Athlon previews the 2013 NFL Draft by telling you who to watch this college football season.
It is never too early to begin looking ahead to next year’s NFL Draft. Each year a unique set of prospects enters the professional ranks with a chance to make an immediate impact on the country’s most powerful sport. The 2013 NFL Draft won’t be any different.
Today, we rank college football's best safeties prospects:
1. Eric Reid, LSU (6-2, 208, Jr.)
Reid posted a huge sophomore year that included an unbeaten regular season as key member on a defense ranked second to only Alabama. Among his statisical contributions were 76 tackles and two interceptions, including the game-changer against the Tide in Tuscaloosa. Reid should finish his junior season as the top safety on NFL Draft boards. He has a rare blend of size and speed, physicality and finesse, leadership and toughness. He can play a deep-high point coverage scheme and can be used off the blitz to create havoc in the opposing backfield. He may not be as complete a safety as Mark Barron, but he’s close. There are no weaknesses in his game.
2. TJ McDonald, USC (6-3, 205, Sr.)
The NFL pedigree for the USC Trojans' defensive captain is well documented. His father, Tim, was an All-American at USC before playing 13 seasons in the NFL, six of which resulted in Pro Bowl invitations. The younger McDonald is a heady player who uses tremendous intangibles and physical play to make his presence felt on defense. After three great years in SoCal, he is leading the team in tackles and is poised for his best statistical season in 2012. He has a big frame and plays an NFL brand of football.
3. Matt Elam, Florida (5-10, 206, Jr.)*
There aren’t many players who perform on the field with more intensity and physicality than Elam. He is a huge hitter who could easily be the most talented player at his position nationally if his hot temper didn’t set his team back from time to time. He is fast, strong and a fiery leader for a Gators defense that ranks among the best in the land.
4. Tony Jefferson, Oklahoma (5-10, 198, Jr.)
There aren’t many players who are as versatile and athletic at the back end than Jefferson. He has previously played a hybrid safety-linebacker role, has lined up in the slot in man-to-man coverage, and is now leading his team in tackles playing a more traditional safety position this season. He also plays in a league that claims arguably the most complex and successful passing attacks, so his knowledge of coverage schemes should be advanced. He isn’t one of the bigger safety prospects, but he could be the most athletic and versatile of the bunch.
5. Shawn Williams, Georgia (6-1, 217, Sr.)*
His teammate got most of the headlines last fall — and this summer — but Williams is the most consistent performer in the Georgia Bulldogs' secondary. He has a big frame and has played against the most physical offensive lines in the game over the last few seasons in the SEC. He plays a physical brand of football after learning under former NFL coordinator Todd Grantham. He has shown the ability to excel against both the pass and the run.
6. Kenny Vaccaro, Texas (6-1, 218, Sr.)*
The Longhorns' defense has struggled mightily in 2012 and it will likely hurt Vaccaro’s draft stock as the leader of that unit. He is excellent in the box against the run using his physical style to make big plays. Against some of the pass-happy Big 12 offenses, however, his skills in open space have been exposed somewhat. He is still a tremendous prospect, but may be limited against the high-flying NFL attacks that populate the next level.
7. Robert Lester, Alabama (6-2, 210, Sr.)*
The Bama defense, ranked No. 1 again this fall in scoring and total defense, hasn’t needed big plays from its back end this fall. But Lester has been the clear leader of the totally reworked Crimson Tide secondary. He has great size, has posted big numbers in the past (8 INT in 2010), has been coached by DB guru Nick Saban, and has two national championship rings. He isn’t Mark Barron, but he should be a solid NFL player.
8. Hakeem Smith, Louisville (6-1, 185, Jr.)
There is a lot to like about the junior from Louisville. He has been coached at an elite level by defensive specialist Charlie Strong on a team that could win the Big East championship with an unblemished record. He has speed, versatility and a frame that can handle more weight. Smith is a guy who could fly up draft boards once the meat market begins in February.
9. Bacarri Rambo, Georgia (6-0, 210, Sr.)
Rambo’s track record is loaded with highlight-reel hits, 13 career interceptions entering his final season, an SEC East title and multiple off-the-field incidents. Some of his issues are blown out of proportion but a track record of poor decisions will negatively affect his draft stock. He isn’t as fluid and versatile in open space, but he has an NFL frame and delivers NFL hits.
10. Brian Blechen, Utah (6-2, 218, Jr.)
Blechen has been a leader for the Utes for four years. As a freshman All-American and four-year starter, Blechen has experience in essentially every situation — battling for a Pac-12 South Division title, playing on a 10-win team and overcoming the shortcomings of a struggling offense. He may not have the elite physical tools of another versatile Utah safety (Eric Weddle), but he has great size and the ability to be dropped into the box. He is an intriguing middle-round prospect.
Other Names to Watch:
11. Duke Williams, Nevada (6-1, 200, Sr.)
12. Bradley McDougald, Kansas (6-1, 210, Sr.)
13. Jamoris Slaughter, Notre Dame (6-0, 200, Sr.)*
14. CJ Barnett, Ohio State (6-0, 202, Jr.)
15. Shamarko Thomas, Syracuse (5-10, 210, Sr.)
16. Jarred Holley, Pitt (5-10, 190, Sr.)
17. John Boyett, Oregon (5-10, 205, Sr.)
18. DJ Swearinger, South Carolina (6-0, 210, Sr.)
19. Daimion Stafford, Nebraska (6-1, 205, Sr.)
20. Zeke Motta, Notre Dame (6-2, 215, Sr.)*
21. Jawanza Starling, USC (6-1, 200, Sr.)*
22. Rashad Hall, Clemson (6-1, 210, Sr.)
23. Micah Hyde, Iowa (6-1, 190, Sr.)
24. Jordan Kovacs, Michigan (6-0, 202, Sr.)*
25. Drew Frey, Cincinnati (6-3, 212, Sr.)*
* - strong safety
- by Braden Gall
Related NFL Draft Rankings By Position:
2013 NFL Draft: Running Backs
2013 NFL Draft: Tight Ends
2013 NFL Draft: Safeties
2013 NFL Draft: Defensive Tackles
2013 NFL Draft: Wide Receivers
2013 NFL Draft: Offensive Tackles
2013 NFL Draft: Inside Linebackers