Every year as analysts debate which safety is better they inevitably get lumped together as a group. At an elementary level of thinking this makes sense. But when you take a closer look it makes very little sense. The differences are typically broken down simply by strong safety versus free safety. However its not that simple and in a certain defenses these roles can be interchangeable. A team’s understanding of what it needs from the position is vital for its success.
When the Jets drafted Calvin Pryor they asked him to try to play a centerfield role when his best skill set was as an in-the-box safety. This left Pryor exposed and looking like a wasted pick. It wasn’t until a new regime shifted his role and his play improved.
This year’s safety class features a variety of players that possess the different skills and traits of the position. If you need a rangy centerfielder, an in-the-box safety, a safety who can play man-to-man coverage, or play underneath zone coverage, the class has the players capable of filling those roles.
If teams use players correctly it could be an elite class. If teams leave them in difficult situations that don’t emphasize their strengths, they could look like wasted picks. So which situation is ideal for each player? I’ve got you covered.
Jamal Adams S LSU
Ideal Fit: San Diego Chargers
Jamal Adams is the easiest safety in this class to plug and play. He is a fluid athlete, with a great burst and great instincts. He has elite play recognition and will be a field general at the next level. Adams can play anywhere on the field — he is comfortable as a single high safety that can range over the middle of the field making plays on the ball.
Adams can also be a slot corner as he has corner like cover skills as well as play up in the box and control his gaps. Adams’ only weakness is his tackling; he goes for too many ankle tackles and can get dragged or blown up at the point of attack.
The Chargers could use an upgrade at both safety and slot corner, roles Adams can step in and play right away. The Chargers play an aggressive press man Cover 1 scheme, as well as a press man Cover 3 zone. Adams is comfortable pressing in the slot on both receivers and tight ends, and can play underneath zone. The Chargers could keep Dwight Lowry on the field when Adams is in the slot or rotate which safety stays high with Addae, creating confusion for the quarterback.
With the addition of Adams, a player whose versatility can fill multiple roles, the Chargers could have one of the best young secondarys in the league. The Chargers led the league in interceptions with 18 in 2016, and adding Jamaal Adams who had 5 career interceptions and 14 passes defensed, might give them the best playmaking secondary in the NFL.
Malik Hooker S Ohio State
Ideal Fit: Buffalo Bills
Hooker is the perfect example of a player who if used properly can be elite, but if asked to do too much could really struggle. Hooker has elite range, and can be a ball hawking, playmaking safety at the next level. In his sophomore season, Hooker had 7 interceptions in which he took 3 back for touchdowns. Hooker’s instincts still need to improve as he can be manipulated. If they do, he could have as much range as any safety in the NFL.
While Hooker has elite range, he does have some very real issues with his game. He takes bad angles in the run game, consistently missing tackles. Hooker needs to stay high in zone coverage as his man skills will lead to big plays for the opponent. Lastly, he doesn’t have the ability to shut down the run in the box.
The Buffalo Bills hired Sean McDermott from the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers ran almost exclusively Cover 3 and Cover 4 and we can expect the Bills to do the same. This means that there will always be a safety with deep responsibilities. If Hooker was in the mix he could use his range and ability to track the ball to make plays. This would keep Hooker out of the box, and he would almost never have to cover man to man.
The Bills’ new scheme would highlight his strengths and hide his weaknesses. The Bills lost corner Stephon Gillmore to free agency and he had 5 of the teams 12 interceptions. Adding Hooker’s playmaking ability could fill a huge void in a defense that could otherwise struggle with takeaways.
Budda Baker S Washington
Ideal Fit: Indianapolis Colts
After Jamal Adams there is no more versatile player in the class than Budda Baker. He may be the draft’s most underrated player as people overlook him due to his 5-10, 195lbs size. However, his film and combine performance should put any concern to rest. He blazed a 4.45 40, and had a 6.76 second 3 cone drill, both of which were the 4th best in class. He also ran the fastest 20 yard shuttle of 4.08 seconds. Baker’s film is just as good if not better than his combine numbers. He shows incredible football IQ and effort on every single play.
With his versatility you can use him in the box, as a single high safety, and ask him to come in and cover slot receivers. He compares very favorably to Ty Mathieu and can change the culture of a defense. Baker’s size doesn’t impact his ability to play in run support. He takes great angles, wraps up well and shows the ability to lay the wood. Baker also shows great ball skills; when you turn on the film he jumps off the screen and is always around the ball.
The Colts need a defensive player who can change the franchise, and Baker will step in and be just that. The Colts lost Mike Adams in the offseason and Clayton Geathers is their only startable safety currently on the roster. While Geathers is talented, he is at his best when playing the run. Baker could play single high safety, step in and take reps at slot corner, and also cover tight ends.
With the Colts playing mostly Cover 1, Baker could patrol centerfield and make plays for a Colts secondary that only had 8 interceptions, 31st in the NFL. In his 3 years at Washington, Baker picked off 5 passes and had 18 pass breakups.
Obi Melifonwu S UCONN
Ideal Fit: Cleveland Browns
Obi’s film was good, but his combine performance was incredible and has him shooting up draft boards. At 6’4 225lbs, Obi ran the forty-yard dash in 4.40 second, had a vertical of 44 inches, and his broad jump was 141 inches. All of those marks were best among the safety class. His vertical and broad jump where the best of any safety ever at the combine. On the field Obi shows his athleticism by closing quickly on plays in front of him and showing good range in deep zone. He is an excellent tackler; he uses good form and comes downhill taking good angles to make plays.
However, he can struggle in man coverage versus quicker receivers. Underneath zone is best suited for his game with occasional plays having deep responsibilities. While he may struggle with quicker receivers he should be able to win versus tight ends consistently. With his size and strength he can be used as an extra linebacker in the box to help versus the run.
His aggressive, athletic playing style fits well with what new Browns defensive coordinator Greg Williams looks to do. Williams runs a blitz heavy, press defense with multiple schemes. The Browns will run a Cover 1, Cover 2, and Cover 3 and Obi will be used all over the field.
In Cover 1 he can use his athleticism to cover tight ends, in Cover 2 he can show his range at safety, and in Cover 3 (which the Browns play most often) he can play in underneath coverage keeping everything in front of him. He will immediately upgrade the Browns run defense, which gave up 4.6 yards a carry. He will also help improve coverage versus tight ends for a defense that allowed 97 catches, for 1021 yards and 13 TDs in 2016. Obi can be a chess piece for Gregg Williams that helps turn the franchise around.