NFL Draft News & Analysis

Early 2023 NFL Draft Safety Rankings: Texas A&M's Antonio Johnson comes in at No. 1

Oxford, Mississippi, USA; Mississippi Rebels wide receiver Dontario Drummond (11) runs the ball against Texas A&M Aggies defensive back Antonio Johnson (27) during the fourth quarter at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Three safeties heard their names called in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft, and now we look ahead to the handful of college football prospects who will be in the mix for that honor come 2023. The upcoming safety class has a good mix of experience and athletic potential for breakouts this fall.

1. Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M (Junior)

Johnson is just your run-of-the-mill 6-foot-3, 200-pound slot cornerback in Texas A&M’s defense. His massive wingspan shows up in his ability to take on blocks and bring down ball carriers. Combine that with some serious ability to close at that size, and you see why he earned an 87.4 overall grade last year. He limited his 62 targets last season to a grand total of 228 yards. That comes out to only 3.7 yards per target.

He’ll be playing more traditional safety this upcoming season, which should only serve to bolster his draft stock. Whenever he declares, Johnson should be a scheme fit for every team with the number of different hats that exist in an NFL defense.

2. Brian Branch, Alabama (Junior)

Branch may not be the most imposing physical presence coming off the bus at only 6-foot and 190 pounds, but you’ll sing a different tune after you flip on his tape. He plays with an undeniable chip on his shoulder and won’t even think about throttling down into contact. In two years filling the slot for Alabama’s defense, he’s missed only one tackle on 82 attempts. That’s an unheard-of rate for anyone, let alone a defensive back. 

While his consistency in coverage could stand to improve, Branch still possesses a lot of tools to work with in that regard.

3. Brandon Joseph, Notre Dame (Senior)

Joseph is arguably the top pure cover safety in the draft class. He has that uncoachable knack for finding himself in the right position at the right time to get his hands on the football. Across 56 targets faced over the past two seasons, he’s picked off nine passes. That’s some serious ball production.

He transferred from Northwestern to Notre Dame this offseason and is set to fill the role of Kyle Hamilton. Joseph possesses similar coverage versatility and had his time nearly split in thirds between the box, slot and deep over the course of his career.

4. Jordan Battle, Alabama (Senior)

Battle was a surprise to return to the Crimson Tide after a career year in 2021 put him firmly in the early Day 2 conversation at the position. He earned an 88.0 overall grade in his third season of playing time and second as a full-time starter. Battle has a versatile body type at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds and is rarely caught out of position. On 1,335 career coverage snaps, he’s allowed a grand total of 474 yards with five picks and eight pass breakups. 

5. Jalen Catalon, Arkansas (RS Junior)

When Catalon has a bead on what opposing offenses are trying to do, all of a sudden it looks like someone hit fast forward on the game tape. His quicks are truly on another level from the rest of this safety class. And they have to be, to a degree, for him to get by at 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds. 

Had he not suffered a shoulder injury after only six games last season, Catalon would be suiting up on NFL fields already this fall. Given his play style, though, that’s not an easy injury to write off as a non-factor. If he can clean up his tackling after 12 misses on 59 attempts last season, Catalon should be a Day 2 lock. 

6. R.J. Moten, Michigan (Junior)

Moten is one big boy who sneaks up on you with how physical he can be. You would never guess from watching him nimbly navigate through coverage assignments that he’s a hefty 6-foot, 221 pounds. The fluidity he plays with at that size is really a sight to behold. That’s some throwback safety size, bigger than even a lot of starting NFL linebackers. 

He’s only just getting his feet wet by prospect standards, though, with 499 snaps to his name. Moten didn’t see the field defensively as a true freshman and played a rotational role at times in 2021. Expect that to be a thing of the past in 2022.

One last interesting note on Moten: He was also a top-ranked baseball prospect coming out of high school in New Jersey. Moten only entertained schools that would allow him to play both football and baseball in college before ultimately deciding to focus on football at Michigan.

7. JL Skinner, Boise State (Senior)

The enforcer on this list, Skinner is 6-foot-4 and 218 pounds — and he plays like it. His ability to stick a running back in their tracks is exactly what you want from a box safety. It stuck out like a sore thumb given his competition level.

At his size, the comparisons to Kyle Hamilton will be obvious. While Skinner doesn’t have near the hip fluidity or easy movement skills when backpedaling, he is able to track well coming downhill. He improved mightily as a tackler as the 2021 season went on. After eight misses in his first four games, he whiffed on just four of 50 attempts in his final eight games.

8. Tykee Smith, Georgia (RS Junior)

It’s crazy how many potential top prospects in 2023 didn’t actually even see the field for Georgia last season. After transferring from West Virginia, Smith was supposed to be the Bulldogs' starting slot cornerback in 2021. He started the season sidelined with a foot injury, then tore his ACL only seven snaps into his first game back against Auburn.

Smith is one of the most instinctive prospects on this list and plays the game with no fear despite his size (5-foot-10, 198 pounds). In his last full season at West Virginia, he earned an 89.7 coverage grade and allowed only 110 yards across 25 catches and 38 targets.

9. Demani Richardson, Texas A&M (Senior)

Richardson is your quintessential box-ticking safety. He may not have a ton of high-end plays on tape — he’s managed only nine combined picks and pass breakups in three years as a starter — but there are also not a lot of glaring weaknesses to his game, either. He’s a solid, all-around athlete at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds who can line up anywhere within a defense. Richardson is also a quality tackler, with only 18 misses on 195 career attempts.

10. Quindell Johnson, Memphis (Senior)

Yet another small school safety with big-time talent, Johnson has been showing out for the Tigers ever since he allowed only 10 catches on 31 targets for 180 yards as a true freshman in 2019. It’s that coverage prowess that gets him a nod on this list, as he racked up seven pass breakups a year ago. You can see in the second clip below him making up ground on Houston receiver Nathaniel Dell, who reportedly ran in the low 4.3s coming out of JUCO.

Don’t think Johnson is just a coverage player, however. He racked up 28 defensive stops last season and 101 total tackles. He’s willing and able to mix it up in the box at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds.

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