News & Analysis

2021 NFL Draft safety rankings

Nov 2, 2019; Stillwater, OK, USA; TCU Horned Frogs safety Trevon Moehrig (7) turns to run after an interception during the fourth quarter of the game against the Oklahoma State Cowboys at Boone Pickens Stadium. Oklahoma State defeated TCU 34-27. Mandatory Credit: Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

We’re down to the final position ranking in the 2021 NFL Draft class.

It’s a safety class that has a lot of ball production toward the top. With safety, it’s important to remember that scheme fit is a necessity. The “safety” moniker is a catch-all for more roles these days than any other position in the NFL. It’s the guys who can execute all of those at a high level that we here at PFF covet most.

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1. Trevon Moehrig, TCU

Moehrig has one of the best physical profiles in the class to go along with some of the best on-field production. He led all safeties in pass breakups in each of the past two seasons, with eight in 2020 and 12 in 2019. At 6-foot-2 and 202 pounds, Moehrig can play the catch point from behind a receiver with ease. It’s why over the course of his career he allowed only a 51.0% completion percentage.

While he played mostly split-field coverages at TCU, a quarters alignment will oftentimes ask a safety to wear a number of different hats. Excelling in such a role bodes well for the variety of things Moehrig could be asked to do at the NFL level. It’s that versatile skill set that’s going to see him coveted highly come draft day.

2. Jamar Johnson, Indiana

Johnson may not have been a name on everyone's radar when he declared early after his true junior season, but he was a massive part of the Hoosiers' ascendance to relevancy this past season.

He tallied two picks against Ohio State and finished with four picks and four pass breakups on the season. Johnson now has vast experience both in the slot as well as deep, and he has graded out well in both areas. He attacks the ball in the air differently from most defensive backs and showed legit body control on those picks.

While Johnson still needs to improve as a tackler, what he can do in coverage is special.

3. Elijah Molden, Washington

Molden falls into a very similar category to Washington. Maybe they won’t be your true prototype safeties, but at worst, you have a quality slot corner. Listed at 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, Molden filled that slot role pretty much his entire Washington career outside of one game this past season. That being said, he did it better than anyone else in the country.

Molden earned coverage grades of 90.9 in 2019 and 86.2 this past season while consistently being around the ball with 17 combined picks and pass breakups over that span. With how consistent he is as a tackler (14 misses on 126 attempts the past two years) and with the way he sees the game, there’s no reason to believe he can’t transition into a more traditional safety role in the NFL.

4. Richie Grant, UCF

Grant has shown off about as complete an NFL skill set over the course of his UCF career as any safety in this draft class. He started his career off as mostly a deep safety, making a splash with six picks and four pass breakups in his first year as a starter in 2018. He then transitioned to a more versatile role the next two seasons — one that’s very similar to what he might play in the NFL — and continued to make plays. He’s quite easily one of the best safeties in run support. His quick read and fill ability led to a 90.0 run-defense grade this past season.

The icing on the cake for Grant was his performance in the one-on-ones at the Senior Bowl. Safeties aren’t supposed to look like they belong there. The ones that do are rare. No safety made more plays throughout the week than Grant, who stuck with receivers like a cornerback.

5. Ar’Darius Washington, TCU

You can find a number of different physical reasons not to like Washington. His size is at the top. Listed at 5-foot-8, 179 pounds, Washington would be the smallest safety to ever weigh in at the combine if that were a thing this year. His sheer range isn’t going to be his strong suit, but you’d be hard-pressed to find too many times on tape where Washington was caught out of position.

He is the single most instinctive safety in the draft class. Playing basically a mirrored role from teammate Trevon Moehrig the past two seasons, Washington allowed 339 fewer yards (157 to 496). He also surrendered only 16 receptions on 37 targets his entire college career. Washington won’t have the traits, but he is still a special football player.

6. Andre Cisco, Syracuse

Cisco is about as boom-or-bust a prospect as exists in the safety class. No 2021 safety can match his high-end plays. He racked up 13 picks and 13 pass breakups in 24 career games before tearing his ACL this past fall. Combine that with 4.3 speed and you’ve got a potential game-breaker on your hands in the NFL.

The problem is, the safeties in this class who can match his low-end plays are all going undrafted. Cisco is a roller coaster in coverage and was caught out of position far too often over the past couple of seasons. His aggressiveness can easily be used against him — and it often was. Cisco shows little willingness to mix it up in the box, as well, and takes some ugly angles to ball carriers. He has the tools, but there’s a chance defensive coordinators may not even trust him enough to see the field.

7. Jamien Sherwood, Auburn

Sherwood should be coveted by man-heavy teams for his sheer physical skill set. Give him a simple assignment and watch his prodigious athletic gifts take over. He has the sort of uber-athlete movement skills at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds that are reminiscent of second-rounders Jeremy Chinn and Kyle Dugger from a year ago. Oh, and he can lay a boom as a tackler; he missed only four of 71 attempts in 2020.

You’re not going to find too many instinctual coverage breaks on his tape like the guys above him on this list, though. 2020 was only his first year as a starter, and he broke up two passes on 34 targets all season. That won’t be an issue in the right role, though.

8. Divine Deablo, Virginia Tech

It's rare to see someone Deablo's size still deemed a safety at the college level, but it was worthwhile for Virginia Tech to have him patrolling there with his instincts on the back end.

He's a savvy veteran player who is about as assignment sure as they come. His size really offers little in the way of value anymore when it comes to the deep safety position in the NFL. He'll more than likely have to be around the line of scrimmage next year, and he's still a good deal of a projection as a pure linebacker.

9. Christian Uphoff, Illinois State

Many of the things said above for Jamien Sherwood apply to Uphoff to a slightly lesser degree. At 6-foot and 213 pounds, he has ideal safety size. And his tape at Illinois State is littered with plays where he’s simply a different caliber of athlete than his competition. Watch his agility below as he mirrors a back in space with ease.

It’s difficult to glean too much from that level of competition, and it’s a big reason why someone like Jeremy Chinn fell to where he did in the draft. It was at the Senior Bowl, though, where Uphoff really solidified his spot on this list. The closing burst in the rep below to go from a trail position to Noah Gray’s hip pocket is exactly what you want to see from a safety.

Manning up against tight ends and running backs should be child’s play for Uphoff at the NFL level.

10. Tyree Gillespie, Missouri

Despite his size, Gillespie played primarily deep for the Tigers in his three seasons as a starter. While he wasn't much of a playmaker in coverage, he came downhill to ball carriers with a vengeance. That's a skill set that should translate nicely to the box at the next level.

Gillespie could easily fill the dime safety role for teams that utilize that sort of position heavily. I just wouldn't expect much of a versatile coverage player.

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