NFL Draft Preview: Safety

Posted Apr 18, 2013

Florida International S Jonathan Cyprien is in the mix to be the first safety drafted this year. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

There will be no position on the Rams entire team that takes on a much different look in 2013 than the one it had in 2012 than safety.

After an offseason in which the Rams allowed starting free safety Craig Dahl to depart for San Francisco as an unrestricted free agent and released strong safety Quintin Mikell to create salary cap space to help fill other needs, they will almost certainly go into next season with two new starters on the back end of the defense.

Following the departure of Dahl and Mikell, the Rams are now left with three safeties on the roster, only one of whom carries any starting experience. Darian Stewart has played in 40 career games with 13 starts mixed in but he wasn’t asked to contribute much to the defense last year.

Stewart started 13 games in 2011 and was one of the team’s leading tacklers that year but he was limited by a nagging hamstring injury for most of last year and that was after he got a slower introduction to the new defense brought in by coach Jeff Fisher as he missed chunks of the offseason program in pursuit of his degree.

By the end of the year, Stewart had played in 12 games with six tackles and a pass defended. Most of his work was done on special teams where he finished with six tackles.

Scheduled for restricted free agency, Stewart seems to have rallied a bit in the eyes of the coaching staff and returned to the Rams on a one-year deal actually worth slightly less than the tender offer he received.

Stewart worked almost exclusively at free safety last year after an aborted competition with Dahl for the starting job. But he boasts the versatility to play either safety spot and some believe his skill set might better translate more into the box safety role filled last year by Mikell.

Behind Stewart, the Rams have a pair of intriguing second-year safeties in Matt Daniels and Rodney McLeod.

Daniels appeared in four games before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the Oct. 28 game against New England in London. Daniels is known for his intelligence and big hitting ability and could factor into any competition that might occur for the strong safety job.

McLeod impressed the coaching staff with his special teams acumen and versatility in training camp last year, earning a roster spot. He played in all 16 games and proved a strong special teams player with a team-leading 16 tackles. He projects more as a free safety and could factor into a competition for a job this year.

Still, as the NFL Draft approaches less than a week from today, it’s quite clear the Rams will be targeting a safety early in the draft and perhaps two.

The good news for the Rams appears to be the relative depth of this year’s safety class. The bad news is there doesn’t appear to be a complete, all around safety who would be a slam dunk selection with one of their first-round picks.

Instead, this year’s safety class seems to have a bit of a Baskin-Robbins feel to it in which most of the prospects bring one true, definable skill to the table but don’t have the rounded game to make them a sure thing.

For most draft analysts, the trio of Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro, Florida’s Matt Elam and Florida International’s Jonathan Cyprien headline the class. Those three are the closest thing in this class to having the ability to be equally efficient in coverage and run support.

Depending on whom you ask, Vaccaro, Elam and Cyprien fit in different ways for different defenses. Cyprien, for example, has been the subject of much debate about whether he’s a strong or free safety. The beauty of each player is in the eye of the beholder.

From a Rams’ perspective, it’s likely that they’ll have their choice of safeties at No. 16 should they want it. There are some that believe Vaccaro will be gone by the time the Rams pick but it’s quite likely that he’d be the only one gone by the time they do.

Of course, even if the Rams are faced with their choice of safeties in the first round, it’s no guarantee they’ll draft one there. In fact, the Rams have played their interest in this year’s safety group extremely close to the vest and it seems like a strong possibility they’ll wait until the second or third round to add one.

Should the Rams eschew safety in round one, there should be plenty of options later on. It’s possible Cyprien or Elam could last to their second round pick at No. 46 but the Rams could also be taking a long look at the likes of LSU’s Eric Reid, Syracuse’s Shamarko Thomas, South Carolina State’s Jakar Hamilton, South Carolina’s D.J. Swearinger and many more.

One way or another, look for the Rams to emerge from this year’s draft with a safety or two to add to the mix in the secondary.


Top Five Free Safeties

1. Jonathan Cyprien, Florida International – Could likely claim the top strong safety spot too, he’s that versatile. A guided missile on the back end, Cyprien is a willing hitter who can run the alley and cover as well.
2. Kenny Vaccaro, Texas – Disappointing timed speed but seems to play faster than the stopwatches indicate. Strong, willing hitter who can even move into the slot if need be.
3. Phillip Thomas, Fresno State – Strong in coverage with good ball skills and leadership qualities. Injury issues and average run defense are question marks.
4. Eric Reid, LSU – Phenomenal leader off the field who excelled academically. Smooth athlete with good ball skills but only average in run support.
5. Tony Jefferson, Oklahoma – Productive, “pure” free safety who can run and cover. Struggles in run support and has an arrest on his record.

Sleeper: Jakar Hamilton, South Carolina State – Bounced around a bit in college and had some character concerns but physical, aggressive player who has natural cover skills and upside.

Top Five Strong Safeties

1. Matt Elam, Florida - A fierce, aggressive hitter who will take on anyone in the hole and attack as a blitzer. A bit undersized which could leave some teams wondering about his ability to hold up in today’s NFL.
2. D.J. Swearinger, South Carolina – Tremendous football instincts make him a qualified quarterback on the back end of any defense. Solid ball skills and in run support though only adequate in coverage.
3. Shamarko Thomas, Syracuse – Prototypical in the box safety who will come up and take on any back and bring the wood. Not much in the way of ball skills though he’s not bad in coverage.
4. Duke Williams, Nevada – Durable player who loves to hit and plays with tremendous swagger. That swag can be a gift and a curse though as Williams has had his share of off the field run ins.
5. Shawn Williams, Georgia – Outstanding leader who just finds ways to get the job done. Good size allows him to be strong in run support. Solid box safety prospect.

Sleeper: J.J. Wilcox, Georgia Southern – Moved from receiver to back before settling in at safety in 2012. He’s inexperienced and raw at the position but proved a willing tackler and flashed potential in coverage. Will take some time but has some upside.