In 2022, Darnell Savage, 2019 first round pick and All-Rookie team selection missed 12 tackles. He lost his starting position midway through the season. PFF listed his tackling efficiency at 78th out of 81 safeties. Since only 64 safeties start on a weekend in the NFL, that number tells you all you need to know. Adrian Amos is a free agent and the Packers are out of money. So safety has to be a priority in this draft.
With ten current picks, don’t be surprised to see the Packers pick two safeties before the draft concludes. One problem the Packers will face is a lack of safety talent in this draft. CBS sports lists 20 safety prospects with draft worthy grades. Only 5 in the first three rounds. ESPN lists 18, with 6 in the first three rounds. Safety draft grades need speed documentation, which is why the combine and pro days are important. This review will break down the top 6+ safeties listed by ESPN and CBS and then give a synopsis on the late round options.
Packers Top Safety Prospects for 2023 Draft
Brian Branch: Alabama: (6’0”/190) Branch has been the consensus pundit number one safety in the 2023 draft. Then he went to the combine. He ran a 4.58 forty with a 1.56 split. His arms are short. (30 ¾”). Those are not great first round safety numbers. The last time the Packers picked a safety that ran a 4.58 forty, it was Ha-Ha Clinton Dix and he was an inch taller and 20 lbs heavier.
Savage was 8 pounds heavier than Branch and ran 4.36. He was picked 21st. Some draft outlets list Branch as a slot safety. So why is he rated so high? He tackles. He is known for being a hard hitter. Branch had 90 tackles with 7 passes defensed in 2022 and PFF listed him as the best tackler in college football, with a 91.8 rating. How nice would that be to see a Packer safety tackle with authority…
Antonio Johnson: Texas A&M: (6’2”/198) Johnson has the size and speed to be an NFL safety. His 4.52 forty and 1.57 split keeps him on the field and his arm size (32 1/8”) will help keep tight ends off his frame. Johnson was right behind Branch on PFF’s tackling rating at 89.5 and had a better coverage rating at 88.7 compared to Branch’s 86.4.
He did not produce interceptions, but did receive the Defensive Playmaker Award for his team in 2021 compiling 79 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 1 interception, and five pass breakups. In 2022 he missed two games but still posted 71 tackles, 5 TFL, one pass breakup and 3 forced fumbles. He does struggle a bit with open field tackling, which contributes to Branch being rated higher. He also struggles on tracking deep balls. Never a trait you want in a centerfielder.
After these top two safeties, the pundits are split as to the rankings and it demonstrates the debates that are reverberating in draft rooms. CBS ranks J.L. Skinner as the 3rd best safety. ESPN ranks him 12th. ESPN ranks JiAyir Brown third while CBS lists him as a corner and ranks him the 15th corner and a #150 overall ranking. That tells you more about the depth at safety vs. corner in this draft than it does about Brown. Corner has more depth in the 2023 draft.
J.L. Skinner: Boise State: (6’4”/209) long and lean, Skinner can play both safety positions. His arms are average (32”) and he is a decent tackler. He did not run at the combine, so his pro day will affect his ranking. As most tall safeties do, Skinner struggles to flip his hips and needs to learn to take better angles to the ball in pass coverage. Decent open field tackler. Skinner tallied 62 tackles, 4 interceptions and 5 passes defended. He had 92 tackles in 2021 with 2 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles.
Sydney Brown: Illinois: (5’10”/211) all Big Ten safety from the national top scoring defense. He ran a 4.47 forty with a 1.51 split. His vertical jump is 40.5 inches. He has played since his freshman year, so has a lot of game experience and he improved every year. He is also too short to match up against big tight ends and tall receivers and he misses tackles.
His short arms ( 31 ½”)will make it tough for him to win near the line of scrimmage in the NFL. He is from London, Ontario, Canada so cold weather is not a problem. 31 missed tackles in two years is a problem.
Jordan Battle: Alabama: (6’1”/209) Besides having the best last name you could hang on an NFL defender’s uniform, Battle has some good numbers. His 4.55 forty with a 1.56 split kept him in the conversation. During the Crimson Tides’s 2020 championship run, Battle was the heart of the defense, totaling 66 tackles, 3 TFL, one interception that was a pick six, and 4 passes defensed.
In 2021 he had 84 tackles, 3 interceptions, and 3 passes defensed. He followed that in 2022 with 71 tackles, 1 interception and 2 passes defensed. He has played a lot of football at a high level which will help his NFL transition. His only major knock is a struggle to tackle in the open field.
Jartavius Martin: Illinois: (5’11”/194) Martin ran a 4.46 forty with a 1.47 split. He posted a 44” vertical jump and an 11’1” broad jump. He has 31 1/8” arms. While he posted great numbers, his film leaves questions. Angles to the ball need improvement. Tracking and coverage targets needs improvement. He can get out-muscled and bumped off coverage.
Martin played a lot of slot coverage for Illinois and showed good instincts attacking the run both coming at him and in pursuit. He made plays attacking wide receiver screens and in one on one man coverage he can flip is his head quickly and locate the ball for a pick, as he did against Minnesota. The more I watched the more I was impressed. He does not have experience as a true free safety. His 2022 season included 64 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 sack, 3 interceptions and 11 passes defensed.
Ji’Ayir Brown: Penn State: (5’11”/203) Ran a slow forty and split at the combine that will drop him on boards. If he bounces back at a pro day he may recover, but 4.65 forty and a 1.56 split won’t cut it in the NFL. Brown was a hero in the Rose Bowl in 2022 with an interception, 1.5 sacks and 8 tackles.
He was a thorn in the side against Wisconsin in 2021 with an interception to seal the victory along with 5 tackles and another pass break up that was very close to a pick. His 2022 season numbers, 74 tackles, 4 interceptions, 7 TFL, and 4.5 sacks. His 2021 stats, 67 tackles, 4 interceptions with a pick 6, 1 forced fumble and 5 passes defensed show he has experience and lots of good film. He is also good at filling at the line of scrimmage in run support from either a safety or slot corner position as he has experience at both positions. His film shows good anticipation and decent burst.
The rest of the Safety prospect bunch:
Brandon Joseph: Notre Dame: (6’/202) Short armed (30 7/8”) has a knack for big hits combined with a knock for missing tackles, especially in the open field. Joseph has experience as a free safety against high caliber competition and has good film in the pass game. He needs to earn how to play with his back to the ball, his main flaw. He ran a 4.62 forty with a 1.56 split. Joseph totaled 30 tackles, 1 forced fumble, and 1 interception in 2022 in seven games, down from 79 tackles and 3 interceptions in 12 games in 2021.
Christopher Smith: Georgia: (5’11”/192) Ran a 4.62 forty and 1.56 split. Vertical jump was 33 inches. Pundits like his coverage and toughness but question his reaction time and diagnosis. (Seems to be a repeated concern for many Georgia defenders. Is it how they are coached?) Major concerns are a bit slow and a bit small. Had 61 tackles, 5 TFL, a sack and three interceptions in 2022. Combined in 2021 and 2022, he had 9 passes defensed.
Daniel Scott: California: (6’1”/208) Ran a 4.45 forty with a 1.55 split at the combine. Add in a 39.5 vertical jump and some decent practices at the Senior Bowl and Scott moved up some draft boards. Cal had a poor year but Scott was a team captain and has six years of college experience.
In the actual Senior Bowl game Scott was given a head fake that left him in another county and allowed a big play. There is more of that on film. He blew assignments multiple times against Oregon. He is also 24 years old. Against the run it did not get better. He was faked out of his uniform by the Oregon QB on a naked bootleg, allowing a touchdown. In his multiple tackle attempts against Oregon I never saw him try to wrap up the ball carrier, just happy to stick his head in and hope the runner goes down.
Jammie Robinson: Florida State: (5’11”/191) Robinson ran a 4.59 forty with a 1.58 split. His arms (29 5/8”) are the shortest in the group. Too small with short arms to line up against tight ends. His strength is tackling and quick feet (although that is on film, not his combine testing) and it might give him a chance as a nickel corner. His 2022 stats: 99 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 interception, 5 passes defensed.
Marte Mapu: Sacramento State: (6’2”/216) Listed as a safety he played linebacker, safety and corner at Sacramento State. He was the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year. He played in 41 games for the Hornets and amassed 165 tackles, 13 TFL, 7 interceptions and 22 pass deflections.
Has potential as a 5th or 6th DB on runnings downs or against run heavy teams. Will be interesting to see how fast he is. Not invited to the NFL Combine. He impressed coaches at NFLPA and Senior Bowls. May end up as a passing game inside linebacker.
Jay Ward: LSU: (6’1”/188) Ran a 4.55 forty with a 1.53 split. Frame is rail thin for the NFL. For his size he is tough. Will fill in run support. Better at nickel/slot than free safety. Committed seven penalties in 2022. Needs to get stronger. 60 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 interception and 4 passes defensed. Was a leader on LSU’s defense.
Jason Taylor II: Oklahoma State: (6’/204) ran a 4.5 flat forty with a 1.52 split. Add a 43 inch vertical and those numbers impress. Good sized arms for the position (32”) he has a highlight real that shows he makes big plays in key moments in games. NFL’s Lance Zierlein says he tracks the long ball like an outfielder. In 2022, he had 48 tackles, 6.5 TFL, and 2 interceptions and 4 passes defensed. He played in 13 games in 2022 and 13 combined in 2020 and 2021.
Concerns pre draft was he sometimes looked slow on tape, but his combine now does not match that tape. He has good marks as a tackler. Wisconsin fans may remember his 12 tackles against them in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl. They might also remember him being beaten for a touchdown just before the half when he was fooled on a run-fake roll-out pass. He also made a poor read on Braelon Allen’s 3rd quarter 20 yard touchdown run.
Ronnie Hickman Jr.: Ohio State U.: (6’ 1/2’”/203) Did not run at combine. Has long arms for position (33”) and can cover near the line of scrimmage but struggles with change of direction and tackling in space. In 2021 Hickman Jr. amassed 99 tackles, 1TFL, 2 interceptions and zero passes defensed. In 2022 that dropped to 53 tackles, 1 interception and 1.5 TFL’s. He upped his passes defensed to 7. He has gotten better every year as his QB Rating shows (2020 QBR= 110.8/2022 QBR = 34.7)
Quindell Johnson: Memphis: (6’1/2”/194) No combine numbers. 54 tackles, 4 interceptions and 5 passes defensed in 2022. Has started multiple years and has 226 tackles over 49 games; 77 in 2022 and 104 in 2021. In the last two years he has 10 TFL’s and 5 interceptions and 15 passes defensed. If he runs a fast time at his pro day he may jump up some boards. He has experience at nickel corner, safety and linebacker. Strong and willing tackler.
Trey Dean III: Florida: (6’2”/200) Ran a 4.75 forty with a 1.6 split. Not safety speed. His lack of speed did not cripple him in college, he ran with tight ends down the field. But it was noticeable. His decent tackling make him a potential special teamer. 2022 stats: 81 tackles, 4.5 TFL, .5 sack, 4 passes defensed. In 5 seasons and 57 games he totaled 4 interceptions.
DeMarco Hellams: Alabama: (6’1”/203) ran a 4.57 forty with a 1.57 split and a 31 inch vertical jump. Willing tackler that has good understanding of boundary safety responsibilities. Can get beat over the top and struggles to recover when he missteps. Collected 108 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 interception and seven passes defensed and a forced fumble in 2022. He snagged 3 interceptions in 2021.
Gervarrius Owens: Houston: (6’/195) Did not run at combine but did post a 37.5 vertical. Owens has corner and high safety experience as 4 year starter at Houston. His film has good and bad. He missed a high number of open field tackles and occasionally took bad angles to balls. In 2022, he had 74 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 interception and 8 passes defensed.
Kendrick Duncan Jr.: Louisville: (6’3”/225) Did not have stats from combine. Duncan Jr. accumulated 44 tackles, 1 TFL, no interceptions with no passes defensed in 9 games in 2022. In 2021 he played in 12 games, he had 76 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 sack, 1 interception and 4 passes defensed. Five-year college player splitting time at Louisville and his first three years at Georgia Southern. His QBR, when targeted his final season, was a troubling 118.8. Film indicates he is not fast enough to mirror quicker receivers.
Kaveon Merriweather: Iowa: (6’/205) ran a 4.62 forty with a 1.58 split. 2022 season included 47 tackles and 3 interceptions. A better zone and short field player than a back end free safety. His lack of speed and tight hips turning and running show up on tape. Decent tackler but sometimes can’t wrap up. Lost his starting job in 2019 after an injury and some poor play but bounced back in 2020.
An interesting comparison is the difference in ranking of Branch and Hellams. Both from Alabama. Both ran basically the same forty time. Hellams had 18 more tackles. Branch is listed as a top 20 pick. Hellams is ranked 179. That is the middle of the 5th round. For a team in need of two safeties, drafting two that have worked together in college could bring added benefits to the safety room.
Rest of the 2023 NFL Draft Safety Pack
Chamarri Conner: Virginia Tech: (6’/202) 4 year starter that played corner, slot, and safety in different years. Ran a speedy 4.51 forty with a 1.56 split and a 40.5 vertical at combine. Also played specials teams in college. In 2022, had 67 tackles, 2TFL, and 2 passes defensed, no interceptions. He has 4 interceptions and 19 passes defensed in his 5 year college career. The knock on Conner is missed tackles but he gets plus grades on ball skills.
Brandon Hill: Pittsburgh: (5’10”/193) Ran an impressive 4.43 forty with a 1.50 split. If only Hill has 3 inches taller… just a bit short to line up against tight ends. In 2022 he collected 67 tackles, and two passes defensed. Played strong safety at Pitt. Can get too aggressive and miss tackles and overrun plays. Might convert to slot corner and special teams.
Jordan Howden: Minnesota: (6’/203) ran a 4.49 forty and 1.55 split. Team captain who started 49 games. Played free safety. His tackling is suspect and his film makes you question his speed when he is initially beaten in coverage but he is a smart player. His 2022 season stats included 58 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 interceptions and 5 passes defensed. Four interceptions and 20 passes defensed in his 5 years as a Gopher.
Anthony Johnson Jr. :Iowa State: (6’/205) ran a solid 4.54 forty and 1.55 split. Has impressed scouts with his toughness and hitting. Experience as corner and safety. He excels changing direction. His 2022 campaign had 60 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 interceptions and 4 passes defensed. The knock on Johnson Jr. is he is still learning the proper angles and schemes of the safety position.
Tyreque Jones: Boise State: (6’2”/195) ran a 4.52 forty with a 1.61 split. Played box safety at Boise and showed good skills when the play is in front of him but faltered if forced to match up vertically. 34 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1 interception and 3 passes defensed in 2022. His best stat year was 2021 (52 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 interceptions and 6 passes defensed)
Rashad Torrence II: Florida: (6’/193) True Junior ran a 4.73 forty with a 1.59 split. He is a free safety with out good speed or instincts and could improve his tackling.
This safety class is interesting because speed from the top of the class is limited, but a number of low draft/free agent prospects have the tools necessary to compete on an NFL stage. Tackling is what will separate these prospects. Every Packers fan saw the results of poor safety tackling in 2022. Can Gutekunst and company find one or two safeties that will improve that hole in the defense? Stay tuned.