Every draft season, we wait for Bill Belichick to take a safety to develop the next generation behind Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon.
However, the Patriots haven’t drafted a safety since Jordan Richards in 2015, leaving a complicated position in their system to veterans, even opting to go the free agency route over the draft.
Defending the middle of the field with safeties that can understand several different roles and responsibilities make playing the position a graduate-level course in Belichick’s defense. The Pats also expect their defensive backs to be in run fits and be expert tacklers.
For a rookie or younger player, there’s a slim chance that they could take on all the responsibilities that McCourty, Chung, and Harmon fill after years in the system.
But with Harmon now in Detroit after a cap-related trade, and McCourty and Chung currently 32 years old; the Pats should take advantage of their veteran leaders to develop the next man up.
Although there are only a few true ballhawks, this year’s crop of safeties runs deep on day two and three with talented hybrid defenders that can play high zone and operate in the box or slot.
We are in a new age where slot or nickel defenders are now starters, and having guys that are interchangeable between safety, cornerback, and even linebacker is invaluable to a defense.
Below, we’ll shed some light on ten different safety prospects that fit the mold for New England:
Xavier McKinney, Alabama
Background: My only first-round grade at the position this year, McKinney was a permanent captain for the Crimson Tide last season, and in many ways, the heart and soul of Nick Saban’s defense. The Roswell, Georgia native led Alabama with 95 tackles a year ago and was a third-team AP All-American and a first-team All-SEC honoree in his final season in Tuscaloosa. Although you’d like a first-round safety to test better than the 20th percentile and run faster than 4.63 in the 40-yard dash, his playmaking instincts are off the charts.
Alabama safety Xavier McKinney does everything well: reading the QB from centerfield, click and close in the deep half, competes in man coverage, extremely disruptive blitzer, fits the run better than most LBs in this class. Would love to see him with Belichick. #Patriots pic.twitter.com/dlTads3FmI
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 7, 2020
How He Wins: McKinney’s best trait as a prospect, along with his nose for the ball, especially in big moments, is his versatility. We saw him effectively play centerfield in single-high zone, jump passing lanes as a half-field safety, man up on tight ends, fill against the run like a linebacker, and become a hugely disruptive blitzer. McKinney logged snaps at safety, cornerback, inside linebacker, and outside linebacker last season. Belichick would have a blast moving him around his defense as Saban did at Alabama.
Antione Winfield Jr., Minnesota
Background: The son of three-time NFL All-Pro cornerback Antoine Winfield Sr. plays like a well-schooled veteran thanks in part to his father’s tutelage. The best ball-hawker in this class, Winfield Jr. was a first-team AP All-American leading Minnesota with 88 tackles and seven interceptions in 2019. Although he’s a bit undersized at 5-9, 203 pounds, Winfield tested in the 82nd percentile with a 4.45-second 40-yard dash that’s plenty fast enough to range over the top in centerfield. If Winfield were taller and longer in his arms, he’d be a first-round talent.
How He Wins: Winfield’s ball-hawking abilities are so clean that we need to show two examples. On the first play, Winfield is picking up a streaking receiver from high zone. Despite the receiver running at him at full speed with a two-way go, Winfield stays with the wideout, flipping his hips to match the vertical route, locating the football, and high-pointing for an interception. On the second play, Winfield seals a victory in overtime by jumping a leak route in the end zone. The idea is to clear the middle safety out with a post pattern and then send a leak route (looks like a wheel) into the vacated area. Winfield reads the quarterback’s eyes, peels off the post, and recovers in time to jump what appears to be a wide-open receiver down the sideline.
Jeremy Chinn, Southern Illinois
Background: Chinn was overlooked as a High School recruit due to an injury during his junior campaign, landing eventually at Southern Illinois. Chinn is now squarely in the top 50 conversation after a stellar workout put him in the 99th percentile with one of the highest SPARQ scores of any prospect at this year’s combine. Chinn has the perfect combination of size (6-2, 221 pounds), speed (4.45-second 40-yard dash), and explosiveness that, after dominating the FCS, makes him one of my favorite prospects in this class.
Jeremy Chinn: another versatile safety with an off the charts athletic profile. Looking real smooth here playing deep. Once he clicks into the double move, that drop step to point his hips upfield is next-level. Ball tracking is good too. #Patriots #NFLDraft pic.twitter.com/vMmxC5tBce
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 7, 2020
How He Wins: When studying non-FBS prospects that already pass the athlete test, my next question is, do they win with more than athleticism? Are they polished? Chinn could be a little more anticipatory at times, but his footwork and technique in high zone are excellent. On the play above, the offense tries to hit a big play with a double move. Chinn first reacts like it’s a quick throw, but quickly changes course to range over the top. First, notice the drop step as he opens towards the sideline in his backpedal. The drop step allows him to transition and point his hips in the proper direction while still keeping his eyes on the quarterback to track the ball in the air. Then, he times his approach perfectly, slowing himself down as he makes his way towards the sideline and high-pointing the ball for the interception. Chinn’s footwork, body control, and speed to reach the sideline from the middle of the field makes me giddy.
Ashtyn Davis, California
Background: Davis was a two-sport athlete at Cal starring on both their football team and in track and field. His character and work ethic is the first thing former coaches and teammates mention about him, along with his contributions on all four downs as the team’s special teams MVP as a redshirt freshman and sophomore. He’s got great tape and excellent athleticism but sat out of Cal’s bowl game, the Senior Bowl, and the combine with a groin injury. Many expected him to be a combine standout if he participated in Indy.
Think we might've found a potential Harmon replacement in Cal's Ashtyn Davis: terrific closing speed from deep zone, brings the hit stick to separate receiver from the ball, former walk on with A+ work ethic, core special teams value. #Patriots pic.twitter.com/OGnDtBhUcB
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 7, 2020
How He Wins: Along with A-plus play speed, Davis also brings a physical presence to the safety position. On the play above, Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert thinks he has a wide-open receiver up the seam. But Davis comes from the opposite hash, reading Herbert’s eyes in his drop and locating the seam threat when no other receiver releases into his zone and arrives just on time to separate the receiver from the football. Davis could immediately replace Harmon as a backup free safety and has the potential to take over for Devin McCourty eventually.
Grant Delpit, LSU
Background: Delpit is one of the most polarizing prospects in this year’s draft, and there’s a lot to unpack with his evaluation. He is following in the footsteps of Jamal Adams, Tyrann Mathieu, and a long lineage of stud safety prospects to come out of Baton Rouge. In 2018, he was the ninth player in LSU history to be named a unanimous first-team All-American. However, his play took a noticeable step back in 2019, partially due to a nagging high ankle sprain, but some warts began to show in his game. Delpit isn’t the alpha-leader that Adams is, but he’s a physical presence against the run and a ball-hawker in high zone.
How He Wins: The biggest knock on Delpit’s game that makes it difficult to project him to the Patriots is a flurry of missed tackles in his junior season, 20 to be exact, and they came in a variety of ways. Belichick doesn’t seem like the type of coach that wants safeties that can’t tackle, but Delpit’s coverage skills are top-notch. On the play above, he starts over the top of the slot receiver and ranges over to deliver a big blow to prevent an incompletion to the tight end. Like the LSU safety alumni before him, Delpit is always around the football.
Terrell Burgess, Utah
Background: Burgess screams Patriots. A one-year starter, Burgess’s preparation and attention to film study was a tone-setter for a loaded Utah secondary despite his relative inexperience. He’s an interchangeable safety prospect that has the speed to play high zone (4.46), man coverage skills to play in the slot, and physicality to handle box duties. Plus, he was a core special teamer appearing on all four coverage units throughout his career. Burgess knows how to study a game plan every week and played a role for the Utes that resembles what the Pats do with Patrick Chung.
How He Wins: Burgess has some impressive pass breakups from high zone where he shows excellent awareness and ability to read out route combinations as a half-field safety. But he’ll likely excel as a nickel or slot defender at the next level. On the play above, you’ll see Burgess’s strappy man-coverage style defending the inside slot, where he shows great route recognition early on to stick to his man coming across the field. He’s got good lateral quickness to latch onto receivers quickly, and the closing burst to get into passing lanes.
K’Von Wallace, Clemson
Background: Wallace gets lost most of the time on a loaded Clemson team, but it’s his willingness to fit in that makes him intriguing for the Patriots. As a senior, Wallace tied for the team lead with ten pass breakups, earning third-team all-conference honors. As a versatile option, Wallace might be at his best in a big nickel role in the slot. He’s also played some safety, though, and is a disruptive downhill blitzer and run defender. Wallace tested in the 97th percentile at the combine, much higher than you’d expect watching him on film.
K'Von Wallace isn't the flashiest safety/nickel prospect in this year's draft but I could see him on the #Patriots. Already has a "do your job" mentality. Knows his role and how he fits into the bigger picture (🔊 on). pic.twitter.com/kPB7hS5RQa
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 8, 2020
How He Wins: In the audio breakdown above, I’ll walk you through Wallace’s smarts and understanding of his role in the scheme. He’s not the flashiest player on this list by any means, but the Clemson defensive back gets how he fits into the bigger picture, and, well, does his job.
Kyle Dugger, Lenoir-Rhyne
Background: Lenoir-Rhyne college hasn’t had an NFL draft pick in 20 years, but Dugger will change that and become the highest player drafted from the school in a few weeks. Dugger tested in the 99th percentile at the combine checking every single box from an athletic standpoint, showing a rare combination of size and athleticism that’s hard to find even at the FBS level, let alone division two. He then went to the Senior Bowl and performed well in Mobile, flashing sticky man coverage skills in one-on-ones as well as physical run support. At times, Dugger’s motor was hot and cold, seemingly bored with his level of competition. But when he’s focused, he was a man amongst boys, which is what you want to see in division two.
How He Wins: Dugger has impressive reps in high zone coverage ranging over the top to contest downfield throws. He also can play man coverage effectively. However, his play speed and physicality show up most in run support where he’ll streak across the field and lay the wood on ball carriers. Dugger is also a core special teamer and offers punt return abilities, returning six punts for touchdowns in his career. He’s a little raw with his reads from high zone and anticipating downfield routes, which puts him in the developmental stage. But he’s going to be a starter eventually. Ideally, Dugger would play a Chung-like role, manning up in the box or playing intermediate zones.
DAY THREE TALENTS
Geno Stone, Iowa
Background: Stone flew under the radar as a High School prospect, eventually landing at Iowa when he pulled out of a commitment to Kent State. In 2019, he earned second-team All-Big Ten honors after posting 70 tackles, five pass disruptions, and three forced fumbles. He’s extremely instinctive and anticipatory on the field, making up for below-average athleticism with fast processing skills from both high zone and in the box to rally to the football. Stone isn’t a perfect fit with the Pats as he’d ideally go to a split-safety system due to his range limitations, but he’s one of those guys that just gets how to play the game.
Iowa's Geno Stone is one of the more instinctive safeties in this class. Re-routes, smooth in his backpedal, eyes locked on the QB. Makes it look easy. QB probably thought he'd drive on the flat, but Stone read the eyes and knew to stay underneath the corner route. #NFLDraft pic.twitter.com/QuY14DvAVw
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 9, 2020
How He Wins: Stone’s feel for the game, coverage spacing, and nose for the football make him an intriguing prospect for any defense. On the play above, he’s responsible for the curl/flat zone on the boundary. The offense runs a sail concept with a corner route and flat release high-lowing the zone coverage. Stone re-routes the flag pattern in his backpedal, smoothly gets underneath the route, and then stays on the corner with the quarterbacked locked on to intercept the pass. Stone also has a quick downhill trigger against the run and seems to be one step ahead on the field.
Tanner Muse, Clemson
Background: Muse is another combine standout testing in the 94th percentile at 6-2, 227 pounds, which is closer to a modern-day linebacker build than a safety. A converted High School running back, Muse filled the stat sheet in Clemson’s defense last year, earning third-team AP All-American honors. Although he’s stiff in his movements, Muse played all over Brent Venables’s defense with reps at linebacker and safety. He also projects as a core special teamer at the next level, which is how he’ll make an NFL roster.
Tanner Muse is too stiff to play deep, but a hybrid LB role where he takes RBs, TEs, and handles underneath zones could work for him.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 8, 2020
How He Wins: On defense, Muse’s best role is as a sub-package linebacker where he adds juice in coverage. He can cover running backs out of the backfield, and defend hook/curl zones in the short and intermediate areas of the field. On the play above, Muse is playing the middle hole in cover-two. He picks up the crosser from Justin Jefferson and falls underneath the route to take away Joe Burrow’s safety net, forcing Burrow to take a sack. Muse will need a specialized role to succeed as an NFL defender, but his special teams value along with his coverage ability make him an intriguing day-three prospect.