The 2022 NFL Combine is fast approaching, with workouts kicking off on Thursday, March 3. To prepare Atlanta Falcons fans and fellow draft enthusiasts for the “underwear olympics”, I’ll be breaking down the top players to watch at every position heading into the event. In case you missed any of my previous entries, you can find them all listed below:
Today I take a closer look at safety. The need here for the Falcons is sort of up-in-the-air: both starters are free agents who could return on affordable deals, but Atlanta also has two young players who could take the reins in Jaylinn Hawkins and Richie Grant. If the team re-signs one or both of Harmon or Harris, there’s not much need here outside of a depth player. If both walk, there’s a need for a third safety and potential starter. The 2022 class isn’t particularly deep, but there’s talent to be found, particularly on Day 2.
Read on for some of the top safeties to watch in Indianapolis.
Tycen Anderson, Toledo
Toledo’s Tycen Anderson was one of my biggest winners at safety coming out of the Senior Bowl. Coming in at over 6’1, 204, Anderson has plenty of size and is a physical hitter in the box. In Mobile, he showed off his athleticism and coverage ability and consistently looked like one of the best safeties in attendance. Anderson’s athletic testing could go a long way in determining his ceiling. Right now, I’d be comfortable with him as a rotational box and C2 safety, but he could prove to be capable of more.
Jaquan Brisker, Penn State
I didn’t get a chance to see Brisker at the Senior Bowl, but that doesn’t change much for his evaluation. Outside of Kyle Hamilton, Brisker is the best and most versatile safety prospect. He’s actually a great fit as a Dean Pees safety as a do-it-all player—I’m just not sure he’ll be around on Day 2. I’d expect him to have a very good Combine and cement his stock in the mid-to-late first round range. Here’s my assessment of Brisker from my Senior Bowl preview:
If the Falcons miss out on Kyle Hamilton, there’s another excellent safety prospect in Jaquan Brisker. While Brisker isn’t Hamilton in terms of size, he’s got plenty of it at 6’1, 200 and is every bit as athletic. Brisker was a do-it-all player who will appeal to teams who ask their safeties to play a versatile role—like the Falcons. He’s a smart, confident leader on the field who doesn’t have any significant holes in his game. Brisker is an impact NFL starter and I expect him to show out in Mobile.
Lewis Cine, Georgia
If you’re looking for a physical enforcer in the secondary with enough range and versatility to handle a variety of coverage responsibilities, Georgia’s Lewis Cine is your guy. While he’s reliable in coverage and has flexibility and experience in several roles, including box, single-high, and C2, it’s not his biggest strength. Cine’s best plays come in the box, where he’s a dominant run defender and an effective blitzer. His athletic testing at the Combine could determine how high he goes: if he tests well, he could be a second-rounder. If he tests fairly average, he could slide later into Day 2.
Bryan Cook, Cincinnati
One of my favorite Day 3 targets, Cincinnati’s Bryan Cook is a versatile depth safety with starting upside. Just a one-year starter due to the depth chart ahead of him, Cook had a very impressive season in 2021. I think he’ll wind up having a more productive NFL career than he did in college. Here’s how I described Cook in a previous mock draft:
Cook is a versatile safety prospect with good size at 6’1, 200. He aligned pretty much everywhere in the secondary, making him a valuable depth piece who can back up any spot. Cook is a good athlete with the range to play deep, but also the physicality to drop down into the box. Some of his best work comes against the run, as he doesn’t shy away from contact and takes smart angles to the play. Cook spent most of his time in a depth role for Cincinnati and only got to start in 2021. As a result, he’s got room to grow—particularly in coverage. Cook can provide valuable, affordable depth and special teams ability as a rookie, and I think he’s got the potential to develop into a solid starter in time.
Nick Cross, Maryland
Maryland safety Nick Cross is one of the biggest wild cards in this year’s class. He’s got very good size at 6’1, 215, and looks the part of a plus athlete. There’s a lot to like here, particularly for a team like Atlanta. Cross has the versatility that Dean Pees looks for in his safeties: he’s capable of playing in a variety of coverages and spots in the secondary. He’s a physical run defender and a very good tackler. However, Cross’ instincts in coverage are still undeveloped. He makes mental errors and takes too long to process at times. But the upside of a good NFL starter is definitely there. I like Cross as a late-Day 2, early-Day 3 pick to help round out the safety group.
Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame
The best player in the draft. This year’s Kyle Pitts. Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton is a truly special talent in many ways. In terms of stature and athleticism, it’s hard to find a good comp. He’s listed at 6’4, 220 and I have no to reason to think that’s inflated. Hamilton is also likely to test out as one of the best at the Combine. The most accurate way to sum up Hamilton’s talents in a sentence would be that he is an absolute eraser. Whether it’s TEs, RBs, or even big slot receivers, Hamilton can shut them down. He’s also a terrific run defender and very dangerous blitzer. Hamilton changes your entire defense, and should go well before pick 8. If for some reason the teams ahead of Atlanta make the mistake of passing on him, the Falcons should sprint to the podium.
Daxton Hill, Michigan
Another late-first, early-Day 2 safety prospect that fits perfectly into the Falcons defense, Michigan’s Daxton Hill would be a terrific addition that checks all the boxes for Dean Pees. Hill is a tremendous athlete with outstanding movement skills and a rumored 4.3s 40. At 6’0, 192, he’s a little undersized for box safety work but is utterly fearless as a tackler and is a physical presence in run defense. Hill is one of the most versatile defensive backs in the class, having spent quite a bit of time at safety and in the slot. I think he’s best in a single-high role or C2, but his flexibility only adds to his value. Hill generally goes before Atlanta’s second-round picks, but safeties do tend to fall in the draft.
Verone McKinley III, Oregon
A bit of a late riser in the draft process, Oregon’s Verone McKinley III had a strong final season and is making his case for an early-Day 3 draft selection. McKinley was a late addition to the Senior Bowl and acquitted himself well, showing off his athleticism and play in coverage. He’s got some versatility in where he plays, and doesn’t shy away from contact as a run defender. McKinley is a tad undersized at 5’11, 190, so is probably best suited outside the box. How well he tests at the Combine could determine whether he stays in Day 3 or is lifted into the late-Day 2 conversation.
Leon O’Neal, Texas A&M
Leon O’Neal isn’t a high-end safety prospect, and I’m not sure he’s got the upside of anything more than a solid NFL starter. But he’s an electric personality with the mindset of a thumper and a skillset tailor-made to be a standout special teams player. O’Neal reminds me a lot of former Falcons 7th-rounder Kemal Ishmael, who carved out a nice career. He should also be available late in the draft, and would be a good depth addition at worst. Here’s how I described O’Neal in a previous mock draft:
A late round/borderline UDFA prospect going in to Mobile, O’Neal looked like one of the most consistent players in the secondary. More than anything, his infectious attitude and passionate style of play was a joy to watch. O’Neal has always been known as a hard-hitting box safety, but his coverage looked decent against some tough competition at the Senior Bowl. I know the Falcons covet high-character guys who love the game, and O’Neal was the biggest standout in that area for me. As a depth safety who can bring it on special teams and provide positive energy in the locker room, I like O’Neal this late in the draft.
Jalen Pitre, Baylor
A big riser this offseason, Baylor’s Jalen Pitre took center stage at the Senior Bowl, taking advantage of Jaquan Brisker’s absence. The best safety in coverage, Pitre showed off excellent ball skills and range on the back end to shut down plays and create turnovers. He’s lifted himself into the Day 2 range, and a good day of testing in Indianapolis could push him even higher. Here’s how I described Pitre in my Senior Bowl preview:
While he lacks the athletic upside of Hamilton and Brisker, Pitre is still a good athlete with solid size (6’0, 200). Similarly to those two players, Pitre also played a versatile, interchangeable role in the secondary. He’s an impact run defender (18.5 TFL, 3 FF in 2021) who also makes good plays on the ball (2 INT, 7 PD in 2021)
I hope you enjoyed this NFL Combine prospect preview! Stay tuned for our next position group tomorrow.