Much like last year, the 2012 NFL Draft safety class leaves a lot to be desired.
The safety position is in a transitional phase in the pass-happy NFL. The player who comes down into the box for run support is much less desirable than a prospect who can cover a slot player or tight end over the middle.
There are really only two safety prospects I can see playing a role as a starter in his rookie season, and they are Mark Barron of Alabama and Harrison Smith of Notre Dame. The other prospects will need to prove their worth on special teams and then eventually play their way onto the defensive unit.
Barron has justifiably been the top safety prospect in this class from the very beginning of the evaluation period. He has good size and bulk to be effective in the run game, but also has the quickness and athleticism to lock up a receiver in the passing game.
He plays underneath routes better than deep balls, but will only get better at tracking balls in the air and making the proper adjustments to position his body to wall off the receiver in the deep half. He does an excellent job of reading the quarterback’s eyes and reacts quickly when the ball is released.
Barron is aggressive when attacking the ball, and the majority of his 11 interceptions came from cutting the receiver off and stepping in front to make the catch. However, he was sometimes overaggressive and took chances that may not have hurt him in college, but will be exposed in the NFL.
Also due to his aggressive nature, he often bit hard on play-action and will need to trust his reads and film study more.
Harrison Smith is probably a better strong safety than free safety depending on the scheme, but you always know what you’re going to get from him. He’s solid, but not flashy, and that often makes for a great player opposite a free safety who can freelance and roam in the back half. It’s very much like Bernard Pollard did for the Ravens last season, which allowed Ed Reed to take chances.
Smith isn’t as gifted an athlete as other prospects, but he makes up for it with instincts and awareness. It’s clear on tape he’s not making guesses that work out in his favor. He puts himself in the right position and is fundamentally sound.
He’s rarely beat deep, not because of his speed, but because he knows he has to be the deepest player on the field. It seems like a simple concept, but it rarely happens during the course of the game. He isn’t an explosive tackler who makes a big hit, but he’s reliable enough to trust in the open field.
Other safeties in the draft include Brandon Taylor from LSU and DeQuan Menzie of Alabama, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a team selects a bigger cornerback like Dre Kirkpatrick, Trumaine Johnson or Stephen Gilmore to be a future safety in the NFL.
I think all three players give you more versatility in your defensive secondary than the next batch of college safeties. It’s important to note you need three trustworthy defensive backs to succeed in coverage. That may be three corners or a combination of corners and safeties, but either way, you must be able to cover the multiple receiver sets in the NFL on all three downs.