The 2015 off-season has seen the retirement of Troy Polamalu and the ostensible end of Ed Reed's career, leaving a generational hole to be filled by the new wave of great NFL safeties: Earl Thomas, Eric Weddle, Kam Chancellor, Devin McCourty, et al. But unless some of the names listed below surprise us when they get to the pros, it's not likely that any of the safeties in the 2015 draft class will have that kind of impact—at least, not for a while. There are talented players at the free and strong safety positions, but every player we've listed has issues to be dealt with. Not that they can't be valuable contributors in the NFL, but there is a buyer beware aspect to this safety class.
“As far as evaluating safeties, I played the position,” Mike Mayock of NFL Network said in a recent conference call. “It's still a hard evaluation. You don't always get to see them do what you want to see. For instance, a lot of guys will only play in the box. Well can they play a deep pass, deep third and can they play man-to-man? Other guys are the opposite on the back end. You don't see him upfront in the box tackling and playing physically. The challenge there is matching up body type, movement skills and toughness with what they're going to ask them to do at the NFL level.”
That evaluation will be tougher this season, because there isn't one player who looks to be truly interchangeable between the free and strong positions. That's not to say that NFL teams can't increase their ranks at this ever more crucial roster spot, just that they'll have to be more specific about what they want.
Here are our top 10 safeties in this class:
1. Landon Collins, Alabama: There's no question that Collins is the most pro-ready safety on the board. He's played both safety positions and even some weakside linebacker for Nick Saban, and he certainly looks the part of an in-the-box thumper at the next level. Collins totaled 190 tackles, five picks, 13 passes defensed and three forced fumbles over his three seasons for the Crimson Tide. On the plus side, the 6-foot, 228-pound Collins has 4.4 speed and the ability to close to the ballcarrier with speed and purpose. On the downside, he's not a natural center-field cover man—he tends to be stiff in his backpedal and he's more comfortable as a chase player from linebacker depth to the line. Any team looking for a true thumper with range at the strong safety position will be happy with Collins; it's just important to understand what he is and isn't.
2. Eric Rowe, Utah: Rowe started 13 games at free safety as a true freshman, registering 69 tackles, an interception and 10 pass breakups, and he excelled at that position through the 2013 season. Last year, the Utes moved him to cornerback, and though he played well there (59 tackles, a pick and 13 passes defensed), many see him as an ideal safety—precisely because there are so few pure cover safeties in this class. The 6'1", 205-pound Rowe certainly looks the part, with excellent field speed and outstanding awareness in deep coverage. Rowe's primary liability as a cornerback, an inability to jam and physically beat receivers in press coverage consistently, would be far less of an issue were he covering the deep third for an NFL defense, and he could be a first-round prospect based on that potential.
3. Derron Smith, Fresno State: The 5'10", 200-pound Smith was certainly prolific as a collegiate defender. He played five seasons for the Bulldogs and amassed 304 tackles, 15 interceptions (two for touchdowns) and 25 passes defensed. Size is obviously an issue—NFL teams generally want their safeties to clock in at six feet at the minimum—but Smith covers a lot of ground in a big hurry, making him a legitimate full-field defender in deep coverage. His anticipation skills and leaping ability will mitigate his height issues to some degree, but there's no substitute for height when you're trying to avoid getting torched by Jordy Nelson on a deep post, and the competition will be at least one level up from the WAC and Mountain West opponents Smith faced through most of his career. Smith may be best-suited as a slot corner who can move back to free safety in certain packages, and the talent is definitely there.
4. Jaquiski Tartt, Samford: Tartt only made the switch from basketball to football as a senior in high school, leading to his light recruitment and eventual commitment to a smaller school. There will be questions about the level of competition, no doubt (and those questions are legitimate). But when you isolate Tartt's play on the field, and the fact that he looked very good at the Senior Bowl, you can see that he possesses many of the attributes required for an NFL safety who can play interchangeable positions. At 6'1" and 221 pounds, he's got the size, he's got the field speed, his basketball background gives him the ability to cover and leap with bigger tight ends, and he's a natural hitter. Will he need a while to ramp up to the NFL? Probably, but from a raw skill perspective, it's tough to put too many safeties above Tartt in this class. He's one to watch in the second and third rounds. Watch his tape against Auburn last year to alleviate your concerns.
5. Gerod Holliman, Louisville: In 2014, Holliman erased any concerns about the loss of Calvin Pryor to the Jets by tying an NCAA record with 14 interceptions. This was a major surprise, as he picked off exactly zero passes the year before. Whether he's a one-year wonder or not is open to debate, but the real reason Holliman isn't higher on this list despite his obvious coverage abilities is that he suffers from a real aversion to contact—he misses tackles and will actually back off at times. When Holliman does tackle, it's usually with a shoulder pop as opposed to a wrap-up form tackle. At 6-foot and 218 pounds, Holliman can turn and run with most receivers, and he looks like he knows what he's doing in space. But he'll have to fix his tackling issues before he can start in the NFL.
6. Anthony Harris, Virginia: Harris led the nation in interceptions with eight in 2013, and though his pick total dropped to two in 2014, that was as much about opponents avoiding him in coverage as anything else. Still, last season he had a career-high 108 tackles and 10 passes defensed. Harris has the ability to close with receivers downfield, whether they're running straight speed routes or angular patterns. Unless he bulks up from his current 6'1", 183-pound frame, however, he may be better off as a No. 2 cornerback in the NFL. There are also questions about his tackling consistency, but not his toughness—he played through a shoulder injury last season that prevented him from working out at the combine.
7. Damarious Randall, Arizona State: Randall took the JUCO route before playing for the Sun Devils, but he made an immediate impact once he hit the Pac-12 in 2013. That season, he had 71 tackles, three interceptions, three passes defensed and two forced fumbles. Randall showed improvement in 2014, upping his tackle total to 106, maintaining his interception total, improving his passes defensed number to nine and forcing two more fumbles. The question is, where will he play in the NFL? At 5'11" and 196 pounds, Randall fits the profile of an NFL slot cornerback who can play some safety and a lot of special teams. He's a willing and aggressive tackler who needs a bit of work with the finer points of coverage.
8. Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: Prewitt is more of a backfield safety than a box player, but the 6'2", 208-pound senior has certainly proven to be an asset in the latter department, totaling 247 tackles, 12 interceptions, 16 passes defensed and five forced fumbles. He's played both strong and free safety against excellent competition over a four-year period, and there's a lot to like about him as a pass defender. Prewitt's good on the run, he targets aggressively and accurately, he transitions to deep coverage in a flash and he can time his turnover opportunities. Where he comes up short at times is in overall field awareness—Prewitt bites on play action and misdirection, and he can be taken out of plays with his own speed. He's a talented prospect who will need some development at the NFL level.
9. James Sample, Louisville: Sample got lost last season in all the Gerod Holliman hype, but some in the know will tell you that, overall, they like Sample's skill set better. That may be true if you're looking for a strong safety, but Sample might not possess the speed and agility to follow the NFL's best receivers downfield. As a pure tackler, he's got all the tools, amassing 90 stops last year, but the four interceptions he had in 2014 may not transfer to the NFL. Sample started his NCAA career at Washington before a shoulder injury cut his 2011 season short. He then spent a season at American River College in California before transferring to Louisville. With a more developed resume, Sample could have been much higher on this list, and his NFL future could be brighter than many.
10. Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: Campbell was on the 2014 Thorpe Award Watch List, but he got a lot of national attention beyond that when he caused two forced fumbles in the Wildcats' 43-40 overtime upset of Notre Dame last season. Campbell racked up 316 tackles, 10 interceptions, 27 passes defensed and six forced fumbles during his time at Northwestern and improved his stock with a strong showing during Senior Bowl week. He may have a low ceiling at 5'11" and 208 pounds, but he's just as likely to make the NFL teams that pass on him regret that decision down the road.