Breaking The 2019 Safety Class Into NFL Roles

Photo: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

At this point in the 2019 NFL Draft cycle you've probably heard about how the running back class ain't last year's, the offensive and defensive line classes are loaded and the quarterback class sucks (sorry, that one might have been me).

All of those are true, but one thing you probably haven't heard is that this safety class is among the best of any position group in the draft. No, this isn't the 2017 class all over again, a crop that yielded Jamal Adams, Budda Baker, Malik Hooker, Eddie Jackson, Marcus Maye, Justin Evans, Marcus Williams, Xavier Woods, Damontae Kazee, Jabrill Peppers, Tedric Thompson and John Johnson, all of whom have been solid-to-excellent starters during their first two years. That group was truly special.

Instead, the 2019 class offers quality depth with a couple of promising pieces near the top of the draft. As I do every year, I'll roll through the class looking at the top safety prospects broken up by what they do best: true free safeties (single-high), defenders that can function admirably in split safety looks, box/dime/no. 3 safeties, and slot defenders.

Single-High Free Safeties

Also known as the Earl Thomas position by this era of draft pundits, most analysts believe that this is the most valuable of the safety positions and also the most difficult spot to find quality prospects. Both are probably true depending on a team's scheme, but if you don't have a safety you feel comfortable with in the middle of the field when you have to roll up an extra defender near the line of scrimmage, it limits how impactful your defense can be.

The 2019 class doesn't have a ton of options at free safety, but most of the top safeties can play single-high, with varying degrees of success:

Nasir Adderley, Delaware

Deionte Thompson, Alabama

Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Florida

Juan Thornhill, Virginia

Marquise Blair, Utah

Evan Worthington, Colorado


Adderley has the best range and ball skills combination in the class, and I think his athleticism will translate immediately to the NFL. Gardner-Johnson has played all over Florida's defense, but in my opinion his best reps in coverage were as a deep safety. I think his range and angles to the ball could project to a single-high role quite nicely.

The rest of the group have big question marks. Thompson has unbelievable flashes as a deep safety, but he's a gambler who can be undisciplined with his eyes. There are also questions about how well he'll run at the Combine. Thornhill's best spot is playing deep, but I don't see an instinctive or explosive athlete in coverage. He's smart, but will that be enough?

Blair is a projection to single-high as he did it sparingly at Utah, but I think he has the athletic traits and is sharper from the neck up than he's given credit for. How good are his ball skills though?

Worthington looks good on the hoof and might test well, but the mental processing aspect of free safety is still pretty foreign to him. Growth is needed, but the ceiling is decently high.

2-High Safeties

I almost didn't include this section, but I still think it is helpful for the average fan to understand a little bit about deep safeties who don't/shouldn't play single-high. A lot of the same traits needed to play single-high well - ball skills, anticipation, mental processing, awareness, range - are still needed in 2-high looks, just to less of a degree. Safeties aren't asked to cover as much ground, but they need to pass off routes, be aware of their coverage spacing and not get caught biting up on play-action or shorter routes and abandoning their deep post.

Generally, most safeties should be capable of playing in 2-high shells, so identifying the candidates for this group won't be very helpful. I think guys like Johnathan Abram, Jaquan Johnson and Darius West may have some concerns in this role - Abram in his mental processing and decision-making, Johnson in his lack of ball skills and instincts and West in his limited athleticism - but I'm not willing to say they are exclusively box/slot defenders either.

Ugo Amadi and Mike Edwards have some of the aforementioned traits needed to play deep safety, but both are smaller defenders and because of that NFL teams may stick them exclusively in the slot.

Slot Defenders

A growing position of value around the league, nickel safeties are the counter move of many NFL defensive coordinators to offenses sticking a flex tight end or a big wide receiver in the slot. Having said that, some safeties will make a full-time transition to the slot and become listed cornerbacks in the NFL, matching up with smaller wide receivers as well.

Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Florida

Johnathan Abram, Mississippi State

Ugo Amadi, Oregon

Mike Edwards, Kentucky

Amani Hooker, Iowa

Malik Gant, Marshall

Sheldrick Redwine, Miami

Evan Worthington, Colorado

Will Harris, Boston College


I know some think Blair and Thornhill can play in this role, and I won't rule it out against tight ends, especially for Blair. But right now both players are a big projection to a spot like that, Blair because of inexperience and Thornhill because of athletic ability. Adderley might be able to match up here too, but his best spot looked like a deep safety in Mobile.

CGJ is the ultimate hybrid in this class. There isn't a safety spot he can't play, which makes him ultra-valuable in my eyes. He's also actually played everywhere on tape, so he isn't a projection in any role. As long as his athleticism checks out in Indy, he should be a top 32 pick.

Abram consistently matched up with tight ends on tape, and while his effectiveness was a mixed bag, I do think the NFL will ask him to pre-dominantly play in that role. His size and aggressiveness also lend itself to run support in the nickel spot.

Amadi, Edwards and Hooker might all be full-time nickel corners in the NFL, the first two due to their size and talent at that spot on tape, and the latter due to his athletic limitations as a deep safety. All three are solid players to target in the middle rounds of the draft.

Gant was terrific in man coverage against N.C. State, who has quite the group of wide receivers. I'd like to see more from him in that role, but I'm encouraged enough by the three games I studied to think he could play there at the next level.

Redwine is a former corner who is probably athletically limited in the slot, but has enough experience to get by there. Worthington needs technical work and refinement, but I could see him facing up with flexed tight ends as a no. 3 safety in the NFL. Harris looked like he had the size and movement skills to be a tight end eliminator down in Mobile, but his technique and footwork need polish.

Box/Dime Safeties

A lot of box/dime safeties will also play in the slot, or at least have the ability to flex there depending on what an offense does pre-snap. They don't need to be as athletic or rangy or have as good a ball skills as the other safety spots, but it still helps. Important traits for box safeties: physicality, explosive short-area movement skills, mental processing, instincts, communication ability, zone coverage awareness, tackling and pass rush ability. Think of them like a more dynamic linebacker.

Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Florida

Marquise Blair, Utah

Johnathan Abram, Mississippi State

Mike Edwards, Kentucky

Amani Hooker, Iowa

Nasir Adderley, Delaware

Malik Gant, Marshall

Taylor Rapp, Washington

Mike Bell, Fresno State

Darnell Savage, Maryland

Will Harris, Boston College

Sheldrick Redwine, Miami

Darius West, Kentucky


CGJ remains Mr. Versatile, while Blair and Abram make another list due to their physicality and explosiveness around the line of scrimmage. Neither defender plays with hesitancy in their game, something I love in box safeties.

Don't look now, but Edwards has a lot of flexibility himself, capable of playing in the slot, deep in coverage or coming off the edge around the box. He won't play near the line of scrimmage full-time, but he will absolutely contribute as a blitzer and run defender in situational play.

Hooker lacks some of the traits needed to play in this area, including size, but he is physical and extremely smart, which could make him an ideal middle zone dime defender in the NFL. For a guy that it is hard to find a defensive role for at the next level, zone-heavy teams may dub him a pseudo linebacker and let him patrol the middle of the field.

Don't take this position away from Adderley either. He's not the biggest safety, and this won't be his primary position in the NFL, but he can absolutely play around the line of scrimmage and won't back down from anyone. Good tackler too.

Gant rolled into the box all the time at Marshall, showing the physicality and decisiveness needed to thrive in run defense at the NFL level. Taylor Rapp is a little limited in where he fits best at the next level, but I think he's the ideal strong safety capable of playing in 2-high looks and around the line of scrimmage. His burst and mental processing off the edge are only superseded by his elite tackling.

I really like Mike Bell as a deep cover guy without the range to play single-high. He reminds me some of George Iloka, both in his build and in the fact that he'll be at his best in a Cover 2 defense. The big difference: Bell is more physical and aggressive than Iloka around the line of scrimmage.

Savage is a really good underneath zone defender, playing with anticipation and instincts in the shallow areas of the field. I love his projection as a no. 3 safety in the NFL, especially due to how physical he is as a run defender.

Harris, Redwine and West can all play in this role due to their demeanor, but might be more limited than some of their counterparts at the position. West needs to test well, as he and Jaquan Johnson might offer the least amount of versatility amongst the safety group right now.