As a preface to this article, I’d like to discuss Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick and the debate of whether to list him as a safety or a cornerback as a prospect for the 2018 Draft. Fitzpatrick has played all over the Crimson Tide secondary in his three years of starting experience; at free and strong safety, outside and nickel corner, and even outside linebacker. He has won numerous accolades as a Jim Thorpe Award (best defensive back in the nation) and Chuck Bednarik Award winner (best defensive player in the nation), and a consensus first team All-American.
Fitzpatrick’s situation is different from the likes of a Jabrill Peppers, where he played all over the defense but did not have a role that translated directly to the next level or allowed him to display pro traits. Rather, Fitzpatrick did produce and display NFL traits in every spot he played at Alabama, racking up 171 tackles, 9 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, 4 defensive touchdowns along with 16.5 TFLs and 5 sacks in his college career. While Fitzpatrick had limited reps at outside corner in his college career and played elsewhere, this is a similar situation to how FSU, and now-Jaguars, defensive back Jalen Ramsey was coming out a few years ago.
Ramsey is still the highest grade I’ve ever given out to a prospect and checked every box possible (ignore what box score scouts said about his lack of ball skills and look at his 6 interceptions in two seasons, having already established himself as the best corner in the game today), but had not played much at boundary corner. I ranked Ramsey at safety, but thought he would be elite wherever you played him and was an easy top 5 pick (the Titans somehow talked themselves out of him for Kevin Dodd and Austin Johnson) in that class. Fitzpatrick has shown that same skill on the outside and I think for where he will be drafted — the top 10 picks — teams will try him there first. For the purposes of this article, Fitzpatrick will not be ranked with the other safeties, but it should be noted that he would be FS1 or CB1 on my board and that position shouldn’t be as big of an issue as some will make it out to be. That said, let’s get into the rankings.
1. Derwin James, SS, FSU
As a true freshman in 2015, Florida State played Derwin James all over the field at safety, linebacker, and defensive end. James showed he had the potential to be a future top-10 pick despite having to share the spotlight with future top-five pick Jalen Ramsey. He played 405 snaps at free safety and 108 at strong safety in 2015, as well as 132 in the nickel, 70 at defensive end, and a small sample size of 4 at outside corner. During this freshman season, James racked up 91 tackles with 9.5 TFLs and 4.5 sacks, as well as five PBUs and two forced fumbles. But as a sophomore in 2016, a freak injury to the lateral meniscus in his right knee and a setback in his rehab knocked him out for all but the first two games of the season and he gained a medical redshirt. Here lies the biggest question I have about James as a prospect now, as his 2017 tape shows flashes of the same freakish athleticism and explosiveness, but not to the same degree that made him pop so much for the Seminoles during the 2017 season. The best thing James can offer to a team right now is his crazy hitting ability and ability to diagnose and read plays on the run. The ability to be a Kam Chancellor or Reshad Jones type of enforcer for a defense and make plays from in the box and all over the field. I think in Indianapolis, James is going to absolutely blow up the Combine with some of the same insane numbers he had coming out of high school as a five-star recruit, and will shoot back up into the consensus top 15 discussion.
2. Ronnie Harrison, SS, Alabama
Minkah Fitzpatrick is warranted in having the most buzz around him as a prospect right now from this Alabama defense, but Ronnie Harrison was often unfortunately in his shadow throughout his college career. Harrison notched a team-leading 86 tackles, along with 2 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, and 7 PBUs in 2016 during his sophomore season. Harrison experienced a slight dip in production during his junior season in 2017, with 74 tackles to go with 3 interceptions, 4 PBUs, and 4.5 TFLs. Harrison struggles in coverage at times, but his ability in the box is unmatched in this class. He’s a tone setter with his hard-hitting and ability to play downhill in run support. I was surprised with his ability to explode off the snap and get pressures on blitz plays, and his ability to make up for his lacking man coverage skills by checking boxes in nearly every other category. I think Derwin James is a top 15 pick, but if I can wait and draft Ronnie Harrison around 10 picks later, I think you can get similar production and value for your investment.
I like Alabama’s FS Ronnie Harrison (#15) better than FSU’s Derwin James. Just a more fundamentally sound and consistently productive player IMO. Potential difference-maker. #NFLDraft pic.twitter.com/lxSc0X52r1 — Kevin Brown (@nfldraftnik) February 8, 2018
3. Jordan Whitehead, SS, Pittsburgh
If there’s a safety from this year’s class who can do everything and have an impact instantly, it’s Pittsburgh’s Jordan Whitehead. Whitehead has the ability to lock opponents down in man and zone coverage while also making plays in the box and in run support playing downhill. He can play as a center fielder and go from sideline-to-sideline to break plays up over the top; get into the backfield; and get off of and sift through blocks. When looking at his production throughout his college career, Whitehead had a similar highly-productive freshman season to that of FSU’s Derwin James, with 109 tackles (the most by a freshman in program history) along with 6 TFLs, 6 PBUs and 1 interception.
Unfortunately, Whitehead had a substantial dip in his numbers in his sophomore and junior years with Pitt, totaling 65 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 2 PBUs and 1 interception as a sophomore; and despite missing the first three games of 2017 with injury racking up 60 tackles, 4 PBUs, and 1 more interception. Whitehead also has transcendent athleticism, playing as a running back for the Panthers during the past three seasons, running for 292 yards and 4 touchdowns on the ground. While Whitehead may have some questions to answer off the field — he was suspended for the first three games of the 2017 season for a violation of team rules — his athleticism and ability to play a number of roles for an NFL team should make Whitehead an ideal target for a team looking to put an early-to-mid second round pick into a safety.
4. Kyzir White, FS/SS, West Virginia
Another safety from this position group who has the versatility and well-rounded skill set to impact right away in the league is West Virginia’s Kyzir White. For the Mountaineers, White played what they call the SPUR role on their defense, playing at both high and box safety, as well as nickel and outside linebacker. And White showed NFL traits playing at each spot. White’s hitting power is up there with Derwin James as some of the strongest in this year’s class, and he body bagged one or two players over the middle in every game I watched.
White was also at the Reese’s Senior Bowl last month and showed off his coverage skills, shutting down receivers in 1-vs-1 drills all week, proving to scouts that he can do it all. His ability to diagnose plays quickly and work into the backfield in run support will help him get early reps for an NFL team. White played for two years at junior college at Lackawanna College in Scranton, PA (Michael Scott approves) and was a top-20 JUCO recruit in the country in the recruiting class of 2016.
At West Virginia, White started every game for the Mountaineers, totaling 58 tackles, 7 TFLs and 3 sacks in his junior season; and 94 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, 1 sack and 3 interceptions in his senior season. I don’t know if White is elite in any one area or will ever be near the top of his position, but his ability to fill any role a team will need and his well-rounded game makes him a Day 2 pick and top 50 player on my board.
5. Jessie Bates III, FS, Wake Forest
As a redshirt freshman in 2016, Wake Forest free safety Jessie Bates burst onto the scene with 100 total tackles, 3.5 TFLs, and 5 interceptions. Bates was subsequently named a freshman All-American and tied the conference lead in solo tackles. Bates made up for his subpar size — 6’1” and 195 pounds — by showing off elite range, ball skills, and the ability to fill gaps and sift through blockers despite his smaller frame. In 2017, teams started game planning for Bates more and more. As a result, his production took a dip to 72 total tackles, 5.5 TFLs and 1 interception. However, he still showed off the same traits and was a leader for the Demon Deacon defense.
Bates also has been one of the best returners in college football while with Wake Forest, and you can see his top-end acceleration and field vision helping him play as a safety. There are traits that Bates has that can’t be taught. His closing speed on the ball, sideline-to-sideline speed as a center fielder, and overall athleticism and fluidity in coverage make him an instant impact Day 2 pick for a team looking for a coverage safety.
Here’s a look the chart of my full rankings:
|1||1||Derwin James||Florida State||6’3”||215|
|4||2||Kyzir White||West Virginia||6’2”||216|
|5||2||Jessie Bates III||Wake Forest||6’1”||195|
|9||3||Jeremy Reaves||South Alabama||5’11”||204|
|10||3||Armani Watts||Texas A&M||5’10”||191|
|11||3||Troy Apke||Penn State||6’1”||195|
|13||4||Marcus Allen||Penn State||6’2”||215|
|17||4||Terrell Edmunds||Virginia Tech||6’1”||210|
|23||4||Damon Webb||Ohio State||5’10”||196|
|25||6||Kameron Kelly||San Diego State||6’2”||195|
|26||6||Tre Flowers||Oklahoma State||6’3”||193|
|27||6||Cole Reyes||North Dakota||6’1”||216|
|31||UDFA||Osband “O.J.” Thompson||Tuskegee||6’0”||209|
|36||UDFA||Secdrick Cooper||Louisiana Tech||6’0”||208|
|38||UDFA||Max Redfield||Indiana (PA)||6’1”||205|