Richner: 2016 Top Safeties

Last Updated: 5/1/2016 1:00 PM ET
NFL offenses are becoming increasingly more focused on attacking defenses using the pass versus the run. In 2015, NFL teams averaged a pass 59.1 percent of the offense plays versus running it just 40.9 percent of the time. Only the Buffalo Bills had an equal pass to run ratio last season. All this is important because the one would think teams would begin to invest in using more first round draft picks on safeties.

The highest number of safeties selected in the first round was four, in 2014. On average, just 1.6 safeties were selected in the first round from 2005-2015. Most teams tend to focus on unearthing a starting safety in the later stages of the draft. On average 2.5 safeties were selected in the second round during this same time frame.

One would think more teams would be willing to invest in selecting a safety in the first or second round and not wait until rounds four through seven. An elite safety in the mold of an Eric Berry, Earl Thomas, or an Ed Reed can transform an average defense into an elite one almost overnight.

This year's safety class is predominantly filled with some hard hitting strong safeties who will sacrifice their bodies in making a big hit on opposing ball carriers. These are players who are inclined to walk down into the box and stop the run versus playing the deep center field role.

There is one true elite safety in this class, a player who fits the mold of a true playmaker, similar to current Arizona Cardinals safety, Tyrann Mathieu. This player is Duke's Jeremy Cash; he exhibits the talent, and production that match some of the game's most elite safeties. He doesn't stop in games, and is the type of leader most teams will be looking for as a captain of their defense.

The safety rankings below have been calculated using a statistical formula that measures each players catch rate, yards per reception allowed, touchdown receptions allowed, committed penalties, first downs allowed, total tackles, tackles-for-loss, sacks, forced fumbles, blocked kicks and their team's overall pass defense. In addition to each player's play on the field, combine and pro day measurables are also incorporated players scouting profile.

1) Jeremy Cash (SS, Duke):

Cash moves around the field with ease and will line up all over the field at every defensive position, from defensive tackle to outside linebacker. While he might lack the hair and maybe a little of the flair, Cash's ability to line up at multiple positions and seemingly always be around the football is reminiscent of a young Troy Polamalu. On any given play, Cash can line up anywhere on the football field, coming in on a delayed blitz or shutting down an opponent's top offensive target. Few coaches will trust a young player with the responsibility of making his own calsl, but the Duke coaching staff believed in Cash's ability to read opposing offenses and make the right call.

It's his ability to play in the box and shut down an opponent's rushing attack that separates Cash from your typical ball-hawking safety prospects.

For his career, Cash played in 44 games, recording 264.5 tackles, 38 TFL, 15 pass breakups, eight sacks, nine forced fumbles and six interceptions. He amassed a total of 106 impact plays, an average of 2.4 impact plays per game. Cash has the highest impact play average amongst draft-eligible safeties.

Cash has been one of the most efficient pass rushers in college football during the last couple of seasons, but he didn't meet the minimum of 200 pass rush attempts needed for to be ranked on the pass rushing index.

Cash isn't afraid to mix it up with offensive linemen; against Virginia Tech last season, Cash's lone sack in the game came on a snap to sack time of 2.79 seconds. He came in on a deep safety delayed blitz and was able to run right past the offensive line and take down the quarterback. On another occasion, Cash eluded the block of the right tackle and drove the tailback into the quarterback, disrupting his throw and forcing an incompletion.

Few college players display the versatility and ability that Jeremy Cash has shown over the past couple of seasons. While he might not have the top end speed like an Earl Thomas or a Tyrann Mathieu, Cash's ability to play in the box and drop into coverage make him one of the most complete safety prospects to come through the ranks in a long time.

His style of play and ability to play the hybrid linebacker/safety position makes him similar to Deone Bucannon. Bucannon averaged 1.9 impact plays a game during his college career, second best amongst draft-eligible safeties in the 2014 draft class.

Projected as a likely second round pick, don't be surprised if a team jumps up into the latter parts of the first round to select Cash. He will be a playmaker and a difference maker for any NFL defense.

2) Karl Joseph (SS, West Virginia):

Before his knee injury in 2015, Joseph was leading the FBS with five interceptions. In 2014, he was a first team All-Big 12 selection by the coaches. Measuring in at just 5'10” and 205 pounds, Joseph packs a punch when he puts his head down and delivers a bone crushing tackle. Few players in college football record as many jarring and aggressive hits as Joseph.

Joseph isn't afraid to go all out for a tackle, but this type of play has made him susceptible to looking for the highlight hit versus wrapping up the ball carrier and minimizing yards after contact. In the NFL, he will need to lower his strike zone, playing with the reckless abandon style will cause a few unsportsmanlike penalties and hurt his team.

Joseph does a great job of sitting back in the deep center field spot and reading the quarterback's eyes. He doesn't show a lot of wasted movement to the ball, but takes great angles to get to his spot to break up intended passes.

In 41 career games played, Joseph recorded 243 tackles, 16.6 TFL, 14 pass breakups, two sacks, seven forced fumbles and nine interceptions. He finished with 80.5 impact plays, an average of 2.0 impact plays per game.

Teams are going to be worried about Joseph's medical history, coming back from a torn ACL has caused him to drop on a few team's draft boards.

Joseph's best position in the NFL might be as a nickel corner; he has excellent coverage skills and the ability to shut down opponent's wideouts when he is in one-and-one coverage. He allowed a fifty percent catch rate over the past two seasons.

Joseph will have a steep learning curve, first coming back from his injury and then having to adjust to playing within the rules of legal hits in the NFL. He is a playmaker and someone who can be the spark plug for a defense. Joseph is one of the top two safeties on most team's draft boards and a likely first rounder.

3) Darian Thompson (FS, Boise State):

Some players just have the instincts and ability on defense to consistently make plays on the football field. These are the players who come up with an interception or sack during key moments of the game. Darian Thompson is someone who has this trait of coming up with the big momentum-turning play for his team. He was tied for first among active players after last season with 19 interceptions.

At 6'2” and 208 pounds, Thompson has the size and strength to match up with tight ends and running backs. He can hold his own against offensive linemen, he even showed the strength to set the edge and knock down a few pulling linemen.

Thompson displays the instincts to read plays and anticipates where he should be. He was inserted into the starting lineup half way through his freshman year. In 51 career games played, Thompson recorded 195.5 tackles, 15 TFL, one sack, nine pass breakups, three forced fumbles, and 19 interceptions. He finished with 91 impact plays, an average of 1.8 impact plays per game.

When the ball is in the air, Thompson will attack the ball as though he is a receiver. He is quick to break on the football and get his hands in between the receiver and ball to either knock it down or come away with the interception.

While he plays with an aggressive, take-no-prisoners attitude, he will need to learn restraint and control on the field. He had 11 missed tackles in 2015 according to Pro Football Focus.

It's his ability to cover ground and be a quality last line of defense as well as being a strong competitor when stopping an opponent's rushing attack that has launched Thompson on a few team's draft boards. He might need to sit a season, but he has some of the elite skills needed to be a quality starter down the road. In the meantime, look for Thompson to be a quality addition as a special teams standout during his rookie season.

4) Miles Killebrew (SS, Southern Utah):

Most reports written on Killebrew list him as a hybrid linebacker/safety prospect and a player capable of playing both positions at the next level. He plays with an aggressive, physical style as is evident by his 132 tackles last season, an average of 11 tackles per game, seventh most in FCS last season and most by a defensive back.

A few jaws dropped at the NFL Combine over the performance Killebrew put on, measuring in at 6'2” and 217 pounds, all the while being one of the top performers in the multiple tests. He is a heat-seeking missile on the field, looking to separate the ball from anyone who even dares to touch it.

Killebrew has the frame and ability to cover some of the elite tight ends in the NFL and he won't back down from contact. He has the strength to set the edge and the power to knock a lineman back a couple of yards. Playing against a lower level competition in college, it make take him half a season to get up to speed in the NFL.

In 48 games played, Killebrew recorded 283.5 tackles, 21 pass breakups, 9.5 TFL, four forced fumbles, three interceptions and three blocked kicks. He finished with 60.5 impact plays, an average of 1.3 impact plays per game. He has the most career tackles among draft-eligible safeties.

Killebrew performs well when he can go downhill, read the quarterback and run straight to his spot, but has a hard time changing direction. He lacks the instincts to see the play develop beforehand, instead waiting until the last second to make his jump on the ball.

He might be limited to being an in-the-box style safety, capable of playing the run more than the pass. A few teams such as the Atlanta Falcons and the Tennessee Titans are rumored to be interested in Killebrew. His work as a special teams standout along with his impressive athleticism will serve him well during his rookie season. With proper coaching and improved technique, he could be a starter in the NFL by his second year.

5) Deandre Houston-Carson (FS, William & Mary):

It's not very often that two FCS players make it into the top five positional rankings. Both Killebrew and Houston-Carson are prime examples of players who dominated at their respected levels of competition and are more than capable of doing the same in the NFL. Houston-Carson is a former cornerback that converted to free safety and was a consensus All-American in 2015.

As a former cornerback, Houston-Carson has the speed and quickness to cover the slot along with the range to cover sideline to sideline. He rarely gets beat deep, instead he keeps the action in front of him and does not allow the big plays. Houston-Carson is smooth at gearing down and changing direction, he rarely gets his feet crossed and can run stride for stride with most wide receivers down the field.

In 45 career games played, Houston-Carson recorded 233.5 tackles, 11.5 TFL, 34 pass breakups, two sacks, one forced fumble, 10 interceptions and nine blocked kicks. He amassed a total of 107.5 impact plays, an average of 2.4 impact plays per game. Both his total and average impact plays rank him first amongst draft-eligible safeties.

NFL special team coaches will be happy to see that Houston-Carson was a playmaker and with nine blocked kicks, he can be a weapon they can utilize. He also played the gunner position while in college and this type of versatility will bring tremendous value in the NFL where roster spots are limited.

Houston-Carson's tackling technique and understanding of pursuit angles will need a major overhaul. He will take poor angles, leaving cutback opportunities and will overrun plays. He isn't afraid to lower his shoulder, but in some cases he misses his mark and gives up significant yards after contact.

The ability to play corner and safety is what makes Houston-Carson comparable to current Los Angeles Rams. Lamarcus Joyner. Though Joyner was selected in the second round, Houston-Carson will probably have to wait until at least the fourth round. He has the talent and skill level to be a standout special teams player in addition to the being a starting caliber safety in the NFL. In terms of physicality and talent, Houston-Carson is prepared to play in the NFL. Don't be surprised if he is starter in the league by the end of next season.

Ranking Player School Draftable Round Impact Plays Avg. Impact Plays/Game
1 Jeremy Cash Duke 1 106 2.4
2 Karl Joseph West Virginia 1-2 80.5 2.0
3 Darian Thompson Boise State 2 91 1.8
4 Miles Killebrew Southern Utah 2-3 60.5 1.3
5 DeAndre Houston-Carson William and Mary 2-3 107.5 2.4
6 Trae Elston Mississippi 3 62 1.2
7 Kevin Byard Middle Tennessee 3 97 2.0
8 Clayton Fejedelem Illinois 3 23.5 0.9
9 Vonn Bell Ohio State 3-4 47 1.1
10 A.J. Stamps Kentucky 4 29.5 1.2
11 Kavon Fraizer Central Michigan 4 48 0.9
12 Michael Caputo Wisconsin 4 49.5 0.9
14 Jalen Mills LSU 4 46 1.0
15 Jayron Kearse Clemson 5 56 1.4
16 Deon Bush Miami (Florida) 5 67 1.5
17 KJ Dillon West Virginia 5 56.5 1.2
18 Derrick Kindred TCU 5 60 1.2
19 Jamie Byrd South Florida 5 49.5 1.3
20 Jordan Lucas Penn State 6 58 1.2
21 Jordan Simone Arizona State 6 38.5 1.2
22 Doug Middleton Appalachian State 6 57 1.1
23 Justin Simmons Boston College 7 55 1.1
24 Jamal Golden Georgia Tech 7 56 1.0
25 Trent Mathews Colorado State FA 73 1.4
26 Sean Davis Maryland FA 63.5 1.3
27 Tyvis Powell Ohio State FA 42.5 1.0
28 Tevin Carter Utah FA 25 1.5
28 Keanu Neal Florida FA 29.5 0.9
29 T.J. Green Clemson FA 18.5 0.7
30 Jordan Lomax Iowa FA 29 0.6
31 Elijah Shumate Notre Dame FA 27 0.6
32 Lamarcus Brutus Florida State FA 19 0.5