Below, NFL Draft expert Matt Richner's analyzes his top safeties in the 2013 NFL Draft.
2013 Top Safeties
The safety is often the most important field general in the game, adjusting the secondary and coverage calls. With the explosion of the passing game in the last few years, most teams want safeties who have the speed and quickness to cover ground, similar to a center fielder in baseball. A talented safety is a player who can read and respond accordingly, a cerebral player who has put in the time and effort in the film room to be successful on Sundays. In addition to being the last line of defense, a safety should have the ability to come into the box and be a factor in run support. An elite safety can quickly elevate a good defense into a great one.
1. Phillip Thomas (Fresno State): Thomas was off most scouts’ radar entering last season, after having broken his left leg and tearing ligaments in his ankle and so not seeing any action during the 2011 season. He came back this past year, healed and determined to prove to scouts that he is the best safety in college football.
He possesses an elite level of ability to read and react to the quarterback, he understands route combinations, and he shows a great deal of football intelligence. He understands his role and responsibility and rarely ever lets a player get behind him.
A physical player at 6’1” and 210 lbs., he reroutes smaller slot receivers with ease. He has the agility and quickness to be effective as a run stopper. A good tackler, he wraps up his opponent and doesn’t back down against contact or shy away from blockers. Thomas will take the lead block head on. With his play-maker mentality, he consistently tries to strip the ball away when teammates are involved in the tackle.
In 41 career games, Thomas had 13 INT—four of which he returned for a TD—17 TFL, four sacks, 15 PB and six forced fumbles. He had 78 career impact plays, an average of 1.90 impact plays per game. This is the second-highest total amongst all the safeties in this year’s draft class. In 2012, he averaged 2.77 impact plays a game, highest in the nation amongst all safeties.
A fundamentally sound player who is a leader and a playmaker, Thomas will show immediate results if given the opportunity to play early.
2. Matt Elam (Florida): The leader of the nation’s fifth-ranked defense, Elam is an athletic, physical safety who flies around the field and lays the lumber down on receivers. Despite his smaller 5’10” and 208 lbs. stature, Elam is more than capable as a disruptive force near the line of scrimmage. A versatile player who defensive coordinators will be happy to employ in different areas of the field, he played primarily on special teams during his first season at Florida.
Elam can play in the box and be a factor on run support and shows an elite ability to be an open-field tackler, even though he is not physically large. He can make the highlight-type hits and be a functional player who is fundamentally sound. He has the second-highest number of career TFL (23.5) compared to all the other safeties in this year’s class, despite being only a two-year starter for the Gators.
Not limited to a standard strong safety role, Elam possesses the versatility to drop into coverage and become the deep centerfield player teams are looking for. He isn’t afraid to deliver the big hit over the middle of the field; opponents could be seen on numerous occasions last season short arming catches for fear of the big hit.
Elam’s size is a weakness when he can’t get his feet set to go up and defend a jump ball. This obviously is something that he can’t control, so he will need to make sure he is more prepared and spends extra time in the film room to better prepare him to be in the right spots to make plays.
For his career, Elam had six INT, 23.5 TFL, five sacks, 12 PB and three forced fumbles. He had 56.5 career impact plays, an average of 1.45 impact plays per game.
Elam is a leader who is a ferocious hitter and can be difference-maker as a run stopper or on the back end. He played with a talented supporting cast around him and will have to prove that he can be the same leader and difference-maker in the NFL.
3. John Cyprien (Florida International): This small-school prospect jumped onto the scouting scene late in the year. He caught a number of scouts’ attention with his play and performance during the practices leading up to the Senior Bowl. He possesses prototypical size at 6’1” and 220 lbs., along with the agility and speed (a 4.6 40-yard dash time) that scouts and coaches are looking for.
An experienced player, he started seven games as a freshman in 2009, earning honorable mention all-conference. He went on to start every game the past three seasons, for a total of 45 career starts. He stands out on tape, and his physical and forceful style of play is quickly evident. He appears to enjoy contact; while making tackles he drives through the defenders versus just meeting them head on. With his physical style, he can come down into the box and take on a receiver or tight end, driving the action back inside.
While his size suggests a starting strong side safety role in the NFL, his range is above average, and he makes decent reads. He can run with just about any tight end in the country, is not overpowered at the line and is quick enough to stay with his man.
Cyprien is an aggressive player who is looking to make the big hit or big play. He often bit on the double move and pump fakes by the quarterback. He will have to learn that he can’t always make the big play and that sometimes the right play is to live and fight another day.
For his career Cyprien had seven INT, 11 TFL, one sack, 22 PB and six forced fumbles. He had 53.5 career impact plays, an average of 1.07 impact plays per game.
4. Kenny Vaccaro (Texas): A phenomenal athlete who reads and reacts as about as well as any player in this year’s draft class regardless of position, Vaccaro can play the deep safety position and shows the ability to run sideline to sideline to make a play on the ball. He can line up and cover the shorter, faster slot receiver without problems. Some scouts say Vaccaro reminds them of former Longhorn and current Seattle Seahawk Earl Thomas. While Vaccaro is a tremendous athlete, he doesn’t have the elite speed and athleticism that Thomas possesses.
With his great recognition skills, Vaccaro can diagnose plays faster than most safeties just coming out of college. An instinctive player, he can quickly adjust to balls in the air. He times his jumps well, looking to make a play on the ball versus going for the body. His quick feet allow him to maintain coverage against faster wideouts, but he has a difficult time with stronger tight ends.
Vaccaro is an aggressive tackler, but he’s not fundamentally sound. He looks to make the big hit versus wrapping up the ball carrier. He can also be caught out of position and looks to run around traffic rather than fighting through blocks.
Though he can read and react to the ball, I wouldn’t classify him as a ball hawk in the mold of an Ed Reed or Earl Thomas. He’s played in 50 career games, yet only made five INT and had only 19 return yards on those interceptions.
Besides the 5 INT, in 50 career games he had 14 TFL, two sacks, 19 PB and four forced fumbles. He also had only 49 career impact plays, an average of .91 impact plays per game.
While a good player, he won’t be the dominant force some scouts and front offices project him to be. He could never show the ability to overtake a ball game; he’s a nice complementary player but not one that will be the focal point of any defensive unit.
5. Baccari Rambo (Georgia): A three-year starter who has a bit of checkered past, Rambo missed five career games for violating team rules. When he plays, he is a difference maker, a player who understands his role in a defense and does the little things that help out that defense. He consistently displays an early break on balls, as evidenced by his 16 career interceptions, 10 of which came against SEC opponents.
He doesn’t have the agility to stay with fast slot wideouts but has the straight line speed to be a decent ball hawk on the back end. He has the size to match up against tight ends, shows a tendency to step up and be physical and doesn’t back down from contact. He is a leader on defense; he made the secondary calls the past two seasons.
A good run defender, who takes solid angles to the ball, Rambo played more in the box role for Georgia defense this past season than he had in prior years. He diagnoses runs quickly and quickly takes away the gap. He can miss a few tackles when he lowers his head and shoulder, instead of keeping his head up and locating the football. With an aggressive style of play, he can be caught out of position at times. In a few cases each game, he over-pursued the ball carrier, leaving a big cut back lane which the running back took advantage of. Georgia last year finished 77th in rush defense.
In 47 career games, Rambo had 16 INT—three of which he returned for touchdowns—seven TFL, one sack, 18 PB and six forced fumbles. For his career, he had 76 impact plays, an average of 1.62 impact plays per game.
Normally, he would be a spot or two higher on my rankings, but his maturity and decision making off the field leave a lot to be desired. His consistent violation of team rules leaves front offices nervous. Rambo is the classic example of a player who has the talent, but whose decision making is literally costing him millions of dollars.
Best of the Rest:
6. Daimion Stafford (Nebraska): Career impact plays 28.5: Impact plays per game average 1.06
7. Brandon Bishop (North Carolina State): Career Impact plays 56.5: Impact plays per game average 1.13
8. Cooper Taylor (Richmond): Career impact plays 53: Impact plays per game average 1.51
9. Robert Lester (Alabama): Career impact plays 54: Impact plays per game average 1.13
10. Markell Rice (American International): Career impact plays 85: Impact plays per game 2.18
2013 NFL Draft Content Schedule: