• Alabama safety Brian Branch garners two superlatives: He wins both “best tackler” and “best slot.”
• Oregon's Christian Gonzalez is as versatile as they come: There’s truly no weakness to his game athletically. He’s a big, explosive defender with the hips of a smaller cornerback.
• The underrated Ronnie Hickman wins “best two-high”: His ability to break out of his stance from a pedal or while flat-footed is exactly what you want from a two-high safety.
Estimated Reading Time: 4 mins
Defensive back is becoming such a versatile position at the NFL level that it only felt right to lump the corners and safeties together for this one. While this is a loaded class of corners on both the outside and in the slot, the same cannot be said about the safety position.
Best Make-Up Speed: DJ Turner, Michigan
If you run a 4.26-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, chances are this superlative was made for you. Turner has such easy gas that he can play without fear of getting beaten deep. That’s a skill that translates into every NFL defense.
I guess we shouldn't have been shocked when DJ Turner ran in the 4.2s.
Touchdown saving speed! pic.twitter.com/SdzL1RSVno
— BOLTS Draft Talk (@BoltsDraftTalk) March 16, 2023
Best Man Cornerback: Devon Witherspoon, Illinois
Witherspoon playing man coverage is exactly what the elites at the position in the NFL look like. He approaches every rep with an uncoachable edge. Simply put: He’s gonna try to kick your ass. More often than not, he did that last season. On 303 man coverage snaps in 2022, Witherspoon allowed only 13 catches on 46 targets for 115 yards with two picks and 13 forced incompletions.
I have a mid-1st round grade on Illinois CB Devon Witherspoon. Led Power 5 DBs with 14 PBUs and a 92.0 PFF coverage grade. He's great in off+press and can play slot or outside, really complete CB prospect pic.twitter.com/khqeFiIP1s
— James Foster (@NoFlagsFilm) December 13, 2022
Best Zone Cornerback: Clark Phillips III, Utah
Phillips may not tick all the physical boxes you want from an NFL cornerback, but there are two distinct facets of cornerback play where he’s as good as it gets in the draft class: his ability to read through receivers to the quarterback, and his ability to work back downhill from off-coverage. Those two skills translate to ball production, as Phillips picked off three passes in zone coverage last season.
Utah DB 1 Clark Phillips III is such a fun player to watch. Has over 1300 total snaps outside and over 400 snaps in the slot. Size might get questioned at 5-10 and 183 pounds but he plays much bigger and more physical than that. Watch him here against Oregon pic.twitter.com/3PCSjd9yKN
— Russell Brown (@RussNFLDraft) December 28, 2022
Best Press Cornerback: Joey Porter Jr., Penn State
Porter is a pterodactyl at the line of scrimmage with 34-inch arms that pack a serious punch. On 106 press snaps last season, Porter allowed only eight catches on 17 targets for 68 yards with seven forced incompletions. Something tells me he’s going to a scheme where that 106 number at least triples next season.
Joey Porter Jr. dominating Ronnie Bell off the line pic.twitter.com/iIaJ4XXUJm
— John Brennan (@jbrens20) March 22, 2023
Most Versatile: Christian Gonzalez, Oregon
Gonzalez's versatility stems from his high-end, all-around, physical skill set. There’s truly no weakness to his game athletically. He’s a big, explosive defender with the hips of a smaller cornerback. That allows him to stick in any scheme or any role in the secondary and perform.
Christian Gonzalez is long and fast… but his hips are what ties it all together. As loose/fluid/oily (pick your term) hips as I’ve ever seen studying CBs
Shows up all the time.
6013 197 4.38
41.5” Vertical, 11’1 Broad
And he turns 21yrs old in June. pic.twitter.com/Ada2mep0Of
— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) March 22, 2023
Best Tackler: Brian Branch, Alabama
Branch may not have the long speed to be drafted too early in the draft, but make no mistake: Whoever drafts him will be getting the single most sound defensive prospect at the moment. He won’t make mental mistakes in coverage and won’t miss plays in front of him. Branch missed four tackles on 174 attempts in his career.
I don’t care how. Get Brian Branch in a #Packers jersey asap. pic.twitter.com/Q48ZLkNPis
— Eli Berkovits (@BookOfEli_NFL) January 23, 2023
Best Hips: Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, TCU
Having a lower center of gravity obviously helps with change-of-direction ability, but that doesn’t solely explain how special THT is in this regard. The man is one of the smoothest movers you’ll ever see on a football field and loses almost no speed when forced to flip his hips. That's why he broke up 29 passes in his college career despite his size.
Hodges_Tomlinson has some oily hips pic.twitter.com/siGkYzZOVW
— Tyler Browning (@DiabeticTyler) December 21, 2022
Best Ball Skills: Emmanuel Forbes, Mississippi State
The FBS leader in pick-sixes (six) may have a knack for locating the football. He combines those ball skills with a 6-foot-7 wingspan and a 4.35-second 40-yard dash that help him get to footballs in the air in a hurry. With 14 career picks and 17 pass breakups in three seasons, Forbes is likely going to find some footballs at the next level, too.
Emmanuel Forbes. Watch film. pic.twitter.com/AMYS2wTI4G
— steelers_convo (@steelers_convo) January 13, 2023
Best Slot: Brian Branch, Alabama
Branch is the best defensive back in this class when it comes to matching route concepts in underneath zone coverage. He was targeted a ridiculous 54 times in the slot this past season. Only 14 of those resulted in conversions. Branch also led all slot cornerbacks with 14 coverage stops at the position. If you need an every-down slot, look no further.
Don’t think I could ever get tired of watching #Alabama DB Brian Branch operate in coverage. Always spatially aware, undercutting routes and finding receivers in zone coverage.
Physical player who is incredibly instinctive, always flashing even when I’m not watching him. pic.twitter.com/Lr2tvMTs7E
— Devin Jackson (@RealD_Jackson) March 21, 2023
Best Single High: Sydney Brown, Illinois
This was a difficult superlative to hand out because there are not too many true deep safeties in this class. Brown has all the traits to be one of them, but that wasn’t even his role at Illinois. On the 40 snaps he played at true deep safety this past fall, though, Brown still excelled with a 90.4 grade. His range and willingness to come downhill at full speed will be well-served in such a role.
Sydney Brown pick six. His second interception and second touchdown of the game. He also has a fumble recovery he brought back to the house. pic.twitter.com/AhMD370Df3
— Illinois Football Focus (@IlliniFB) November 26, 2022
Best Two-High: Ronnie Hickman, Ohio State
Hickman is one of the more underrated safeties in the draft class. His ability to break out of his stance from a pedal or while flat-footed is exactly what you want from a two-high safety. He earned an 85.0 coverage grade in middle-of-field-open coverages last season.
Ohio State’s Cam Brown and Ronnie Hickman come up big on the 3rd & goal PBU. Brown plays with patient feet and maintains inside leverage over top knowing he has Hickman to undercut the route.
Brown, who is headed to @ShrineBowl, and Hickman are both 2023 NFL Draft prospects. pic.twitter.com/lsHDZHwkdf
— Seven Rounds in Heaven (@7RoundsInHeaven) January 1, 2023