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2018 NFL Draft Rankings: Top 5 Safeties

Minkah Fitzpatrick

Minkah Fitzpatrick

The 2018 NFL Draft is set for April 26-28, so you still have time to get ready with the Athlon Sports 2018 Draft Guide. With 526 players ranked and needs outlined for every NFL team, it has everything you need.

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Here’s a sneak peek at our top five safeties in this year's NFL Draft:

1. Minkah Fitzpatrick

COLLEGE: Alabama
CLASS: Jr. HEIGHT: 6’0” WEIGHT: 205

STRONG POINTS: Flexibility and versatility have become crucial for defenses in the modern NFL, and Fitzpatrick is precisely the kind of defensive chess piece that teams have become desperate to find. Alabama used him primarily at safety last season, and he has the ability to play center field as a ballhawk — he had four pick-sixes in his career. His best value might be moving down into the slot. He’s capable of matching up with flex tight ends and most slot receivers due to his change-of-direction skills and speed, and he is an exceptionally good blitzer, showing a great sense of timing to go with a closing burst. He’s excellent in zone coverage when he can keep one eye on the quarterback, showing an advanced understanding of route combinations and the instincts to make plays on the ball. He spent time as a dime package safety as well, and he plays much bigger than his size against the run. His take-on skills are as good as it gets for a defensive back, and he’s aggressive coming downhill to deliver hits. Overall, he was known as a team leader on the best defense in the country and was praised for his high football character.


WEAK POINTS: Fitzpatrick isn’t quite an upper-echelon athlete. He’s a little stiff in his movements and has a tendency to over-pursue and take himself out of plays, particularly against the run.


SUMMARY: He does so many things so well, and is such a gym rat, that it’s difficult to picture Fitzpatrick as anything less than a Pro Bowl-level contributor. He’ll probably spend most of his time as a ballhawking safety, but a defensive coordinator will surely want to take full advantage of his skill set.


FINAL GRADE: 1st round

2. Derwin James

COLLEGE: Florida State
CLASS: R-So. HEIGHT: 6’2” WEIGHT: 210


STRONG POINTS: The soul of the Seminoles defense, James (above, right) has as high a ceiling as any non-quarterback in this draft class. He spent last season playing closer to the line of scrimmage — with his take-on skills, he can line up as a Will linebacker. He also hits like a linebacker, with a good tackle radius and plenty of pop when he meets a ball carrier. But his value in the NFL will likely be that physicality combined with his range. With loose hips and long arms, he’s capable of moving into the slot to cover flex tight ends and bigger receivers. He also has the twitch and closing speed to cover a lot of ground in zone coverage, providing a physical presence and capable ballhawk in the middle of the field. He was a team leader in Tallahassee, with tremendous football character.


WEAK POINTS: James wasn’t quite the same last season, his first year back from a torn lateral meniscus. FSU chose to use him in more of a linebacker role rather than in coverage, and he seemed to be playing with more hesitancy in coverage than he did as a freshman. It might be simply a matter of getting more reps (he played only 27 games and was in the program for three seasons at FSU), but he’s still slow to react and might not fully trust his reads. At this point, he’s more comfortable in the box than in center field.


SUMMARY: He doesn’t quite match Minkah Fitzpatrick in terms of versatility and is not as comfortable as a traditional safety, but James can be that defensive chess piece, and he is probably a little more athletic than the other safeties in this class. If medicals check out, he has a chance to be a difference maker for a defense and a perennial Pro Bowl candidate.


FINAL GRADE: 1st round

3. Ronnie Harrison

COLLEGE: Alabama
CLASS: Jr. HEIGHT: 6’2” WEIGHT: 215


STRONG POINTS: Essentially a linebacker patrolling the secondary, Harrison (right) is a fast and physical presence in the middle of the field. He’s an explosive mover with good speed, but his great instincts allow him to play even faster. He does a nice job recognizing routes and attacking. He fills hard against the run, showing quick, violent hands and outstanding take-on skills and the twitch to deliver punishing tackles. He’ll come hard and fast as a blitzer as well.

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WEAK POINTS: He’s not overly stiff, but he does have some limitations as a mover and will struggle to match up with a lot of tight ends and running backs in man coverage, limiting his appeal as a chess piece. His ball skills aren’t great, as there were a few balls that he got hands on but couldn’t haul in, and he’s not great tracking the ball over his shoulder.


SUMMARY: He has similarities to fellow Alabama alum Landon Collins as far as strengths and weaknesses. He’s at his best running around as a free defender and attacking downhill.


FINAL GRADE: 1st/2nd round

4. Armani Watts

COLLEGE: Texas A&M
CLASS: Sr. HEIGHT: 5’10” WEIGHT: 190

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STRONG POINTS:

Watts is a rangy playmaker. He’s a fast and fluid mover, showing the transition skills to cover a lot of ground as a center fielder. He has good instincts and will gamble that he’s right, jumping routes and flashing ball skills. He tracks the ball over his shoulder and is an explosive leaper, which allows him to play bigger than his size on jump balls. He is undersized but aggressive coming downhill to defend the run. He’s slippery for blockers to handle in space, and he packs some pop as a tackler.


WEAK POINTS: Watts needs to play more under control, as he will lose on some of his gambles and give up big plays. He also misses too many tackles, whether it be overrunning plays or going for the kill shot rather than wrapping up. He’ll have some limitations in coverage due to the lack of length.


SUMMARY: Watts’ ceiling will come down to how well he’s coached and how much a defensive coordinator will put up with from such a risk-taker in the age of ultra-conservative defenses.


FINAL GRADE: 1st/2nd round

5. DeShon Elliott

COLLEGE: Texas
CLASS: Jr. HEIGHT: 6’2” WEIGHT: 210


STRONG POINTS: Elliott filled a number of roles for Texas, and his versatility will come in handy at the next level. He’s a cerebral center fielder who does a great job reading routes and keeping an eye on the backfield. He tracks the ball very well downfield and has very good ball skills, with the ability to range and create turnovers. With good size and technique, he has the ability to match up with tight ends in man coverage as well. He will fill hard against the run and takes good angles to the ball. He’s a sure tackler and is especially good bringing down ball carriers in space.


WEAK POINTS: Elliott is a decent athlete but not an exceptional mover, and he won’t be able to cover athletic tight ends at the next level. He picked on some green quarterbacks in coverage but might not outfox NFL quarterbacks the same way.

SUMMARY: His versatility and high football IQ should allow him to become a starter, although Elliott ultimately can’t match the athletic upside of the top safeties in this class.


FINAL GRADE: 2nd/3rd round

Other safeties that could be drafted: Kyzir White, West Virginia; Justin Reid, Stanford; Quin Blanding, Virginia; Marcus Allen, Penn State; Jordan Whitehead, Pittsburgh; Terrell Edmunds, Virginia Tech; Siran Neal, Jacksonville State; Godwin Igwebuike, Northwestern; Jeremy Reaves, South Alabama; Chucky Williams, Louisville; Jessie Bates, Wake Forest; Kameron Kelly, San Diego State; Cole Reyes, North Dakota