Patriots 2020 NFL Draft Preview: Safeties

Positional Overview: As football changes, perhaps no position on the field has changed more than the safety spot. In the way that in your father's day, a trainer of big cats was a rugged, muscular man in Banana Republic safari clothes and a pith helmet, in your day they're unstable, bleached mulletted lunatics in bedazzled turquoise shirts with the sex appeal to turn straight men, so too are today's safeties hard to stereotype. 

There used to be two types of safeties, your more physical, run-force, in the box strong safeties and your more mobile, faster, ground covering free safeties. Just to cite the prime examples of each, safeties were either Troy Polamalus or Ed Reeds. Now, it's more or less a position without a position. Defenses are playing base roughly a third of the time now. So for the other 67% or so of snaps, they're subbing out a lineman or linebacker for an amorphous, undefined, safety/linebacker hybrid. A guy who can help in the passing game against crossers and incuts, stay with tight ends up the seams, but also come up in support when quarterbacks check to the run. You need that type, while at the same time needing the traditional SS and FS who can provide help for the corners who are increasingly in man against spread attacks. 

The Patriots under Belichick have never not valued defensive backs in the draft. He's selected 33 of them in all, more than any other position. And among them, I'd argue that at least seven of those were "pure" safeties taken in the first three rounds, such as Brandon Meriweather (first in 2007), Tavon Wilson (second in 2012), Duron Harmon (third in 2013) and Jordan Richards (second in 2105). Devin McCourty was drafted as a corner and didn't make the switch until his second and third seasons, but count him too if you want. 

The position has been one of the Patriots strongest and deepest over the last few seasons. Particularly since Pat Chung returned to fill that role of gene-spliced S/LB. Not since "Road Warrior" has a sequel been so much better than the original to the extent that Chung 2.0 has been an upgrade from Classic Chung. But he and McCourty are both going to turn 33 during training camp. Harmon was let go for cap reasons. And so it's such a priority to add depth and developmental talent to this spot that there are no shortage of mocks having them go safety with their first pick. I have doubts about that, given they had the No. 1 defense in the league while scoring 13 points in the postseason. But I can't imagine a scenario if they don't use at least one or two of their dozen picks here. 

Current Roster: Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Terrance Brooks, Brandon King, Adarius Pickett, Obi Melifonwu, Malik Grant 

The Consensus No. 1 Safety Among Those Who Consider Him a Safety:

Isaiah Simmons, Clemson. 6-4, 238 lb, 4.39

I'm cheating here. And plagiarizing. Myself. I listed Simmons as a linebacker, but he's getting so much interest as a safety I'm going to include him here as well. Because in 2020, we reject your binary designations. Linebackers and safeties are position fluid.

Simmons is less a guy without a position than he is a guy with all the positions. He might be a Will, an edge rusher or a safety. Ask anyone which of them he played in Clemson's 3-1-7 scheme and the answer will be "Yes." According to Pro Football Focus, he lined up in the box on 299 snaps, in the slot on 262, at free safety on 132, and on the D-line 116 times. They also credit him with 30 pressures on only 73 rushes, just 237 passing yards surrendered in coverage and only nine missed tackles in 94 opportunities. That's to go with his 20 career pass break ups. Then again, as Ned Stark said, "Everything before the word 'but' is bullshit." And Simmons' "but" is that there's at least one anonymous executive being quoted as calling him "the most overrated player" in the draft. Which could simply be someone hoping Simmons drops into his lap. Because some scouts see him as the most gifted athlete in his class and he's considered a top half of the first round projection. Wherever he winds up I hope his team gets a lot of prime time games because this chess piece can be moved around anywhere on that 5-level board Mr. Spock used to play and create problems for an offense on any square. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Deone Bucannon 

Another Top Rated, Position-Fluid, Non-Binary, Whom the Pats Had a Combine Visit With:

Xavier McKinney, Alabama. 6-foot-0, 201 Pounds. 4.63 40-time

You could say McKinney is a positionless player, but I'll assume Nick Saban - who was found to be wearing the other half of the amulet Belichick has had around his neck since birth - preferred to think of him as a mulitposition player. In addition to being the post safety in Cover-1 and Cover-3, he played split safety, in the box nickel, he lined up as Saban's "Apex" (first underneath defender inside the cornerback), "Star" (the linebacker aligned over the slot, "Money (the dime) and pretty much everywhere else on the second and third levels of Bama's defense. Case in point: he took 285 snaps in the box, 227 in slot, and 271 at deep safety last season.  Straight line speed is not his game, obviously. But no team in football cares less about how fast you can sprint along the sidelines at Lucas Oil in your bike shorts than New England. He can play the run or pass and is the prototype of this changeling position. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Chauncey Gardner-Johnson

The Former Top 5 Prospect Who Fell to Earth:

Grant Delpit, LSU. 6-3, 213 lb. 4.39 

Remember that aerial shot of 2011 Alabama vs LSU where 16 of 22 defensive starters ended up on NFL rosters? Well this 2019 LSU defense is looking like they might be able to put together just such a class photo and Delpit might be voted Most Likely to Succeed. Or be to the class reunion what Dennis Reynolds was to his, the guy who's life peaked in school. Coming out of 2018, he was a unanimous 1st Team All-American (only the ninth in LSU story) and was maybe the best safety prospect since Eric Berry. But in 2019 his stock fell like it was hit with an economic shutdown. He was limited by an ankle injury, and the jury is out on how much of that is to blame. He still managed two interceptions and nine passes broken up, completing a career where he had at least six combined every season. But he was exposed as a lousy tackler, missing 20 on 78 attempts, after missing 16 of 81 the year before. So he's an asset in the passing game, but a liability against the run and preventing YAC. Anyone who's still got a nervous eye tic from years of watching Meriweather launching himself at ball carriers pads first and bouncing off of them instead of wrapping them up [raises hand] will understand why I assume Belichick will give his guy a good leaving alone.  But he'll go in the first or early second to somebody.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Eddie Jackson

Next Tier Safeties/Round 2-3 Guys:

Ashtyn Davis, Cal. 6-1, 202 lb, 4.45

I'm not going to slot-shame Davis because he has played there some and even picked off Justin Hebert from that alignment last season. But he's a tracklete whose best use of his skills is covering the field sideline-to-sideline from the deep post. Not just because of his obvious athleticism, but his recognition skills as well. Less a combo S/LB and more of a half safety, half corner. He's a willing enough tackler, but he's not someone you're going to put in the tackle box and expect him to shed blocks. But you can definitely see him contributing in subpackages from Day One. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Damarious Randall

Antoine Winfield, Minnesota. 5-9, 203 lb, 4.45

Winfield is an NFL legacy, a 1st Team All Big Ten selection and the Gophers MVP last year, with 88 tackles and seven interceptions, some of which were SportsCenter Top 10 worthy. He's also got two more years of eligibility on account of two medical redshirts. But wisely decided he's spilled enough blood so the suits at the NCAA can fly private jets and snort blow through $100 bills. Smart man. He's also smart when it comes to pattern recognition and anticipating route combos. In spite of his size, he's a sure, aggressive tackler as his totals would indicate. He can come up to the line to play press from either the slot or outside the numbers. But he's probably the best fit in a zone scheme. He'll also be a Core-4 special teamer and probably return kicks. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Antoine Winfield, Sr. Der.

Mid-Round Fighting Irish the Pats Have Met:

Alohi Gilman, Notre Dame. 5-11, 201 lb, 4.60

Gilman established himself as that kid who all the other kids' moms think is so nice and helpful and your mom asks why you can't be more like him when we went viral picking up other people's trash after Combine workouts. The native of Hawaii originally went to Naval Academy, but when the Department of the Defense stuck to their (figurative) guns that all service academy grads have to meet their Roger Staubach/David Robinson-like two year commitments before turning pro. So Gilman transferred to South Bend and put together two very productive years where he pretty much did it all. As a junior he totaled 95 tackles, three for loss, two interceptions, five pass breakups and three forced fumbles. As a senior he added 74 tackles, three TFLs, a sack, an INT, three PBUs and three FFs. In Indy, his 40-time was better than expected, but where those sweet, sweet Kraftbucks signing bonuses are made are in the 3-cone and the 20-yard shuttle, and his times were the second best at his position. He's also a strong tackler, though his technique could use some refinement. And has the ability to disrupt routes off the LOS when called upon to jam tight ends. He's probably a weekend pick. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Eric Weddle

Jalen Elliot, Notre Dame. 6-0, 205 lb, 4.80

Gilman's counterpart in the Irish secondary was a high school quarterback who was also listed as safety, a receiver and the vague "athlete." So if personnel guys are looking for an Olympic squash player, curling sweeper or pairs figure skater, here's your man. That 40-time didn't do him any favors. But if anyone helped themselves more at the Senior Bowl, it's a short list as he kept up with everyone assigned to him in man coverage. He established himself as a true freshman, started as a sophomore and improved all three seasons in South Bend, with six interceptions over the last two years. He's a big hitter and sound tackler without a lot of whiffs on his tape. In the passing game, he plays angles like Euclid, which helps make up for his slightly limited range. At minimum, he could contribute in subpackages and special teams, with the potential to be a flex/split safety with experience. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Will Parks

Small Schools, Big Upsides:

Kyle Dugger, Lenoir-Rhyne. 6-1, 217 lb, 4.49

It might have been easy to dismiss Dugger's explosive tackling, cover skills, size and speed when he was doing it all in Hickory, NC. But as South Bend learned the hard way at the Butler Field House in 1954, don't ever underestimate the guys from Hickory. More to the point, so did everyone at the Senior Bowl where Dugger looked just as dominant. He's got range, he's the flat out best hitter in the 2020 safety class. And versatile enough he could probably transfer his skills to the corner, though he's said no teams he's met with have mentioned that. Oh, and if you like touchdowns without having your offense on the field, he did a lot of that too, with six career punt return TDs. He's expected to be a Round 2 pick, and he'll be one of the most interest picks regardless of where he ends up. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Terrell Edmunds 

Jeremy Chinn, Southern Illinois. 6-3, 221 lb, 4.45

Another freakish athlete who somehow ended up playing against lesser competition, Chinn pretty much won Best in Show at the Indy Kennel Club Show, with his 40-time, 41" vertical and 11' 6" broad jump. He's got an NFL-ready, plug and play, grown man's body. But at times he didn't show up on tape, even against the Salukis' lesser opponents. His burst and ball skills once the pass is in the air aren't in question so much as his play recognition. He'll get drawn out of position by double moves and get lost in the wash against combo routes. As a tackler, he's got the hand-fighting and aggressiveness to fight off blocks, is willing to meet ballcarriers head on and uses his pterodactyl wing span to wrap them up. Ultimately his future is probably as one of the new generation of hybrid safety/linebackers. (Saftebackers? Lineties? I'll work on it.) 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Micah Hyde

The Perfect Patriot: McKinney. Even with Alabama's record when it comes to the success rate of first round defensive backs, which lately has had the success rate as the novelty items from China your wife orders from Facebook ads (I'm looking at you, Cyrus Jones and Baby Yoda toy that's supposed to make 37 different sounds), he simply checks all the Patriots' boxes. I think they'd love to have him land on Belichick's perfectly sculpted, six pack lap a Pick 23. And if he does, I think they'd forget their offensive needs and grab him in the finest tradition  of taking "the best available athlete." I just think that getting McKinney means moving up, which they won't do. I think. 

Whom the Pats Will Draft: Gilman. He's a seasoned, almost NFL-ready, big school, versatile safety who makes impactful plays. He'll also most likely be available in that constellation where they have all their picks between 87 and 172. Or shortly before, where the price of moving up is reasonable. He's the Xavier McKinney for families on a budget. 

Earlier Previews:

Quarterbacks

Tight Ends

Wide Receivers

Edge

Defensive Tackles

Linebackers

P.S. I think this might be the most comprehensive list of these previews I've done in the dozen or more years I've been writing them. I hope someone's been reading them. Also, thanks to J. Bastian for taking up his free time to help research some of them for nothing more than my gratitude. Best of luck, pal. Appreciate you.