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2016 NFL Draft position watch list: Jeremy Cash, Tony Conner, Karl Joseph among safeties to watch

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The 2016 NFL Draft is a long way off, but with college football getting started in a couple weeks, it is time to figure out who we should be watching. We have looked at quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive line, defensive line, outside linebackers, inside linebackers and cornerbacks. Today we wrap up with the safeties.

The San Francisco 49ers are only midway through their 2015 preseason schedule, leaving them two preseason games and 16 regular season games (and hopefully some playoff games!) until we reach the next offseason. While the NFL season is only just beginning, it is never too soon to start draft coverage! In the past, we have put together weekly prospect reports for college games on a given weekend. We have also done some work with prospect rankings later in the season.

This year, we're adding something new. I thought it would be helpful to come up with a preseason watch list for each of the main positions on both sides of the ball. We still don't even know what the 49ers roster will look like in two months, let alone next offseason. However, some folks are already going to be looking at next year's draft. And so, I wanted to get started with some top prospects at each position.

We're wrapping this series up with a look at cornerbacks (other positions linked above). Jake Narayan has a look at five of them. The list of names is far from all-inclusive, but rather some of the big names to help get things started. Additionally, this depends on some of the players declaring for the draft, so again, it is just looking at some potential top options at each position.

The 49ers have their two starting safeties in Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea. They drafted Jimmie Ward in the 2014 NFL Draft, and signed L.J. McCray shortly after that, and then drafted Jaquiski Tartt this past draft. They have Craig Dahl around for now as well, but he is not going to be around long-term. Ward played nickel back his rookie season, but has been getting primarily safety reps in this year's training camp. The team seems to have some options, but I could see them adding some later talent next spring to add depth.

Jeremy Cash


Credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

#16 | Duke Blue Devils | Safety | Senior
Height: 6'1" | Weight: 210
2014 Stats: 111 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles

Strengths: This 2016 safety draft class is probably the best one since 2010. The following  safeties were drafted in 2010: Devin McCourty, Eric Berry, Earl Thomas, And Kam Chancellor. The Blue Devils play with three safeties, and Cash is basically a hybrid linebacker who will cover the slot receiver. Cash started his career at Ohio state, but transferred to Duke, totaling 111 tackles (10.5 for loss), 5.5 sacks, 7 pass breakups, 2 interceptions and 4 forced fumbles in 2014, what a season! As you can tell from his stats, Cash is a solid all around athlete with great versatility. He can line up anywhere on the field and make an impact in coverage or in the run game.

Weaknesses: Cash is undoubtedly in the top 3 at his respective position. With that being said, he does have the opportunity and work ethic to fix up some facets of his game to improve before he even enters in the draft. Cash being an excellent tackler and having indecisive speed allows him to get away with taking very poor angles to the ball carrier, but these habits will not transition well to the NFL. Although cash has proven he can play in and out of the box, I do feel at times he is too lengthy playing against the pass, therefore he is unable to swing his hips around to turn and run with a faster receiver who will take advantage of it.

Conclusion: Overall one of my favorite players to watch on film. Plays with incredible intensity and determination. If cash would not have decided to bypass the 2015 draft, he would have been the first safety selected. He is a guy that is versatile in most defensive schemes and has all the intangibles. I don't see cash falling out of the first round in the 2016 draft, considering he stays healthy.

Tony Conner


Credit: Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

#12 | Junior | Safety | Ole Miss Rebels
Height: 6'0" | Weight: 215 lbs
2014 Stats: 69 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT

Strengths: Tony Conner has undoubtedly established himself as one of the hardest hitters in football right now. Every single play this guy is looking to take someone's helmet off. His fiery aggression and domination fuels the Ole Miss defense. Conner is a versatile safety who lines up over the slot and drops into coverage a majority of the time, an outside linebacker, and an edge rusher with a nice first step, but surprisingly enough does not play too much safety in the back end of the defense all too often despite being listed as one. He rarely misses tackles in the open field, he has great form tackles and stays low, hits a ball carrier in the knees to bring them down.

Weaknesses: We are starting to this "hybrid safety" more and more in football. Even though Conner may be listed as a safety, he is rarely playing in the back end of the defense. He often drops into coverage as a linebacker, like I mentioned earlier, but if the offense ends up running the ball, he sometimes tends to take bad angles to get to the opponent causing him to not be able to make a tackle he might have. His speed is also not the greatest, which brings me back to the point about Conner needing to take better angles considering he does not necessarily have the recovery speed.

Conclusion: A solid tackler overall, but still has many improvements. No doubt he has good potential and can be a pro-bowl strong safety in time. As I have said before this is a deep safety class, especially in consideration to last year, so I would say Conner will be drafted somewhere in between rounds 2-4. I feel teams are looking for a more safety that is true to it's position in the earlier rounds.

Karl Joseph


Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

#8 | WVU Mountaineers | Junior | Safety
Height: 5'10" | Weight: 195 lbs
2014 Stats: 92 tackles, 3 forced fumbles

Strengths: They say it's the quiet ones you have to watch. Karl Joseph may be quiet off of the field, but definitely is not shy on the field. He has established himself as one of the best open field tacklers in the country. Joseph is a heat seeking missile on the field looking to lay someone out every play. His excellent form and knowing where to hit a player allows him to take down a bigger opponent even with a small frame (5'10", 195 lbs). Great in run support in or out of the box. He is also surprisingly good in the nickel package, when playing man to man. Covers the slot receiver very well and can derail them off of their route.

Weaknesses: Joseph is one of my favorite players to watch and will keep you entertained game after game. Although he is a very exciting player, I think there is something big that will keep teams from drafting him. We know what he can do in the run game, but he is lacking the ability to play in the back end of the defense. He has the athleticism to play in the back end, but he needs to take better angles to get to the ball. Does not have the ability to read and react on the ball, which is sort of a thing that comes with natural instincts. I am starting to think that he is just more of a box safety and cannot contribute in the pass game.

Conclusion: A NFL ready football player, has the physicality and heart to be a dominant safety. He and Kj Dillon combine to make one of the best safety duos in football. Despite being small, he has a nasty hit and great closing speed to match. Has the chance to be a good strong or box safety and will be taken in rounds 1-3 in the draft.

Jalen Mills


Credit: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

#28 | Senior | LSU Tigers | Saftey
Height: 6'0"  | Weight: 195 lbs.
2014 Stats: 62 tackles, 5 PBU's, 1 INT

Strengths: Went to LSU as a corner and played it for his first two years, then transitioned to a Safety last year, and played phenomenal. Last year he had 62 tackles and 5 pass break ups, but contributed more to the defense than his stats show. Mills unlike the rest of the safeties I have covered, is a true free safety. He has the ability to line up in the nickel and play against top receivers. He has smooth hips and the athleticism to make a play on the ball against a taller receiver. He has a high ceiling and can up his game even more.

Weaknesses: My biggest concern about Mills is his run support, and that frustrates me because he can be such and all around player with some tuning up. I'm not sure if he is just frail or what - but he does not seem willing to come up and stick his nose in the play. Also his lack of field awareness causes him to get beat at times because he is taking bad angles to the ball. And there's more, Mills recently suffered an ankle injury, and could be out 4-6 weeks. This is a huge blow to the LSU defense and can have a dramatic impact on the beginning of their season.

Conclusion: There is no question Jalen can play some football, but the fact of the matter is, I am scared how his habits and play in college will transition to the NFL. I think teams will recognize this and hold off on drafting him, especially considering this years safety class is so deep. If Mills can make a comeback to the field within week 6, and play well, I can still see him being selected in the third round, but I don't think he will be. Rounds 3-6 is where Mills will be taken.

Vonn Bell


Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

#11 | S | Ohio State Buckeyes | Junior
Height: 5'11" | Weight: 200 lbs
2014 Stats: 92 tackles, 6 INT's

Strengths: Started at safety for the defending national champion Buckeyes. Von made some big plays in big football games. Had 92 tackles, 6 interceptions and 12 passes defended in 2014, leading to him to become a honorable mention All-Big Ten performer. Bell shows excellent tackling skills and positions himself well to bring down a ball carrier. Has very good ball skills, and takes great angles to get to the ball. Comes downfield hard and breaks down to make the tackle, he uses the sideline and does not usually over pursue.

Weaknesses: Well, Bell is not the biggest guy on the field and lacks strength, especially if he is playing in the box. Once again we see this "hybrid" or "flex" safety within Vonn Bell. He does get tossed around at times by receivers and his athleticism is not the greatest. His cushion can get ate up and does not have the recovery speed to play catch up. Last year against Virginia Tech, he gave up a game winning touchdown due to the fact he did not have the size to make a play on the football.

Conclusion: He might be small but definitely plays big. Bell is heading into his junior season at Ohio State and he already looks the part. He has a lot of room for improvement to upgrade his draft stock. Bell has passion for the game and looks to be having all kinds of fun on the field. He is a sure tackler which I think raises his draft stock, resulting in him being a 2-5 round draft pick if he declares for it.