The offseason is here for the Atlanta Falcons, and that means it’s time to go full-throttle into free agency and the 2023 NFL Draft. With my colleagues taking the lead on the free agency front, I’m going to be focusing my efforts over the next few weeks on the draft. Atlanta secured the 8th overall pick for 2023, the second year in a row that the team will hold that selection.
The next event on the Draft Season calendar is the Reese’s Senior Bowl—a showcase of the top draft-eligible seniors (or players who graduated early) that takes place in Mobile right around the first week of February. To get everyone ready for the week to come, I’ll be breaking down the top players to watch for the Falcons and the league at large.
Next up in the positional previews is safety, where the Falcons have two young players in Richie Grant (Senior Bowl alum) and Jaylinn Hawkins but are lacking star power.
Much like the cornerback class, the safety class at the 2023 Senior Bowl took a hit with a top prospect (Alabama’s Jordan Battle) opting out. There’s still plenty of intriguing players in this group and a number of guys who could potentially challenge for late-first consideration. Here are some of my favorite names to watch.
Sydney Brown, Illinois
Sydney Brown, along with his teammate Jartavius Martin, are here to continue to trend of DBs from Illinois impressing at the Senior Bowl. Last year, Kerby Joseph turned his performance into a third-round selection in the 2022 NFL Draft. Brown might have the chance to go even higher coming off a season with 6 INTs and 7 PDs. An elite athlete with the range to play deep and the change-of-direction skills to make plays in the box, Brown has experience all over the secondary. While he’s a willing and competitive tackler, Brown lacks ideal size for a full-time role near the line of scrimmage at just 5’11, 200. On a defense that is willing to move him around (like what Dean Pees ran in Atlanta), Brown is a terrific fit with starting-caliber talent.
JL Skinner, Boise State
The physical opposite of Christopher Smith, Boise State’s JL Skinner stands out for entirely different reasons. Right off the bat, the first thing you’ll notice about Skinner is his size: at 6’4, 218, he’s a big-bodied safety with elite length. Skinner is an enforcer in the secondary who performs best in the box. That’s not to say that Skinner is a poor athlete—he’s got very good long speed and explosiveness—but his size limits his ability to change direction efficiently. He’s a fierce tackler and is aggressive in his pursuit of the ballcarrier. Skinner plays best with the ball in front of him but does have upside in man coverage against tight ends. A great week in Mobile could raise his stock into the early-Day 2 range.
Jammie Robinson, FSU
Florida State’s Jammie Robinson is a versatile defensive back with experience playing box safety, deep safety, slot corner, and even linebacker. His frame is on the smaller side at 5’11, 200, but Robinson packs a mean punch as a tackler and is a tremendous competitor. Robinson has excellent overall athleticism with high-end short-area quickness and lateral mobility, and has been a primary leader on the Florida State defense. While Robinson has enough range to handle deep responsibilities, I like him better as a split safety or in the box. His instincts and ferocity are maximized closer to the line of scrimmage. Currently projected in the late-Day 2 range, Robinson has a chance to elevate himself into Round 2 consideration with a good Senior Bowl.
Christopher Smith, Georgia
The top safety prospect at the Senior Bowl, Georgia’s Christopher Smith is a versatile and highly instinctive DB who is capable of filling multiple roles in the secondary. He’s an excellent athlete with high-end leadership traits—his only limitations stem from his frame. At just 5’11, 190, Smith lacks the size to be a consistent impact defender in the box. It’s not for a lack of effort or physicality, as Smith is an explosive hitter, but his technique as a tackler could use improvement. Smith has the range for deep responsibilities and the short-area quickness and movements skills to play in the slot. If the Falcons stick with a Dean Pees-style defense, Smith should be among the top considerations in the second round.
Jay Ward, LSU
LSU’s Jay Ward is a unique safety prospect. A cornerback convert, he still looks the part of an outside CB with a 6’2, 190 frame. That might lead you to believe that Ward lacks the physicality of a safety, but that is absolutely not the case. Ward brings incredible aggressiveness and power to his tackling and is utterly fearless in run support. He’s also got the athleticism and experience of a cornerback, with good instincts in zone and more advanced technique in man than you’d expect from a safety. Ward’s biggest concern is his injury history—he’s borderline reckless as a tackler and that has led to missed time. Ward could benefit by bulking up more to support his physical enforcer mentality—he’d be much better served by playing in the low 200s. His weigh-in at the Senior Bowl will be something to watch.
Other players to watch:
Jartavius Martin, Illinois
Kaevon Merriweather, Iowa
DeMarcco Hellams, Alabama
I hope you enjoyed this entry in our Senior Bowl 2023 preview series. I’ll be in Mobile to cover the Senior Bowl for The Falcoholic from Tuesday, January 31 through Thursday, February 2. Stay tuned on Saturday as we transition to the offense, starting with the offensive line.