Browns, NFL Draft

WFNY’s 2017 NFL Draft Coverage: Joe Gilbert’s Top Five Safeties

Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 NFL Draft process is in full swing after the NFL Scouting Combine completed this past weekend. With that, the WFNY 2017 NFL Draft Coverage is too!

Let’s first take a look at the best players in the 2017 NFL Draft at each position, starting first with the safeties. The Browns will be looking hard at this position after struggling through a cavalcade of defensive backs during the 2016 season. This position is in need of a huge upgrade, especially after the Browns struck out in free agency in trying to nab safety Tony Jefferson. Luckily for the Browns, this year’s safeties class is load with premier talent who can be playmakers in the backend of a defense.

Trying to narrow a top five amongst this class is hard, but without further ado, here are my top five safeties in the 2017 NFL Draft.

1. Jamal Adams, LSU

Stats: Last season in 12 games, he posted 76 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss, one sack, five passes defended, one forced fumble and one interception.

Jamal Adams is my No. 1 safety in the 2017 class and one of the best players overall. He is a versatile safety who could play either strong or free safety, but would be best utilized as a strong safety. At 6-0 and 214 pounds, the former Tiger is a physical player who sets the tone for a defense. He is willing to stick his head into the trenches and make plays against the run. He has excellent instincts and reactionary timing. He is able to quickly track down a runner or receiver in coverage. He is almost always the first player to react to the ball. To go along with these two traits, Adams has good speed and smooth change of direction agility to get to a ball carrier quickly. He is able to play both in zone and man coverage. He can read the play and quickly react in zone. In man coverage, he was able to cover tight ends, running backs and wide receivers during his college career. His athleticism and intelligence allows him to cover all these positions. On and off the field, he is said to have great leadership with the ability to be the voice of the defense.

Though he does not have many flaws, there are some things he must work on. He has a tendency to take some questionable angles to make a tackle, leading to missed tackles. He needs to keep his eyes up and not dive as much to make a tackle. He does have range, but he would not be utilized perfectly as a ballhawking over-the-top safety. Let him play as the underneath safety who is responsible for the run also. In the end, he is my top safety, who can really make plays versus the run and the pass.

2. Malik Hooker, Ohio State

Stats: Last season in 13 games, he notched 74 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, a half sack, 11 passes defended and seven interceptions.

Malik Hooker is my No. 2 safety in the class, but he is the best free safety in this year’s group. The first thing that pops out on film for the former Buckeye is his incredible range. He has the ability to cover sideline to sideline because of his instincts, ability to read the play and athleticism. He trusts his eyes to flow to the play. He has great closing speed, along with accurate and sharp routes to the ball, that allow him to get his 10.4-inch hands on passes anywhere on the field. Besides zone coverage, he has the ability to cover players in man coverage. He uses his athleticism and fluidness to keep close with the potential pass catcher. His change of direction and fluid hips allow him to react to passes and plays quickly. He has a really good combination of athleticism and size, standing at 6-foot-1, 206 pounds. His ball skills are incredibly good for a safety. He can high point a pass and out-jump a pass catcher for the ball, using his quality hands to bring in the interception. He picked off seven passes last season with Ohio State, so he can be a true game changer in any secondary.

On the flip side, Hooker is just a one-year starter, so he is inexperienced. He can make some powerful hits, but his technique on his tackles can be cleaned up. He has a tendency to tackle with his arms and tackle with eyes off the target. He is aggressive and instinctive against the pass, but he does not consistently show those qualities against the run. Overall, Hooker is a playmaker in the backend of the secondary and can be a ballhawk for any defense.

3. Obi Melifonwu, Connecticut

Stats: Last season in 12 games, he posted 118 tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss, seven passes defended and four interceptions.

Obi Melifonwu is the best athlete in the entire safety class and right up there with the best in the entire draft class. At 6-foot-4, 224 pounds, he ran a 4.40-second 40-yard dash and jumped out of the building with a 44-inch vertical and 141-inch broad jump at the NFL Scouting Combine. The former Huskie is able to move well for his size and can play sideline to sideline. He has the ability to cover players in man coverage because of his unique athleticism. He was moved all over the field in several different roles for Connecticut and could definitely do that at the next level. He is a good tackler with the size to tackle any size of ball carrier. He is able to break away from blocks using elusiveness and strength. When he is rolling downhill, he can be a freight train and clean up the play. His best position would be strong safety, where he could use his size at the line of scrimmage.

Melifonwu is far from a finished product, however. He is far too inconsistent on instinctiveness. He is often times reacting rather than reading the play and making a move before it is completed. His lack of instincts hurts his ability to play over top and be a ballhawk even with his great athleticism. He is a freak athlete with a lot of potential, but he needs to develop his game to really reach his highest potential. Melifonwu has the talent to be a real weapon for a defense in the NFL.

4. Jabrill Peppers, Michigan

Stats: Last season in 12 games, he notched 72 tackles, 16 tackles for a loss, four sacks, one forced fumble and one interception.

Jabrill Peppers is one of the most interesting safety prospects in the 2017 NFL Draft. Peppers played linebacker, safety, cornerback, quarterback, wide receiver and running back during his Michigan career. His versatility is enabled by his athleticism and mindset. At the NFL Scouting Combine, he ran a 4.46-second 40-yard dash and jumped 35.5 inches in the vertical and 128 inches in the broad jump. He is able to change directions fluidly, which allows him to play in man and zone coverage. He is a tough player with the mindset to do whatever it takes to help the team win. He was asked to play linebacker at Michigan, even though his best position for the NFL is safety. He is a leader of the defense, who can get his teammates to follow him. Even with his shorter height at 5-foot-11 (which is taller than former Browns safety T.J. Ward), the former Wolverine is a physical player who can play at the line of scrimmage and impact the opposing team’s run game. He is a big hitter who can close on a ball carrier with explosion. His versatility also relates to his ability as a returner. He can make huge plays as a returner, changing a game in that way.

Peppers is not without flaws. His size is the first question mark. At 5-foot-11, 213 pounds, he may struggle to cover tight ends and win on jump balls against athletic receivers. His ball skills and playmaking ability are not as great as his reputation states. He only had one interception in his career and he has struggled to finish off plays in coverage. Lastly, he does not have great instincts, which hurts his reaction time to get to a play and his ability to make plays on defense. Peppers is a strong safety who can be a real weapon for a defense, filling multiple roles for a team.

5. Budda Baker, Washington

Stats: Last season in 14 games, he posted 71 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, three sacks, one forced fumble and two interceptions.

Budda Baker is a super rangy player who will best suited as a free safety or nickel corner. He may be undersized, but he has great athleticism and movement skills. He ran a 4.45-second 40-yard dash and ran a 6.76-second 3-cone drill, showing he has both straight-line speed and quickness. His athleticism allows him to play both in man and zone coverage. In man, he is agile and fast enough to cover receivers and running backs. In zone, he has the ability to change directions quickly and flow to the ball. He has explosive closing speed, which helps him in coverage and against the run. He will have the range and athleticism to be an over-the-top safety, who is the last line of defense for a unit. The former Huskie is always moving and has the emotion to energize a defense. He is a willing tackler in the run game, with more physicality and explosion in his tackles than his size would indicate.

Baker, however, is undersized at the position, standing just 5-foot-10, 195 pounds. His lack of size hurts in multiple ways. He can be beat by taller receivers and tight ends, getting boxed out by their size advantage. Also, he can get stuck on blocks because of lack of strength and size to get away. His size will also be a factor in his ability to tackle bigger players in the NFL. In coverage, he can get a little handsy with his man, which could lead to penalties in the NFL. But in the end, Baker has great range and athleticism to be a factor in coverage for a team.