Heading into both free agency and draft season, safety is a clear need of the Dallas Cowboys for 2019. They’ll likely need to take one within their first two picks, unless they address the position in free agency first (see: Earl Thomas).
This year’s safety class is one that can fit many different types of needs, whether it is for a slot defender, a box safety, or even a centerfield type player.
Here are my top 6 safeties heading into the NFL Combine, based on who I have watched thus far.
1. Nasir Adderley, Delaware
Nasir Adderley jumped onto the national scene at the Senior Bowl, showcasing his skills as a true free safety. Adderley has the zone coverage skills and range to serve as a middle of the field deep safety in the NFL, and he has the physicality and tackling ability to come up and make plays in space. He’s the ideal single high safety, something which is highly valued in the NFL.
Adderley is the most well-rounded safety in this class, and is firmly seated atop my rankings as of today. He’ll likely be the top safety heading into draft day as well, but there’s just about no chance the Cowboys will be able to draft him this year. Even though he would be the perfect fit for their defensive needs.
2. Deionte Thompson, Alabama
Thompson is who I expected to be my top safety all throughout the college season, but he has been passed by Adderley rather soundly. Thompson certainly looks the part, and is as fluid and athletic at his size as you could hope for, but his instincts and mental processing are a step behind Adderley at this point.
An aggressive tackler who takes good angles when coming downhill, Thompson will be useful as a run defender from day one. He can work as a single-high safety as well, but isn’t as well rounded a player as Adderley at this point.
Thompson is going to be a really good pro, and is worthy of fringe first round consideration, but he falls behind Adderley on my board.
3. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Florida
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is the wild card of this safety class. Playing all over the field at Florida, you’d think Gardner-Johnson would be the perfect candidate to be a modern day NFL safety. He didn’t excel in all of those spots, however.
And, ironically, one of the areas I have the most questions about him is as a true safety. Still, Gardner-Johnson will be a valuable chess piece to any NFL defense. He’s excellent in man coverage as a slot defender, and impresses in underneath coverage as well. Disciplined as a tackler and as versatile as they come, Gardner-Johnson should be on the Cowboys’ short list at 58th overall.
4. Johnathan Abram, Mississippi State
National draft analysts love Johnathan Abram. And there is some good reason to.
Abram is a traditional strong safety, and will be effective as a box defender in the NFL. He’s a big and physical player who will be valued mostly for his ability against the run. He’s a good, no great, tackler who can actually get a bit too aggressive at times, but could be used as the modern day safety/linebacker hybrid in most defensive schemes.
In coverage, Abram is nowhere near the deep safety or zone coverage savant that someone like Nasir Adderley is, and he will have to make his living in the slot and the box.
5. Taylor Rapp, Washington
If you’re looking for a solid tackling, aggressive, downhill strong safety then Taylor Rapp is your guy in this draft class. Rapp isn’t going to sit back and play centerfield all that well (unless you line him up about 200 yards off the deepest receiver like Washington did at times), but can be effective in other ways.
I like Rapp as a tone-setting hitter and a sound tackler in the box, who can also offer value in man coverage against tight ends.
6. Juan Thornhill, Virginia
When you think Juan Thornhill, think “leader.” A three year starter at Virginia, Thornhill is an instinctual player who understands both defensive responsibilities as well as opposing route combinations. Thornhill excelled at making plays on the ball in college, and is physical enough to match up with tight ends at the next level.
He is far from an athletic freak, however, and his combine testing will play a huge role in figuring out just what his upside as a coverage safety will be in the NFL.