Florida's Matt Elam should be a first-round pick.
The evolution of the tight end and slot receiver positions has forced teams to find safeties who can not only stuff the run but also cover the pass. While the cupboard has been rather bare during the past two drafts, the depth at safety is excellent in the 2013 NFL draft.
Since 2011, Mark Barron and Harrison Smith are the only safeties who have been taken in the first round, and few middle-round picks have turned out to be anything special.
However, as many as eight safeties could be gone by the fourth round this April. From Florida's Matt Elam to Texas' Kenny Vaccaro, NFL scouts should have plenty to rave about when turning on the tape.
Let's take a closer look at some of the top prospects and some sleepers at the safety spot.
Kenny Vaccaro, Texas (Senior)
Kenny Vaccaro might not be a household name among casual fans, but the Texas Longhorns' best defender won't have to wait long to hear his name called on draft day.
Checking in at a rocked-up 6'1", 218 pounds, Vaccaro is a devastating hitter who's a perfect fit for the new-age safety. With 4.49 wheels, the top-ranked safety in the class has the closing speed to make plays in the run game and cover tight ends and backs.
A favorite of NEPatriotsDraft.com, Vaccaro has great instincts, which allows him to make plays on the ball and excel in zone coverage. With his size and strength, he can overpower slot receivers and hold his own against bigger tight ends.
Because of his versatility to play either safety spot, there's no doubt Vaccaro will be a highly sought-after player on draft day.
Draft Projection: Top 15
Matt Elam, Florida (Junior)
One of the most exciting players in college football, Florida's Matt Elam backs up his trash talk with his play on the field. Despite a compact build (5'10", 202 pounds), the former Gator hits like a tank and routinely lights up running backs.
Anyone who watched the Allstate Sugar Bowl got a first-hand glimpse at Elam's physicality and trademark big hits.
While he isn't a great man-to-man safety, Elam has solid instincts to excel in a zone defense. In three years at Florida, the 2012 first-team All-American recorded 176 tackles (23.5 for loss), five sacks, six interceptions and 19 passes defended.
A natural leader who has a knack for making timely plays, Elam is a first-round talent who can anchor the back end of a defense.
Draft Projection: Late first round
D.J. Swearinger, South Carolina (Senior)
Like Elam, South Carolina's D.J. Swearinger made his name in the SEC as a knockout hitter.
In four years with the Gamecocks, the 5'11", 210-pounder was the enforcer at free safety. Under Steve Spurrier, Swearinger recorded 244 tackles, six picks, 22 passes defended and two touchdowns.
While his huge hits brought plenty of fanfare, they also drew the ire of referees. In a 38-20 win over Arkansas on Nov. 10, Swearinger was flagged on three consecutive plays. However, the third flag came after he returned an interception 69 yards for a touchdown.
That game-changing ability makes Swearinger an intriguing prospect. But can coaches trust him to keep his aggression in check?
Whether his physical talent and production can make up for his lack of discipline will be key to determining Swearinger's draft stock.
Draft Projection: Early fourth round
Jonathan Cyprien, Florida International (Senior)
Just four FIU Panthers have ever been drafted, but Jonathan Cyprien will make that five in April.
The hard-hitting senior is currently rated as the No. 4 strong safety by CBSSports.com. In four years with the Panthers, Cyprien was one of the most productive defenders in the country. The 6'0", 209-pounder finished his career with an eye-popping 365 tackles, six picks, 28 passes defended and six forced fumbles.
His standout career earned him a late call-up to the Senior Bowl, where he immediately caught everyone's attention with his aggressive style of play.
Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage offered his thoughts on Cyprien in a piece by Tommy Hicks of Alabama.com.
I loved his tackling, his explosiveness. He just had a football temperament that jumped off the tape. We kind of waited and let some of the other people go in and check him out. I had a friend from another team go in and check him out late in the year and I told him to just text me, thumbs up or thumbs down. He texted me 'Thumbs way up.'
Cyprien may not hail from a national powerhouse, but he'll make an NFL team very happy in the 2013 NFL draft.
Draft Projection: Fourth round