B/R CFB 150: Top 16 Safeties

Bleacher Report College Football StaffFeatured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2017

B/R CFB 150: Top 16 Safeties

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    Ohio State S Malik Hooker
    Ohio State S Malik HookerJustin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Bleacher Report's CFB 150 is an annual ranking of the game's best players, regardless of NFL potential. Authors David KenyonBrian Pedersen and Barrett Sallee have studied, ranked and graded the top athletes in the country, narrowed that list down and sorted by position. Today, Sallee presents the top 16 safeties.

    Other CFB 150 Positions

    The role of a safety varies from team to team and situation to situation. The best are solid in coverage and passing situations and reliable in run support. Often times, the safety is the last line of defense in preventing a big play.

    The following rankings are based primarily on one's skills as a college player rather than how he would fare in the NFL. Though these players may be using this time to develop their game for the pro level, their goals are primarily centered on helping their teams succeed.

    Think we're missing someone, or don't agree with how we've ranked them? Give us your thoughts in the comments section.

16-11: Williams-Stewart

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    Baylor S Orion Stewart
    Baylor S Orion StewartTom Pennington/Getty Images

    16. Marcus Williams, Utah

    Class: Junior

    2016 Stats: 64 tackles, one for loss, five interceptions, three pass breakups, two forced fumbles

    Utah's defense finished second in the Pac-12 with 18 interceptions, and safety Marcus Williams was a big reason why. The junior from Corona, California, was a force in coverage, stuck his nose in on run defense consistently and helped lead the Utes into the Top 25. 

       

    15. Jordan Whitehead, Pitt

    Class: Sophomore

    2016 Stats: 65 tackles, 1.5 for loss, one interception (returned for touchdown), one fumble recovery, two pass breakups and one forced fumble

    Whitehead was limited at the end of the season due to an arm injury, but prior to that, he was one of the best in the game. Not only was he a force against the run, but he was solid in coverage and impacted the scoreboard directly with a 59-yard pick-six against Virginia.

       

    14. Eddie Jackson, Alabama

    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 24 tackles, 2.5 for loss, one interception (returned for touchdown), two pass breakups, 253 punt return yards, two touchdowns

    Jackson's career came to an end after he suffered a leg injury against Texas A&M in October, but prior to that, he was on track to be a first-team All-American. After moving from cornerback prior to the 2015 season, Jackson settled in as one of the nation's best all-around safeties and a special teams ace for the three-time defending SEC champs.

       

    13. Donnie Miles, North Carolina

    Class: Junior

    2016 Stats: 102 tackles, three for loss, two pass breakups, one fumble recovery

    North Carolina isn't known for defense. But don't tell that to Donnie Miles, who was one of the ACC's best in 2016. The junior topped the century mark in tackles, was ultra-reliable when a running back was bearing down on him and helped lead the Tar Heels to an appearance in the Sun Bowl.

       

    12. Tedric Thompson, Colorado

    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 63 tackles, three for loss, seven interceptions, 16 pass breakups, one quarterback hurry

    Tedric Thompson was the centerpiece of one of the most remarkable turnarounds in college football in 2016. His seven interceptions tied for third nationally, his leadership helped vault Colorado back into the national spotlight and his play made the Buffaloes defense one of the best in the Pac-12. 

       

    11. Orion Stewart, Baylor

    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 76 tackles, five for loss, one sack, six interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), five pass breakups

    Baylor went through a down, up and down season over the course of the last year, but one constant was the steady play of safety Orion Stewart. His tackle numbers and ball-hawking ability made him one of the nation's most complete safeties in 2016 and earned him first-team All-Big 12 honors from the Associated Press

10. Jadar Johnson, Clemson

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    Clemson S Jadar Johnson
    Clemson S Jadar JohnsonKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 60 tackles, two for loss, five interceptions, seven pass breakups, one forced fumble

    Jadar Johnson made waves leading up to the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl when he gave Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett bulletin-board material.

    "We have played better quarterbacks than him," Johnson told reporters. "I'm not taking anything away from him. I don't think he is a bad player. He is definitely a good player, but he does not stand out as one of the best quarterbacks that we have played this year."

    He backed it up with four tackles in a national semifinal in which the Buckeyes managed just 215 total yards and were shut out for the first time since 1993.

    On the season, Johnson proved to be one of the nation's best in run support, was solid in coverage with five picks and is a big reason why the Tigers played in the national title game for the second straight season.

9. Weston Steelhammer, Air Force

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    Air Force S Weston Steelhammer
    Air Force S Weston SteelhammerMpu Dinani/Getty Images

    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 80 tackles, 4.5 for loss, one sack, seven interceptions, four pass breakups, one forced fumble

    What, you haven't heard of Air Force safety Weston Steelhammer? Why not? All he did was post one of the nation's best seasons by a safety and earn a third-team nod on the Associated Press All-American team.

    "He is mature beyond his years," Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun told Michael Lev of the Arizona Daily Star. "He has nothing but the utmost regard and respect for other people. He absolutely gets it."

    While he didn't play on stages as big as some of the other players featured here, Steelhammer proved in 2016 that he was willing and able to stick his nose in on run support as often as Calhoun needed. His stats suggest that he could—and possibly should—be ranked higher than the ninth-best FBS safety. But the relatively weaker competition he faced compared to other top safeties makes it hard to project how effective he'd be against the big boys.

8. Justin Evans, Texas A&M

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    Texas A&M S Justin Evans
    Texas A&M S Justin EvansBob Levey/Getty Images

    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 87 tackles, five for loss, four interceptions, eight pass breakups, one blocked kick, 428 kickoff return yards

    Armani Watts might get the publicity, but Justin Evans was Texas A&M's best safety in 2016 by far. The senior finished second on the team in tackles and was as complete as anybody at the strong safety position.

    "This kid jumps off the tape," an NFL personnel executive told NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah in September. "He's a better player than [2016 first-round pick] Karl Joseph. He's a ferocious hitter, and he can cover a lot of ground. He will be a top-20 pick this spring."

    His senior season got off to a great start with two interceptions in the season-opening overtime win over UCLA, and he added another pick in the overtime win over Tennessee and one against Alabama. 

7. Marcus Maye, Florida

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    Florida S Marcus Maye
    Florida S Marcus MayeRob Foldy/Getty Images

    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 50 tackles, 1.5 for loss, one sack, one interception, six pass breakups

    Marcus Maye was on his way to a storybook senior season in 2016 prior to breaking his arm in the win over South Carolina in mid-November. Before that, he was a big part of a defense that led the Gators to their second straight SEC East title despite enough offensive issues to fill The Swamp.

    A hard-hitter with a 216-pound frame who can run step-for-step with the best wide receivers in the country, opposing quarterbacks knew not to test Maye regardless of who he lined up against. He was one of the most intimidating safeties in FBS prior to getting hurt against the Gamecocks.

    Maye gets a pass since he missed the last month of the season, which is why his stats aren't up to par with some of the other players featured here.

6. Quin Blanding, Virginia

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    Virginia S Quin Blanding
    Virginia S Quin BlandingChet Strange/Getty Images

    Class: Junior

    2016 Stats: 120 tackles, two tackles for loss, two interceptions, six pass breakups

    Following a stellar junior season at Virginia, Quin Blanding had an NFL decision to make. To the surprise of many, he returned to Charlottesville to play his senior season after establishing himself as a superstar.

    "He plays like a Tasmanian Devil near the box, exhibiting outstanding instincts, awareness and athleticism chasing down runners from sideline to sideline," wrote NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks on Oct. 22. 

    His 120 tackles rank first among Power Five defensive backs and rank him 16th nationally among all players. Why isn't he higher? Big plays in the backfield and more picks from other safeties make it impossible to put Blanding above them. 

5. Nate Gerry, Nebraska

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    Nebraska S Nate Gerry
    Nebraska S Nate GerryElsa/Getty Images

    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 74 tackles, 5.5 for loss, 0.5 sacks, four interceptions, eight pass breakups, one quarterback hurry

    Nate Gerry's career came to an abrupt halt when he was suspended for the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. Prior to that, though, Gerry was a big reason why Nebraska hung around the Big Ten race for much of the season.

    A big-bodied safety (6'2", 220 lbs) who's a ferocious hitter and solid in coverage, Gerry hearkened back to the days of the blackshirt defense in Lincoln. His efforts landed him on the Associated Press All-American team as a third-teamer.

4. Jamal Adams, LSU

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    LSU S Jamal Adams
    LSU S Jamal AdamsJonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    Class: Junior

    2016 Stats: 76 tackles, 7.5 for loss, one sack, one interception, one fumble recovery, one forced fumble, four pass breakups, one quarterback hurry

    Jamal Adams wrapped up a stellar three-year career in Baton Rouge by notching six tackles, including one for loss, and a pass breakup in LSU's Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl victory over Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and the Louisville Cardinals.

    At 6'1", 213 pounds, Adams is the prototypical big safety—he's a hard hitter, has quick hips and can cover the best wide receivers in the country. He finished third on the Tigers in tackles and fourth in tackles for loss. Not bad for a safety. 

    On his way out the door to the NFL, Adams made it known where his heart will always be.

    "To Tiger fans, I hope that I have made you proud and will continue to do so at the next level," he said, per LSU Football on Twitter. "I love you. Geaux Tigers."

3. Budda Baker, Washington

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    Washington S Budda Baker
    Washington S Budda BakerOtto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Class: Junior

    2016 Stats: 71 tackles, 10.0 for loss, three sacks, six pass breakups, one forced fumble, one quarterback hurry

    Budda Baker was one of the biggest reasons Washington rejoined the college football elite, won the Pac-12 and made the College Football Playoff. The 192-pounder plays much bigger than his frame, lined up in the slot against some of the best athletes the Pac-12 had to offer and has the hops to leap out of the building.

    Baker impressed CBSSports.com's Rob Rang:

    Baker is a reliable open-field tackler who isn't afraid of contact. He typically takes out ball-carriers with accurate shots to the legs, using his arms to wrap securely for the efficient takedown. Baker generates impressive pop for his size as well. He locates the ball quickly, shows excellent timing on his leaps and possesses the body control and soft hands to win 50-50 balls.

    Baker earned second-team All-American honors from the Associated Press this season. He plans to forgo his senior season to enter the NFL draft. 

2. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama

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    Alabama S Minkah Fitzpatrick
    Alabama S Minkah FitzpatrickKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Class: Sophomore

    2016 Stats: 66 tackles, five for loss, one sack, six interceptions (two returned for touchdowns), seven pass breakups, one forced fumble

    Minkah Fitzpatrick moved from cornerback to safety after Eddie Jackson's season-ending leg injury, and the sophomore shined. His second pick-six came in the SEC Championship Game win over Florida, and he evolved into one of the more complete defensive backs in the country regardless of specific role.

    He credits his success to what he sees in practice every day.

    "You just know you're going against the best and getting the best every single day, so you're competing against the best receivers, the best offense every single day," he said prior to the Peach Bowl. "So that was going to get me better, and now you're going to compete against the best every day."

    His success and versatility earned him first-team All-American honors from the AP and established him as the leader of a Crimson Tide secondary that became known for its ability to not only capitalize on turnovers but impact the scoreboard. 

1. Malik Hooker, Ohio State

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    Ohio State S Malik Hooker
    Ohio State S Malik HookerJamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Class: Sophomore

    2016 Stats: 74 tackles, 5.5 for loss, 0.5 sacks, seven interceptions (three returned for touchdowns), four pass breakups

    Malik Hooker's redshirt sophomore campaign was flat-out filthy. The sophomore from New Castle, Pennsylvania, scored three times, got across the field to provide help over the top better than any other safety in the country and was the centerpiece of the Buckeye run to the College Football Playoff.

    "He has the best combination of range and ball skills that I've ever seen in a college safety," wrote NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah. "His anticipation and awareness is off the charts."

    Hooker plans to forgo his remaining eligibility and enter the NFL draft this spring. If Jeremiah is correct, he'll make Buckeye nation proud for years to come.

       

    Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics courtesy of CFBStats and recruiting information courtesy of Scout unless otherwise noted.