Brian Dawkins, Steve Atwater, Sean Taylor, John Lynch – everyone loves a safety that can patrol the middle of the field and lay down a vicious hit. It not only gets the fans fired up, but the players and coaches as well.
Let’s take a look at the future “enforcers” in the NFL that have entered their name into the 2021 draft. Here are the 10 most physical safety prospects in this class.
Talanoa Hufanga: USC - 6-foot-1, 215 lbs
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Hufanga is one of our favorite players in this class. He has played up at off-ball linebacker in the box, at single high safety, and even as a stand-up edge for the Trojan defense. He is an intelligent and instinctual player, always around the ball and an outstanding tackler that attacks with physicality. In coverage, Hufanga is outstanding in underneath and mid zones. He also holds up well in man coverage, as he has pretty fluid movement ability and functional speed. However, his bread and butter is playing up in the box and attacking downhill. He has tremendous read/react ability and explodes downhill and finishes with violence. He has outstanding instincts and is a special player around the line of scrimmage. Hufanga is one of the most explosive tacklers in this year’s class without a doubt. He is a really fun player to watch that can find immediate success early if he finds the right system utilizing his versatility the right way.
Paris Ford: Pittsburgh - Six-foot, 190 lbs
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Totaling six interceptions, three forced fumbles, and 131 tackles over his two years as a starter, Ford has solidified himself as one of the top safety prospects in this class. He plays with controlled aggression, plus athleticism, physicality, and fearlessness which makes him one of the hardest hitters in this year’s draft. In coverage, Ford has quality instincts in zone to cover all levels of the field. However, man-to-man is a different story as he struggles when aligned at nickel in subpackages. I wouldn’t contribute this to his athletic limitations, more-so the fact that Ford is the type of player that likes to see the whole field in front of him. He has outstanding mental processing and possesses lightning quick closing speed to play the underneath zones and get to outside zone runs in the backfield. Ford’s ideal look at the next level will come playing as a split zone safety with versatility to play up in the box thanks to his solid tackling ability and physicality.
Richie Grant: UCF - Six-foot, 194 lbs
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Grant is the definition of an aggressive, ball-hawking single high safety. In his past three years at UCF, Grant has compiled 10 picks, five forced fumbles, 258 tackles, and 10.5 tackles for loss. That outstanding production at the collegiate level speaks to Grant’s aggressive style. Grant is a solid, although inconsistent, tackler that is able to line up in the box using his lightning quick reactive instincts to attack downhill and finish with authority. He has some serious pop in his pads and is constantly looking for opportunities to use it. In coverage, Grant is excellent in deep zones and is not afraid to take chances reading the quarterback’s eyes. He is a plus athlete with really fluid hips that is more than capable of lining up at nickel in man coverage. What makes him special though is his outstanding ball skills at the catch point; when he is in position you better believe he is making a play on the ball. As one would expect, there are some serious concerns with blown coverages and poor pursuit angles that come with a risk-taking single high safety like Grant. However, he projects well as a true single-high safety in the NFL with the versatility to mix in at nickel and is one of the hardest hitters in this safety class.
James Wiggins: Cincinnati - Six-foot, 210 lbs
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Wiggins has some serious pop in his pads and plays about as aggressive as they come for a safety. He is a physical and athletic specimen that has experience playing multiple roles in the Bearcat defense. He has played single high, nickel, and up in the box and has fantastic mental processing ability to go along with great ball skills. Wiggins has plus zone coverage ability and tremendous instincts covering all levels. He also has explosive short area quickness and good hip fluidity that allows him to play man coverage well when aligned at nickel. He does not have the range, or instincts, to play as a true single high safety but he projects nicely as a split zone safety at the next level. Teams will surely covet his physicality, athleticism, and aggressive nature.
Andre Cisco: Syracuse - SIx-foot, 203 lbs
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Many people look at Cisco as simply a rangy, single-high safety that has accumulated ridiculous production over his 3 years as a starter. Over the course of 24 games Cisco recorded 13 picks, 14 pass deflections, and two forced fumbles. He has excellent instincts in zone coverage and thrived in the single-high safety role for the Orangemen. Cisco does a nice job at reading the quarterback’s eyes and using his athleticism and ball skills to attack the catch point. However, he does get caught freelancing quite a bit and his man coverage skills are questionable. He needs quite a bit of coaching in the footwork and technique department when asked to play man, as well as a bit more discipline when asked to play “center field” over the top. However, Cisco’s run support ability should not be overlooked as he is definitely one of the heaviest hitters in this year’s draft. Cisco has a solid frame and plays with the mental and physical toughness you look for in an enforcer on the back end. His tackling and pursuit angles are inconsistent, but his mental processing and read/react ability is top notch - and is even better with the way he finishes.
Tyree Gillespie: Missouri - Six-foot, 207 lbs
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If a team is looking for an enforcer across the middle of the field that can shift the momentum of a game with one hit, look no further than Gillespie. He leaves much to be desired in coverage, especially man to man, but wow can this kid lay down the lumber. Gillespie is effective up in the box, executing blitzes, and in mid/underneath coverages. He is able to use his plus athleticism to explode downhill and punish whoever is in his path to the ball. He will most likely carve out a role as a split zone safety that utilizes his physicality and instincts to provide box support from the back end.
Qwynnterrio Cole : Alcorn State - 6-foot-3, 195 lbs
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Cole is a relatively unknown prospect due to his lower level of competition, but he is an exciting player to say the least. Over his past two seasons at Alcorn State he racked up seven interceptions, 163 tackles two forced fumbles, and 4.5 tackles for loss. In coverage Cole has nice instincts in underneath and intermediate zones, showing excellent closing speed and ability to attack downhill. He is not much of a single-high player though, as he does not possess the range necessary for that role. In man-to-man he is limited due to his lack of long-range speed and overall inexperience but does have some solid reps on film in short spaces. Overall, he will primarily be a strong safety limited to underneath and intermediate zones in this department. In the run game however, Cole is an absolute beast. He consistently uses his tremendous play strength and physicality to rip off blocks and attack the ball carrier. The best thing about him is he's an outstanding tackler and holds nothing back at the point of attack. Cole has a ton of work in front him to get adapted to NFL speed, but he is an exciting projection to the next level based off his play style. Since he will probably be limited to a strong safety role or box player, it is a possibility teams ask him to add weight and switch to linebacker. For now, though, he is undoubtedly one of the hardest hitting safeties in this class.
Shawn Davis: Florida - 5-foot-11, 200 lbs
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Davis is an excellent athlete that possesses the true sideline-to-sideline speed you look for in a deep safety. He has experience playing at single-high, split zone, and even nickel. Davis, just like the others on this list, is an enforcer across the middle of the field and plays with pure aggression. He is primarily a rangy, deep safety that does not do much around the line of scrimmage but does show glimpses of his exciting read/react explosiveness to attack downhill at times. Davis will likely be asked to play an exclusive deep safety role in the pros like he did at Florida. At the Senior Bowl, he got shredded in one-on-one drills and does not have great tape when aligning in man coverage. However, Davis has excellent instincts and anticipatory skills in zone coverage when he sees the field open up in front of him and pairs it with awesome closing speed.
Jacoby Stevens: LSU - 6-foot-1, 216 lbs
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Coming into LSU as a highly touted five-star recruit, Stevens enjoyed a nice career racking up four interceptions, 9.5 sacks, and 21.5 tackles for loss. He aligned all over the field for the Tiger defense and is an intriguing projection in the NFL based solely on his physical traits. For a safety, he is a below average athlete but has a stout frame that allows him to play the run and deliver hits with authority. He played up in the box quite a bit during his time at LSU and has developed terrific read/react instincts while doing so. In coverage, Stevens’ mental processing is mostly there. He had some nice flashes on film and did a terrific job aligning at different spots for what LSU asked him to do. Unfortunately, his athleticism holds him back from being a special defender that could play single-high, then drop down into the box and play off-ball linebacker. However, Stevens projects well as an underneath zone player and should provide solid value in that role. Stevens is a functional athlete for his size – just not as a safety. He will likely either see his role diminish to a sub-package box player or add weight to his frame and make the switch to linebacker. Hopefully, we continue to see Stevens on Sundays making hits like this.
Lamont Wade: Penn State - 5-foot-9, 195 lbs
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Don't let his size fool you – Wade is a fearless DB and will throw himself into a ball carrier like a heat-seeking missile any chance he gets. He is an electrifying player that aligns all over the field and pours his heart into every snap. Wade displays quality footwork, extreme physicality, brilliant tackling ability and tremendous ball skills while aligning at safety and nickel. He will need to spend time in the film room addressing his mental processing issues though, as he consistently seems to be just a tad late in his decision-making nearly every play. Overall, his versatility and ability as a box safety to cover underneath/intermediate zones should bode well. Wade is not on this list because of his size, but rather the physicality he plays with. Pound-for-pound, he is one of the toughest defenders in this class and should bring nice depth as a sub package player to whatever team picks him.