This is the last of an 11-part series on the 2021 NFL draft in which, for the third straight year, Ben Fennell breaks down the draft for The Inquirer. Ben is an Emmy award-winning producer, editor, and researcher across several media platforms, most notably NFL Network and ESPN College Football. This will be his seventh draft for the NFL Network. You can follow him on Twitter at @benfennell_NFL.
Depending on your positional perception of Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, there likely will be either one or zero safeties taken in the first round of the NFL draft next week.
That doesn’t mean this is a weak safety class. It isn’t. It just means a lot more of them will be going on Days 2 and 3 than on Day 1.
That will really be no different than last year, when not a single safety was selected in the first round, but 10 were gobbled up in rounds 2 and 3.
“I think the safety position is deep and pretty exciting,” Ben Fennell said. “There’s a lot of guys at each tier. A lot of guys that are fits for today’s sub-package NFL. A lot of high-floor guys. When I say high floor, I mean they’re safe players.”
The Eagles are not likely to look for a safety in this draft, at least not one expected to contribute this season. They addressed the position in the offseason by signing former Viking Anthony Harris, and they expect a bigger contribution from 2019 fourth-round pick K’Von Wallace.
Owusu-Koramoah is the best safety on Fennell’s board and is expected to be a top 20 pick. But the 6-foot-1, 221-pounder is being projected as a linebacker by many teams.
You say tomato, I say tomahto.
“As much as you’re in sub defenses nowadays, to me, he’s somebody that’s just going to be a fun toy for a defensive coordinator to use, whatever you want to call him and however you want to deploy him,” Fennell’s NFL Network partner Daniel Jeremiah said.
“You can use him as more of a blitzer one week, turn around and ask him to cover tight ends the next week, and then turn around and ask him just to be a force player the next.
“Position-less football is where we’re headed. I think you break the huddle and you don’t know where guys are going, what they’re doing. It makes things challenging on a quarterback, and he’s kind of one of those chess pieces.”
The number of those versatile types of players is growing. The Cardinals drafted one last year in Isaiah Simmons. The Panthers drafted one in Jeremy Chinn.
The Day 2 group of safeties in this draft is headed by Trevon Moehrig of TCU, Richie Grant of Central Florida, Andre Cisco of Syracuse and Talanoa Hufanga of Southern Cal. All of them are expected to go in the second round.
“Everybody wants the next Jamal Adams or Derwin James or Budda Baker,” Fennell said. “They want those holy-crap explosive-here-to-here-in-a-flash-and-crush-somebody guys.
“There may not be any of those in this draft. But there are smarter, more technically sound players that are very safe types of players. But those kind of guys don’t get drafted in the first half of the first round.”
Ben’s top five
1. J. Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame, 6-1, 221, Round 1
2. Trevon Moehrig, TCU, 6-0, 202, Round 2
3. Andre Cisco, Syracuse, 6-0, 216, Round 2
4. Richie Grant, Central Florida, 5-11, 197, Round 2
5. Talanoa Hufanga, Southern Cal, 6-0, 199, Rounds 2-3
Arms: 33 inches
Vertical jump: 36½ inches
Fennell’s take: “Everyone is trying to figure out where to play him positionally at the next level. I’m not one of these guys who takes all of these oversized safeties and undersized edge-rushers and says they’re all linebackers. We’ve seen that go haywire way too often. At Notre Dame, he played out in space, over the slot, detached from the box about 75 percent of the time, which is OK. That player out in space is valuable in the NFL. That alley player, that third safety, the one that has to be in run support, cover a slot receiver, cover a tight end, play in the back end in coverage, turn and run, that’s valuable. This kid can do all of that. He’s an explosive, athletic player. He’s going to blitz for you. He’s going to contribute in run support. He’s got ball skills. He’s going to be that demon out in the alley where you see a lot of action in the NFL, whether it’s against the screen stuff or the quick games, the RPOs.
“I’m OK with calling him a big nickel, and maybe in sub packages, moving him into the box. One of my issues with him is he struggled to get off blocks. Even tight ends. He lacks inside linebacker bulk. Lacks functional strength at the point of attack. But if you use him out in space, he’s not going to need it. He’s a freak athlete.
“I love his ability. I just don’t love that a lot of people are projecting him as a WILL linebacker. Arizona drafted Simmons last year, who is a similar type of player, and didn’t really have a plan for him. You’ve got to have a plan for this kind of player.”
Round projection: 1 (11-22)
Arms: 32½ inches
40-time: 4.54 seconds
Vertical jump: 34½ inches
225-bench: 12 reps
Fennell’s take: “Grant is one of the most complete safeties in this class. He has loose hips to play on the back end. Good vision. Good ball skills. He’s adept at reading the quarterback’s eyes. He can make plays all the way out to the sideline. But the best thing about him is he comes downhill and finishes ball carriers. This guy is a physical, violent tackler.
“He went to the Senior Bowl and he was covering receivers one on one. He can literally check every box you need checked from a safety. He played 2,600 defensive snaps in his career. Played 500 special teams snaps. He’s a very experienced player. He reminds me a lot of Glover Quin, who started more than 150 games for Houston and Detroit. That versatile safety that can cover and play the back end.”
Round projection: 2
Arms: 33 inches
40-time: 4.44 seconds
Vertical jump: 34 inches
225-bench: 19 reps
Fennell’s take: “He was a four-star receiver coming out of high school and played receiver at Virginia Tech his first year. He’s a slot nickel DB. He’s a box safety. He’s a dime linebacker. He’s not the twitchiest guy. He’s a little heavy-footed. But he’s 230 pounds and ran a 4.44 at his Pro Day and did nearly 20 reps on the bench.
“He has really good movement pattern. He’s one of those guys that you want in quarters (coverage) because he’s going to trigger downhill against the run. He can play the alley in perimeter action. He can cover the slot. And he has 700-plus special teams snaps in his career. This guy is an absolute headhunter on kickoff and punt coverage. He just wants to hit people.
“With more teams playing zone and quarters, he’s going to be a great fit for that type of team. Very much like Jeremy Chinn was at Southern Illinois and with the Panthers last year. I think Deablo is going to be an early Day 3 pick. There’s going to be such a run on true corners, extra tackles, pass rushers and skill players on Day 2 that some of the safeties and linebackers are going to get pushed back to Day 3.”
Round projection: 4