In preparation for NFL training camps kicking off, we at Full Press Coverage will preview 10 of the most notable players at each position around the league. In these groupings, we will examine the three best (The Now), four who are ready for the next step (The Next) and three who have to show some sign of life in 2019 (The Needy). First up, the safeties.
1. Harrison Smith, Vikings
Smith’s pass coverage took a bit of a dip in 2018, but he still remains the premier jack-of-all-trades safety in the game today. Whether it be the slot, the box, rushing the passer or in center field, Smith tends to dominate in all facets. Few safeties can match his run stopping abilities, and those who can still fall short of his high level of coverage. The strongest indication of Smith’s value is the fact that Mike Zimmer, a brilliant schemer, has essentially built his defense around Smith’s versatility. Other safeties may post better numbers or receive more hype. None, however, are the lynch pin for their team like Smith is.
2. Eddie Jackson, Bears
Safeties in today’s NFL can take many forms, but Jackson has taken the mantle of the prototypical ball hawk. After a rookie season heavy on big plays, Jackson kicked that up a notch in year two, recording six interceptions and a whopping three defensive touchdowns. And it was not only the turnovers. Jackson’s ability to read plays and attack receivers was remarkable, considering he was only in his second season. He is a bit of a gambler, but his gambles paid in spades for the Bears in 2018. Now, it may be tough to imagine Jackson replicating his turnover numbers from a year ago in 2019. But even if those dip, his ability to read and react should keep him right at the top of the league as far as safeties go.
3. Derwin James, Chargers
The battle here between James and Jamal Adams is very tight, as both fill similar roles and are close in age. However, the edge goes slightly to James for A) the fact his dominant 2018 was his rookie season and B) he was a key figure of an elite Chargers secondary. Few rookie defensive backs in recent memory have taken the all-around role James did last season. When he rushed the passer, he was among the most efficient at any position. When he dropped into coverage, he was effective all over the field. Pro Football Focus had James at over 200 snaps each along the line, in the box, in the slot and back deep, something largely unheard of for rookies. The idea that he should have even more development ahead of him is frankly scary for the rest of the league.
Honorable Mentions: Earl Thomas, Jamal Adams
Thomas’ combination of mileage and recent injury are the only things keeping him off the top-three. With a new home and a long rehab process, it is possible we do not see the same dominant version of Thomas in 2019.
1. Jabrill Peppers, Giants
Even if Peppers were not the lone concrete player acquired for Odell Beckham, Peppers’ 2019 is enormous for his NFL career. Year three is often the time to gauge a player’s ultimate trajectory. Through two seasons, Peppers has been moderately productive, but not the game-breaking play-maker he was at Michigan. Now with New York, Peppers is the guy in the defensive backfield. The Giants got a lot out of Landon Collins leading their defense, so Peppers is going to have a lot asked of him right out of the gate. With the steps he took in year two, there is plenty of reason for optimism he can inch closer to the star level fans expect.
2. Malik Hooker, Colts
Right now, Hooker is a pretty good center field who can move around a bit. But he was a top safety prospect who many projected to be a play-maker in the vein of Eddie Jackson. He has not quite reached that level, largely due to his struggles to stay on the field. After missing much of his rookie season due to injury, Hooker missed a few more in 2018, albeit only three as opposed to nine. Early returns for Hooker suggest a player who can anchor a defensive backfield with his ability to drift sideline to sideline and read plays. The greatest barrier to reaching that elite level in Indianapolis appears to be his health.
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3. Anthony Harris, Vikings
When Andrew Sendejo went down, Harris stepped in and did more than fill the role adequately. He elevated above Sendejo’s level, providing elite coverage on limited passes thrown his way. Frankly, despite glimpses here and there since 2015, Harris’ big jump to starter came as a shock. Now that he is the entrenched starter with a new contract, Harris can show that 2018 was no fluke and that he truly is one of the premier coverage safeties in the game.
4. Justin Reid, Texans
Reid was thought a borderline first-rounder last season, but slipped to the third. Still, he showed in his rookie season that he may have superstardom in front of him. Only Derwin James outperformed Reid as a rookie safety, and Reid helped upgrade Houston’s once lackluster secondary. Like James, Reid was proficient both as a cover and a tackler, showing an excellent nose for the football. Reid and Tyrann Matieu were an excellent duo last season, but now that Mathieu is gone, Houston is counting on Reid to anchor the defensive backfield in year two. If last year is any indication, he will be up to the task.
Honorable Mentions: Terrell Edmunds
1. Karl Joseph, Raiders
Oakland took Jonathan Abram in round one presumably due to their dissatisfaction with Joseph’s development. While Joseph has been a quality run stopper in his three NFL seasons, his coverage has struggled to keep up. As such, he appears more likely to compete for the third safety spot than to start. Still, as a former first round pick in a contract year, 2019 is big for Joseph as he tries to prove he belongs in an NFL secondary full-time.
2. Jimmie Ward, 49ers
Injuries, indecision about his position and lackluster play have defined Ward’s lengthy 49ers career. Since going in round one in 2014, Ward has struggled to make an impact while fluctuating between cornerback and free and strong safeties. Now, it appears that Ward is finally locked in at free safety and he is in competition to start at the position. He is once again in a contract year after signing a one-year deal, so San Francisco’s confidence in him is not particularly high. But the 49ers are not exactly dripping with secondary talent. Ward will get a chance to prove that with a healthy year, he can be a starting safety. However, this may very well be his last chance.
3. Marcus Williams, Saints
To be clear, Marcus Williams is not a bad player. Far from it, in fact. But his legacy through two seasons is the guy who allowed Stefon Diggs to score a game-winning touchdown in the Division Round his rookie season. That year, Williams was a top safety prior to the crucial mistake. Last year, however, he took a pretty substantial step back. As such, one has to wonder if Williams’ error in 2017 had an effect on the player he is ultimately going to be. His coverage struggles last season were notable enough to question his development. Who knows, perhaps he simply needs to put more distance between himself and the Minneapolis Miracle. But 2017 Marcus Williams was a player to build a defense around. 2018 Marcus Williams was arguably a liability.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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