The NFL Combine officially kicks off on February 24, and all eyes will be on Indianapolis to see which draft prospects are able help or hurt their stock with their performance. We’ve already covered the wide receivers and tight ends. The final group is the defensive backs, which consists of the cornerbacks and safeties. These groups will officially participate in on-field drills on Sunday, March 1.
To prepare everyone for the flurry of activity that is the NFL Combine, I am back to once again provide you with my Combine Prospect Previews—brief summaries of some of my favorite prospects in each position group. These are players who I believe the Falcons will be most interested in come draft day. Hopefully, these names will give you a little bit of guidance about who to watch when the players hit the field.
If you missed any of the other prospect previews, you can find them below:
For added context, I’ll be incorporating player rankings from The Draft Network. This way you can have a general idea of where a current consensus of scouts ranks a particular player. Today we’ll take a look at the safety group, where the Falcons have three potential starters in Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen, and Damontae Kazee. Behind them, however, is nothing but question marks—and Neal’s struggles with injury over the past two seasons have led to a lot of disappointing play at strong safety.
Julian Blackmon, Utah
6’1, 204 | 60 total tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 4 INT, 4 PD, 2 FF
TDN Prospect Rank: 141 (5th Round)
If the Falcons stick with Keanu Neal in 2020—which appears to be the most likely course of action—they’d still be wise to improve the depth behind him. The best place to do that is probably the early-to-mid portion of Day 3, where this draft class has a lot of talent. Utah’s Julian Blackmon is one player to keep an eye on. At 6’1, 204, he’s got plenty of size to hold up in the box and pairs it with solid athleticism. Blackmon was recently converted from CB to safety, which gives him advanced man coverage skills for the position—particularly when he can use his size to press opponents at the line of scrimmage.
He’s a physical presence in the secondary who brings strong tackling and a nasty attitude to run defense. Blackmon lacks experience and feel in zone coverage, and doesn’t have the long speed or dynamic change of direction skills to survive as a deep safety. He’d be best served by a strong safety role in the NFL where he can patrol the box and cover the short area of the field. There’s enough here to develop into a solid NFL starter, particularly when combined with his ball skills (4 INT and 4 PD in 2019). I like Blackmon as a potential Day 3 target for the Falcons to improve the depth behind Neal.
Antoine Brooks Jr., Maryland
5’11, 213 | 87 total tackles, 8.5 TFL, 1 INT, 5 PD
TDN Prospect Rank: 136 (5th Round)
If the Falcons are looking to inject some physicality into their secondary, Antoine Brooks Jr. could be an ideal candidate who won’t cost the team a high draft pick. Brooks doesn’t have great length at 5’11, 213, but he’s got a thick frame that makes him well-suited to play in the box. Athletically, he’s got some ups-and-downs. He’s got nice burst and I like his ability to quickly read and react to plays, but he doesn’t have the long speed to carry routes downfield.
Brooks played a variety of roles at Maryland, serving as a box safety, a slot CB, and a “big nickel” LB at times. He’s got a non-stop motor and plays with an edge in run defense. I love his physicality as a tackler and he’s a lot better than you’d expect at stacking-and-shedding blocks. Brooks has a good feel for short-area zone coverage and can be trusted here, but he’s far less experienced in man. He’s not someone you want taking on any deep responsibilities, but Brooks is a high impact player with the play in front of him. For his mid-Day 3 price tag, I think Antoine Brooks Jr. would be a strong addition to Atlanta who could provide depth at multiple spots.
Jeremy Chinn, Southern Illinois
6’3, 219 | 71 total tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1.0 sacks, 4 INT, 7 PD
TDN Prospect Rank: 101 (4th Round)
One of the most high-upside options to improve the Falcons’ safety depth is Southern Illinois’ Jeremy Chinn, an FCS standout who had a tremendous performance at the Senior Bowl. At 6’3, 219 and with tremendous athleticism, Chinn has the makings of a versatile chess piece in the NFL—but it’ll take some time for him to adjust to the jump in competition. I had the Falcons selecting Chinn in the fifth round of my most recent mock draft, and this is how I described his game:
Chinn is an absolute playmaker in both run defense and the passing game. He’s a physical presence against the run who can make plays from a variety of spots, and is very comfortable when lined up in the box. Chinn’s ball production in coverage is impressive: he’s piled up 13 interceptions and 31 pass deflections during his four-year career. He’s currently much more comfortable in zone than in man, however, and there are questions about where his long-term NFL fit is. I see Chinn as a potential “moneybacker” player, who plays a kind of hybrid LB/S, “big nickel” role for the Falcons.
Grant Delpit, LSU
6’3, 201 | 65 total tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 2 INT, 7 PD, 1 FF
TDN Prospect Rank: 23 (1st Round)
I think it’s incredibly unlikely that the Falcons will target a safety with their first-round pick, but it’s worth addressing on the off chance that Keanu Neal does leave in free agency. There are two projected first-round safeties, one of whom is LSU’s Grant Delpit. Delpit saw his stock as high as a top-5 overall pick at times during the season, but concerns about his poor tackling have caused him to fall a bit.
Physically, Delpit has a tremendous build at 6’3, 201. He’s an elite athlete, with explosive click-and-close ability, great long speed, and fluid change-of-direction skills. Delpit can survive anywhere in the secondary and will probably benefit from being moved around depending on the matchup. He has great instincts and ballhawking ability in zone coverage, and plenty of size and fluidity to match up man-to-man against TEs and RBs. Delpit’s tackling is a significant issue however, and it’s a strange one considering he doesn’t lack physicality. There are some maddening misses and failures to wrap-up in the open field, which should concern any team that plans to have him playing as the last line of defense. Delpit is certainly worth a first-round selection, but I doubt Atlanta will value safety that highly in 2020.
Kyle Dugger, Lenoir-Rhyne
6’1, 217 | 31 total tackles, 1.0 TFL, 2 INT, 6 PD
TDN Prospect Rank: 87 (3rd Round)
Another standout small school player in the 2020 safety class, Lenoir-Rhyne’s Kyle Dugger is an elite athletic prospect that doesn’t quite have a clear positional home in the NFL yet. At 6’1, 217, Dugger has a fantastic build with tons of length and bulk. He had an injury-shortened 2019 season which saw him play in just 7 games, but has been dominating his Division II competition since 2017.
As an athlete, Dugger is absolutely phenomenal. He’s blazing fast, explosive, and can change direction effortlessly. Dugger is also a big hitter and is a tremendous finisher as a tackler due to his physicality and length. He’s also got quality ball skills and has spent time as both an RB and a punt returner (where he had 2 return TDs in 2019). In coverage, Dugger has tons of upside but is very raw in both man and zone. The jump in competition will be a big challenge for him, but his athletic profile makes him a tantalizing developmental prospect. Dugger will cost Atlanta a late-Day 2 pick, but he’s got sky-high upside and can be a high-level special teams player from day one.
Brandon Jones, Texas
6’0, 205 | 86 total tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1.0 sacks, 2 INT, 4 PD, 1 FF
TDN Prospect Rank: 95 (3rd Round)
Another late-Day 2/early-Day 3 safety prospect for the Falcons to consider, Texas’ Brandon Jones is an ideal candidate for a starting strong safety role in the NFL. He’s got good size at 6’0, 205 and solid all-around athleticism to go along with it. Jones is at his best when he can play in the box, using his above-average explosiveness and quick play diagnosis to his advantage. He’s got solid long speed and some quality range in short-area zones, but he’ll struggle if asked to change directions rapidly.
Jones is a standout run defender with excellent physicality. He’s a phenomenal tackler who brings the wood on every play, and I love his attitude and toughness as a box player. In coverage, he’s plenty capable in zone and has good instincts to find the ball. He’s relatively limited athletically in man coverage and is probably best suited to playing against TEs. Jones needs to play in a defense that will let him do what he does best: stay in the box, pummel opposing ball carriers, and disrupt routes in the short area of the field. He’s going to struggle if asked to play deep or trail more dynamic receivers in man coverage.
Xavier McKinney, Alabama
6’1, 200 | 95 total tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 3 INT, 5 PD, 4 FF
TDN Prospect Rank: 16 (1st Round)
The current consensus #1 safety according to TDN—just ahead of LSU’s Grant Delpit—Alabama’s Xavier McKinney is an exceptionally versatile safety prospect who can handle just about any responsibility in the secondary. He’s got an excellent build for the position at 6’1, 200, and quality athletic traits to go along with it. McKinley has been rocketing up draft boards after an exceptional junior season at Alabama, and it’s easy to see why the NFL loves him.
Athletically, I wouldn’t say he’s quite as dynamic as someone like Grant Delpit, but he’ll check all the boxes in this area. He’s a fluid mover and has plenty of long speed and range to cover deep. McKinney has tremendous instincts in zone coverage, and pairs that with strong ball skills. He can match up with just about anyone in the middle of the field and perform admirably. McKinney is a far more reliable tackler and run defender at this point than Delpit, which is part of the reason he’s higher on many analysts boards. There aren’t many assignments McKinney can’t handle, and he’ll be a valuable chess piece player in the secondary for a creative DC. The Falcons aren’t likely to draft a safety in the first round, but if they did, I think McKinney is the best fit for what Quinn prefers.
J.R. Reed, Georgia
6’1, 194 | 54 total tackles, 2.0 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 1 INT, 7 PD, 1 FF
TDN Prospect Rank: 134 (5th Round)
If the Falcons are looking to improve their strong safety depth on Day 3, a solid option could be Georgia’s J.R. Reed. At 6’1, 194, Reed has the build of an ideal SS in the NFL. He’s got three years of starting experience under his belt, and while he’s not a flashy athlete he’s a physical presence in the box. I had the Falcons taking Reed in the fifth round of my first offseason mock draft, and here’s how I described his skillset:
Georgia’s J.R. Reed could be an ideal candidate in the later rounds. Reed is an excellent box safety with strong tackling and physicality. He’s comfortable in short-area man and zone coverage, with solid instincts and ability to read the QB. However, Reed isn’t a plus athlete and can struggle when asked to cover deep. That likely limits him to a role as a box safety or “big nickel” in the NFL, but he should be a solid starter if kept in that position.
K’Von Wallace, Clemson
5’11, 199 | 72 total tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 2 INT, 10 PD
TDN Prospect Rank: 109 (4th Round)
A jack-of-all-trades safety prospect who could be a perfect third safety for the Falcons, Clemson’s K’Von Wallace is a versatile player with experience lining up at multiple positions in the secondary. Wallace seized a more permanent role at safety in his senior season, and turned it into the most productive year of his career. I previous mocked Wallace to the Falcons late on Day 3, and this is how I talked about his game:
Clemson’s K’Von Wallace could be the perfect depth player for Atlanta’s secondary. At 5’11, 205, Wallace has a stout build. He’s got experience playing all over the secondary, including free safety, strong safety, and cornerback. Wallace is a smart player that has good ball skills and coverage ability to go along with enough physicality to make plays in the box. His weakness is that he isn’t exceptional in any one area—he’s more of a “jack-of-all-trades” type of player. Still, for a Falcons team that has been downright bad at SS in Neal’s absence, that type of player would be a significant upgrade.
Antoine Winfield Jr., Minnesota
5’10, 195 | 83 total tackles, 3.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 7 INT, 1 PD, 2 FF
TDN Prospect Rank: 45 (2nd Round)
One of the top ballhawks in the 2020 NFL Draft class, Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield Jr. piled up an incredible 7 INTs in 2019. He’s got a strong NFL background and lineage as the son of CB Antoine Winfield Sr., and it shows in his play. Winfield has tremendous instincts in coverage and is extremely quick to read and diagnose plays in both coverage and as a run defender. He’s limited somewhat by his 5’10, 195 frame and average athleticism, but he makes up for it with his football IQ, ball skills, and physicality.
His lack of top-end speed and range make him a better candidate at strong safety in the NFL, but he played multiple secondary roles effectively at Minnesota. Winfield brings the heat as a tackler and run defender, and plays with a ton of energy. He’s an aggressive player in coverage—as his 7 INTs and just 1 PD can attest—but he rarely makes the wrong decision. Winfield can find success in both man and zone coverage, though his lack of ideal length might make assignments against bigger receivers more difficult. I love his turnover potential and moxie, and I believe he can turn into a leader on an NFL defense. Winfield is likely to cost a Round 2 pick to add—which the Falcons are unlikely to spend on a safety unless Neal is gone—but he’s got the competitive fire that Quinn demands from his players.
What are your thoughts on the safety class participating in the 2020 NFL Combine? Do you think safety is a significant need for the Falcons this offseason? Which prospects are you eyeing for the Falcons in the 2020 NFL Draft?