Producing first round picks Derwin James (Florida State) and Terrell Edmunds (Virginia Tech), along with No. 54 overall selection Jessie Bates (Wake Forest), the ACC produced premiere safety talent in the 2018 Draft. An early look at the current crop of draft-eligible safeties in the ACC reveals another strong trio of prospects at the top, with a few intriguing talents that could emerge in 2018 to make the 2019 group even deeper.
Let’s examine who my top five draft-eligible safety prospects are in the ACC entering the season.
1. Jaquon Johnson, Senior, Miami (5’11, 190)
The Hurricanes leader in tackles (96) and interceptions (four) last season, Johnson is the ACC’s best draft-eligible safety prospect entering the season. Part of an experienced and talented Miami defense, there are high expectations for the unit in 2018.
What pops on film regarding Johnson is how urgent and physical of a player he is. Whether he’s playing 20 yards off the ball or lurking in the box, Johnson processes the action in front of him quickly and pursues with an unrelenting motor. He filters through traffic with good hand usage, takes clean angles in pursuit and securely wraps up the ball carrier when tackling. Despite not being the biggest safety, Johnson has excellent contact power and play strength. His aggressively flies into the box and boundary when playing forward.
For the most part, Johnson is sound in coverage but isn’t a candidate to serve as a true single-high centerfielder on a regular basis. He is much more effective operating in split zones and playing forward with some upside in man coverage. There are times when Johnson is a touch late breaking on the football. Improving that timing and being more prolific playing the football in the air is critical in Johnson cementing his status as a top safety overall in the class. While the NFL likes physical and aggressive safeties, it covets those that can make game-changing plays on the ball.
If Johnson can take another step forward in terms of showcasing a more versatile and complete skill set in 2018, he could enter the first round conversation. Given his supporting cast and experience on the back end of the defense, the stage is set for Johnson to prove just that.
2. Juan Thornhill, Senior, Virginia (6’0, 200)
A two-year starter for the Cavs, Thornhill has experience at both safety and corner but will spend his final season in Charlottesville at safety where he best projects to the next level. In terms of recovery speed, foot quickness and fluidity Thornhill has some limitations when evaluating him strictly at cornerback in the NFL.
Thornhill excels in coverage from a variety of techniques. He has a natural feel in zone for coverage spacing and working into throwing windows while also effective in man coverage where his length and physicality will serve him well working against tight ends and bigger slots. There are some matchups in the slot, mainly against quicker receivers, that could be problematic for Thornhill in man coverage but he has the physical traits to lineup with flexed tight ends and big-bodied possession receivers.
With seven interceptions and 19 pass breakups over his last 24 games, Thornhill is disruptive at the catch point and features strong ball skills. He does well to elevate and compete at the catch point, particularly when he can play forward on the ball as opposed to with his back to the line of scrimmage.
Thornhill is a strong tackler and plays the game with a physical demeanor as he works through contact. He has the contact power expected for his size.
Stepping into the Quin Blanding role as a senior, Thornhill is an ascending prospect with the upside to be one of the top defensive playmakers in the ACC as he solidifies his draft stock.
3. Lukas Denis, Senior, Boston College (5’11, 185)
Tied for second nationally with seven interceptions and ten pass breakups, Denis is a ball magnet on the backend. He illustrates natural ball tracking skills, takes precise angles to the ball and knows how to play through the receivers hands to disrupt at the catch point. And when opportunities are presented to secure an interception, Denis has reliable hands to haul in game-changing turnovers. The NFL covets defensive backs that make game-changing plays on the ball and Denis delivers in that department.
Denis thrives in deep and split zones where his awareness and range are accentuated. He projects as a true centerfielder that plays over top of the coverage. He offers some appeal, situationally, in man coverage.
The appeal loses its allure with Denis when considering his suspect tackling ability and shortcomings in run support. He doesn’t process the run quickly or take good paths to the football. His contact power is below average and he can be bullied by physical receivers and tight ends. There are times that Denis appears the be a reluctant tackler and prefers to side step and drag down the ball carrier when forced to make a tackle.
While it’s easy to love what Denis can do in zone coverage and playing the ball, a more complete skill set on display in his senior season is critical for his draft stock. As part of an experienced Eagles defense, Denis has a prime opportunity to showcase a more versatile and compete skill set during his senior season.
4. Reggie Floyd, Junior, Virginia Tech (6’0, 221)
Floyd became a starter in 2017 as a sophomore in an experienced secondary that featured now NFL players Terrell Edmunds, Greg Stroman, Adonis Alexander and Brandon Facyson. Compiling 72 tackles, three tackles for loss, three interceptions, four pass breakups and two forced fumbles, Floyd was a productive starter but is now looked at as a veteran in what will be an inexperienced Hokies group of defensive backs in 2018.
What stands out about Floyd is his blend of size and range. He is comfortable working in deep zones but plays forward against the run and quick game with urgency, sharp processing skills and physicality. Additionally, Floyd made some impressive plays on the ball last season both playing forward and with his back to the line of scrimmage.
An aggressive player by nature, there are times that it gets him in trouble by coming in too hot on a tackle attempt and whiffing while also guilty of biting hard on false keys in the backfield. Cleaning up his processing skills and controlling his aggression is necessary.
Floyd has some areas to clean up but in terms of mental processing, but he has a strong foundation and appealing physical traits that could make him a riser. The immediate challenge ahead for Floyd and the Hokies is getting a defense with so much turnover to gel.
5. Tanner Muse, Junior, Clemson (6’2, 220)
A big-bodied safety, Muse surprisingly functioned primarily as a deep safety in Brent Venables’ defensive scheme. It’s apparent from studying his film that he plays with a sharp understanding of coverage spacing and knows how to work into throwing windows. He’s a sound zone defender with excellent awareness which is likely why he’s often tasked with playing in single high safety looks.
While playing so deep off the ball didn’t lead to stand out production, Muse is an impressive athlete for his size and offers a large tackle radius and good contact power. He closes on the football quickly, demonstrating both long speed and short area quickness. He takes clean angles in pursuit and attacks the football with urgency.
Given his physical traits, Muse should get more opportunities to function in man coverage on bigger slots and tight ends. Additionally, Muse’s size and strength could lead to opportunities to play closer to the line of scrimmage in more of an attacking role. Should he achieve these opportunities, Muse has the upside to illustrate a more versatile and complete skill set.
Muse is an obvious breakout candidate for a standout season in 2018 where his experience in the system, processing skills and physical traits make him capable of producing.
Others to keep an eye on:
Jeremy McDuffie, Duke
Sheldrick Redwine, Miami
WIll Harris, Boston College
Myles Dorn, North Carolina
Cameron Glenn, Wake Forest