Heading into the 2012 off-season, Safety was already a need for the Buccaneers, but with yesterday’s release of Tanard Jackson, the need just became a lot more pressing. While the team already needed one starter, now it likely needs two. Regardless of your feelings on the transaction, the fact remains the Bucs just cut their best player at the position and the guys behind him are marginal at best.
Unfortunately this is not a fantastic year for safeties in the draft. I do really like a couple, but nobody is a surefire star in this class. I’ve already said I think the Bucs should address the position in free agency for a short term fix while they develop young safeties, or at the very least kick addressing the need back a few years.
But there are some talented guys in this year’s draft with the potential to be very good safeties down the road. I think there’s only one guy with a first round grade but several could start their first year if need be and at least hold their own.
After a week-long hiatus, the Big Board is back with our Safety rankings. I’ve put their college position in parentheses, that frankly means more for some guys than others depending on their college systems.
Let’s take a look.
1.) Mark Barron (SS), Alabama, SR.
Mark Barron is the lone safety that I would give a first round grade to in this draft. Even with a surgery to repair a double hernia, and at just 80-90% at his pro day, Barron still looked the part of a first rounder. The most attractive aspect of the Tide safety is actually not his athleticism or play, it’s his football IQ. Barron was the de facto quarterback of the best defense in the country last season. He made the adjustments and lead the unit, all the way to a national title as a matter of fact. Nick Saban is renowned for his ability to coach defenses, specifically defensive backs. Barron, along with Dre Kilpatrick, are just two more in a long line of Saban first round DB’s. Barron likely would have jumped into the draft last year if not for a pectoral injury. On the field, he is a ball hawk, though he’s more of a zone player where his instincts and intelligence put him in consistently good position to make plays on the football. He is a little stiff in man coverage, but aside from that his only other flaw is his over-aggressiveness (he tends of over-pursue). That can all be reined in though, Barron will likely become a very good NFL safety.
2.) Harrison Smith (SS), Notre Dame, SR
Smith is a safety more in the mold of a John Lynch than a ballhawking kind of guy. Smith really relishes the contact, part of that may stem from the fact he also played linebacker in at Notre Dame. He’s definitely a true strong safety and comes into the box to offer additional run support with aplomb. He does still have quite a bit more developing to do though, he’s far from technically sound and he could work a little bit on his ability to quickly diagnose what’s happening in front of him, though part of that can also be attributed to the change in position. Smith is a high effort, high character guy though, he gets every last ounce out of his ability, goes hard every play and is definitely a player I could see Schiano liking. I had the ability to watch Smith in person when I covered the Champs Bowl last year and he was very active in the game but also got caught a few times in coverage by quicker receivers. That’s one of the knocks on Smith, he’s a little stiff at times and could potentially be abused if you leave him in the wrong position. The flip side of that though is if allowed to develop and employed correctly, he could be elite too.
3.) George Iloka (FS), Boise State, SR
I’m going to say right up front one of the most exciting parts of Iloka, more than even his college resume, is his size and athleticism. Iloka is 6-4, 220. He’s quick, he can play in a man or a zone scheme and he lined up at both safety and corner in college. The potential to have a safety that size roaming the secondary is exceptionally exciting, especially considering the elite receivers in the league are predominantly 6-3 and taller (Fitzgerald, Andre and Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall). Iloka started 45 games in college, but does still need to develop quite a bit. For one thing, he does need to fill out a little bit and learn to take advantage of his body size more. He also could refine some of his technique. Beyond that though he has a lot of potential to become a very good NFL safety. He is another safety who likes to hit, he’s got decent fluidity of motion even if he can be a bit herky-jerky on changes of direction. He covers a lot of ground and has good instincts and good football IQ. Typically he’s in good position and has the length to make plays on a lot of balls, though he does tend to be prone to his emotions and blow assignments when he loses his calm. I like Iloka, but he’s not a surefire thing either.
4.) Antonio Allen (SS), South Carolina, SR
Some people love Allen, others don’t. I think he’s worth a pick in late round two or early round three, but I admit I’ve flipped on him too. I’ve had him as high as third on this list and as low as sixth. Ultimately, I think he would be an intriguing prospect for the Buccaneers if he’s around at 68, but he could be gone by then. Allen is a multi-capable player with a very good football IQ, he can hit, he can blitz and he can cover. Oddly, he may be best as a blitzer where he displays a considerable knack of knifing through the line, getting through any chips and finding the passer. He’s also a very capable tackler who doesn’t mind putting his nose in the pile or moving into the box if need be. The knock on him is he needs to add some size because he can be lost in the scrum sometimes, his technique has been known to lag from time to time too when trying to make tackles in the open field. That’s problematic for a safety, but it’s coachable. He also could improve his ability to read the run, though that will come with NFL coaching. In terms of coverage Allen diagnoses well and has good reaction time, he can play in a man or a zone scheme but looks more comfortable in a zone scheme. He has a pretty good nose for the football too. Allen isn’t a complete player, like most of the guys in this class he has holes in his games that need to be addressed before he’ll be able to fully realize his NFL potential, but Allen could end up being the best of the bunch if he can reach his.
5.) Markelle Martin (SS), Oklahoma State, SR
Martin is potentially the best cover guy of this group. He covers a lot of ground and he’s got great read and react ability, oftentimes breaking on routes as soon as he sees the quarterback’s eyes connect with the receiver. That over-aggressiveness can be a detriment at times too and will need to be reined in a little in the NFL, where he could be abused by double moves, but Martin’s raw coverage ability is impressive. He’s better in zone, but is adequate in man. Martin is also solid in run support, showing above average ability to fight off blocks, good read skills and and a willingness to hit. He’s more famous for lighting up receivers though, he’s delivered some major shots over his career. He was never asked to blitz much in college but could likely learn to do it well if given the chance. He’s also a good character guy and was awarded with the team’s academic MVP his senior year. Martin would be borderline first round if not for the fact he suffered a knee injury and has been unable to work out at the Combine or Pro Days. I’m sure he’ll be fine long-term, but that kind of injury could certainly stunt early development and the Bucs would need any pick that high to play quickly. That’s why he’s this low on the list.
Best of the Rest
6.) Brandon Taylor (SS), LSU, SR
Taylor was a very active player on a very good defense last year at LSU. He started all 14 games and notched a couple picks while finishing third on the team in tackles. He also happens to have very good leadership and character attributes, something that could work in his favors if the Bucs look to pick a safety in the mid-rounds. It’s always good to get high character players from winning programs.
7.) Brandon Hardin (FS), Oregon State, SR
Hardin is intriguing because he struggled through major injuries at the end of his college career and that will always be a concern, but he also ran a 4.36 and a 4.4 at his Pro Day and possesses some of the best intelligence and athleticism in this class when he’s healthy. He’s got prototype size at 6’3, 215 too. The question is just can he stay healthy. That may be a gamble worth taking at the right place in the draft.
8.) Trenton Robinson (FS), Michigan State, SR
Robinson could be a huge sleeper. He’s a got the athleticism and ball skills of a cornerback but the physicality and mindset of a safety. He needs to refine some of what he’s doing, but his athleticism is outstanding. He likes to hit, but is a bit undersized and won’t be a great fit in the box. Still, he’s another high character player who gets every last ounce out of what is already considerable athletic ability.
9.) Christian Thompson (FS), South Carolina State, SR
Thompson transfered to South Carolina State from Auburn and had two solid years playing in the MEAC. Thompson likely wouldn’t be able to start immediately, if he is at all, but he will be solid depth and a good special teams contributor for whatever team picks him in the late rounds.
10.) Aaron Henry (FS), Wisconsin, SR
Henry is another player I feel is underrated, but that stems more from the fact I can’t believe a Wisconsin safety wouldn’t get a Combine invite. Henry has above average athleticism and played on a good team in Madison, he needs coaching but he could round into a solid pro some day.