Preseason Top 5: Pac-12 Safeties

Photo: Oct 21, 2017; Pullman, WA, USA; Washington State Cougars wide receiver Davontavean Martin (1) is wrapped up by Colorado Buffaloes defensive back Evan Worthington (6) during the first half at Martin Stadium. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The Pac-12 safety class goes like this:

  1. Versatile but probably box/nickel
  2. Box/nickel
  3. Box/big nickel
  4. Free (?!) but probably nickel
  5. Box/really bad nickel

With wider hashes and weaker QB arms, the college game simply doesn't necessitate true centerfielding safeties. It's not that teams run exclusively split-safety looks -- they need the extra man in the box -- but rather that the deep boundaries are so infrequently tested with consistent, accurate throws that heck, they just ain't worth the effort to cover.

As such, evaluating safety play in the Pac-12 is an exercise in projecting, from minimal exposure, deep coverage range and anticipation. There's a ton of uncharted territory that, if ever filled, could massively shake up these rankings.

Okay, that's enough of a disclaimer/hedge. Let's talk ball.

1. Taylor Rapp, Junior, Washington (6'0 212)

My feelings on Taylor Rapp, to this point, should be well documented. I debuted on this here site with a post lauding his ability as a top safety in this class. I am -- I believe the technical term is -- a big fan.

What, then, is left to say about Taylor Rapp? The Athletic reports that Rapp is down to 204 pounds but feels stronger. He anticipates being quicker on his feet and getting less tired during long games. One of the big question marks I circled was Rapp's play speed -- specifically his range as a centerfielder -- so I'll be interested to see if he really did add some speed.

And while Rapp is likely one of the lesser cover men on this list, he'll take the first spot comfortably because he is by far the most versatile. He can do almost everything well if not fantastically; his interchangeability stands alone in a sea of role players.

What to watch for in 2018: Speed and downfield plays on the ball. Those are the two holes I see right now, and I've detailed my expectation thereof. Rapp's great; this will make him even better.

2. Ugo Amadi, Senior, Oregon (5'9 197)

Now, Rapp has a big name -- and accordingly, I've been pretty vocal about my love for him. I've taken to the Twitterverse to share my excitement over Amadi, but here it is in writing for the first time. Remember this article when he's makin' plays this season.

I was thiiiiis close to putting Amadi in with the cornerbacks (he would have been CB3, I'd bet) because he spent all of 2017 in the slot. Allegedly he took more deep, traditional 'safety' snaps in 2016, but I have yet to find video evidence to support these accusations. (I also didn't try very hard, because NFL teams are gonna see that coverage ability and keep it right freakin' there, let me tell you.)

Amadi is an unbelievable mover in space. His foot speed, discipline when playing with leverage, and explosiveness put him in the correct position to play on the ball time and time again. He's not super great from catch-man alignments, but let him play off and read a zone, or better yet -- stick him in the press over a slot receiver -- and watch him just wipe an entire route off the field. Poof!

Play Amadi in the box, near the line. Little strong safety/nickel corner hybrid dude. Some teams might get turned off by the lack of height (5'9) against TEs, and I get that, but his ability to stay connected and narrow throwing windows forces high-quality throws and thereby discourages targets. He understands his responsibility as a run defender and rarely loses contain; improve his tackling a bit, and you have an ideal modern-day box safety.

What to watch for in 2018: Free safety reps. Amadi's pretty well understood in terms of box play. Great coverage, good reads, willing against run, meh tackling, no catch-man. Is he interchangeable? Can he spin up to centerfield and cover a deep third, or split the field and take a deep half? Methinks yes, but I'd like evidence first.

3. Evan Worthington, Senior, Colorado (6'2, 205)

Here is the thing about being 6'2 and super long: it's good.

When you find a player's profile such as Worthington's -- great size, but also quite fluid and agile -- you immediately wonder if he can be that guy: the TE eraser. We are in the heyday of athletic, supersized WRs; and we need DBs to respond.

I'm not willing to make that bet, yet--but a Colorado DB with a great athletic profile? Yeah, I'm interested. I'm doggone keen.

Worthington's a little high-waisted, so there is a pop in his hip hinge that limits his agility through angles--but only the quickest of route runners can use that window to fully disconnect, and Worthington has enough speed and length to win from the trail position. Despite his long strides, he has great burst to the football when it arrives, and he can get to passes otherwise perfectly placed -- Inspector Gadget arms, man.

I'm also mighty impressed by Worthington's ability to tackle in space. He drops his hips quite nicely and knows how to target the inside hip to bring down rushers with two-way goes. When you have a tackle radius like he does, you should be a great stopgap down the field -- and he is. Box checked.

What to watch for in 2018: Angles. Worthington's angles from centerfield are all over the place, but his pedestrian speed and skills elsewhere make every deep middle snap he takes an utter waste. That being said, Worthington will be a touch late to click and close against the run and pass alike from his short zones, and must learn how to take cleaner angles to account for the slight delay.

4. Jalen Thompson, Junior, Washington State (6'0 191)

Thompson = knockoff Amadi. Boop. Move on to the next blurb.

Okay, I'll parse it out. Like Amadi, Thompson spent the majority of his 2017 over the slot in a not-really-a-safety role for the Cougs. He excelled as a man cover corner and displayed the physical profile to excel there at the NFL level. His primary weakness is also his tackling ability, which will limit his ceiling as a box safety.

The differences lie, to me, in degree. Thompson is fleet-footed and smart in coverage, but he lacks the flexibility and recovery athleticism we saw out of Amadi. As such, he doesn't get connected within the frame nearly as often, as he can't work as quickly through breaks--and he's significantly less thick than Amadi, which lowers his ability to play physically.

Thompson excels in off coverage, however, and likely is the more disciplined of the two players. His situational awareness is off the charts, and he does well to feel switch stems, route concepts, quick screens -- the whole gamut. He won't get beat deep, and he'll close on you in a hurry -- those are excellent safety skills, and I think he has the speed to cover centerfield successfully.

But the issues with size and physicality are truly tough to overlook. He has big issues with the press and simply can't be trusted as a box/overhang run defender. From a deep alignment, he can diagnose quickly and flow downhill to fill -- but when things are right in front of his face, he lacks initiative and oomph alike.

What to watch for in 2018: Actual safety reps. I think Thompson's future, unlike Amadi, is in more traditional free safety looks. He has the burst, recognition, and ball skills to truly cause some problems there -- and I think the speed, though it's yet unproven. His turn-and-run ability will only prove a bonus, and his run defense will be sound.

I just don't know if he'll get any of those reps.

5. JoJo McIntosh, RS Senior, Washington (6'0 219)

Washington has a 6'0, 222 pound linebacker. (Hint: look below.) As such, you can imagine that McIntosh's role in the defense isn't exactly what you'd expect from a safety.

He does some similar stuff to Jabrill Peppers in Michigan, in terms of playing as a quasi-linebacker and just flowing downhill against everything. McIntosh sees everything quickly and has some nice burst to beat/rip through blocks and maintain contain. As that sort of EDGE safety that we saw from Minkah Fitzpatrick, Derwin James, and Jabrill, he excels.

But everything else leaves a scout wanting. He can lay the wood, but if it's not a strike, he struggles to tackle -- angles are too strong, play is out of control. He'll also barrel into blocks, misdirection, everything. He's on one track alone, and it's the downhill one.

And as such, he can't really cover. McIntosh's primarily a zone player for the Huskies, and while he has the burst to close (downhill) from split or single-deep alignments, he lacks the agility to account for breaks or recover against any route stem manipulation. He might see it quick, but if it goes through any angles, he's in trouble.

What to watch for in 2018: Man coverage. Just having the athletic profile to win as a split safety isn't enough in the NFL; you need to offer more. JoJo rarely took a pure man coverage rep on the tape I saw. His physical profile doesn't lend itself to the responsibility, but if he can put out better tape than I anticipate, then we can have a conversation.

Keep an eye on

Ben Burr-Kirven, Senior, Washington (6'0 222) and Chase Hansen, RS Senior, Utah (6'2 220)

Sub-225 linebackers are cool in college, but I'm not sure we're quite there yet in the NFL. Both BBK and Hansen have box safety levels of explosiveness in space -- Hansen played safety up to this season, for goodness sake -- and I'd imagine, at their current weight, they'll be evaluated as safeties. Either way, these are respectable athletes who can fill a lot of spots in the box, which is only good news for their stock.

Notable omission

Marvell Tell, Senior, USC (6'2 195)

Man, get Marvell Tell and his awful effort all the way out of here. There's some athleticism there, and I get that, but I have never been less interested in watching a player work downfield. He's as disinterested and uninvolved as any player I've watched. Hard pass.