The position you see mocked regularly in the first round for the Chargers is safety. Here are my rankings, but broken up into different responsibilities. I'll go over the top safeties in a deep center-field role, as a "rover", on the line of scrimmage, and in the slot. Then at the end, you'll see the top safeties "in a vacuum"
If you're my age and you know a little about baseball you know Ken Griffey Jr. and Andruw Jones were two of the greatest outfielders of our generation. Their ability to turn, run, and make up ground was incredible. Like an outfielder, free safety isn't just about raw speed. It's about getting a jump on the ball, not taking a false step, and locating it to finish. Instincts are more important than athleticism here. Now, it sure as hell helps if you can fly. But I'll take a "Jim Edmonds" every day of the week.
Marcus Williams is a popular name but I don't see what others do in him. He gets credit for range and getting good jumps on the ball I didn't see him leaving until after the ball was thrown. He got manipulated against Colorado's quarterback like I get manipulated by bartenders every weekend and end up just spending a bunch of money for no reason.
Here are the 5 best safeties in this role to me.
5) Obi Melifonwu, Uconn
4) Eddie Jackson, Alabama
3) Justin Evans, Texas A&M
2) Malik Hooker, Ohio State
1) Tedric Thompson, Colorado
Melifonwu is on this list because of his athleticism. He doesn't get great jumps "off the bat" at all. In fact, he's usually a step late with a false step thrown in there. But he's soooo fast that he's able to make up ground and recover.
Jackson broke his leg this past season but throughout his career the ball found him. He's fast enough, but it's his feel and ability to read the QB. I love how he jumps routes and baits the QB.
In this role, Evans is a first rounder. I thought when he was asked to open up and run Evans showed some explosiveness. He got manipulated at times but I think he showed the play-making ability and agility to excel here.
If we are talking about as a single-high safety, the hyperbolic comparisons for Hooker aren't out of control. There are plays where the QB goes to throw it, Hooker is on the opposite hash, and by the time the ball arrives he's there to make a play. He's special.
Thompson has elite range himself. He has high-end ball skills and sniffs out route combos before they happen. I'm pretty comfortable with having him at the top here.
In basketball when you have guys crashing down the lane, you want an eraser. You want somebody to intimidate shooters. Make them think twice about coming i the lane again. Dikembe Mutombo was great at that. One of the great shot blockers ever. This is the "Kam Chancellor" role where you are a safety and squatting over the middle of the field looking to jump on any crossing routes and take someone's head off. You also have to fill the alley under control and make a tackle. Here are the best of the best.
4) Nathan Gerry, Nebraska
1) Marcus Maye, Florida
Hooker has terrible tendencies when it comes to tackling but he aggressively fills and can "rob" routes easily.
Gerry is just a good football players. He's aware. He comes downhill under control. He effortlessly navigates his way through traffic to seemingly come up with a stop. He had so many tackles near the line of scrimmage when I watched him.
Maye will flourish in this role at the next level. He's a big time hitter but over everything, he's a sure tackler. That's why he gets the not over Obi here. He's a lot better in coverage than given credit for as well. This seems like Keanu Neal all over again.
Tough in the trenches
There are going to be 10-15 plays, at least, throughout a game where a safety is going to be in the box and have to take on a blocker 1-on-1. The difference between this and the Mutombo role is you don't get the chance to get a full head of steam. You have to avoid or take on the block on the fly. You're usually in man coverage so you have to have some wiggle to turn and run as well.
4) Delano Hill, Michigan
3) Josh Harvey-Clemons, Louisville
1) Budda Baker, Washington
These are ideal roles for both Hill & Harvey-Clemons. Both are physical at the point of attack and like to mix it up. They do not shy away from contact. Best of all they both finish at a high rate as well.
The story here is Baker. About 15-20 pounds lighter than most of these other guys, it is incredible to watch him at the line of scrimmage. He's either too quick and will avoid the block in a phone booth. Or he'll run around you. Or, like a former Charger safety, he'll kinda bob and weave to get past you. Sometimes it's subtle. Mostly he's just a blur. Baker is reckless in a good way. For as often as he played around the line of scrimmage, I was impressed with his tackling ability.
Spectacular in the slot
Another big part of the position is being that "hang defender." Whether you're caught in between the #2 receiver and the tight end and are a force player for runs your way. Or you have to read what's around you in zone coverage. Or flat out be head up in man coverage. This is one of the most underrated assets when "we" talk about safeties. I believe this spot has more of a chance to impact than any other role I've mentioned yet. Here are the 5.
4) Jabril Peppers, Michigan
Hill is a good player so long as he's in the box. He has the tools to press and uses his physicality as a weapon in the slot. He should be able to carve out a role in the NFL.
Peppers is tough. He lacks feel, instincts, and recognition when I watch him. He's slow to pull the trigger. Most of his "highlights" come when he's unblocked. When he does pull the trigger though, he can lay the boom. Allowing him to dance around blocks and win with his athleticism in space is his best bet.
Adams instincts are unreal. He closes well after the catch. I've seen him look silly a few times so he's not higher, but the guys higher than him are pretty darn good.
If it wasn't for Baker, Thompson would be the best man coverage safety in the draft. I was pleasantly surprised to see him stick with receivers in coverage.
Baker's ability to close is spectacular in the slot. His awareness of the sticks is as well.
Just talking overall safeties, from versatility to skill, these are how I would rank them in a vacuum.
1) Budda Baker
If Maye wasn't injured there would be a lot more talk about him. He was an All-American a year ago. A big hitting, wrap up tackler that can run and excel in a couple different roles. He has underrated range as well. Finding the ball and man coverage are what's holding him back.
Obi's instincts are not where they need to be. He's an all-world athlete though that makes plays. He can take poor angles He can also light you up. I don't think he's great in man coverage. His stiffness shows up. Even then, his ability to recover lead to turnovers. There's too much to like about Melifonwu. As a football player aggressive athletes like him who make plays can have a spot on my team.
Malik Hooker can be very good without being a Hall of Famer. I struggle to think he'll improve on his tackling. I do think he'll improve on his man coverage ability and recognition as a whole. He reminds me of Reggie Nelson. A very good player but not a top 10 player.
Thompson brings everything Hooker brings. Everything he does transfers to the NFL. Recognition, play-making, closing, tackling, range. It's all there.
Adams is the safe pick. It'll be interesting to see if he's asked to play more of a deep role. He did more than what's being led on when we talk about him. He didn't exactly stand out. Still, he's such a smart football player and underneath he is where he needs to be. His intangibles are also through the roof. You won't watch a game where he's not holding other LSU defenders accountable.
Baker is the cream of the crop. He's Eric Weddle. Can cover. Can tackle. Can recover. Knifes his way around blockers at the line and runs right by them to the edge. Lucky you, whoever drafts Baker.