Welcome to the fourth installment of the BGA: 2016 NFL Draft series. As we head to the draft, I'll be sharing thoughts and observations about draft prospects for each position group.
In our previous installment, we looked at this year's tight end and fullback class and we now move on to look at safeties. I'll be discussing whether the Jets are likely to have a need at these positions and reviewing some of the top prospects along with some players that might be options later on.
These articles are not necessarily meant to be exhaustive, so if you wish to bring some other prospects into the discussion, please do so in the comments section below.
Jets Needs: Safeties
The Jets enjoyed much improved play from the safety position in 2015, as the offseason addition of Marcus Gilchrist proved to be a steadying influence. With Calvin Pryor bouncing back well from a rough rookie campaign the Jets should have stability and continuity at the position. They also got some encouraging contributions from back-ups Rontez Miles and Dion Bailey. Ronald Martin added special teams depth.
With free agents Antonio Allen and Jaiquawn Jarrett not expected to be re-signed after having each having ended the year on injured reserve, the team might look to bring in a rookie to add in to the mix, but it seems unlikely to be a high priority.
That's provided the team doesn't opt to bring in a safety and use them in an inside linebacker role, as Todd Bowles did with Deone Bucannon in his last year in Arizona. While Bowles only initially did that due to a lack of available bodies at inside linebacker, it's something the Cardinals have persisted with in Bucannon's second season, enjoying some success that could lead to it being replicated around the league.
2016 Draft: Safeties
The first safety off the board is expected to be Jalen Ramsey from Florida State. That's if you would even consider him a safety after he spent most of the past two seasons playing cornerback. Teams are apparently divided on how best to use him, but with his experience of playing the slot, I could see him a role where he plays as a safety with base personnel, matching up with receivers when teams go three wide. That will maximize his impact and provide his team's defense with valuable flexibility.
Ramsey, who is a projected top-five pick, operated well as a press cover corner on the outside for the majority of the time in 2015, but you can see examples of his safety skills when he was required to make plays close to the line of scrimmage.
The next safety off the board could be USC's Su'a Cravens but once again some would consider him more of a linebacker than a safety. Some have compared him to another former Trojan, Troy Polamalu. Cravens bulked up and played closer to the line of scrimmage more often in 2015, recording five sacks. Still, he has good range and still made most of his stops when coming up from a deeper position.
So, who's more likely to be the first "pure" safety off the board? OSU's Vonn Bell, Boise State's Darien Thompson and Jeremy Cash from Duke will be in the mix for that honor.
Cash is a player who some people have suggested could play a similar role to Bucannon, because he is productive when lined up close to the line of scrimmage. The difference is that Cash would primarily creep up to the edge, not line up alongside the other inside linebacker as Bucannon typically does. In that regard, his usage was more similar to how Kerry Rhodes was used in 2006 and 2007 with the Jets. There was just one game where Cash did line up inside regularly (19 snaps), but that was the Georgia Tech game where he was given a slightly different role to counter the Yellow Jackets' triple-option offense. He did have one of the most impressive performances I saw from anyone all season though, with plays like this:
Thompson is one of the best coverage safeties in this draft and a proven playmaker. He was among the leaders at his position in interceptions (five) and passes defensed (five) and that was no fluke as he also had at least three interceptions in each of his first three years. While ranging deep and tracking passes was one of his main strengths, he also played close to the line about half the time, showing an ability to match up. He can also hit, as you can see below:
Bell could end up getting selected ahead of either Cash or Thompson, probably in round two. He is another good coverage safety who played deep and matched up with receivers. He had some of the best coverage numbers from this year's class.
Florida's Keanu Neal made the decision to come out early, but his stock seems to be all over the board. He had mixed results at the combine, but did a good job of limiting yards after the catch during the season. However, he has a tendency to take bad angles and can be somewhat erratic, as you can see from this well-timed hit.
A team looking for a more reliable alternative in the mid-rounds could take a look at Tyvis Powell or Justin Simmons after their performance at the combine. Powell, a teammate of Bell at OSU, ran a 4.46 40-yard dash. He has good size and intercepted three passes in 2015. Simmons, from Boston College, blew everyone away with his overall performance at the combine. Although he only ran a 4.61 in the 40-yard dash, he was outstanding in the other disciplines.
Clemson has an interesting safety duo entering the draft this year. Jayron Kearse was primarily used as a deep safety while TJ Green would play in the box. Kearse has outstanding length and has been considered as a mid-round prospect after a solid 2015 season. He did have a disappointing performance at the combine, but you can see how well he reads, pursues and tackles in space.
Green has been regarded as more of a late-round prospect, as he was picked on quite a bit in coverage, despite being a productive tackler in the box. His stock should be on the rise though, following a blistering 4.34 40-yard dash at the combine. The pair might now end up being selected in close proximity to one another. Green needs to ensure he doesn't hesitate when making reads, though, as that can be something that causes him to fail to make plays.
As noted, unless they decide to modify their defensive system, the Jets are probably more likely to be in the mix for a late round or undrafted player to bolster their depth. There should be plenty of well-known prospects available, including some from Power Five conferences.
Two sleepers who interest me are Utah's Tevin Carter and Buffalo's Okezie Alozie. These are two very good players who impressed me during the season.
Carter has played both free safety and strong safety and, after a promising 2014 season ended prematurely due to injury, he had a solid year in 2015. He made a real name for himself in the Las Vegas Bowl, which Utah won by seven. Carter won the defensive MVP award after intercepting two tipped passes in the first quarter, one of which he returned for a touchdown and the other, which you can see below, down to the one.
Alozie was a defensive captain at Buffalo and contributed with four sacks and excellent coverage numbers. He does an excellent job of limiting yardage on outside runs and short passes when lined up close to the line of scrimmage due to his good instincts, closing speed and hitting ability.
I'll be back with another installment soon. Let me know which position you'd like to see me review next in the comments.