Falcons head coach Dan Quinn shares his thoughts on the safety position as the NFL draft approaches. Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter

Falcons draft analysis: Safety position is back in heavy demand 

The Falcons appear well-stocked at the safety position.

Both of the projected starting safeties — Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen — are coming off season-ending injuries. Sharrod Neasman and Ryan Neal are on the roster. 

Also, the Falcons recently signed free-agent safeties Chris Cooper and Afolabi Laguda

But the position is stacked for the NFL draft, which is set for Thursday through Saturday in Nashville, Tenn. 

“I think the hidden part of this draft that is very good is the safety position,” said SiriusXM NFL radio analyst Gil Brandt, the former Dallas Cowboys executive who’ll be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August. “I think the safety position in this year’s draft has as many quality players as I can remember ever being in the safety position in one year.”

Here’s how Brandt ranks the 10 best safeties in the draft (in order): Jonathan Abram (Mississippi State); Nasir Adderley (Delaware); Juan Thornhill (Virginia); Taylor Rapp (Washington); Amani Hooker (Iowa); Will Harris (Boston College); Darnell Savage (Maryland); Marquise Blair (Utah); Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (Florida); and  Khari Willis (Michigan State).

More teams are looking for hybrid safeties to help battle the three- and four-receiver sets that are in vogue in the NFL. 

“It’s an important position because it’s really evolved more because teams are using a third safety more than we have traditionally,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “We are playing nickel almost 70 percent of the time.”

But defenses are finding out they need a bigger nickel at times. Former defensive guru Fritz Shurmur would be proud.

MORE FALCONS DRAFT ANALYSIS 

Part 1: Wide receivers/returners — Find a returner in backyard
Part 2: Defensive tackles —  Team needs talent

He invited the “Big Nickel” back in 1992 while with Arizona. Two linebackers were out with injuries and he used five defensive backs close to the line of scrimmage to combat the run and drop in to coverage.

“Sometimes against a team that has two tight ends and you want to guard a bigger tight end, maybe the nickel is not the ideal-size person to do that,” Quinn said. “Quite often people are using a third safety more than we have.”

Traditionally, teams had a strong safety, who could get closer to the line of scrimmage and help in the run game, and a free safety, who could drop back and needed range to cover the field.

Now, teams are looking for safeties, who can help in run support and maybe cover a big tight end, or a hybrid, who could cover running backs and some wide receivers. 

“The position itself ... I feel like there are more of them now because they are even playing like that in college,” Quinn said. “Bigger nickel is (being played more). It might be called a nickel, but it’s a safety. There are more opportunities for the third back to be a safety.”

Mississippi State defensive back Johnathan Abram tackles LSU wide receiver D.J. Chark during the first half of their SEC mathcup Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, in Starkville, Miss. Mississippi State won, 37-7.
Photo: Rogelio V. Solis/AP

Abram started his career at Georgia before transferring to a junior college and finally landing at Mississippi State. 

“Abram is a physical tone-setter with experience handling both safety positions,” writes Ric Serritella of the NFL Draft Bible. “A starter as a freshman at Georgia before the (junior college) stop and final two years at Mississippi State. Abram is a proven commodity who should be able to compete for playing time early in his NFL career.”

Even though Abram couldn’t play in the Senior Bowl because of a shoulder injury, teams were impressed that he showed up and stayed with the team. 

“He’s a very talented football player,” said San Francisco general manager John Lynch, a six-time Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist. “His film speaks volumes. I think if John keeps handling himself like he has, he’s going to do just fine.” 

Savage has been a fast riser in the pre-draft process and could sneak into the first-round of the draft. 

“There’s no player that’s got more steam and momentum right now in this draft than Darnell Savage,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “Teams love him, love him to the point where I would not be surprised if he found his way into the first round.”

Savage is 5-foot-10 and 198 pounds. 

“The only thing he’s lacking is just kind of ideal size, a little bit undersized, but he ran 4.3 (seconds in the 40-yard dash). He plays to that 4.3.”

Savage is the kind of hybrid safety that teams covet. He lined up at different spots for Maryland.

“The Ohio State game was fantastic,” Jeremiah said. “I would say absolutely he’s a top-40 pick. Teams love Darnell Savage.”

Adderley had a strong Senior Bowl performance. He’s a cousin of Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback Herb Adderley.

“I'm a big Adderley fan,” Jeremiah said. “I think he’s taken on a little bit of water in the postseason just being (injured), and he didn’t get a chance to run as fast as he had hoped, running a 4.62.

“I have him in the second-round range. I think there’s a chance he might slip into the third round. But I value him there in the second, and I love his competitiveness, his toughness.”

Adderley also is versatile. 

“I like him as a free safety,” Jeremiah said. “Some teams like him as a nickel. It’s going to depend on who picks him, how his role evolves and develops, but I think he's a darned good football player.”

SAFETY DRAFT PROJECTIONS

First day (Round 1) – Johnathan Abram (Mississippi State).
Second day (2-3) – Darnell Savage (Maryland), Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (Florida), Nasir Adderley (Delaware), Juan Thornhill (Virginia), Taylor Rapp (Washington), Evan Worthington (Colorado) and Armani Hooker (Iowa). 
Third day (4-7) – Sheldrick Redwine (Miami), Marvell Tell (USC), Mike Bell (Fresno State), Jaquan Johnson (Miami), Will Harris (Boston College) and Zedrick Woods (Mississippi). 
SEC: John Battle (LSU), Darius West (Kentucky), Mike Edwards (Kentucky), Donovan Wilson (Texas A&M), Mark McLaurin (Mississippi State), Jamon Reynolds (Texas A&M), Santos Ramirez (Arkansas) and Micah Abernathy (Tennessee).
ACC: Lukas Denis (Boston College) and Tim Harris (Virginia).

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