact. His downhill style creates poor pursuit angles that cause him to lose leverage and allow backs a cut back lane. This also affects his route recognition as he is quick to jump complex routes, biting on an early break. He needs to develop better patience in the open field and play under control. He is a good tackler, but he often initiates contact with high pad level and tends to lead with his shoulder rather than wrapping the ball carrier. He lacks determination pre-snap, taking time to get to his spot and line up — it comes across as lazy and unmotivated. Harrison is a fast defender with the necessary speed to cover over the top, but he doesn’t access his top gear consistently and can be late to help his teammates. He has improved his man-to-man coverage ability since first entering Alabama’s defense in 2015, but he still lacks consistent ability to cover big athletic tight ends and receivers. Strong safety will be his primary position, and he will need to improve his consistency and toughness in man coverage.
Harrison is a feisty defender with prototypical size and athleticism. He has the speed and power to contribute in all levels of the defense, but will spend most of his time in the box and blitzer off the line. He is a fluid athlete with few athletic limitations. Harrison flies around the field and can fit multiple defensive systems, but his tendency for leading with his shoulder will need to be fixed or he will face the risk of missed tackles and big plays. Harrison’s downhill approach and his urgency to help in the run game will make him a dangerous strong safety at the next level. If he can clean up some of his coverage issues, he has the potential to become a Pro-Bowler early.
Projected Round: 1–2
Team Fits: Steelers, Cardinals, Seahawks, Redskins
NFL comparison: Kam Chancellor
4. Justin Reid, Stanford University
Career Stats: 36 Games
Tackles for a loss: 10.5
Passes Defensed: 14
Reid has had a consistent presence in Stanford’s defensive system since his freshman year where he played in 12 games and garnered 23 tackles, a pass defended, and an interception. By his sophomore season he stepped into the spotlight, becoming a key defensive piece in the secondary. Reid is a centerpiece and a do-it-all defender. It is easy to notice Reid on the field, as it seems that he is always around the ball or making a play. He had an incredible junior campaign that launched his draft stock through the roof. Reid led the Cardinals with 99 total tackles while recording 1 sack, 6 passes defended, and 5 interceptions. Experienced in both safety roles and in the slot playing in man coverage, he has potential to play in each of these roles at the next level, though he has limitations in the slot. Sam Darnold and the USC offense picked on him during the Pac-12 Championship game which the Trojans won in exciting fashion, 31–28. Reid has excelled throughout the season and dominated Arizona state. He came away with 9 total tackles, 1 sack, a pass defended, and a pair of interceptions. He was flying all over the field, playing against the run, and utilizing his athleticism to cover in man and zone effectively. Justin Reid offers excellent versatility, but may be more suited as the deep safety with the ability to come down and support in the box. He can be used in nickel sets, but shouldn’t be used exclusively in the slot.
Justin Reid is an extremely athletic player. He possesses excellent lateral quickness and exceptional change of direction. With the talent to play sideline-to-sideline, Reid can make plays all over the field. He has blazing speed, as shown with his official 4.40 forty time, and is capable of exploding toward the ball carrier, chasing him down from behind, or mirroring his assignment in coverage. Utilizing an explosive first step and an excellent closing burst, he has the talent to shadow receivers in the slot and undercut the route when playing zone. He possesses elite anticipation with the necessary range to help over top and challenge the catch. He uses impressive ball skills to scoop low throws or to elevate to play the ball at its highest point. The ball-hawking safety is physical at the point of attack, displaying the ability to contest each throw in his vicinity. He is a fluid athlete with great hips, displaying smooth movements throughout the season, and showcased his ability at the combine. The Cardinals safety shows outstanding effort when sprinting across the field to assist in run-support. possessing the ability to avoid blockers in space, and is a tough defender in the box. With the talent to play in multiple areas on the field and the ability to make big plays consistently as Stanford’s field general, Reid has the potential to command an NFL secondary and lead early in his career.
Although Reid is a gifted athlete he occasionally trips, losing his balance when exploding toward the ball. He is a versatile defender, but gets picked on in the slot too often and doesn’t project as a pure nickel back in the NFL. He is not a physical athlete and fails to use his hands in press giving the receiver a free release. Although he has quick feet and fluid hips, his backpedal is rigid and choppy. Reid consistently falls behind against speedy slot receivers when in press and can become grabby at the top of their route rather than trusting his technique and athleticism. He has great instincts, but his willingness to gamble can get the better of him as he tends to bite on complex routes, giving up big plays in the process. As the deep man in the defense, he uses inconsistent angles when coming downhill on throws and in run support. Reid has the ability to explode through a runner delivering violent collisions but fails to wrap up, attempting to tackle an opposing player with a weak arm tackle or his shoulder. He has great production as a cover man and run stuffer, but he leaves a lot of opportunities on the field.
Reid is a versatile and athletic player that can thrive as the deep safety or in the box. He has a great combination of size and speed with the athletic ability to help in man coverage and the ball skills needed to play over the top. He possesses a downhill mentality and can over-pursue when he gets too aggressive. He will need to tighten up his tackling technique, but he has all the talent and skills to become an early starter at the next level. He is a natural leader with the instincts to play all over the field. He should get an opportunity to play early and often, possessing Pro-Bowl potential down the road. After his play throughout his junior season and his impressive numbers and workouts at the NFL Combine, he may have slithered into the first round of the NFL draft. Justin Reid has the capability to be a consistent presence in an NFL secondary for years to come.
Projected Round: 1–2
Team Fits: Patriots, Raiders, Bengals, Vikings
NFL Comparison: Devin McCourty
5. Jessie Bates III, Wake Forest University
Career Stats: 24 Games
Tackles for a loss: 9.5
Forced Fumbles: 2
Passes Defensed: 10
Jessie Bates is a dynamic athlete that made an instant impact during his redshirt freshman campaign. He was a consensus freshman All-American and was the runner-up ACC Conference Defensive Player of the Year. He showed off his flashy athleticism by picking off five passes while accumulating 100 total tackles, finishing second on the team. Although he didn’t have a redshirt sophomore season that matched the production of his heroics in 2016, he was still an outstanding force in the Demon Deacons secondary. Bates is a versatile safety with the athletic ability to handle duties over top or in the box. As a young leader, Bates was counted on with multiple roles in Wake Forest’s system, and over the past two years, he has certainly lived up to the challenge. Jessie Bates played all over the field in 2017, but was more effective as the deep safety and occasionally played nickelback in man coverage against the slot. Bates had a respectful season, with 79 tackles, 5 passes defended, and an interception while playing for an underwhelming program. Bates decided to declare for the Draft early despite playing through just two seasons. His inexperience could hurt him early in his career, but as a versatile, intelligent, and athletic prospect, NFL war rooms will be sure to take notice.
Jessie Bates displays impressive fluidity for a deep safety, possessing smooth hips and quick feet. He has excellent speed, capable of closing gaps and helping over the top. He didn’t wow anyone with his 4.5 second forty time, but he is plenty fast and seems to have better play speed. He has frequently displayed the capability to run with a receiver, as he is quick in coverage transitions and capable of quality man and zone coverage schemes. The young safety can analyze the quarterback’s eyes before he releases the ball and can pull an instant trigger to the ball, interrupting the passing lane. He is an instinctive player with no hesitation — once he plants he explodes to the ball. With a high football IQ, Bates sprints to potential play action targets after analyzing the play in its early development. He is an excellent zone defender, showcasing ability to read the quarterback’s eyes and flow in that direction. He can read routes and refuses to bite on complex designs, showing outstanding route balance. Utilizing and trusting his eyes and instincts, Bates has become a playmaker with the talent to break on a route and deflect, pick, or tackle the ball carrier. Bates has outstanding ball skills, securing an impressive six interceptions over the past two seasons. He plays each game with a high intensity motor, consistently tracking down ball carriers from behind and saving big plays or touchdowns. With the versatility to be stationed in multiple alignments and the intelligence to conceal it before the snap, he will be an enticing option for any team drafting within the first 64 picks of the 2018 NFL draft.
Although Bates has just two years of experience under his belt, his intelligence and instinct will help him learn an NFL system quickly and efficiently. He is a lanky defender and will need to add weight, as his reckless playing style prompts durability concerns. It was good to see that he measured in at 200 pounds during the combine’s measurement period. He added on 5 pounds to a frame that badly needed more bulk. If he can continue to add weight to his athletic but lanky frame, he will become a feared defender with greater physical capabilities. The Wake Forest safety needs to play with better discipline in deep coverage responsibilities. Bates is plenty fast with the ability to help over the top, but he doesn’t possess a second gear or closing burst and lacks elite explosion. He is a willing tackler but often needs assistance, as he has displayed an inability to finish a strong tackle. Bates occasionally overruns the ball carrier and will need to improve his pursuit-angles to become more successful in the run game. He has poor technique and struggles with leverage when initiating contact. Bates can be hesitant and indecisive in run support, but once he knows where he is going he can get there in a hurry.
Bates is an athletic prospect with the ability to be a successful safety at the next level. He is a tall, quick, and instinctive player with the range and length to produce in coverage. His urgency to support in the run game is well documented, but he will need to add bulk and power as he currently lacks play strength. He is a willing tackler, but his inconsistent pursuit angles and technique need to improve. He has the potential to start early in his career and possesses the intelligence, versatility, and athleticism to succeed in any system he plays for. Bates projects as a free safety with the ability to cover over the top effectively. His ability to drop down and play in the slot will support multiple sub-packages, presenting him with the opportunity to play as a nickel back. If he can develop his technique in run support, Bates has a chance to be an all-star on the team that drafts him.
Projected Round: 2–3
Team Fits: 49ers, Texans, Browns, Cardinals
NFL comparison: Antoine Bethea