It’s clear that this year’s cornerback class won’t disappoint, but how about that players behind him? In my opinion, safeties are very underrated in terms of value in today’s game, as the best ones can be the type of athletic chess pieces that defensive coordinators need in order to slow down explosive offenses. Well, not only is this a strong cornerback class, but it’s a strong secondary class in general- there are a lot of talented safety prospects in the 2020 NFL Draft. After gathering as much information as possible on these players, I’ve compiled a list of the top safety prospects. Who are those players, and how many are worth a first-round pick? Let’s take a closer look at the entire 2020 safety class as a whole.
#1: Grant Delpit, LSU
Height: 6’2″ Weight: 213 lbs
Pro Comparison: Justin Simmons
Best Fits: NE, NO, SF
Overall Grade: 86.35 (1st)
When he’s at his best, Grant Delpit is one of the best players in this entire draft. He checks the boxes in terms of his size, as he’s able to play downhill with an aggressive mentality, and pairs it with excellent reactionary skills. In coverage, he has excellent ball skills, and with his physicality and wingspan, projects as a true “tight end eraser”. Plus, as a free safety, his short area quickness and incredible instincts/route anticipation is top-notch, making his upside in coverage fantastic.
Delpit was seen as a top-ten pick heading into the season, but now, there are many who don’t even see him as a first-round caliber prospect. A major reason for it was his struggles in run defense, as he had just a 60-grade from Pro Football Focus in that regard, while his 25% missed tackle rate was alarming. Plus, I don’t see working as a full-time free safety, since he doesn’t have excellent long speed, and he can be a little slow with his transitions in general.
Deplit didn’t have an ideal season in 2019, but he also played through multiple injuries, which would explain the decrease in his production. With his upside in coverage and versatility, I see him as a scheme-diverse safety, and for those who still worry about the position designations, he’s capable of being a free safety or a strong safety. Heck, I still believe he has the traits to be solid in terms of run defense, and considering how many teams could use a safety at the back-end of the first round, I don’t think he falls outside the top 32 picks.
#2: Xavier McKinney, Alabama
Height: 6’0″ Weight: 201 lbs
Pro Comparison: Harrison Smith
Best Fits: NE, SF, NO
Overall Grade: 86.15 (1st)
Sticking in the SEC, Xavier McKinney is very similar to Grant Delpit- he’s a versatile, scheme-diverse safety. Whether it was in the box, as a free safety, as a linebacker, or in the slot, he played practically every role possible with the Crimson Tide, and did so at a high level. His anticipation is off the charts, and when he does make his reads, his burst to the ball and overall ball skills are fantastic, and I have him rated as the best coverage safety in this class; he earned a 89.2 coverage grade from Pro Football Focus in 2019. He’s also extremely physical and capable in run defense, even in the box or as a sub-package linebacker. In my opinion, though, his most underrated asset may be what he brings as a blitz weapon, which adds yet even more value to his well-rounded skillset.
Unfortunately for McKinney, he’s not a rangy safety, as evidenced by his 4.63 40-yard dash, and even though he plays well in the box, he’s not as strong as you’d like. He also tends to play a little high, and because of that, isn’t the best open field tackler; he can contribute in a lot of roles, but he’s also not fantastic in any particular place.
With his instincts and coverage ability, Xavier McKinney is still worthy of a first-round pick in my books, even with the athletic and physical limitations. In a way, his versatility and leadership made him the centerpiece of the Alabama defense, and since he can contribute in so many ways, can fit into any scheme. It’s super hard for me to imagine Bill Belichick and the Patriots passing on him with the 23rd pick, but if he did, there will definitely be other teams in the back-end of the first round that ought to covet his services.
#3: Antoine Winfield Jr., Minnesota
Year: RS Sophomore
Height: 5’9″ Weight: 203 lbs
Pro Comparison: Xavier Woods
Best Fits: SF, CLE, TB
Overall Grade: 85.975 (Late 1st)
If we focused simply on production on the field, Antoine Winfield Jr. would be getting a lot more attention than he currently is getting. The Minnesota product is a true playmaker at the back-end of the secondary, as his ball skills are off the shorts, and with his excellent instincts, has a knack for interceptions and turnovers. His able to diagnose route concepts and understand cues from the quarterback is unprecedented for a college prospect, which means his transition to the NFL won’t be steep. That’s especially true when considering his willingness in run defense, as not only does he play with a “hunter mentality”, but he’s a reliable tackler in open space, and is a load to deal with coming downhill. Plus, for all the criticisms regarding his athleticism, he ran a 4.45 40-yard dash at the combine, so perhaps what many thought was a weakness in his game is actually a strength.
Even though he ran that fast 40-yard dash, Winfield Jr. certainly isn’t the most athletic in space. Plus, he’s a smaller player without much length, which could hurt his ability to cover tight ends and play in the box, and if he’s not going to be a rangy single-high safety, that’s potentially problematic. Plus, even though he’s a four-year starter, he’s dealt with a substantial amount of injuries, so his actual experience on the football field is a little limited.
These stats should tell you all you need to know about Antoine Winfield Jr.: 89.2 coverage grade, 82.3 BOX grade, and 80.1 deep grade. No matter what scheme you run, he’s a plug and play starter, as he’s super reliable in coverage AND run defense. His rare playmaking ability should be coveted by teams, to the point that I see him as a bonafide first-round prospect. At the moment, I’m not even sure he goes in the second round, which is insane. Simply put, I just can’t understand why he’s not getting the attention he deserves; there aren’t a lot of major weaknesses in his game, and he’s been extremely productive.
#4: Kyle Dugger, Lenoir-Rhyne
Year: RS Senior
Height: 6’1″ Weight: 217 lbs
Pro Comparison: Keanu Neal
Best Fits: CIN, NE, BAL
Overall Grade: 85.3125 (Late 1st)
Don’t let the small school fool you; Kyle Dugger is an excellent safety prospect. Not only does he definitely have the size and physicality to play in the NFL, but simply put, his numbers at the combine were outrageous. With his measurements, the Lenoir-Rhyne product showcased his speed (4.49 40-yard dash), length (32 7/8″ arms), and explosiveness (42 inch vertical), which translates onto the football field. That’s particularly true in run defense, as he crashed downhill with an absurd amount of burst, and to his credit, he’s technically sound as a tackler. Heck, if he wanted to play off-ball linebacker, he could even do that, so overall, he’s a dynamic chess piece for defensive coordinators.
Dugger’s main red flag is out of his control, and it’s the level of competition he played against. It’s nearly impossible to tell how refined he is in coverage, as he never even had to give his full effort to dominate, but you’d have to guess there’s going to be a learning curve at the NFL level. Therefore, if I had to project him as an NFL player in year one, I’d probably grade him as a below-average coverage safety, which could limit his value.
Even though Dugger is a work in progress in terms of coverage, his excellent length and athleticism make me believe he’ll eventually be proficient in that regard. Even if there’s a learning curve at the NFL level, he definitely will have an immediate role based on his run defense and versatility, and I’m really hoping he can go to a team with a smart defensive coordinator. The Ravens, for example, embrace position-less football as well as any team, while the Patriots are looking for a replacement for Patrick Chung as a box safety/linebacker hybrid. However, those aren’t his only fits, as he’s essentially a faster and better Keanu Neal, which is excellent; pair him with a coverage-oriented free-safety, and he’ll be super productive long-term for your defense. Even coming from Lenoir-Rhyne, Dugger is a first-round prospect; teams are drafting for the long-term, after all, and he could definitely end up being the best safety out of all of these players.
#5: Ashtyn Davis, California
Year: RS Senior
Height: 6’1″ Weight: 202 lbs
Pro Comparison: Morgan Burnett
Best Fits: ARI, NYG, CAR
Overall Grade: 84.9 (Early 2nd)
As a former track star, no safety in this draft class has the type of range and athleticism that Ashytn Davis has. Whether it’s long speed, change of direction, or explosiveness, he checks all the boxes in terms of his athletic profile, and that definitely allows him to find success on the football field. His ball skills, combined with that freaky athleticism, make him a true deep safety, as in my opinion, he has the most upside in coverage in this draft class.
Although Davis has all the traits necessary to be dominant in coverage, he’s not there yet, as his instincts and eye discipline are average at best. Therefore, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he only earned a 73.8 coverage grade this past season from Pro Football Focus, which speaks to the extreme amount of development he’ll need. That’s worrisome, as although he covers plenty of ground in run defense, his lack of size and length really hurt him in that regard, so he’s not a candidate to play near the line of scrimmage at all. Therefore, unlike the first four players on this list, he won’t be a very versatile player, and is much more reliant on his ability to hold up in coverage as a deep free-safety.
It’s super rare to find a player who is as athletic as Ashtyn Davis, who has a lot of potential as a deep safety in the NFL. However, his lack of versatility and refinement in coverage are worrisome, and I definitely don’t see him as a day-one starter. However, at the beginning of the second day of the draft, he’s a nice developmental prospect for teams in need of a rangy safety, such as the Giants, Browns, or Cardinals. Yet, his best fit could be with the Panthers, who are remaking their defense and won’t contend next season. Nevertheless, it’s clear where he fits at the NFL level. Now, it’s time for him to maximize on his gifts, and be a the game-changing playmaker at the back-end of the secondary that he should easily be.
#6: Terrell Burgess, Utah
Height: 5’11” Weight: 202 lbs
Pro Comparison: Jimmie Ward
Best Fits: TB, ATL, MIN
Overall Grade: 84.5 (Early 2nd)
Being able to play man-coverage versus tight ends and safeties is a very underrated quality for a safety to have, and that’s something that Utah’s Terrell Burgess does as well as any safety in this class. Coming from a diverse coverage scheme, he has the versatility to play as a traditional safety, but also in the nickel and in the box. His ability to play man-coverage, whether it’s in press or off-man, is truly special, as his discipline and route anticipation. Plus, he’s also excellent in space due to his strong athleticism, but also his tackling ability; he’s a super reliable tackler.
Though Burgess appears to be suited to be a deep safety, he’s limited in experience in that regard, and according to Pro Football Focus, this was his only season with above-average production. Furthermore, he’s also undersized as a safety, so if he plays in the box, there’s a chance he could get bulldozed by certain offensive linemen. Heck, even in coverage, that limited physicality and length could come back to bite him, especially on jump balls versus tight ends.
Versatility is a major part of modern day defense, and for Terrell Burgess, he’s proven capable of playing in any role. I love his upside as a slot corner, but similar to the 49ers’ Jimmy Ward, he’ll be at his best moving all around depending on the specific matchup. Sure, he may not have the size or experience as a traditional deep safety that you’d like, though at the end of the day, I’m not sure it matters- he’s going to be a very valuable player for defensive coordinators, and fits with practically every defense.
#7: Geno Stone, Iowa
Height: 5’10” Weight: 207 lbs
Pro Comparison: Lamarcus Joyner
Best Fits: MIN, ARI, CLE
Overall Grade: 83.7125 (2nd)
How can you not be enamored by Geno Stone’s instincts in zone coverage? The Iowa product not only processed the game at a very high level, but trusts his reads, and thus has the potential to be an elite playmaker at the back-end of the secondary. Plus, although he doesn’t have the ideal long speed, he’s able to change directions quickly, which may be more important for a safety anyways. Overall, his abilities in coverage are off the charts, and for the most part, he’s a reliable tackler, particularly in space.
Right now, Stone isn’t getting much attention as even a day-two prospect, and that’s due in large part to his poor testing at the combine. Not only did he run just a 4.62 40-yard dash, but his short arms (29 1/4″) and small stature is a major concern, especially in run defense or whenever he’s near the line of scrimmage. Additionally, although he’s a terrific in zone coverage, he doesn’t have much experience in man coverage, so he’s not the type of safety that you’re going to trust to consistently cover tight ends and slot receivers.
It’s hard to find elite coverage safeties after the first round, and especially after the second day of the draft. If Geno Stone actually ends up being a day-three pick, he may very well go down as the steal of the draft- he’s an immediate starter who is only 22-years-old.
#8: K’Von Wallace, Clemson
Height: 5’11” Weight: 206 lbs
Pro Comparison: DJ Hayden
Best Fits: TB, ATL, HOU
Overall Grade: 81.7 (Late 3rd/Early 4th)
Getting back to the theme of versatility, K’Von Wallace is the type of player who can fit into any defense, based on the multiple ways he can be an impact contributor. He has the ideal build and coverage ability of a slot corner, which is probably where he’ll be at his best. After all, he’s as a super reliable tackler that’s able to be super physical with slot receivers in press coverage, while he also can be effective as a blitz weapon. At Clemson, he also was consistently one of their most productive defenders, and that’ll certainly allow for a quick and smooth transition to the NFL.
If a team tried to convert Wallace as a full-time deep safety, they’ll likely be disappointed, as he doesn’t have adequate range nor the coverage instincts to hold up in zone coverage. Heck, given his lack of length and long speed, there could be even some challenges for him covering slot receivers, and for the most part, his overall ceiling is pretty limited.
K’Von Wallace is an immediate starter as a slot corner, and was one of the leaders of a very talented Clemson defense. Now, his lack of athleticism and length limit his ceiling, so he’s probably just a solid nickel corner, but at the end of the second day or the beginning of the third day of the draft, he’s certainly worth the investment. For the teams the are unable to sign Logan Ryan, Brian Poole, Darqueze Dennard, or Chris Harris Jr in free agency, he’s an intriguing target based on his overall refinement.
#9: Julian Blackmon, Utah
Height: 6’0″ Weight: 187 lbs
Pro Comparison: Reshad Jones
Best Fits: MIA, IND, SEA
Overall Grade: 79.875 (5th)
With excellent range as a deep safety and 31″ arms, Julian Blackmon is someone that will intrigue NFL front offices, especially since he possesses man-coverage skills as a converted cornerback. That cornerback experience shows up with excellent ball tracking ability, and with his excellent closing quickness, he’s someone who can become a consistently high-interception safety in the future.
Blackmon may be a converted cornerback, but that’s more due to how poorly he played there, as he has lackluster physicality and struggles in off-man coverage. Plus, as a traditional safety, he doesn’t offer much near the line of scrimmage, since he’s a generally poor run defender with average transitional quickness. Furthermore, if he’s a full-time deep safety, he is too often baited by the opposing quarterback, and will need further refinement in order to not be a constant risk of allowing a big play.
Based of his length, ball skills, and speed, Julian Blackmon could be a player that is drafted before the likes of Stone and Wallace. However, I see him as a massive work in progress, and although he’s a former cornerback, that doesn’t provide him with extra versatility- he’s not suited for a nickel role, nor is he ready to be a true deep safety. He’s an interesting depth safety who could potentially develop into something more, but in my opinion, he’s clearly behind the players ahead of him on this list.
#10: Brandon Jones, Texas
Height: 5’11” Weight: 198 lbs
Pro Comparison: Patrick Chung
Best Fits: NE, MIA, CIN
Overall Grade: 79.5125 (5th)
With good size and athleticism, Brandon Jones is a prototypical strong safety for teams in need of one. He does a great job working downhill, and overall, is a strong tackler; he’s best served playing in the box at the next level. However, he’ll also be able to contribute as a slot defender, as he has smooth hips and produced well in that role for Texas this season.
By no means should Jones be utilized as a deep safety, since he doesn’t have the route anticipation or range needed to not be constantly exploited. That limits his value tremendously, and despite being more of a box player/slot defender, his run defense grade wasn’t even strong at 62.3. Therefore, not only is he more of a throwback safety, but he doesn’t have any clear strength/calling card at the next level, so I don’t see him as a future starter.
Maybe Brandon Jones can contribute as a box safety, but that’s not very valuable in today’s game. Players such as Keanu Neal, Landon Collins, and Karl Joseph are big names that simply don’t fit the modern NFL, and unfortunately, Brandon Jones is just a lesser version of those players. He’ll be a decent depth safety, but I don’t expect him to be much more than that.
Here are the other safeties that were evaluated and considered for this list, ranked with their overall grade:
11) Myles Bryant, Washington (79.275, 5th)
12) Kamren Curl, Arkansas (79.25, 5th)
13) Levonta Taylor, Florida State (78.925, Late 5th)
14) Jeremy Chinn, Southern Illinois (78.9, Late 5th)
15) Tanner Muse, Clemson (78.9, Late 5th)
16) Josh Metellus, Michigan (78.575, Late 5th/Early 6th)
17) Alohi Gillman, Notre Dame (78.025, 6th)
18) Jalen Elliot, Notre Dame (77.9, 6th)
19) Jared Mayden, Alabama (77.7, 6th)
20) Jordan Fuller, Ohio State (77.65, 6th)
21) JR Reed, Georgia (77.225, 6th)
22) Antoine Brooks, Maryland (75.75, 7th)
Obviously, the 2020 safety class is not as strong as the cornerback class, but it’s not far off. Perhaps there isn’t a superstar safety in this draft class, but the first eight players will be starters in the NFL, while the top four have a chance to be truly dynamic players. In particular, Winfield and Stone figure to be absolute steals, based on where they’re expected to go, but the same can be said about the top four players in this class in general. For teams in need of a safety, such as the Patriots, Cardinals, 49ers, Browns, Jaguars, Seahawks, Cardinals, Saints, Vikings, and others, the draft may be a great place to fill that void; only one team can sign star free-agent Anthony Harris, after all.