Evaluations

Thor's Safety Rankings

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: April 21, 2020, 6:13 pm ET

My previous entries in this scouting series examined the quarterbackrunning backwide receivertight endtackleinterior OLinterior DLEDGElinebacker and cornerback classes. Spiderweb graphs sourced from mockdraftable.com, SPARQ scores from Three Sigma Athlete, adjusted SPARQ from Rotoworld's Hayden Winks and RAS from Kent Lee Platte


1. Antoine Winfield Jr. (Minnesota) | 5'9/203

winfield

SPARQ percentile: 81.8

Adjusted SPARQ: .6

RAS: 8.71

Comp: Tyrann Mathieu

The last defensive back under 5-foot-10 to be drafted in Round 1 came 21 years ago, Antoine Winfield Sr. (5’9/185). If there’s any justice in this world, certainly any poetic justice, his son is about to roll back the clock on history. Winfield entered college football as he entered this draft process, overlooked. Despite his bloodlines, he was a low three-star recruit with three other FBS offers: Missouri, Northwestern and Purdue. He chose to play college ball in the city his father spent nine of 14 NFL seasons.

Winfield’s father studied film on his laptop every night before bed. Like father, like son. "The No. 1 thing was always film study,” Winfield Jr. said. “You have to learn what offenses do, who they're throwing to. You have to know who is getting the ball, how running backs carry the ball. And you have to know it in practice, not just games. So my goal is to get one takeaway in practice every day. If you make it a habit in practice, you'll do it in a game, and that's how you get on the map." Because of preternatural anticipation, says Minnesota defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, Winfield “gets to balls that other people can't get to."


Full disclosure: Your author lives in Minneapolis and watches tons of Gophers football live. The Antoine Winfield Jr. Experience was something else. Smart as hell and born without fear, he literally won games for the Gophers by outthinking opponents, being in places he had no business being in for a game-sealing pick because he saw the play develop in his head before anyone else in the stadium (as one example, see: end of game against Fresno State, 2018). The instincts are next-level elite. He’s always around the ball. Even the tipped interceptions aren’t all the way luck in his case – Winfield is going to be around plenty of airborne deflections in the NFL as well. His balls skills are outstanding, and he’s always looking to flip the field, making sure to claw at the ball on tackle attempts.


Winfield can be left on an island in the deep half and act as a sort of super-processor of the field out there (399 snaps at FS last year). You can bring him into the box to help out against the run (his pop was also a noted tough-guy against the run, despite his size… Winfield Jr. played 284 snaps in the box last year). You can stick him in the slot (85). You can send him on blitzes. Of his nine pressures in college, five were converted into sacks. In coverage, over his career, Winfield Jr. surrendered a mere 53.1 opposing NFL passer rating against with a 4/9 TD/INT ratio. Have I mentioned that he’ll play on any special teams unit, too?


Winfield’s evaluation is complicated a bit by his short stature and his medical rap sheet. A hamstring injury limited him to four games in 2017, and a Lisfranc fracture in 2018 also cut his season after four games. The NCAA actually granted him an additional medical hardship waiver prior to last season – he would have been a fifth-year junior had he returned to school next year. But one area he no longer has to answer for is athleticism, after posting a 4.45 forty with 81st percentile SPARQ athleticism. His lack of length and play strength make some tasks – taking on blockers, jump-balls against sky-scrapers – untenable, but we know that Winfield is going to squeeze every ounce of ability out of himself. I believe he is the best safety in the class and absolutely worthy of going in the first round.


2. Xavier McKinney (Alabama) | 6'0/201

xavier

SPARQ percentile: 20.3

Adjusted SPARQ: .08

RAS: 7.31

Comp: Malcolm Jenkins (Matt Bowen)

A four-star prospect and top-100 overall recruit out of Georgia, McKinney ultimately turned down his home-state Bulldogs, as well as Ohio State, Clemson and a host of others to play for Nick Saban. Following a freshman year spent as a reserve, he opened eyes as a versatile first-year starter in 2018 (six TFL, three sacks, two picks and 10 pass breakups). Last year, McKinney broke out as a superstar with third-team Associated Press All-American honors, picking up 95 tackles, 5.5 TFL, three sacks, four forced fumbles, three INT and five breakups.

Like Winfield, McKinney was used as a sort of chess piece in college, essentially splitting even time last year between free safety, box responsibilities and slot corner. At least in the area of tackling, he’s better deployed in the open field, undisturbed by elephantine men, where McKinney is extremely reliable at dropping ballcarriers of all shapes and sizes. McKinney is also a proven hitman as a blitzer with 21 pressures on 71 pass-rushing snaps over the last two seasons, according to PFF.


His best area is in coverage, with a strong understanding of what the offense wants to do and how he can foil plans. So comfortable in space, McKinney tracks like Mike Trout and returned the ball to Nick Saban’s offense when physically able. Over his career, he allowed a 60.0 opposing NFL passer rating and 3/5 TD/INT ratio with 11 breakups on 111 targets. But when you just look at his work at free safety and remove his slot corner numbers – he’s not as good there as he is deep – he gave up only two first downs on 246 coverage snaps while intercepting four balls, per PFF.


McKinney had a mediocre NFL Combine before calling it a day following his 4.63 forty, citing cramps. The safety’s 36-inch vertical and 122-inch broad were not terribly impressive when adjusted for size, leading to his poor SPARQ showings above. Minor athletic limitations may limit his versatility some in the NFL – keeping him out of the slot, for instance – but McKinney is a proven center field commodity who doesn’t make mistakes in coverage or miss tackles in the open field, a guy who can flip momentum with a sack or an interception. He’s a safe prospect with a reasonably high ceiling.


3. Jeremy Chinn (Southern Illinois) | 6'3/221

jeremychinn

SPARQ percentile: ~99

Adjusted SPARQ: .98

RAS: 9.97

Comp: Adrian Amos (Danny Kelly)

A nephew of Steve Atwater, Chinn has the kind of athletic toolbox you find in your own handyman uncle’s garage, which is to say brimming: He’s tall, broad, and ripped, with the wingspan of Air Force One, and he tested just south of uber-freak Isaiah Simmons’ territory at the NFL Combine, running a 4.45 (86th percentile) with a 41-inch vertical (94th) and 138-inch broad (98th). Chinn is sort of the FCS’ answer to Simmons: He played safety, boundary corner and slot corner in college, with some box work sprinkled in (the Lions’ staff at the Senior Bowl worked him out at LB, in addition to CB and S).


A gliding, sprinter-type who chews up a ton of grass, Chinn is extremely explosive. He closes on balls quickly and is outstanding at the catch point, picking off 13 balls among 31 passes defended in college. He puts his combination of length and strength to good use as a defender against the run and pass, boasting a large tackling radius and enough muscle to collapse the ankles of runners even on the outer reaches of it. He’s more finesse than violent in this area, and he didn’t always look comfortable navigating through humanity downhill in the box, apt to get picked off and washed out.


Chinn’s natural ability currently plays a tick down because he doesn’t read the offense's intentions the quickest, and is at times outright fooled, but sticking him at safety full-time with NFL coaching should help unlock the rest of his ample potential. If his mental processor ever came even close to catching up to his physical ability, Chinn would present a matchup-nullifying defensive weapon that could be moved around. For now, let’s just find him a positional home and get to work.


4. Grant Delpit (LSU) | 6'2/213

delpit

SPARQ percentile: N/A

Adjusted SPARQ: N/A

RAS: N/A

Comp: Marcus Williams (Edholm)

Delpit, a former four-star recruit, was evacuated and relocated to Texas during Hurricane Katrina. He signed with LSU to return to his home state and play for his favorite team. Delpit was a difference-maker immediately in Baton Rouge, making 60 tackles as a freshman with nine passes defended. As a sophomore, a superstar, with 9.5 TFL, five sacks, five interceptions and nine breakups. But then a curious thing happened. As he was onboard for his beloved Tigers’ run to the national title, Delpit’s game cratered in 2019, with his PFF grade sinking from 84.4 to 68.7. Come with me, amateur sleuths. For we now embark upon an investigation into the curious case of the disappearance of Delpit’s superstar potential.


You know he’s long and athletic. And when right, he’s rangy in coverage with great ball skills, as well as a boogeyman presence to receivers over the middle, and a flash-bang willing speedster into the box against the run. But Delpit is a sort of football Dave Kingman, three true outcomes, a high-variance safety because of his Achilles heel: He’s a really poor tackler. We’re talking one of the worst in the class. He missed 36 tackles over the past two years, fourth-most among all FBS safeties, per PFF. Delpit has several maddening habits, such as flying in at poor angles and getting shucked, or arriving with too much steam, unable to hush his feet, or diving low and ankle-biting and getting an armful of air, or trying to blast someone through the end zone and nicking a shoulder instead.


Delpit’s entire evaluation comes down to one core question: Were his 2019 struggles the result of playing through a high-ankle sprain? You can’t question his toughness, nor his leadership – this isn’t a question about that. He plays hurt. My take: He missed 16 tackles in 2018, 20 in 2019 – the injury didn’t create that problem nor accelerate it. Instead, what the injury did was deteriorate Delipt’s strong coverage skills (84.5 PFF coverage grade) into poor coverage skills (68.7) and lessened his willingness or ableness to create havoc (five less TFL and three less sacks despite playing one more game). My conclusion, amateur sleuths: Delpit’s fatal flaw introduced a house-of-cards tumble-down element in 2019 when his athleticism was stolen, turning him into a mediocre player. But because of Delpit’s coverage and havoc chops, which will return when his ankle is sound, I believe he’s still worth a Round 2 shot by a team who will put up with the missed tackles. It doesn’t feel like those are going away, unfortunately.


5. Ashtyn Davis (California) | 6'1/202

davis

SPARQ percentile: N/A

Adjusted SPARQ: N/A

RAS: N/A

Comp: Tyvon Branch (Crabbs)

Boy is Davis an incredible story as a former walk-on who became one of Cal’s best players. A size/speed prospect who was a four-time track All-American and qualified for the NCAA Championships in 2018, Davis is such an easy mover on the gridiron. He can change directions crisply on the fly without losing momentum, and he’s got a lead foot on a Ferrari when the ball is in the air, closing with burst and explosion. Davis shows good timing and ball skills upon arrival, forcing contested situations and giving himself the best odds of coming out ahead. He picked off seven balls over the last three years.


He is a bang-your-sword-on-your-shield animal on the field. He runs like a Henry Ruggs – as though his speed shoots flames out of his jersey and everybody better stay the hell back. Davis hurtles in from downtown to help in the run game and will happily get into a car wreck with the runner if he finds an open road and exits square. Some of this wild-child style is a compensatory mechanism: Davis lacks play strength, so he tries to generate it himself through velocity.


But he gets wiped out when touched by linemen, and is apt to whiff, overrun, or hit targets non-flush at breakneck speeds. This will be a big area of early developmental emphasis, as will his coverage instincts, which remain unrefined. Davis played only two years of varsity ball in high school and walked on at Cal, not playing a down his first two years. He’s a dangerous kick returner, and comes with a high ceiling as a single-high free safety. But Davis will be 24 in October, making it important that he find the right team and right staff for a quick jump-start to his career.


6. K'Von Wallace (Clemson) | 5'11/210

wallace

SPARQ percentile: 96.8

Adjusted SPARQ: .74

RAS: 9.4

Comp: Budda Baker (Lindy’s)

You might say that K’Von has become the official sleeper safety prospect for Rotoworld of the 2020 class. At the NFL Combine, Derrik Klassen and I couldn’t stop giggling about him. And a week or two ago, without having previously discussed our feelings about him, Hayden Winks texted me: “Am I crazy for thinking Wallace > Dugger?” If you are, Mr. Winks, lock me up. Wallace is underrated. And I think that’s in part because he’s built like a corner who spends his free time getting his swoll on, with a game that has plenty of linebacker elements. And I think that’s in part because Isaiah Simmons blotted out the sun at Clemson.


Wallace played more of a 2018 Simmons role last year than a traditional safety spot, lining up for 396 snaps at slot corner and 208 in the box with only 63 at free safety. He’s a highly-intense player who lays the lumber in the run game. An incredibly reliable tackler, Wallace converted 153-of-171 attempts in his career, per PFF. He’s also strong in coverage, giving up an opponent’s passer rating of 63.9 last year on 47 targets with a 1/2 TD/INT rate and eight breakups. He graded out strong in PFF’s metrics each of the last three years in coverage. 

Oh, and he has 96th percentile SPARQ athleticism and three-time ACC honor-role brains. In coverage, he has good instincts and burst, with good footwork and a tight, methodical pedal. He lacks home-run speed and has been known to grab when losing foot races. That can be accounted for, and it’s not like he’s a plodder (4.53). Some say he’s a tweener. I say he’s a versatile two-way defender who pitches in everywhere – and he’s getting slept on.


7. Kyle Dugger (Lenoir-Rhyne) | 6'1/217

duggar

SPARQ percentile: ~99

Adjusted SPARQ: .99

RAS: 9.86

Comp: Jaquiski Tartt (Edholm)

A small-school sensation, Dugger is the full package. On paper. The athletic profile is ridiculous: In Indy, he ran a 4.49 (78th) with a 42-inch vertical (97th) and 134-inch broad (97th). Just for context, Vince Carter in his prime had a 43-inch vertical. Can Dugger make the jump from tiny Lenoir-Rhyne? Sure. He’ll enter the NFL as one of the most athletic safeties to ever play in it, at least in the straight-line category. With long arms, big mitts and enough close-out speed to consistently challenge, Dugger developed strong balls skills under the small lights (10 INT, 36 breakups in college). 

He’s at his most comfortable flying in off the top ropes at high speeds to crush poor runners. Dugger moves north-south very quickly, but loses momentum pivoting directions. In coverage, his backpedal is nonchalant and his footwork needs cleaning up. He confirms where the ball is going before kicking on the jets to clean up fires instead of anticipating and getting a head start. He’ll be a special-teamer right away. But despite the explosive testing numbers, I just question the idea of a ceiling worthy of going in the top 40 or 50 picks. Dugger turned 24 in March, he’s making an enormous leap up in competition, and his areas of emphasis to work on before becoming a good NFL starter are not insignificant.


8. Terrell Burgess (Utah) | 5'11/202

burgess

SPARQ percentile: 64.9

Adjusted SPARQ: .33

RAS: 8.31

Comp: Reggie Nelson (Natan)

Ask Kyle Whittingham, ask Jaylon Johnson, ask anyone around the Utah football program the past few years and they’ll tell you the same thing about Terrell Burgess: Ludicrously smart player, so smart that he can sometimes call out offensive plays before the snap. Burgess didn’t start full-time on defense until last season, but he was one of the nation’s best cover safeties immediately, posting PFF’s fourth-highest coverage grade in the country at the position, an elite 90.4. He gave up only 190 yards on 40 targets with six forced incompletions and a 0/1 TD/INT ratio for a passer rating against of 65.6, per PFF.


Not only did he allow under 5.0 yards per target last year, an astounding feat, but he also did so over his career (only 65 targets, but still). Burgess is a solid athlete, but not a stellar one, and he’s built like a corner, not a safety, short, with nubby arms. But between his coverage chops, his reliability as a tackler, the elements of corner and safety in his game, and the extensive special teams experience he brings, you can think of him like a super utility player in baseball. I think he could provide sneaky value as a starting nickel and core special teamer.


9. Kenny Robinson Jr. (West Virginia) | 6'1/202

*Did not participate in NFL Scouting Combine

SPARQ percentile: N/A

Adjusted SPARQ: N/A

RAS: N/A

Comp: Morgan Burnett (Renner)

Robinson comes to us via the short-lived XFL and the St. Louis Battlehawks (he picked off Cardale Jones and Matt McGloin!). Prior to that he was a two-year starting free safety in West Virginia’s aggressive 3-3-5. Did you ever watch How I Met Your Mother? Remember Barney’s Crazy/Hot scale? This is like Robinson’s game – he’s a crazy/hot chick. The trick was being above the Vicky Mendoza Diagonal… “She was a girl I dated, played jump-rope with that line,” Barney said. That’s Robinson – he was a prospect I scouted who played jump-rope with the “whoa, he’s super interesting” line. Robinson is one of the class’ top ballhawks, a former corner with height and a generous 76-inch wingspan who closes on the ball with authority but arrives with a wide receiver’s attitude of snatching the ball. He’s a boogeyman presence to receivers across the middle and down the seam, one of the class’ biggest hitters. And he brings that lumber with him in run support.


But Robinson is late off the blocks most plays, a reactionary player in nature, and he’s got a frenetic energy to his game from there that can sometimes border on careless, when it flowers in abandoning his post in zone or hugging an incoming ball carrier instead of dropping him, or the opposite, charging in with no form at an impossible angle and finishing the play at a jog. In short: Sometimes he plays me-ball. Understanding his responsibilities as a part of a team ecosystem and getting his technical deficiencies hammered out by NFL coaching would make him a steal, shooting him to the top of the Vicky Mendoza Diagonal, refined and in-control of his ability. If he doesn’t figure it out… he’ll wash out beneath that diagonal like many before him. The NFL doesn’t have patience for talented-but-undisciplined freelancers hunting for opportunities to make SportsCenter’s Top-10.


10. Geno Stone (Iowa) | 5'10/207

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SPARQ percentile: 25.7

Adjusted SPARQ: .45

RAS: 2.91

Comp: Todd Scott (Scott Dochterman)

Interesting case of a quietly dominant college player with below-average height, length (Stone’s arms are little T-Rex nubs at 29 1/4), and athleticism. Quadruple-A player, or super-sleeper? The lack of athleticism didn’t prevent him from holding opponents to a passer rating of 44.0 on 54 career targets for 196 yards and a 3/6 TD/INT ratio; 3.6 yards per target allowed as a safety is next-level. 

In Iowa’s zone, Stone utilized viper-like quickness and an ability to play poker like he already knew the offense’s hand to disrupt at the catch point. He broke up 13 passes in school but was never penalized, a testament to his technique and control. If you’re looking for a long athletic striker at safety, you’re going to have to invest an earlier pick. Stone is for value shoppers who run a lot of zone coverages.

Thor Nystrom

Thor Nystrom is NBC Sports Edge’s lead CFB writer. The 2018 FSWA College Sports Writer of the Year, Nystrom’s writing has also been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to him on Twitter @thorku!