With the Super Bowl in the rear-view mirror, the offseason is in full swing for all 32 teams as we rocket towards free agency and the 2023 NFL Draft. The next event on the Draft Season calendar is the NFL Combine: a week-long convention in Indianapolis that gives NFL teams an opportunity to evaluate a huge group of prospects up close and personal. While fans are most familiar with the on-field workouts—sometimes dubbed the “underwear olympics”—the medical checks and player interviews are just as important for teams.
Just like for the Senior Bowl, we’ll be breaking down the top players to watch for the Atlanta Falcons at every position group. We’ll start on the defensive side of the ball and work our way through the offense as we approach the start of the Combine on-field workouts on March 2. Speaking of, here’s the schedule for those workouts if you’re interested.
NFL Combine 2023 On-field Workouts Schedule
THURSDAY, March 2 at 3 PM ET: EDGE, IDL, LB
FRIDAY, March 3 at 3 PM ET: CB, S
SATURDAY, March 4 at 1 PM ET: QB, WR, TE
SUNDAY, March 5 at 1 PM ET: RB, OT, IOL
Workouts will be televised live on NFL Network and can also be watched on NFL+, if you have that subscription.
Next up is a position group with a duo of intriguing young players in Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins, but a distinct need for a high-end starter: safety.
While this year’s class lacks Kyle Hamilton at the top and features just one player likely to be drafted in the first round, I actually think the safety group in the 2023 NFL Draft is a bit underrated. The Draft Network’s consensus rankings have just two safeties in the top-50, but that improves to seven in the top-100 and 12 in the top-150. There’s real talent here, whether you’re looking for a versatile do-it-all player or a more specialized strong or free safety.
Jordan Battle, Alabama
One of two top safety prospects coming out of Alabama this year, Jordan Battle is a versatile DB with good size (6’1, 206) and experience at multiple safety alignments. Whether it was single-high, Cover 2, or in the box, Battle did it at a high level. He’s a good overall athlete who plays with a physical edge in run support. Battle is a very smart player who is rarely out of position. He’s a little inconsistent as a tackler and isn’t as impressive in man coverage, but Battle looks the part of a plug-and-play starter in the secondary.
Brian Branch, Alabama
The other half of Alabama’s elite safety duo, Brian Branch is undoubtedly the one who is likely to go first in the 2023 NFL Draft. Branch checks the size (6’0, 193) and athleticism boxes with ease, but where he really stands out is in his versatility to truly line up anywhere in the secondary. Branch is more than capable of playing cornerback and has handled slot duties at a high level. He’s also a high-end run defender and even took some snaps as an off-ball linebacker. Branch is a special player in zone coverage, with elite instincts to find the ball and disrupt passes. If he tests well enough, Branch could go in the top half of the first round.
Sydney Brown, Illinois
Perhaps the most impressive safety at the Senior Bowl, Illinois’ Sydney Brown put on a show in coverage and measured in better than expected at 213 pounds. The extra weight certainly didn’t slow him down, and a good day at the Combine could see Brown’s stock rise into the early-Day 2 range. Here’s a snippet on Brown from my Senior Bowl preview:
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.
Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M
If you’re looking for an enforcer in the secondary, Texas A&M’s Antonio Johnson is the one to target. With a terrific frame (6’3, 195) and sideline-to-sideline range, Johnson can play a number of alignments at a high level. He’s a quick processor with excellent instincts who excels in zone coverage and as an impact run defender. Johnson does have some change-of-direction limitations due to his stature and doesn’t have much ball production to his name. Stick Johnson in a strong safety role where he can roam the box and make plays and he’ll make you very happy.
Brandon Joseph, Notre Dame
If you’re looking for the opposite of Antonio Johnson, it’s probably Notre Dame’s Brandon Joseph. A deep coverage specialist with outstanding ballhawking ability, Joseph has terrific coverage tape as both a split-zone and single-high safety. His overall athleticism is excellent, as Joseph is a rangy defender with terrific movement skills and a very good frame (6’1, 192). The issue with Joseph is his ability as a run defender: it’s not very good. Joseph is an inconsistent tackler, and he frequently takes bad angles to the ballcarrier. He’s just not a very physical player in the secondary. Joseph’s coverage chops are good enough to get him drafted late on Day 2, but he must find ways to improve in run support.
Jammie Robinson, Florida State
A big standout from the Senior Bowl, Florida State’s Jammie Robinson really impressed with his ability to hold up in 1-on-1 man coverage reps against a pretty good wide receiver group in Mobile. He’s currently projected in the late-third, early-fourth range, and I’m interested to see if some great testing pushes him firmly into Day 2. Here’s my blurb on Robinson from our Senior Bowl preview:
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.
JL Skinner, Boise State
I was really excited to watch JL Skinner at the Senior Bowl. While he had some flashes, Skinner mostly struggled—particularly when asked to take on receivers in man coverage. To be fair, that’s not really his game, but he didn’t get the boost I expected. That could easily change with a terrific workout at the Combine, where Skinner could turn heads at his size. Here’s my take on Skinner from the Senior Bowl preview:
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.
Christopher Smith, Georgia
“Just a rock solid player”. That’s basically what I wrote down in my Senior Bowl notes when watching Georgia’s Christopher Smith, who didn’t have a lot of big splash plays but quietly handled everything thrown at him in Mobile. Smith does need a good day of testing to keep him in the early-Day 2 conversation, but I think he’ll get there. Here’s my blurb on Smith from our Senior Bowl preview:
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.
Jay Ward, LSU
As a converted cornerback, I expected Jay Ward to handle the 1-on-1s in Mobile quite well—and he delivered. Ward was definitely one of the better safeties at handling man coverage responsibilities at the Senior Bowl. I’d still really like to see him bulk up closer to 200 for the Combine, which could boost his stock tremendously along with a good workout. Here’s my blurb on Ward from the Senior Bowl preview:
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.
Other players to watch:
Brandon Hill, Pitt
Daniel Scott, Cal
DeMarcco Hellams, Alabama
Kaevon Merriweather, Iowa
I hope you enjoyed this entry in The Falcoholic’s NFL Combine preview series. Stay tuned tomorrow for our next position preview: wide receiver.