B/R CFB 250: Top 20 Safeties in College Football

Michael FelderNational CFB Lead WriterDecember 21, 2013

B/R CFB 250: Top 20 Safeties in College Football

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    USA Today

    Editor's note: This is the ninth installment in Bleacher Report's CFB 250 for the 2013 season. This signature series runs through December, with National College Football Lead Writer Michael Felder ranking the best players at every position. You can read more about the series in this introductory article. See the CFB 250 page for more rankings.

    Given the rise in packaged plays, mobile quarterbacks and quick offensive checks, the safety position has become more important than ever in college football. They are not just pass defenders or run defenders. In fact, teams are not even able to truly play a strong and free safety as they have in the past because offenses shift and flip formations so often.

    Thus, these players have to be versatile jacks-of-all-trades who are as comfortable against the run as they are dropping into a deep third or lining up over a tight end to play man coverage. They need to have the range to get off the hash and make a play on the sideline, and they must possess the aggression to come down into the box and fill the alley.

    To evaluate our safeties, we took a look at each of them in three aspects: run defense, coverage and tackling. Each of these aspects factors heavily into what they are asked to do and speaks to the versatility expected from the position in the current era of college football. If there were any ties, the edge went to the player we would rather have.

    Keep in mind, these safeties are being rated on their performance in college, not NFL potential. But to see where these players may go in the NFL draft (whether they are eligible in 2014 or later), check out Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller's projections at the end of each player slide. 

20. Sean Parker, Washington

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    Run Defense

    25/30

    Sean Parker is a senior who has spent a lot of time working down into the box, so he certainly understands how to make run fits and when to shoot past a blocker versus when to string a play out. He doesn’t always execute well, but he certainly understands what he is supposed to do.

    Coverage

    34/40

    The senior is capable of doing a little bit of everything for the Huskies. He’s played in the intermediate coverage areas. He’s been asked to get deep down the field. He’s shown an ability to work tight zone coverage off blitzes, matching receivers in almost a man look.

    Tackling

    24/30

    Parker does miss tackles at times when he comes up out of control. The big issue for him is gathering himself after making the proper run fit or driving on a pass thrown in coverage.

    Overall

    83/100

    He is a good safety who has made some big plays for the Huskies. He is not afraid to sacrifice himself to make a play. The big thing for Parker is controlling his game in an effort to limit mistakes. The kid fights to insert himself into plays and is a good player.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Sixth round. A bit small for an NFL strong safety.

19. Cody Riggs, Florida

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    Run Defense

    25/30

    Getting downhill against the run is something that Cody Riggs seems to enjoy and do well. He makes some mistakes in pursuit, but he is a safety who is comfortable pushing down into the box to add himself to the mix against the run.

    Coverage

    33/40

    Riggs has laid big shots on people and been ejected for targeting. However, he arrives a step or two too late to truly break up the passes. That’s why he does not rank higher as a coverage safety.

    Tackling

    26/30

    Riggs is better coming downhill against the run, and he is able to get into the box and make a play. In the pass game, he secures a tackle to make sure there is minimal gain. When he gets an opportunity, he explodes on ball-carriers.

    Overall

    84/100

    The Florida safety is a physical player who brings a toughness to the field on every snap. Although he doesn’t always break up passes, he does make people pay for catching the football, so there is legitimate value to his contributions.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Third round. Big potential and enough speed to wow NFL teams.

18. Su'a Cravens, USC

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    Run Defense

    23/30

    Su'a Cravens is not a primary run defender, but the freshman is finding his spots to make plays for the Trojans. He has great closing speed that shows when runs break the line of scrimmage.

    Coverage

    35/40

    The true freshman is another player who stepped in at the collegiate level, learned the game as he progressed and showed the ability to make a serious impact. Cravens closes on the football as well as anyone in the country, and that helps him get his hands on the football.

    Tackling

    26/30

    Closing speed is a big reason why Cravens is such a sound tackler. He flies to the ball and goes in for the tackle before the opposition has an opportunity to evade the approach.

    Overall

    84/100

    Cravens is another player who is just scratching the surface of his talent. This year he proved he can run with the athletes in the Pac-12. His big moves have to come from taking an understanding of concepts and working them to gain advantages against opponents' quarterbacks.

    NFL Draft Projection

    First round. Has as much NFL potential as any safety in college.

17. Jalen Ramsey, Florida State

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    Run Defense

    23/30

    Jalen Ramsey is a freshman who the nation got to watch grow into his new role as the season progressed. Catching on in run defense was the part that still gave him trouble at times as he reacted slower than other safeties to transitioning into run defense.

    Coverage

    36/40

    The freshman was surprisingly smooth in coverage, better than most older safeties. He is a fluid athlete who does a good job matching receivers in zone while seeing through to the quarterback. Ramsey also is an exceptional man-to-man defender when pushed into action.

    Tackling

    25/30

    Ramsey is a very good tackler, which is refreshing for a freshman defensive back. He has great body control and understands leverage. He not only knows how to get opponents on the ground, but he also has a good feel for how to push ball-carriers back to his teammates.

    Overall

    84/100

    Ramsey converted from corner to safety during the season and played exceptionally well for the Seminoles. The move is difficult in the offseason for experienced players, but Ramsey made it during the year and excelled in game action.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Early first round. Versatile enough to play cornerback or safety at the next level.

16. Sam Carter, TCU

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    Run Defense

    29/30

    Sam Carter is, in the eyes of many, a glorified linebacker for the Horned Frogs, dressed up in safety clothing. He plays the run like a back in that he can set an edge, push through outside shoulders of blockers and track the back-side A-gap well.

    Coverage

    31/40

    Carter’s range is limited, but he’s a monster in underneath coverage. He patrols intermediate areas with great understanding of how to be a problem for quarterbacks. His biggest asset is the quickness to move from a possible blitz threat to a guy who can undercut quick routes to outside receivers.

    Tackling

    25/30

    Carter brings the wood when he patrols the intermediate zones and in the run game. He’s a player who understands how to play in close quarters, and that’s a plus for his run duties. He also has the ability to play in space and make open-field tackles.

    Overall

    85/100

    He’s not a traditional safety, but he’s a very good player who deserves recognition because he plays his spot very well. Few safeties are as comfortable in the box as Carter.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Fourth round. Ideal player versus the run, but he has to improve in coverage.

15. Anthony Harris, Virginia

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    Run Defense

    24/30

    The long safety for Virginia is a confident run defender. Anthony Harris comes up to secondary run-stop, taking good angles to ball-carriers. He has a clear understanding of where he fits versus the run.

    Coverage

    36/40

    A true opportunist in coverage, Harris is an interception machine because he sees the whole field and makes good breaks. Although he doesn’t flash big to prevent big tosses, he does react well to get there and impact the play.

    Tackling

    25/30

    Harris is a sure tackler who does a good job securing the opponent. In the open field, the junior shows good hip fluidity in reacting to moves while reducing the space between himself and the ball-carrier to force the issue.

    Overall

    85/100

    Harris is a good player who had a phenomenal season when it came to getting interceptions. He does a lot of things well at the safety position and is still developing skills in coverage to control the field.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Sixth round. A good athlete, but he might not be aggressive enough for the NFL.

14. Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss

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    Run Defense

    24/30

    Cody Prewitt is a solid alley-fill player for the Rebels. He’s a fighter to the football who uses good leverage on his approach to make sure he’s operating within the confines of the scheme.

    Coverage

    35/40

    Prewitt is big for a safety, but he is strong in coverage. The Rebels ask him to cover underneath routes more than play the deep ball, and he responds well. Prewitt patrols the interior of the defense with confidence, and he breaks on the ball downhill quickly.

    Tackling

    26/30

    The Rebels’ safety is a striker. He delivers a blow when he gets to the ball-carrier. But when he gets his frame moving, he still has the ability to adjust to the opponent and make a play.

    Overall

    85/100

    Prewitt is a big-time hammer at the safety spot. Although he’s not a guy with tremendous range, he’s great for controlling the interior of the defense and stopping intermediate routes from going for big plays.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Fourth round. He has ideal size, but a lack of speed shows up on film.

13. Nickoe Whitley, Mississippi State

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    Run Defense

    25/30

    Nickoe Whitley is not a primary run defender, but he’s willing to come up and make plays in the box when the Bulldogs need him. He’s a good tackler and knows how to alley-fill.

    Coverage

    35/40

    The senior is smooth in coverage and understands the little things very well. He takes away areas by showing up for quarterbacks, but he also has the ability to read quarterbacks and break on the ball to make a play. He has good ball skills and tremendous reaction time.

    Tackling

    26/30

    Whitley has played a lot of football and understands the most efficient methods to get ball-carriers on the ground. He doesn’t waste steps in pursuit and does not often risk giving up a big play by gambling to make a tackle. He secures the opponent.

    Overall

    86/100

    The Bulldogs senior is a cool customer with a lot of football under his belt, and it shows in his play. He knows how to get big plays out of the passing game, and he does a good job of minimizing risk in big spots.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Third round. Injury questions hurt the stock of this future NFL starter.

12. Chris Hackett, TCU

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    Run Defense

    26/30

    Chris Hackett is a very active safety against the run. The sophomore fills the voids of the defense well. On runs to him, the safety plays the bounce well and is not afraid to come up and set an edge for the defense.

    Coverage

    34/40

    Hackett is very good in his coverage area. He has good range and also works well over the slot and playing the intermediate zones. The sophomore is a fluid athlete who is fast to the football.

    Tackling

    26/30

    As with the bulk of TCU’s defense, Hackett is a quality tackler. He presses the ball-carrier well and limits his options before going in to run his feet and make the tackle. He also understands how to work the edge and push ball-carriers into his teammates.

    Overall

    86/100

    Hackett does a lot of things well for TCU. Getting active both deep and near the line is a big plus for the sophomore. His ability over the slot and working laterally in the intermediate areas makes him a valuable asset.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Second round. Hackett has all the tools NFL teams want; he just needs experience.

11. Dion Bailey, USC

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    Run Defense

    26/30

    Dion Bailey is a good run defender who is still feeling his way into the run fits from the safety spot. His speed helps him make plays. As teams run the ball, Bailey is always in the mix. Playing linebacker has helped him understand working in the box. He is just working to manage the additional space.

    Coverage

    35/40

    Early in the season, Bailey seemed lost in the back end of the field. He struggled with his relationship to receivers and working to landmarks versus breaking on quarterback reads. However, he’s made rapid improvements, become a reliable safety who can match receivers and is a threat to make a play by reading the quarterback.

    Tackling

    25/30

    Bailey’s speed runs him out of plays at time, but the junior has figured out how to operate in more space. He’s become quite efficient at using his speed to cut the space between him and the opponent and then works to get him on the ground.

    Overall

    86/100

    Making the transition from an undersized linebacker to a safety was a plus for Bailey. The Trojans took him from being swallowed up in the wash to being able to see the game around him and fly around to the ball. That solid move by defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast produced a strong season by Bailey.

    NFL Draft Projection

    First round. A prototypical strong safety prospect with first-round potential.

10. Ty Zimmerman, Kansas State

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    Run Defense

    27/30

    Ty Zimmerman is a safety who seems to enjoy coming up to play the run. He’s a great fill player who recognizes when the ball is crossing the line and shoots through to bang on running backs. He checks for cutbacks well and pushes his angles to limit gains.

    Coverage

    34/40

    The Wildcats senior is fluid in coverage and pushes to make plays in the back end. He reads the quarterback well, getting good jumps on the ball. By showing large, he limits the quarterback’s options and forces balls to be thrown shorter.

    Tackling

    26/30

    Kansas State’s safety is a quality tackler who flies to the football and mixes it up with very good aggression. Zimmerman is one of the safeties who does a lot by himself from a tackling standpoint. He comes to balance and puts ball-carriers on the ground.

    Overall

    87/100

    He's a talented player who sees through his zone to the quarterback and gets a good jump on the ball to make plays. He is not afraid to lay the wood to ball-carriers. In the passing game, he works as well at preventing plays as he does reacting to quarterback decisions.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Fourth round. A big intimidator, but slow to recover against the pass.

9. Terrence Brooks, Florida State

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    Run Defense

    25/30

    Terrence Brooks is quite capable of coming down into the box to help with run defense. He is a good alley-fill player. When he starts out lower in the box, he reacts quickly to the ball at the line of scrimmage.

    Coverage

    36/40

    The Florida State senior has great range and is a true leader in the back end. He helps get Jalen Ramsey set up and works with some young players to make sure areas are covered. He can get off the hash in a hurry, and when he’s pushed down into intermediate areas, his speed to the ball is truly outstanding.

    Tackling

    26/30

    Brooks is a good tackler, like most of the Florida State defense. He comes down into the box with a purpose and takes away the space between him and ball-carriers. In the pass game, Brooks closes well on the football, which puts him in a position to secure tackles and limit gains.

    Overall

    87/100

    The senior is a very good safety who works the back end exceptionally well. He fights in the run game to get downhill to make plays, and in the pass game he understands how to let the quarterback’s eyes and shoulders take him to the football.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Third round. Excellent speed, but he disappears against the run.

8. Ahmad Dixon, Baylor

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    Run Defense

    26/30

    Ahmad Dixon is another safety who wants to get into the box whenever he can. He flies up hard to turn runs back to the inside, and on interior runs he picks his way through the trash to get to the ball-carrier.

    Coverage

    35/40

    Dixon often is so intent on getting to play the run that at times he flies down when he would be better served sinking into coverage. However, he does have decent range, and he is a guy who is very good at playing the intermediate routes while driving shallow throws.

    Tackling

    26/30

    At times, Dixon takes bad angles that lead to him going for a ride on bigger players. However, he is generally a good tackler and a guy who gets to the ball-carrier with the sole purpose of delivering punishment.

    Overall

    87/100

    The Bears have a very good player in Dixon. He’s a physical presence from the safety spot against the run. Opponents’ receivers, quarterbacks and running backs all have to know where No. 6 is on the field on any given play.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Second round. Dixon has all the tools to be a starter from his first day in the NFL.

7. Hakeem Smith, Louisville

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    Run Defense

    25/30

    Generally, Hakeem Smith isn't a primary run defender, but he's a player who understands the alley-fill concepts well. He knows where to insert himself as the ball breaks the line of scrimmage and how to operate within the defense as a plug to stop leaks in the front seven.

    Coverage

    37/40

    Smith is a prototypical deep safety. He has great wheels, the ability to move around in the back end while reading the quarterback and great closing speed. Smith takes away huge swaths of field, forcing quarterbacks to look elsewhere and giving the rush time to get to the quarterback.

    Tackling

    25/30

    His safety partner, Calvin Pryor, is the best tackler at the position, but Smith is a tremendous tackler in his own right. He’s a guy who makes a lot of open-field tackles in pursuit, hoping to minimize big gains, and he’s phenomenal at cutting out the cutback for receivers and backs down the field.

    Overall

    87/100

    An experienced talent at the position, Smith takes plays away before offenses have a chance to make them. He’s a solid tackler and understands just where he fits for his defense, helping others make plays while he patrols the back end.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Fifth round. Solid in coverage but not overly physical.

6. Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State

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    Run Defense

    26/30

    Everybody plays run defense for Michigan State, its safeties included. Kurtis Drummond gets downhill quickly and does not hesitate to fly on the edge and shoot his guns to take a back’s outside hip out of the play.

    Coverage

    35/40

    Drummond’s responsibilities range from being a single high safety helping the corners to coming down in the box and covering tight ends and backs one-on-one. He does all things well, including recognizing the intermediate zone, giving up the shallow crosses and driving the shorter throws.

    Tackling

    26/30

    Because Drummond is a good tackler, driving shallow passes while playing deep to short is exactly what works for Michigan State. He is a great open-field tackler who makes ball-carriers uncomfortable by not going for moves and forcing them to do what he wants in order to make a tackle.

    Overall

    87/100

    He’s a quality player who plays on defense, where he often goes underappreciated nationally. He has good range, great closing speed and is a sure tackler. He belongs near the top of the list because he can flat-out play.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Fourth round. Talented, but quickness in coverage is a question mark.

5. Landon Collins, Alabama

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    Run Defense

    26/30

    Landon Collins is a physical specimen who uses that natural ability against the run. He comes down into the box hard but is still learning the best angles and run fits. He’s not a liability against the run, just a player who is quickly developing his plan to make an impact and who can get there in a hurry.

    Coverage

    35/40

    An injury to Vinnie Sunseri pushed Collins into every-down action, and he responded well. The sophomore has tremendous range in the back end, which comes in handy given Alabama’s deficiency at the cornerback spot. He breaks on the ball quickly and helps prevent deep throws by flashing in the zone.

    Tackling

    27/30

    The sophomore is emerging as one of Alabama’s most reliable tacklers. He moves to the ball quickly as runs break the line of scrimmage, and he uses his athleticism to corral ball-carriers. The closing speed he displays in coverage comes into play in tackling, as he engages ball-carriers before they can make a move.

    Overall

    88/100

    He has the talent to be one of the best in the nation, and it shows, as he sits near the top of these rankings in his first season of significant action. He’s a tremendous closer. As he evolved in 2013, he showed all of the things that made him a coveted player out of high school.

    NFL Draft Projection

    First round. A future star at the safety position.

4. Calvin Pryor, Louisville

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    Run Defense

    27/30

    Calvin Pryor wants to come down into the box, which some safeties lack in their makeup. He comes down with a fire and looks to make tackles close to the line of scrimmage. He understands leverage, will fight through blocks and is willing to give up his body to set the edge for his teammates to make a tackle.

    Coverage

    33/40

    The Louisville safety is a ball hawk, even with limited range. He is comfortable working the curl to flat and breaking on short routes to stone receivers. He also can play the deep third, reading the quarterback. He sees the QB’s eyes well, which helps him get a jump to extend his range.

    Tackling

    28/30

    The junior is the best tackler at the safety spot in the nation. He comes up with fire and control that allow him to mix into the run and get results. He can secure tackles in the pass game to minimize gains, and when the opportunity arises, he’ll knock an opponent into the dirt.

    Overall

    88/100

    He’s an imposing player at the position. He wants to be physical. He wants to be a presence that receivers and running backs think about when they get into space. His instincts and understanding make him a step or two quicker than he probably truly happens to be, and that lets him go make plays.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Second round. Pryor has the size and speed; he just needs to improve in coverage.

3. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama

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    Run Defense

    25/30

    Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is not usually a primary run defender. Given Alabama’s cornerback issues, he has to work extensively in the back end, but he is a tremendous secondary run-fill player. He comes up under control, works within the confines of the defensive system and fills his alley with confidence.

    Coverage

    37/40

    The Alabama junior’s range is off the charts. He is the rare safety who can get to the sideline from the middle third and be able to make a play if necessary. He understands how to operate in myriad looks, including recognizing when to give help when the team is playing man looks.

    Tackling

    26/30

    Clinton-Dix is an under-control player. He comes to tackle with a purpose and recognizes that the goal is to minimize the gain, squeezing a play by using the sideline and other defenders, not just deliver a kill shot.

    Overall

    88/100

    Alabama’s best safety is one of the best in this group because of his ability to truly do everything required of him. He works hard in coverage to help his corners, and when run shows, he comes down in the box with a plan to limit damage.

    NFL Draft Projection

    First round. The ideal free safety prospect for today's NFL.

2. Ed Reynolds, Stanford

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    Run Defense

    26/30

    Stanford safety Ed Reynolds is a fighter in the run game. He’s generally a secondary run defender, but he comes ready to put ball-carriers down hard and put teams into passing situations by limiting yards.

    Coverage

    37/40

    Reynolds is one of the better safeties in the college game when the ball is in the air. He has great range and can get off the hash in a hurry, plus he reads the quarterback well, letting the QB’s shoulders take him to the ball. The Stanford junior has the best jump in college football.

    Tackling

    26/30

    Reynolds flies to the ball in the run game and comes up with business on his mind. In the pass game, he tackles well too. The safety understands when to secure a tackle and limit the gain and when to send a message.

    Overall

    89/100

    In Reynolds, Stanford has one of the best players at the position in the game. He moves well in the back end and brings a feel for the game that allows him to make plays that most safeties simply do not. He has good speed and wants to be physical when he gets to the football.

    NFL Draft Projection

    First round. Great in coverage, but he has to prove himself against the run.

1. Deone Bucannon, Washington State

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    Run Defense

    30/30

    No one in college football comes down and stops the run quite like Deone Bucannon. He’s essentially a linebacker in the box because he can scrape and fill against the run and has no problem splitting defenders to make a tackle on a ball-carrier.

    Coverage

    35/40

    Early on, with so much effort put into the run, Bucannon struggled in coverage, but he rebounded for the bulk of the season. The senior has decent range when asked to play in the deep part of the field and is phenomenal in the intermediate areas.

    Tackling

    27/30

    Washington State’s leading tackler is a guy who wants to tackle. More importantly, he wants ball-carriers to know they have been tackled by him. He brings big effort into tackling and puts guys on the ground.

    Overall

    92/100

    He’s a surprise to some, but folks who watched him play know just how good he is all over the field. He is a guy who will stroke an offensive player if he gets a chance, and he’s getting comfortable in coverage, which makes him a problem for offenses.

    NFL Draft Projection

    Early second round. Hard-hitting and smart in coverage, Bucannon just needs to run better to move up.