The South Florida Sun Sentinel continues its 10-part series looking at the top prospects in the upcoming NFL draft (April 28-30) with safeties. Safeties are one of the harder positions to get a consensus on because it’s like macaroni and cheese. Everyone makes it differently, and most people won’t eat just anybody’s mac and cheese.
Each team’s looking for something different from the safety position, and their personal taste factors into how they evaluate each player. This class features one shouldn’t-miss prospect, and half a dozen players who could become starters in a year or two with the right coaching.
Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton
The amount of ground Hamilton can cover is unprecedented. He has the size (6-foot-3, 220) to be utilized as a linebacker, and the athleticism and range to be a single-high safety. His pursuit angles are sound, and he brings the thunder when he strikes a skill player. But there are some medical concerns that could force him to slide out of being a top-10 selection.
Penn State’s Jaquan Brisker
Brisker is a fast and instinctive safety who has the skill set to play in the box, the post, and serve as a nickel cornerback. He can hold his own against the run and has ball skills (five interceptions in three seasons). He tends to stare down quarterbacks and lacks route recognition, so it could be a season or two before he’s ready to be viewed as a reliable NFL starter.
Michigan’s Dax Hill
Hill is one of the main reasons Michigan went on that Big Ten title run last season. He’s a playmaker who has the skill set to play all over the field. He could immediately serve as a nickel cornerback, and has the speed to do so considering he ran a 4.38 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. Hill thrives in man coverage but has some work to do in zone where he’s usually a step slow reacting.
Georgia’s Lewis Cine
Cine, who is 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, is a downhill safety who is an enforcer in the middle of the field. However, he’s versatile enough to play deep in Cover 2, and play single-high because of his 4.37 time in the 40-yard dash. The biggest issue he has is that his angles in run support can be a poor at times.
Baylor’s Jalen Pitre
Pitre is a rangy, fast, physical defender who takes good angles in pursuit and rarely misses tackles. He excelled playing Baylor’s “Star” position, played well at the Senior Bowl, and tested well at the NFL combine. That should be enough to make him a Day 2 selection. But his biggest wart is his lack of length.
Best of the Rest
Some teams might view Cincinnati’s Bryan Cox as the second-best safety in this draft. The Howard transfer was an excellent run defender at Cincinnati. But he has work to do in coverage. Maryland’s Nick Cross, Oregon’s Verone McKinley III, Illinois’ Kerby Joseph, Florida A&M’s Markquese Bell, and Tennessee’s Alontae Taylor could all be reliable rookie contributors.
Class Grade: C+
This safety class features one stud (Notre Dame’s Hamilton) and a handful of prospects who could be starters at some point in their first two seasons. However, the prospects of them being viewed as impactful NFL stars are slim. Expect most of these safeties be taken on the third day of the draft because teams know this is one position they can typically be patient with.
Teams in need
Every team in the NFC East — the Cowboys, Giants, Eagles, Commanders — needs safety help. So do the Lions, Vikings, Falcons, Buccaneers, Rams, Browns, Steelers, Jaguars and Chiefs. Don’t be surprised if these teams create a Day 3 run on the position early.
The Dolphins have a young safety duo in Jevon Holland and Brandon Jones they plan to continue building the 2022 defense around. When those two youngsters started playing better in the second half of 2021, the defense took off. Let’s hope their growth and development doesn’t become stagnant under some new coaching. Eric Rowe is still in the mix as a tight-end coverage specialist, but it seems Miami would benefit from adding a backup free safety just in case Holland is ever sidelined for an extended period of time. Last year the Dolphins used cornerback Nik Needham as his replacement in games Holland missed because of COVID-19.