The 2015 NFL Draft will be littered with talent in the secondary. Cornerbacks and strong safeties are important, but the last line of defense falls to a free safety.
NFL teams are looking for free safeties with solid ball skills and secure tackling techniques. Here is a list breaking down the top five free safeties entering this year’s draft. Keep your eyes peeled on the sleepers listed below.
5. Derron Smith, 5-10/200, Fresno State
Summary: A broken arm sidelined Derron Smith as a sophomore in 2011, but it didn’t prevent him from having a successful career at Fresno State. He put in a stellar junior season in 2013, totaling 87 tackles, four sacks, six passes defended and seven interceptions.
Smith’s production increased in 2014, despite Fresno State’s 6-8 record. He accounted for 93 tackles, eight passes defended, two fumble recoveries and an interception.
Smith chimes in with 304 tackles, 13.5 stops for loss, 19 passes defended, 15 interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in 56 games.
Strengths: Smith keeps his eyes on the quarterback, and displays quickness when breaking on the ball. He has sound ball skills and exceptional hand-eye coordination. His body control and leaping ability allows him to adjust to the football. Smith’s vision and athleticism proved crucial in returning interceptions and punts in 2014. He averaged 12.9 yards on seven punt returns.
Weaknesses: Smith’s 5’10” frame provides difficulty for him to fight off blocks. He’s a big hitter when he lowers his shoulder, but isn’t consistent at it. He can be fooled by savvy, deceptive quarterbacks. Smith tends to take poor angles to the football at times.
Derron Smith, NFL combine numbers: Didn’t work out at the combine
4. Damarious Randall, 5-11/196, Arizona State
Summary: Mesa Community College had a hand in preparing Damarious Randall for the National Football League. He redshirted in 2011, but emerged as a game changer in 2012.
He recorded 69 tackles, nine interceptions and five total touchdowns (2 receiving, 2 punt returns and 1 interception). Randall averaged 18.4 yards per return on punts. He helped turn MCC’s fortune around in 2012. It reached six wins, after a dreadful 1-10 season in 2011.
Randall put in two solid seasons at Arizona State. He tied for third in tackles (71) in 2013. Randall had 87 solo tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, nine pass breakups, three interceptions and two forced fumbles in 2014. His 87 solo tackles tie him fourth all-time among Sun Devil defenders.
Strengths: Randall is aggressive to the ball and consistently plays at full speed. He anticipates routes and breaks on balls with ease. His footwork and ball skills are crisp. Randall is a hard hitter, despite his size. He has skills as a return specialist, and has forced 10 career turnovers (six interceptions, four fumbles).
Weaknesses: Randall doesn’t have the ideal size to be a free safety. He tends to require help in finishing tackles. His overaggressive nature gets the best of him, resulting in wasted movements. Randall can be easily fooled by savvy quarterbacks on play fakes. He needs to cut down on his hostile play to avoid unnecessary personal foul calls.
Damarious Randall, NFL combine numbers: 40-yard dash (4.46), bench press (14 reps), vertical jump (38.0 inches), broad jump (10’0”), 3-cone drill (6.83) and 20-yard shuttle (4.07)
3. Kurtis Drummond, 6-1/208, Michigan State
Summary: Kurtis Drummond is a product of head coach Mark Dantonio, a Nick Saban disciple. Drummond chimes in with 72 tackles, five stops for loss, 15 passes defended, four interceptions and a fumble recovery in 2014. Michigan State won 11 games last season, and defeated Baylor 42-41 in the 2014 Good Year Cotton Bowl Classic.
Drummond totaled 233 tackles, 14.0 stops for loss, 33 passes defended, 12 interceptions, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries in 52 games. He was recognized as the Big Ten Conference’s Defensive Back of the Year in 2014. Drummond was a two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2013 and 2014.
Strengths: Drummond attacks the ball with range and discipline. He plays the ball well in front of him (33 career passes defended). Drummond takes aggressive angles against the run, making secure tackles in space. He finished as one of Michigan State’s leaders in tackles and interceptions in the last two seasons.
Weaknesses: Drummond needs to add more muscle to his body. He tends to get boxed out by physical receivers in jump-ball situations. His lack of explosive athleticism and consistent instincts can expose Drummond if he is left on an island.
Kurtis Drummond, NFL combine numbers: 40-yard dash (4.65), vertical jump (39.5 inches), broad jump (9’11”), 3-cone drill (7.09), 20-yard shuttle (4.33) and 60-yard shuttle (12.03)
2. Gerod Holliman, 6-0/218, Louisville
Summary: Gerod Holliman was the definition of a “ball hawking” safety in 2014. He accounted for 14 of Louisville’s 26 interceptions. He finished seventh on the team in tackles (44), while adding a sack, three pass breakups and a forced fumble to his stat sheet. Holliman’s NCAA-best 14 interceptions earned him the 2014 Jim Thorpe Award (nation’s best defensive back).
Strengths: Holliman possesses a solid frame at 6’0” and 218 pounds. He isn’t afraid to leave his feet when delivering hits. Holliman reads opposing quarterbacks well and is decent in run support. His exceptional hip action gives him the ability to change directions and make tough interceptions.
Weaknesses: Poor technique causes Holliman to be an unreliable tackler. He can secure ball carries and receivers in space, but takes questionable angles to get the job done.
Gerod Holliman, NFL combine numbers: Bench press (17 reps)
1. Cody Prewitt, 6-2/208, Mississippi
Summary: Cody Prewitt was the enforcer on defense for Ole Miss in 2014. He finished fourth on the team in tackles (64), while totaling three interceptions, two pass breakups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Prewitt anchored a Mississippi defense that was tough against the pass, and dominant in the redzone. Ole Miss forced 22 interceptions, and allowed touchdowns on 14 of 34 red-zone opportunities (41 percent). He accounted for 247 tackles, 14.0 stops for loss, 1.5 sacks, 13 pass breakups, five forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and 12 interceptions in 51 games.
Strengths: Prewitt has a strong frame at 6’2” and 208 pounds. He’s more athletic than he looks, displaying both speed and acceleration. Prewitt takes direct angles to the football. His sound vision allows him to consistently read plays, sniffing out fakes and play designs. Prewitt is a sound tackler in space, and has a nose for the ball in the air. He is a vocal leader on and off-field.
Weaknesses: Prewitt’s overaggressive play gets him burned at times. He rarely played in the box as a blitzer in his tenure at Ole Miss. Prewitt needs to develop some patience in his game, calming down his eyes and movements some.
Cody Prewitt, NFL combine numbers: 40-yard dash (4.60), bench press (11 reps), vertical jump (35.0 inches), broad jump (10’5”), 3-cone drill (7.12), 20-yard shuttle (4.23) and 60-yard shuttle (11.44)
Top 5 FS sleepers: Nick Perry (Alabama), Jermaine Whitehead (Auburn), Detrick Bonner (Virginia Tech), Durrell Eskridge (Syracuse) and Adrian Amos (Penn State)