Now that the 2017 NFL Draft has concluded, the analysis continues in projecting these prospects to the next level, especially during their rookie years. I’m building a series looking at the five biggest early impact contributors among each position group, including today’s focus on five safeties who will not only start as rookies, but could be product in the turnover department or in eliminating key mismatch pieces in an opponent’s offense arsenal.
The players are listed in order from the most to least impactful rookies among each position group. It’s splitting hairs in some cases, but I figured it will give us another fun element to look back on when the season ends.
1. Malik Hooker, S, Indianapolis Colts
Hooker giveth, Hooker taketh away. That’ll probably be a phrase you see expressed by Colts media and fans a lot this season, as the Ohio State product has a knack for producing turnovers, but will also give up some big plays due to a lack of discipline and experience at times.
Hooker can be manipulated a bit by savvy quarterbacks, but his range, ball skills and athleticism are exceptional. His natural talent will need some time to truly peak however, especially after starting just one season as a Buckeye. With no one in front of him in the Colts secondary, Hooker should be an immediate starter as a high safety, while Clayton Geathers moves closer to the line of scrimmage, his most promising spot on the field.
2. Budda Baker, S, Arizona Cardinals
Everything about Baker screams Cardinals’ prototype, especially when you consider his stylistic and usage similarities to Tyrann Mathieu.
Baker can wear a number of hats for Arizona’s defense, as he’s capable of playing in the slot, in the box or on the back end in deep coverage. Because he dropped several interceptions during his junior year at Washington, Baker’s ball skills have flown under the radar, and he could post surprising turnover numbers if he finishes a few catches this season. He’s a tackling machine in the box, with the instincts and explosiveness to beat blocks and make key stops despite his smaller frame.
Defensive coordinator James Bettcher will have a field day with Baker’s versatility combined with everything Mathieu brings to the table as well.
3. Jamal Adams, S, New York Jets
Adams will be an immediate starter that might play the highest percentage of snaps among all rookie defenders, but he’s fighting a war with very little help in New York.
The Jets cornerback group leaves a lot to be desired, and Adams will be by far the most talented non-defensive lineman amongst the whole unit. He’ll be more consistent than Hooker, but may not offer the same propensity for splash plays either.
Adams has great instincts near the line of scrimmage, and can play a pseudo linebacker role as easily as he can match up with receivers in man coverage.
4. Obi Melifonwu, S, Oakland Raiders
The Raiders needed a safety to pair with Karl Joseph, and Melifonwu is a perfect fit for the team’s two-high looks and need for a big slot to matchup against flex tight ends like Travis Kelce and Hunter Henry.
Melifonwu is a sure tackler who takes good angles to the ball in coverage and to the ball carrier in run support, playing a patient, technical style of football that makes him a very safe starter.
Melifonwu may not have the instincts or playmaking ability to be a big turnover threat, but he’s fluid in man coverage and has shown the range and closing speed to contest catches on the back end. He’ll replace Reggie Nelson quite quickly in the starting lineup.
5. Marcus Williams, S, New Orleans Saints
Like Jairus Byrd, Williams won’t be making his money in run support, but the rookie is at least capable of wrestling runners to the ground eventually, even if he gives up some ground in the process.
Williams was drafted for his ball skills and athleticism in deep coverage, particularly as a center-fielding free safety. He doesn’t have the quick instincts that Hooker offers, but Williams moves well from the middle of the field to the sideline, showing the necessary range and leaping ability to battle for the ball in the air, even against bigger receivers.
Expect to see plenty of three safety looks for New Orleans this season, with Von Bell perhaps seeing some run in the slot, while Kenny Vaccaro and Williams man the safety spots.