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2022 NFL Draft: Falcons top targets at safety

The 2022 NFL Draft is nearly here, and we’re wrapping up our coverage with our final positional rankings. Today’s focus is safety, one of the deeper positions on the Falcons roster.

Boston College v Notre Dame Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The 2022 NFL Draft is almost here, and it’s finally time to wrap up all of our draft coverage with my final positional rankings. I’m proud to say I watched more than 100 players this offseason, far more than ever before. On the site, our team has compiled more than 20 full scouting reports on some of the top prospects in the class—with more to come over the next week! While you may not always agree with our rankings or analysis, we hope you’ve at least enjoyed the discussion and additional viewpoints.

For the positional rankings, these will be based on my personal rankings, not necessarily the rankings of our other writers. I watch players through the lens of the Atlanta Falcons: I prioritize and rank based on the perceived fit in Atlanta’s offense and defense. So keep that in mind, as these rankings may not line up with a generic big board.

I’d also like to note that while I watched a lot of players, I didn’t watch anywhere close to the nearly 300 who will be drafted. As a result, I’m only going to rank the players that I’ve seen at least 2-3 games of. There are tons of other prospects who I’ve seen limited tape of and discussed with other scouts, but I don’t feel comfortable ranking them without at least a few full games watched.

I hope you enjoy these rankings, and if you miss any position groups, you can find them all below:

DEFENSE: EDGE | DT | LB | CB | S

1: Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame

RAS: 9.33 | Projection: Top-10

The best player in the draft. This year’s Kyle Pitts. Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton is a truly special talent in many ways. 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. His instincts and ability to read-and-react to plays are special. Hamilton is also a terrific run defender and a very dangerous blitzer. Sure, he didn’t test out quite as crazy as expected (though a 9.33 RAS is still elite), and he’s not the best single-high safety prospect. For a defense like Atlanta’s that focuses on interchangeable two-safety looks, split-zone, and Cover 2, Hamilton is a terrific fit—positional value be damned.

2: Daxton Hill, Michigan

RAS: 9.06 | Projection: 1st Round

Another late-first 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. At 6’0, 191, 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 Cover 2, but his flexibility adds to his value.

3: Jaquan Brisker, Penn State

RAS: 9.14 | Projection: 1st-2nd Round

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.

4: Lewis Cine, Georgia

RAS: 9.92 | Projection: 1st-2nd Round

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 incredible athletic testing at the Combine gives him a much higher ceiling in coverage than expected.

5: Jalen Pitre, Baylor

RAS: 8.47 | Projection: 2nd Round

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. Pitre is a very good athlete with solid size (5’11, 198), and he has the ability to play a versatile, interchangeable role in the secondary. He’s also an impact run defender (18.5 TFL, 3 FF in 2021) with plus ball skills (2 INT, 7 PD in 2021).

6: Nick Cross, Maryland

RAS: 9.87 | Projection: 2nd-3rd Round

Maryland safety Nick Cross is one of the biggest wild cards in this year’s class. He’s got very good size at 6’0, 215, and tested out as an elite athlete at the Combine. 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.

7: Bryan Cook, Cincinnati

RAS: N/A | Projection: 3rd Round

Cincinnati’s Bryan Cook is a versatile safety prospect with good size at 6’1, 206. He aligned pretty much everywhere in the secondary, making him a valuable piece who can play 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 plus starter in time.

8: Sterling Weatherford, Miami (OH)

RAS: 8.85 | Projection: 4th Round

Miami (OH)’s Sterling Weatherford is a very interesting evaluation. At the Senior Bowl, I often confused him with the linebackers due to his exceptional size (6’4, 224), but he spent most of his college career at safety. Weatherford has a unique athletic profile and is probably best suited to a role as a sub-package “big nickel” player. He offers better run support than most safeties and matchup ability with tight ends, but lacks the range to play deep. I like Weatherford’s zone coverage instincts and physicality in the box, but he’ll need a creative defensive coordinator to get the most out of him.

9: Tycen Anderson, Toledo

RAS: 9.49 | Projection: 4th Round

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 elite athletic testing has raised his overall ceiling quite a bit. He’s probably a rotational box and C2 safety in his rookie season with the upside of a long-term starter.

10: Kerby Joseph, Illinois

RAS: N/A | Projection: 4th-5th Round

One of the tougher projections in this safety class, I first got a glimpse of Kerby Joseph’s skillset at the Senior Bowl—where he was one of the more impressive DBs in coverage. Joseph had a breakout 2021 season at Illinois with 5 INTs, but just 2 PDs—and just 4 PDs combined in the previous three years. He’s a bit of a one-year wonder, but does have good size for the position at 6’1, 203 and tested out with some very good jumps at the Combine. Joseph is an intriguing developmental safety prospect due to his ballhawking ability, but he’s lacking as a run support player and is probably best suited for a deep coverage role in the NFL.

11: Juanyeh Thomas, Georgia Tech

RAS: 8.48 | Projection: 6th Round

An enforcer in the secondary with a physical edge to his game, Georgia Tech’s Juanyeh Thomas has excellent size for the position and looks like an ideal “big nickel” safety who can cover tight ends and stuff the run effectively. As a box safety, Thomas has plenty of athleticism to thrive in both man and short-zone coverage. Moving Thomas further away from the line of scrimmage has created issues, though they don’t seem to be related to his athleticism. He’s been prone to lapses and mistakes when playing deep, and will need more development before he can be deployed there reliably at the NFL level. Thomas offers upside as a rotational starter if played closer to the line of scrimmage, and can be an immediate contributor on special teams

12: Leon O’Neal, Texas A&M

RAS: 6.07 | Projection: 6th Round

A late round/borderline UDFA prospect going in to Mobile, Texas A&M’s Leon 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, O’Neal could be an ideal late round target.