NFL Draft News & Analysis

2023 NFL Draft: Ranking the top 10 safety prospects

New Orleans, LA, USA; Kansas State Wildcats wide receiver Phillip Brooks (8) runs the ball against Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Brian Branch (14) during the first half in the 2022 Sugar Bowl at Caesars Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Wevers-USA TODAY Sports

• Alabama's Brian Branch takes top spot: The slot position has evolved into an integral part of an NFL defense — a role Branch can handle with ease.

• Experienced Jammie Robinson comes in at No. 3: With 2,909 career snaps to his name, Robinson has been an excellent tackler. He carries one of the highest floors in the class.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

The 2023 NFL Draft safety class should provide a deep talent pool throughout Day 2 of the draft. It offers one of the best groups of slot cornerbacks in recent memory along with some size-speed freaks and versatile safeties.

10. Jartavius Martin, Illinois (RS Senior | 6-0, 195)

  • 2022 PFF Grade: 74.0
  • Play Style: Physical Slot
  • Initial Round Projection: Early Day 3

The Fighting Illini secondary was no joke in 2022, and Martin was a big reason why. He was one of the most reliable slot defenders in the country, especially in tracking down ball carriers. Over the past two seasons, Martin has missed all of seven tackles on 129 attempts. That’s a tremendous rate for a player often working out in space. The fact that Martin also has 851 snaps at outside cornerback in his career — most coming as a freshman and sophomore — is icing on the cake for his pro projection.


9. Brandon Joseph, Notre Dame (RS Junior | 6-1, 196)

  • 2022 PFF Grade: 73.0
  • Play Style: Two-High Playmaker
  • Initial Round Projection: Late Day 2

Joseph rarely pops off the tape as a high-end athlete. From a testing perspective, there’s a chance he puts up the most lackluster numbers at the combine of any player on this list. Yet, Joseph makes this list because of how adeptly he sees the game. He’s extremely steady and rarely caught out of control. Those are great strengths to have on the back end.

It’s why I think he can be so skilled in a coverage-first role in a two-high scheme. Joseph is able to read route combinations and anticipate breaks in his sleep. He racked up 10 picks over the course of his career and allowed only 80 yards on 17 targets with Notre Dame this past season. 


8. Christopher Smith, Georgia (RS Senior | 5-11, 195)

  • 2022 PFF Grade: 77.2
  • Play Style: Rangy Deep Safety
  • Initial Round Projection: Late Day 2

Smith can really cover some ground. He’s one of the best true backend players in the draft class. His ability to get sideline to sideline, as well as downhill in the run game from a deep alignment, will serve him well at the next level. His 2022 tape is littered with such splash plays, as he attacks with no fear despite being on the smaller end for the position.

That size does show up at points as a tackler, though. He’s missed 14.9% of his tackle attempts in his career and will have some ugly ones when asked to wrap up from a standstill. That’s obviously not as big a deal in a deep role, but the team drafting him may have to accept some role limitations.


7. Ji’Ayir Brown, Penn State (RS Senior | 5-11, 202)

  • 2022 PFF Grade: 76.2
  • Play Style: Tone Setter
  • Initial Round Projection: Day 2

Brown has been making plays ever since he took over as a starter for the Nittany Lions in 2021. Over the past two seasons, he has 10 picks and four pass breakups. He’s proven to be exceedingly versatile, playing 510 snaps in the box, 682 deep and 259 from the slot for his career. That snap breakdown is precisely what most safeties at the next level will be asked to do.

He’s very solidly built for the position and loves to lay the boom. He can get a little wild as a tackler, although when he does catch a ball carrier cleanly, they stop in their tracks. That recklessness shows up a bit too often in coverage, but if that can be coached out of him, a drafting team is getting a heck of a player.


6. Jordan Battle, Alabama (Senior | 6-1, 206)

  • 2022 PFF Grade: 82.0
  • Play Style: All-Around Safety
  • Initial Round Projection: Day 2

You won’t find many true freshman starters on defense at Alabama for head coach Nick Saban. But the ones that do often turn into quality starters in the NFL.

Battle is going to put that theory to the test, as he made four starts as a freshman back in 2019 before playing full-time the past three seasons. Battle is sort of a jack-of-all-trades, but a master of none. He possesses good size and physicality for the position with average range and physicality. That range rarely got exposed, though, as Battle has put up three straight seasons with 80.0-plus coverage grades.


5. Sydney Brown, Illinois (RS Senior | 6-0, 205)

  • 2022 PFF Grade: 78.4
  • Play Style: High-End Athlete
  • Initial Round Projection: Day 2

Brown may very well have the best movement skills of any safety in the draft class. Similar to his twin brother Chase, Sydney can flat-out fly. He’s reportedly reached over 22 mph on the GPS readings, and if you watch his tape from any point this past season, it’s very believable. Brown racked up six picks and six pass breakups in large part due to that make-up speed, but also because he’s an all-around fluid athlete in space.

Even with that tremendous speed, though, it may surprise you to know that Brown was almost entirely a box safety this past fall (only 60 of his 742 snaps came deep). That’s because, at 205 pounds, he’s more than willing to mix it up. He collected 16 stops in the run game this past fall and proved to have one of the more versatile skill sets in the draft class.


4. J.L. Skinner, Boise State (Senior | 6-4, 220)

  • 2022 PFF Grade: 74.7
  • Play Style: Box Safety/Dimebacker
  • Initial Round Projection: Early Day 2

If an NFL team's scheme has a defined box safety role, there’s not a better player to fill it in the draft class than Skinner. He’s extremely fluid for a 220-pounder and can easily be a tight end eraser at the next level. This past season, he allowed only 17 catches on 32 targets for 176 yards with four picks and three pass breakups.

The worry is what happens when he can’t play around the line of scrimmage. His range is average at best, and his change-of-direction ability doesn't come close to that of others on this list. In many schemes, a switch to linebacker may even be in the cards.


3. Jammie Robinson, Florida State (Senior | 5-11, 203)

  • 2022 PFF Grade: 80.6
  • Play Style: Do-It-All Safety
  • Initial Round Projection: Early Day 2

You won’t find a more experienced safety in the draft class than Robinson. He’s been starting since he was a true freshman at South Carolina in 2019 and now has 2,909 career snaps to his name. All the while, he’s been an outstanding tackler (7.3% career missed tackle rate) and developed into a difference-maker in coverage. The agility that Robinson plays with for a 200-plus-pound safety makes me think he missed his calling as a running back. It’s a big part of the reason he’s such a good tackler. His ability to adjust on the fly and break laterally is arguably the best in the draft class. That all gives Robinson one of the higher floors at the safety position in the class.


2. Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M (Junior | 6-3, 195)

  • 2022 PFF Grade: 81.6
  • Play Style: Screen-Erasing Slot
  • Initial Round Projection: 1st

If you’ve watched Kyle Hamilton in his role this season with the Ravens, that’s a good idea of what we can expect from Johnson at the next level. It’s exactly the role he handled for the Aggies the past two seasons. His 26 coverage stops over that span were the fourth most among Power Five defensive backs, as his 91 targets went for only 368 yards (4.0 yards per target).

His acceleration for a 6-foot-3 safety is what really makes him unique. He can get past a block or knife into the backfield in the blink of an eye. And then his relatively long wingspan for a safety affords him leeway as a tackler. The only worry is that’s just about the only role we’ve ever seen him play. We don’t particularly know how he’ll fare if asked to expand his horizons in the NFL. 


1. Brian Branch, Alabama (Junior | 6-0, 193)

  • 2022 PFF Grade: 90.0
  • Play Style: Ultra-Reliable Nickel
  • Initial Round Projection: Top 10

With the rise of two-high safety looks in the NFL, the slot position has evolved into an integral part of so many defenses around the league. Having a slot player who can fill in in run support with authority makes defensive coordinators far more comfortable taking their safeties out of the box. That’s Branch’s game. His 90.7 run-defense grade led all safeties in college football, while his 24 run stops ranked fifth most in the FBS.

That’s all well and good, but it's fairly meaningless if you can’t cover. Thankfully, that couldn’t be further from the truth with Branch. He’s been instinctual ever since he stepped on the field at Alabama for 290 snaps as a true freshman. Most importantly, though, Branch finishes plays. He’s one of the best tackling defensive backs PFF has charted in college. Branch missed only four of his 173 career tackle attempts. Four! That’s the kind of defender you want around the football.

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