There’s been plenty of hype around this year’s talented safety class, and after LSU’s Jamal Adams ran a reported 4.33 40 at his pro day last week, the buzz reached a whole new level. For a lot of scouts and analysts, Adams’s performance solidified him as a top-five pick. In many mock drafts, he’s joined there — and sometimes even overtaken — by Ohio State’s Malik Hooker. But while the two playmakers’ impressive production and elite measurables are matched by few players in this class, NFL teams almost never take safeties that high.
It’s been seven years since we’ve seen a safety taken in the top five — 2010, when the Chiefs chose Eric Berry at the fifth spot — and Mark Barron is the only other safety to go in the top 10 this decade. Barron’s switched to linebacker with the Rams, which means that Berry joins Washington’s DeAngelo Hall, who converted to safety in 2015 after playing cornerback the first 11 years of his career, as the only top-10 picks playing safety in the entire league right now.
Obviously, it’s possible that the talent at safety just hasn’t been strong enough to warrant that high of a selection in the past. More likely, though, the lack of top picks comes from safety not traditionally being viewed by teams as one of the sport’s premium positions. Just 14 of the other 68 top-10 picks going back to 2010 have been anything other than the five coveted high-impact positions: quarterback, receiver, corner, offensive tackle, and pass rusher. As they age into bigger contracts, the average pay for those players traditionally outpaces every other spot, too.
If Adams and Hooker go as high as many believe they will, it could be a signal that the NFL is ready to start valuing safety like the long-established premium positions. It’d be an evolution that changes the way players at the position are paid. With early first-round picks now typically getting fully guaranteed contracts as part of the structured rookie-pay scale, players due to be taken in the first five spots are projected to get deals worth $30.2 million (first overall) to $25.2 million (fifth overall) over the next four years, per Spotrac. If either Adams or Hooker goes in that range this year, they’d immediately shoot up to second on the list for total money guaranteed at the safety position, outpacing everyone else at that spot except for Berry, a five-time Pro Bowler.
To warrant that kind of investment, both in draft capital and in guaranteed money, at a typically less valuable position, Adams and Hooker have to be can’t-miss options — but are they? After playing deep in the middle of the Buckeyes defense last year, Hooker’s instincts and range were on full display, but with just one season of starting experience under his belt, we still don’t have a great handle on his understanding of the nuances of the position. With Adams, who excelled last year as a tone-setter near the line of scrimmage, it’s still unclear if he’s a game-changer in the deep middle of the field. To be worth that top-five pick, a safety has to be able to do both.
In our Mock Draft 2.0, Adams went third overall to the Bears, with Hooker 12th to the Browns; in Version 1.0, both came off the board by the sixth pick. But this time around, both fall out of the top 10. And while Adams and Hooker drop, the safety position is still well-represented late in the round, with Washington’s Budda Baker, Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, and UConn’s Obi Melifonwu all crashing the party. While the position may still not be worthy of a top-10 pick to most teams, the value of quality safety play is certainly increasing with the explosion of spread-out offenses and the increased implementation of hybrid pass-catching tight ends and running backs in NFL offenses.
The movement of Adams, Hooker, Peppers, and Melifonwu will have repercussions across the rest of Round 1. With all these variables in mind, let’s take a look at how it all might play out.
1. Cleveland Browns: DE Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
The Browns finished last season 21st in adjusted sack rate, 28th in pressure rate, and tied for 30th in sacks (26). Adding Garrett with the top pick gives coordinator Gregg Williams and the Cleveland defense the disruptive presence it badly missed last year. Garrett’s combination of size, explosiveness, and agility, plus his track record for production (31 sacks and 47 tackles for a loss over three years at Texas A&M) make him a high-floor starter in Year 1 with the potential to develop into a game-wrecker.
2. San Francisco 49ers: DE Solomon Thomas, Stanford
The 49ers finished second to last in pressure rate last year, per Football Outsiders, and as the roster stands now, they lack the personnel to improve much in that area as they convert from Chip Kelly’s 3–4 scheme to Robert Saleh’s 4–3. Former first-rounders Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner could both function as big strongside ends in the Seahawks-style scheme, but with the jury still out on Aaron Lynch (1.5 sacks in seven games last year), San Francisco needs a true weakside edge rusher for early downs. Thomas is an instant impact starter at that spot, and he’s got the Michael Bennett–esque ability to bring pressure from the interior on third downs.
3. Chicago Bears: CB Gareon Conley, Ohio State
Conley’s college teammate, Marshon Lattimore, is a popular projection to the Bears at no. 3, but while Lattimore may be the most talented corner in this class, his alarming injury history causes the Bears, whose last three top picks (Kyle Fuller, Kevin White, and Leonard Floyd) have struggled to stay on the field, to go in another direction. Chicago’s decision to go with Conley this high provides plenty of shock value, but that doesn’t mean it’d be a bad pick. The other Ohio State corner was a two-year starter (Lattimore started only one year), he’s versatile (able to play on the outside in Chicago’s base coverages then kick inside to the slot in nickel packages), and has prototypical size (6-foot, 195 pounds), length (33-inch arms), and athleticism (4.44-second 40, 37-inch vertical, 6.68-second three-cone). He’ll have to tackle more consistently in the NFL, but Conley was the definition of a shutdown corner in 2016 for the Buckeyes, allowing a passer rating of 14.0 on throws into coverage last year.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars: DE Jonathan Allen, Alabama
The Jags have plenty of other needs to address in this class, but adding Allen gives Jacksonville one of the most dominant defensive lines in football. The Chuck Bednarik Award winner as the nation’s top defensive player, Allen has the ability to play on the edge or rush the passer from the inside. His versatility means that defensive coordinator Todd Wash can use Allen, along with Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson, Dante Fowler, and Yannick Ngakoue, to attack offensive lines from a variety of looks and can rotate defensive linemen to keep everyone fresh.
5. Tennessee Titans (from Los Angeles Rams): CB Marshon Lattimore, Ohio State
Lattimore’s elite talent trumps concerns over his injury history at this point, and by adding the former Buckeye ball hawk, the Titans get a day-one starter who allows Logan Ryan to move into his more natural position in the slot. Lattimore also helps shore up a secondary that surrendered the third-most passing yards of any team last year and finished with the 26th-ranked pass defense, per Football Outsiders DVOA.
6. New York Jets: QB Deshaun Watson, Clemson
The signing of veteran journeyman Josh McCown gives the Jets a bridge quarterback for the 2017 season, but who knows where that bridge is actually leading. With Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg the only long-term options on the team — and with neither one offering much reason for optimism — New York takes Watson in the hopes that he becomes the franchise passer the Jets haven’t had in a looooooong time. The dual-threat signal-caller is raw, and will likely need a little time to adapt to the pro game, but he’s a talented big-game performer with all the leadership qualities New York has missed at the position as it’s cycled through Ryan Fitzpatrick, Geno Smith, Mark Sanchez, Greg McElroy, Tim Tebow, etc., over the past few years.
7. Los Angeles Chargers: WR Mike Williams, Clemson
Tyrell Williams emerged as an excellent deep threat for the Chargers last year, but Los Angeles still needs a reliable chain-mover as a complement. The Clemson product is capable of using his size to box out defenders on third downs and in the red zone, and while he’s not going to get tons of separation at the next level, he pairs perfectly with quarterback Philip Rivers, who’s never shown fear in throwing anticipation passes or trying to fit throws into tight windows. Even if Rivers’s old favorite target, Keenan Allen — who’s a similar type of player but has played in just nine games in the past two years — returns to peak form in 2017, adding Williams to the mix makes Los Angeles that much more difficult to match up with. Opponents would need to counter the Chargers passing attack with a pair of big, physical corners or risk getting picked apart.
8. Carolina Panthers: DE Derek Barnett, Tennessee
The Panthers pass rush can’t put off Father Time forever. After trading Kony Ealy to the Patriots, Carolina is relying heavily on Mario Addison (29), Charles Johnson (30), and Julius Peppers (37) to bring heat off the edge. Drafting Barnett doesn’t just benefit Carolina down the road, though. He’s an early-impact player; he fits that big and physical defense like a glove, and what he lacks in top-level speed (he ran just a 4.88 40 at the combine), he makes up for in his ability to bend around the edge. Barnett racked up 32.0 sacks and 52.0 tackles for a loss in his three-year college career.
9. Cincinnati Bengals: OL Forrest Lamp, Western Kentucky
Cincinnati finished tied for 25th in the NFL with 41 sacks surrendered last year and then lost its two best offensive linemen when LT Andrew Whitworth (Rams) and RG Kevin Zeitler (Browns) left in free agency. The Bengals need help on the offensive line, and Lamp is an athletic and versatile prospect with the potential to start from Day 1 at left guard or either tackle spot.
10. Buffalo Bills: DE/LB Haason Reddick, Temple
Reddick surrendered zero touchdowns, grabbed one pick, and added two pass breakups on 22 targets in coverage in college last season, per Pro Football Focus, so while he’s primarily known as a pass rusher (9.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for a loss), he can cover, too. This versatility will allow him to play several roles in Sean McDermott’s 4–3 scheme: dropping back to play as an off-ball linebacker on both the strong and weak sides of the Bills defense on base downs, then rushing the passer on the weakside end on passing downs.
11. New Orleans Saints: CB Tre’Davious White, LSU
Playing in a division with Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, and Jameis Winston, the Saints need to add depth and talent at the cornerback spot, and White provides both. The former LSU playmaker can line up on the outside or in the slot and is excellent in pattern recognition and reading the quarterback’s eyes to know where the ball is going before it’s released. Plus, he has great ball skills, tying for third in the nation with 12 pass breakups last year, in addition to two interceptions.
12. Cleveland Browns (from Philadelphia Eagles): QB Mitchell Trubisky, North Carolina
The Browns need a solution to their multidecade quarterback drought, and a second first-round pick gives them a great opportunity to add a high-upside passer in Trubisky. The former North Carolina signal-caller is inexperienced, with just one season starting under his belt, but he has all the tools: strong arm, accuracy, excellent decision-making (30 touchdowns to just six picks in 2016), and athleticism to escape pressure and throw on the run.
13. Arizona Cardinals: S Malik Hooker, Ohio State
Tyrann Mathieu is the Cardinals’ free safety in name only. The Honey Badger is most dangerous as a lurking defender up in the slot — from there, his instincts shine as he runs in coverage, matches routes with receivers, or blitzes off the edge. But after losing Tony Jefferson (Ravens) and D.J. Swearinger (Redskins) in free agency, Arizona is down its two deep-field safeties, and the Cardinals might be forced to play Mathieu in that role more often in 2017. By grabbing Hooker here, defensive coordinator James Bettcher gains the ability to play the rookie as a single-high defender and keep Mathieu doing what he does best.
14. Philadelphia Eagles (from Minnesota Vikings): TE O.J. Howard, Alabama
Carson Wentz developed a nice rapport with tight end Zach Ertz over the second half of last season; Ertz finished second among all pass catchers in receptions (63) from Week 9 on. Wentz was comfortable looking over the middle for his reliable tight end, so why not give him another? It’s not a huge position of need for the Eagles, but prospects like Howard, who possesses elite size (6-foot-6, 251 pounds) but moves like a receiver (with a 4.51-second 40 and a super-quick 6.85 three-cone), don’t come around often.
15. Indianapolis Colts: S Jamal Adams, LSU
The Colts need to shore up the middle of their defense after giving up an opposing passer rating of 117 to the short middle of the field (28th in the league) and surrendering an average of 4.6 yards per carry on rushes up the middle (also 28th) last year. A middle linebacker like Reuben Foster would be a nice fit here, but with Adams falling to this spot, Colts GM Chris Ballard can’t resist pulling the trigger on the playmaker out of LSU. Adams is a hard-hitting tackler against the run, instinctive and rangy in coverage against tight ends and running backs, and the type of leader that can set the tone for the entire defense. If he proves to be reliable as a back-end defender over the top, this pick ends up being a steal; Adams has the type of skill set to become an impact player in the mold of Landon Collins for the Giants last season.
16. Baltimore Ravens: LB Reuben Foster, Alabama
This one is almost too obvious. Pairing Foster next to fellow former Alabama ’backer (and two-time All-Pro) C.J. Mosley gives the Ravens the chance to create a fearsome inside linebacking duo, à la former 49er pair Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Both Foster and Mosley can play the run and cover plenty of ground in pass coverage, so neither one would ever have to come off the field.
17. Washington Redskins: S Budda Baker, Washington
Free-agent acquisition D.J. Swearinger can play the role of deep safety, and he did that at times in Arizona, but the big hitter is at his best in the short and intermediate zones, jumping routes, leveling receivers, and laying out running backs. Grabbing Baker at this spot gives Washington a playmaking starter at the ever-important free safety spot opposite Swearinger. The former Washington ball hawk possesses the instincts and speed to be the last line of defense down the middle of the field.
18. Tennessee Titans: WR Corey Davis, Western Michigan
The Titans still need to give Marcus Mariota a true no. 1 pass-catching option on the outside, and they grab Davis here with that relationship in mind. The 6-foot-3 209-pounder is a beast on slants over the middle of the field, able to shield cornerbacks away from the ball with his size and length, and he’s a jump-ball artist who will provide a reliable target in the red zone. As a bonus, Davis is also a high-effort blocker capable of sealing defensive backs away from the action to spring Derrick Henry and DeMarco Murray for long runs down the sideline.
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: WR John Ross, Washington
The NFL is a matchup league — the modern passing game often comes down to finding and exploiting your opponent’s most vulnerable coverage defender. Taking Ross here and pairing him with DeSean Jackson gives Tampa Bay two of the fastest field-stretching threats in the league. What will opponents do if one of their starting corners struggles with deep speed? Do they have to play with two deep safeties, thus opening up Tampa Bay’s ability to run the ball? Along with Mike Evans, who’s dangerous at every level, this pick immediately makes the Bucs one of the hardest offenses in the NFL to game plan against.
20. Denver Broncos: RB Dalvin Cook, Florida State
The Broncos still need a left tackle, but adding Cook here gives them a three-down back capable of hitting a home run any time he carries the ball. Cook’s versatility is a great fit in the varied and multiple run game Denver wants to employ in 2017 under new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. At Florida State, he exhibited good vision, excellent patience, and elite acceleration to make one cut and get downfield. Assuming he can stay healthy in 2017, he will pair well with C.J. Anderson to give Denver a talented one-two punch; Cook’s smaller and shiftier, but he’s a tackle-breaking creator in the same mold as Anderson.
21. Detroit Lions: CB Marlon Humphrey, Alabama
Cornerback help is on the way for a team that finished dead last against the pass last year, per DVOA. Along with free-agent signee D.J. Hayden, Humphrey gives the Lions greatly improved depth and playmaking skills at corner. He is a big, physical, and aggressive outside cover corner, and the Alabama product won’t be afraid to line up toe-to-toe with some of the NFC North’s best receivers from Day 1.
22. Miami Dolphins: OL Cam Robinson, Alabama
With the departure of Branden Albert and Laremy Tunsil’s expected move out to left tackle, Miami needs help at the left guard spot. Grabbing Robinson here gives the Dolphins a day-one starter, as the college tackle’s power and length make him a great fit at guard in the pros. With the left side of the line clearing the way, the Dolphins can continue to turn Jay Ajayi loose and lean on a dominant run game in 2017.
23. New York Giants: OL Ryan Ramczyk, Wisconsin
Giants left tackle Ereck Flowers hasn’t developed like the team had hoped, so grabbing Ramczyk here gives them an answer at one of the most important positions in the sport. With the former Badger locking down the left side of the line, New York could try Flowers out at guard, along with free agent D.J. Fluker, or have him provide competition at the right tackle spot held down by Bobby Hart. Bottom line, this pick improves the most important spot along the Giants offensive line and provides that unit with more depth.
24. Oakland Raiders: RB Leonard Fournette, LSU
The Raiders may end up coaxing Marshawn Lynch out of retirement, but their interest in the former Seahawk illustrates a clear desire to add a physical identity to their running attack. Even if Lynch unretires and joins the team as a short-term bonus, drafting Fournette here gives Oakland a long-term solution. Running behind the Raiders’ fearsome offensive line, Fournette would batter defenses, wear down opponents, and, with breakaway speed, he’d make second-level defenders pay if they take a bad angle. Fournette also takes pressure off of Derek Carr to carry the offense, giving the Raiders something their high-flying offense lacked in 2016: the ability to grind out games on the ground and protect leads in the fourth quarter.
25. Houston Texans: S Obi Melifonwu, UConn
After losing cornerback A.J. Bouye and safety Quintin Demps in free agency, the Texans grab Melifonwu at no. 25 and add depth to both positions. The über-athletic UConn product has experience at both cornerback and safety and possesses the size and athleticism to play at either spot in the pros. Melifonwu gives defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel another versatile defensive back capable of matching speed and quickness with receivers, athletic tight ends, and pass-catching backs.
26. Seattle Seahawks: CB Kevin King, Washington
King is tailor-made for the Seahawks Cover 3 defense, with plenty of size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) and athleticism (4.43 40, 39.5-inch vertical). Richard Sherman’s on the trade block this spring, and whether that’s the team’s desire or by Sherman’s request, it’s time to start thinking about their defense without the four-time All-Pro. This is the highest the Seahawks have taken a corner in the John Schneider–Pete Carroll era, but a lack of depth makes it a necessity. The team has a great source of intel from Washington head coach Chris Petersen, a friend of Carroll’s, and considering one of Seattle’s cardinal rules is to not get beat deep over the top, the Seahawks will love that King didn’t give up a touchdown in 2016.
27. Kansas City Chiefs: LB Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt
Coming out of Vanderbilt, the athletic and tenacious linebacker hasn’t gotten as much publicity as some of his draft classmates, but Cunningham is an instinctive playmaker who racked up an SEC-best 125 tackles in 2016. If Derrick Johnson is slow to return from a late-season Achilles tear, Cunningham could line up next to Ramik Wilson in the Chiefs defense and start on Day 1. But even if Johnson returns to form this season, Kansas City needs a long-term replacement for the 34-year-old.
28. Dallas Cowboys: CB Adoree’ Jackson, USC
After losing Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr in free agency, the Cowboys need to restock the shelf at cornerback. Jackson’s an explosive playmaker with the confidence necessary to start early in his career, and, as an added bonus, he could feature on special teams after returning four punts and four kick returns for touchdowns in his college career. Hell, the Cowboys could even try him on offense. As a two-way player for USC, he caught 39 passes for 628 yards and six touchdowns as a receiver and ran the ball 15 times for 92 yards. Jackson plays bigger than his size (5-foot-10, 186 pounds) would suggest.
29. Green Bay Packers: S Jabrill Peppers, Michigan
There are plenty of people still asking where Peppers plays in the pros, but his specific designation — whether it’s linebacker, safety, or maybe even running back — doesn’t matter. It’s a subpackage league, and defenses run with five or more defensive backs on the majority of plays in order to match up with the three-wide-receiver sets most offenses employ. Similar to the Swiss-army-knife role that Micah Hyde played in Green Bay last season, Peppers has the athleticism and size to line up for Dom Capers in any number of roles — as a nickelback in the slot, a safety in the deep middle of the field, or as a linebacker up in the box. And don’t forget: Green Bay has a guy wearing no. 88 as its lead running back. The Packers won’t be afraid to find a spot for Peppers on both sides of the ball and even on special teams.
30. Pittsburgh Steelers: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC
With receivers Sammie Coates, Justin Hunter, and Darrius Heyward-Bey running fly patterns down the sideline, deep speed isn’t a problem in the Steelers offense. (And that’s without mentioning the potential return of Martavis Bryant, if and when he’s reinstated by the league.) But Pittsburgh struggled in the red zone last year, and deep speed doesn’t get you much once you’re inside the 20-yard line. The Steelers need a short and intermediate threat to line up opposite Antonio Brown, and if they throw Smith-Schuster into this passing offense to body up cornerbacks and box out in the end zone, Pittsburgh could have a much more balanced attack. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound pass catcher could also play that Hines Ward role as a physical, blocking receiver in the run game.
31. Atlanta Falcons: DE Jordan Willis, Kansas State
With pass rusher Dwight Freeney’s future up in the air — he hasn’t retired but remains unsigned — the Falcons look to upgrade their pass rush by grabbing Willis. At 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds, he tested out in the 94th percentile among NFL edge athletes at the NFL combine, running a 4.53 40 and jumping 39 inches in the vert. Willis is not just an athlete; he has the production to back it up, with 25.5 sacks and 39.5 tackles for a loss on his four-year resume at K-State. He’d be another tool for Dan Quinn to deploy on his talented defensive line.
32. New Orleans Saints (from New England Patriots): RB Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
McCaffrey doesn’t possess Darren Sproles’s lightning burst, but he’d play a similar role in the New Orleans offense: a dual-threat runner-receiver, capable of flexing out and running a slant or simply taking a handoff and creating on his own. The former Stanford back makes a great complement to Mark Ingram in the Saints backfield and gives Drew Brees the creator in the passing game that they’ve been missing since Sproles left. With 56 kick returns for 1,479 yards and one touchdown plus 34 punt returns for 380 yards and a score in his college career, McCaffrey could also feature in the return game.