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After extensive study and the believing that the Bengals will draft a safety somewhere in the first three rounds, here are the six names to watch out for.
The safety position is evolving before our eyes. The traditional strong safety is losing it's value at a rapid pace, as today's safeties need to play the run along with covering slot receivers and tight ends with freaky talent in space. If the rare safety prospect can do all of that from day one, he's probably a top-fifteen pick. We may have one of those in Kenny Vaccaro, but the next five prospects can start from day one with potential to be relied upon in future years as key players.
1. Kenny Vaccaro - Texas - 6'1" 215 lbs.
Vaccaro is a great athlete for the position. He lined up everywhere for Texas (Deep FS, SS, Nickel CB, in Box). He's at his best when moving forward. He anticipates the run very well with aggression but this can backfire because he gets caught taking bad angles or falling for play-action. Vaccaro's aggressiveness is great when it works, but if he misses just a little, you'll see him whiff on tackles.
Because of this, I would much rather have Vaccaro closer to the line of scrimmage playing the run; I just wouldn't want to give him big gaps. He doesn't break down well in space and in deep zone, I don't trust him. Offenses attacked him with play-fakes and vertical routes where he had to make a choice. Because of Vaccaro's versatility, defensive coordinators will drool over his potential and where they can align him. He has the size, athleticism and coverage skills to match up with these new NFL tight ends. He's like a bizarro Polamalu. Line him up everywhere, keep him close to the line, BUT the difference is his man coverage abilities. I have to think he has very high upside, even as a deep FS.
Draft Projection: 1st Round (5-20)
2. Jonathan Cyprien - FIU - 6'0" 210 lbs.
Jonathan Cyprien not only stood out as the best athlete on the FIU defense, he's also the most instinctive; an intimidating and high-energy player on either side of the field. He's a strong safety that's very comfortable playing in the box and the best safety against the run that I've seen thus far.
He has a great feel for running lanes and quickly measures up ball-carriers to make crushing hits. When he doesn't leave his feet, Cyprien is one of the better form-tacklers in this draft class. His aggressive angles can hurt him at times and he can get locked-out by linemen, but after watching a bunch of safeties in this class, he's no worse than the rest. He can also play bump-and-run in coverage against tight ends and running backs.
From a coverage perspective, Cyprien's anticipation shined. Where I was most impressed with Cyprien was his range as a center fielder. He can get sideline-to-sideline in a hurry and appears to read the quarterback's eyes very well. He can get to those deep routes along the boundary for a big hit or make a play on the ball. Cyprien's ball skills and range sold me on him as a prospect.
Draft Projection: 1st/2nd Round (20-36)
3. D.J. Swearinger - South Carolina - 5'11" 210 lbs.
He has the size, strength and attitude to be a very good NFL strong safety. Swearinger is more than that, he also covered the slot a bunch and played deep zones. He shows some adequate range when asked to play deep and Swearinger has better than average ball skills. Tracking the deep ball and knowing when to make a play on it or go for the hit is not something most college safeties have. Swearinger usually makes the correct choice.
I don't think he's a great athlete but I don't see many limitations. Swearinger is one of the best tacklers of this safety class and his shit-talking mentality forces him to back it up. It looks like teammates feed off of it. His big hits are something for the highlight reels. I also see Swearinger moving guys around, making adjustments and calls presnap. I like his upside as a T.J. Ward type player.
Draft Projection: 2nd Round (35-50)
4. Bacarri Rambo - Georgia - 6'1" 210 lbs
Rambo is a free safety in every sense of the definition. He thrives is deep center field where his range and ball skills are evident. Rambo's ball-tracking is the best in this class and would be good by NFL standards.
Where you look for much more is against the run. Rambo doesn't usually fly into the picture looking for make the big stick. Instead, you'll see him catch runners off guard or hold the ball carrier up until help arrives. The crazy part is, he has gotten much better in run defense and overall tackling over the last couple years.
I'm interested in Rambo's workout numbers because it could sway my evaluations even more. He looks like two different players when you watch him in coverage and against the run. He reminds me a lot of Jairus Byrd when he was at Oregon. The difference is Byrd developed very well in Buffalo and become one of the elite safeties in the NFL as an all-around player. The flashes and natural abilities of Rambo leave me hoping for similar results.
Draft Projection: 2nd/3rd Round (50-75)
5. Eric Reid - LSU - 6'2" 210 lbs.
Reid is a long, well-built safety. His length helps as a tackler because he gets the extra reach when needed. You'll see him trip-up runners even when he's out of position. Besides that, Reid is generally a poor tackler; while adequate against the run, Reid is high-cut and leggy. That hurts his change of direction ability and he can get run over by shorter backs.
His long legs and stiffness don't help in man coverage. Reid is a deep FS only -- you don't want him covering the slot very often. He's prone to getting flagged and giving up catches underneath.
On the positive side, Reid flashes great anticipation against the run and in zone coverage. He sees the route progressions in front of him and he is quick to read the QB's eyes and make a play on the ball or lay a big hit. I feel comfortable with Reid as the defense's last line of defense. He doesn't bite much on the play-fakes and knows how to keep the play or ball-carrier in front of him. He has a knack for getting his hands on the ball and that's a trait that can be unexplainable, but coveted by NFL teams. He reminds me of Falcons' SS William Moore because I think Reid can be a better tackler with more discipline.
Draft Projection: 2nd/3rd Round (50-75)
6. Matt Elam - Florida - 5'10" 205 lbs.
Elam is the type of player that has some amazing YouTube highlight videos (see below) but when you focus on him at Florida, he leaves you wanting more. Elam isn't a great athlete. In fact, he's very average in most physical categories. Add in his shorter size and Elam will have to break the 'short and slow' label.
Here's what he does offer: He's a bully on the field with no fear when he coming in to make a tackle. Elam consistently digs into a pile, rips at the ball, pushes offensive players after the play and talks smack. He needs to wrap up more often and mind his helmet when applying bone-crushing hits.
Elam played some nickel corner at Florida, but he can be a liability when facing quicker slot receivers. He was solid with the shorter routes in front of him, but anything deeper, and Elam would lose his man. In deep zone, Elam doesn't show the range to be a Cover-1 free safety. He's a strong safety and special teams standout in the NFL. I don't think he'll ever be an elite defender but he could be a Ryan Clark type complementary safety.
Draft Projection: 3rd Round (60-85)