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Patriots 2023 Draft Preview: Safeties

Jim McIsaac. Getty Images.

Current roster: Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, Jabrill Peppers, Joshua Bledsoe, Brendan Schooler, Jalen Mills

for Belichick & Sons defense the last few years, with the emergence of Dugger, the solid free agent addition of Phillips, and of course the continued excellence of Devin McCourty, who finally moved onto retirement, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns (except Brady and Gronk).  Re-signing Mills was a great move, in that he can play the sort of situational, gameplan-specific safety role he played in Philly when they signed him (236 snaps at free safety to 227 as a wide corner), as opposed to strictly corner (all of his 1,406 snaps in NE over two years) out of necessity. But still, they'll need to fill the gigantic, McCourty-shaped hole in back of the defense caused by his departure. 

Fortunately, we've got plenty of insight into how GM Bill likes to draft the safety position. Some of it coming from McCourty himself in an interview this week. 

"You need a guy that can tackle well in the open field. You're going to be in tough situations," McCourty said. "Not a must, but you would like a guy that can run a little bit and have above-average speed for a safety. A guy who can really go sideline to sideline. And then I think a guy who's a leader from a communication standpoint Anybody who has played safety in a New England Patriots/Bill Belichick defense knows he puts a lot on the safeties. …

"[I]f the corner makes a mistake on a coverage, he doesn't even go to the corner. He's going straight to that safety. So whether you're a rookie or a veteran, I think you have to have that presence about you, that you want to be a leader, you want to learn. …

"A guy maybe between 190 to 205 (pounds) that can really run well. Good ball skills and shows an ability to possibly play in center field."

Which not only perfectly describes McCourty, it confirms something from Belichick's days in Cleveland that came out three years ago, that is every bit as relevant today:

Safeties need to be 200 pounds and good tacklers, have 4.5-4.6 speed with range. "A 4.7 tough guy can't play for us." The more man-to-man ability the better. The traditional run-stuffing strong safety "is not what we need." A big corner who can play inside would be ideal.

That too sounds like McCourty. Who is a better example than him of a big corner who moved back to safety and thrived for over a decade? Some of what he said is impossible to quantify unless you've actually worked with the prospect to handed him marker, sent him to the white board, and talked to him a while. But the size, speed, range, toughness and so on? That stuff usually shows up on tape. As it did for solid picks GM Bill has made like Dugger, Duron Harmon, Pat Chung and McCourty. But then s, sometimes never materializes, as it didn't for failed picks like Tavon Wilson (2012, 48th pick) or Jordan Richards (2015, 64th). Unfortunately, it's a crapshoot. You can't burst a balloon in the War Room that's going to explode with either the color for Pro Bowler or Bust. On the upside, this is an above average year to be shopping for safety help. In terms of depth, if not stacked at the top with game-changers.

The Elites:

Brian Branch, Alabama. 6-foot-0, 190 pounds, 4.58 40-time

Branch is right at the bottom end of the size spectrum the Patriots look in. A lot of sites list him as a corner. He didn't exact blow everyone's stopwatches away at the Indianapolis Kennel Club. And yet for all that, he's unquestionably Best in Show this year. He's just one of those guys who plays bigger. And he's such a force in the run game that he missed just four tackles in 174 career attempts. And despite having fairly average straight line speed (his 40-time would put him 12th among safeties), his best asset is his closing speed when the ball's in the air and a receiver has a step on him, which helped him to nine forced incompletions, the 8th best total in the nation. He's very much a second level, run support type safety, with 705 of his 768 snaps coming inside the numbers, and 569 of those in the slot. As opposed to just 25 of them deep on the back end. His technique is polished and NFL-ready, though he occasionally gets over-aggressive in pursuit and runs himself out of position. He'll undoubtedly have to pack on some mass to last in the pros, but could easily start in a nickel role from Week 1. And shouldn't last past the top half of the 1st round.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Minkah Fitzpatrick

Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M. 6-2, 198 lbs, 4.52

Johnson is the consensus best coverage safety in his class, with the short area quickness to stay with slot receivers and the size to handle tight ends on seam routes and crossers. But he's been more of a movable chess piece than Branch since moving out of the slot after his 2021 season. Last year he had over 100 snaps at deep safety, and another 100 in the box. There are questions around his consistency in coverage, as he doesn't have the fluid movement and can look a little stop-motion animation when he's backpedaling. But he's aggressive when it comes to planting his feet and coming downhill or moving laterally. And generally speaking, seems to have a future role as a big nickel safety in a league where that's become a full time starting job.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Xavier McKinney

The Deep Middle Class:

Jordan Battle, Alabama. 6-1, 209 lbs, 4.55

Jordan Battle might not have the Decathlete skills to go along with his A+ football name. But he's flat out the best run support safety in this group, with the read-and-react skills to identify the flow of a play, take angles to the ballcarrier like Euclid, and a willingness to stick his nose in against pulling linemen. And he's got experience out the wazoo (and you know how uncomfortable that can be), with over 3,000 snaps in Nick Saban's system, most of them playing post safety. From that centerfield position, he did manage six interceptions and nine passes broken up for his career. Though according to Pro Football Focus, in 2022 he gave up a passer rating of 87.9, which was 321st in the nation. Which doesn't seem so good. The question is whether he's got the range and speed to stay with and mirror the sort of hybrid WR/TEs that are on every NFL roster. From "sideline to sideline," as McCourty made reference to. That raises a lot of doubts and has Battle all over the various draft boards. But for a team that plays virtually the same system he's put so many flight hours in already, he seems like a natural fit.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Justin Reid

A Pair of Illini in the Upper Middle Class:

Sydney Brown, Illinois. 5-10, 211 lbs, 4.47

Brown has even more experience in Illinois than Battle did at 'Bama, majoring in box safety, with a minor in slot. And 2022 was his best season, with six INTs and six PBUs, making him the best playmaker among this group. He does come across as that guy who's always around the ball, and not in that way where it's because the guy he's covering is always catching it. His strength is the ability to keep his eyes in the backfield and read the quarterback while in a full back pedal in zone. His weakness is his lack of height, which limits his tackle radius to about the size of a trash can lid, leading to a missed tackle rate of over 15% in each of his three seasons.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Antoine Winfield, Jr.

Jartavius Martin, Illinois. 5-11, 194 lbs, 4.46

Martin is another guy who's listed as a slot corner, depending on whom you're talking to. But he took a 177 snaps at deep safety last season, and fits the size/speed profile of a big nickel. He's got that Combo Platter of run support and coverage skills you look for. A willing tackler who'll blow up blocks, to go with the fluid movement to flip his hips and stay with his assignment upfield. With a side of sub-4.50 speed. Regardless of what job description you give Martin, he strikes me as an all purpose defensive back in an increasingly positionless league.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Jimmie Ward

Small School Sleeper:

JL Skinner, Boise State. 6-4, 209 lbs, 4.45

Less of a hybrid S/CB and more of a S/LB. But it's hard not to see a DB who's 6-4 and not immediately think of Brandon Browner on the 2014 Super Bowl champions. And Browner never had Skinner's speed. Playing primarily in the box, his 62 total tackles, 4 INTs and 3 PBUs got him First Team All Mountain West honors. But he's not considered much of a man coverage guy. More that sideline to sideline type we've already disgusted. Probably because of the second tier competition he faced, he's an eye of the beholder prospect. Some praise him for his high football IQ and ability to anticipate plays and jump throwing lanes. Others claim his instincts are questionable and he's not much of a playmaker. All we can say for certain is guys with his size/speed profile don't fall to Day 2 very often. This is one of the highest ceiling/lowest floor prospects in the entire draft. The only thing that is certain is, wherever he ends up, if he ever gets burned for touchdown, every Boomer in the stands will be doing the Superintendent Chalmers thng. Myself included.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Kyle Hamilton

The Only One the Patriots Met With:

Jammie Robinson, Florida State. 5-11, 191 lbs, 4.59

The Patriots haven't put in a ton of man hours into meeting with safeties, saving all their love for Robinson, with whom they held a private workout. He's another who's created some dissent among the Draft Pundit Glitterati class. Some consider him the most complete safety on the board this year, some grade him just behind Branch, but going by the Mock Draft Database rankings, he's 7th on their Consensus Big Board. Go figure. He drew attention as a true freshman at South Carolina before transferring after his sophomore year, and led FSU in tackles both his seasons there. He's got T-Rex arms, but is still a big hitter ("… the Lama …"), missing only 7.3% of his tackles over for seasons. Robinson is a hyper-competitor who uses his explosiveness to fly to the ball from all over the formation. He transitioned from almost exclusively slot corner in 2020-21, to primary deep safety in '22, but still saw a ton of snaps closer to the line. There is a school of thought that his style of play is a IR stint waiting to happen, but toughness and durability have certainly never been a problem, as his reps went up all throughout his career. But there's not a coach in the world who wouldn't rather coach a guy to take it easy on himself, as opposed to trying figure out ways to motivate him. If Robinson was 6-1, 205 lbs, we'd be wondering where in the 1st round he'd go. Instead, he'll be a steal.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Jalen Pitre

The Rest of That Middle Class:

Ji'Ayer Brown, Penn State. 5-11, 203 lbs, 4.65

Brown is the sort of success story you tell the kid sitting on the end of your bench. A JUCO transfer who ended up making 25 starts over two years at State College and swinging invites to the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl. A move-safety who was versatile enough to cover tight ends and backs out of the slot, as well as lining up at the linebacker level and at the top of the defense, where he grabbed 10 interceptions in two years. He also was used as a blitzer off the edge to pick up 4.5 sacks, including one against No. 1 tackle prospect Peter Skoronski. He owes the latter to an aggressive play style that could use some discipline and refinement so NFL quarterbacks don't just look him off and exploit him like a 19th century factory worker. He's limited by his lack of play strength somewhat, as he'll sometimes get driven backwards at the point of attack. But he plays with the sort of Big D energy that will get him a roster spot playing special teams and dime packages as he develops.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Ryan Clark

Chris Smith II, Georgia. 5-11, 192 lbs, 4.62

Smith is not particularly big. He's not particularly fast. And until he came on last season, wasn't particularly drawing interest. But he's the poster child for the benefits of an extra year of eligibility, because he won himself at mid-round grade at least with his 2022. With 15 games played, over 800 snaps. A second national title. And a team captaincy. He relies more on intelligence and instincts than he does athleticism. But experience, success, leadership and football IQ are the Patriots favorite kinds of intangibles. And Smith possesses them more than any other safety in his class. Plus he went to Georgia and he'll come cheap.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Jonathan Abram

The Perfect Patriot: It's not easy to find one who checks every single box on the safety punchlist the way McCourty did. But then again, he wasn't even a safety until late in his second season. And since there's no Rutgers guys in this, I'm going to say Battle would be the ideal fit. I just don't see them looking for a safety as high as he'll come off the board.

Whom the Patriots Will Draft: Robinson. There's a reason they liked him enough to schedule a private workout. Make that several reasons. He plays with a massive attitude, mixed with intelligence. He's a punishing tackler. He's versatile. He's experienced. And he's exactly the kind of guy they love to take in that middle part of the draft where they stockpile picks and move up and down the board, where the risk is manageable and the rewards can be great. And just as an added bonus, on Day 3 they take a flyer on Smith. To help fill the void of McCourty's intangibles.

Earlier previews:

Wide receiver

Offensive tackle

Tight end