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2017 NFL Draft position rankings: Top 5 safeties before the NFL Combine

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Today, we take a look at some of the top safeties in the 2017 NFL Draft, heading into the 2017 NFL Combine.

The NFL Combine is quickly approaching, and the San Francisco 49ers will be watching talent at all the positions. General manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan are both expected to be in attendance, and will be keeping a close eye on many of the prospects that will be featured at the Combine.

Today, we are going to take a closer look at some of the draft-eligible safeties that the 2017 NFL Draft has to offer. Safety may not be at the top of the priority list for the 49ers, but with a deep pool of talent and our GM being a former safety himself, I believe it is safe to conclude that the 49ers could add to their depth chart at the position via the draft.

Before I get into potential free agents and draft-eligible prospects I thought I would provide a brief description of a free safety and a strong safety and the difference between the two positions.

Free Safety: Tends to defend the pass more. The FS must navigate where the pass is going. May need to contribute on running plays, and can be asked to blitz the QB in specialty designed packages. Must have the speed to cover and defend those wide receivers who can take the top off of a defense. Has that “Centerfielder” vision and range. Must be able to read a receiver’s route and a QB’s eyes. Examples: Ed Reed, Earl Thomas, Ron Woodson, Sean Taylor, Eric Reid.

Strong Safety: This position gets it’s name because the SS plays on the “Strong” side of the field, similar to a “Strong-Side” linebacker. The SS defends more running plays, is more run oriented, and has the size of a linebacker with the speed and burst of a safety. Still asked to cover receivers and tight ends in passing plays. Examples: Kam Chancellor, Landon Collins, Troy Polamalu, John Lynch.

Let’s first take a look at the upcoming free agents at the safety position. The new league year begins on March 9th, 2017, but that hasn't stopped teams from unofficially coming to terms with soon-to-be free agents. Could the 49ers invest some of their salary cap in a safety or two? Here’s their options at the moment.

Eric Berry, 28 (FS) Kansas City Chiefs
Christopher Conte, 28 (FS) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Nate Allen, 29 (FS) Okland Raiders
Jahleel Addae, 27 (SS) Los Angeles Chargers
Bradley McDougald, 26 (FS) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Mike Adams, 35 (SS) Indianapolis Colts
Barry Church, 29 (SS) Dallas Cowboys
Rashad Johnson, 31 (FS) Tennesse Titans
Matt Elam, 25 (SS) Baltimore Ravens
Tony Jefferson, 25, (SS) Arizona Cardinals
D.J. Swearinger, 25 (SS) Arizona Cardinals
Quintin Demps, 31 (SS) Houston Texans
Rafael Bush, 29 (FS) Detroit Lions

Let’s now take a look at my Top 5 Safeties featured in the 2017 NFL Draft. I have also provided a short-list of prospects who are on the outside looking in. If the 49ers don't invest in a safety early in the draft, then the prospects on the outside might be right on their radar so be sure to check them out as well.

Thinking of someone not mentioned? Please share in the comments below!

Malik Hooker, FS - Ohio State: 6’2”, 205 lbs. 40 Time: 4.47

2016 Stats: 74 Tackles, 5.5 for a loss, .5 Sacks, 7 Interceptions, 4 Passes broken up

First, my apologizes for any confusion in the previous Niners Nation mock draft in which Hooker wasn't included in my first round. At the time I wasn't aware of the severity of his injuries and was in wait-and-see mode if Hooker could start his rookie season healthy. Hooker suffered a torn labrum and hernia during the season. Now that he is expected to be a full participant as early as training camp Hooker is my No. 1 safety in the draft.

Hooker had a tremendous 2016 season with the Buckeyes. So much of Hooker’s game reminds me of Earl Thomas of the Seattle Seahawks. His elite instincts and navigation to where the pass is heading is second to none, and his burst and speed off the snap put him in position to make a play on the ball more often than not. Can follow the QB’s eyes, and break down the QB’s progressions. Has the ability to read the receiver’s routes, and thanks to his motor and speed, he can stay with and cover the most dangerous deep threats that he faced all season. Hooker can defend over the top on those long pass attempts. He runs naturally and fluidity through his hips, which gives him the ability to cover well in open space. An aggressive tackler who can quickly wrap his arms around his opponent and bring them to the ground. Hooker always focuses on the football and where it’s potentially going before focusing on the man. Can hit with force, which lead to dropped passes. Has reliable hands and ballhawk instincts which earned him seven interceptions.

Hooker does only have one year of experience coming out of school. While Hooker can tackle, he struggled at times doing so in the open space. Mechanics will need to be polished and improved upon. Has the potential to grown and add muscle to his frame. I do think there will be a learning curve transitioning to the next level, but the potential and long-term outlook are too good to pass up for any team. I’ll leave you with one last thought on Hooker, and that is his toughness. It has been confirmed that Hooker played and played well, both against Michigan and later Clemson with the two injuries he sustained. Hooker is a Top 10 lock in April.

Draft Projection: Top 10 (1st Round)

Jamal Adams, SS - LSU: 6’1”, 211 lbs. 40 Time: 4.50

2016 Stats: 76 Tackles, 1 Interception, 4 Passes Broken up

One of the hardest hitters the 2017 NFL Draft has to offer. Adams was a force in the LSU backfield during his career with the Tigers. Played at an elite level, especially against the run, which is one of the most important aspects scouts and evaluators look for in a strong safety. Was a tremendous asset in passing coverage as well, and thanks to his large wingspan, was able to cover and eliminate passes thrown his way. Like Hooker, Adams has great ball instincts and can anticipate where the pass is heading. Covers the “Strong” side of the field with authority, and hits his opponent like a linebacker. A major positive that pops up on his film on multiple occasions is his ability to cover tight ends. Here’s a little fun fact, Adams had a grand total of zero penalties during the 2016 season. Adams is very coachable and his leadership was everything you could ask of from a veteran.

While Adams was superb against the run, he was a little shaky with deep coverage, and unlike Hooker, he is not quite that “Centerfielder”, overseeing and anticipating the passing attack. Having a chance to watch some LSU games this season, one thing was very clear, and that he was the captain of that defense. Adams leads with authority and by example, and along with his elite talent, I expect these traits to translate smoothly at the next level. Like his father George Adams, Jamal will hear his name called in the first round. Possibly in the top 10.

Draft Projection: Top 15 Pick (1st Round)

Jabrill Peppers, SS - Michigan: 6’1”, 208 lbs. 40 Time: 4.40

2016 Stats: 72 Tackles, 16 for a loss, 4 sacks, 1 Forced Fumble, 17 carries for 150 yards, 3 Touchdowns scored

Safety, Linebacker, Running back, Receiver, Kick & Punt Returner…It seems like Peppers can do it all. So the big question is what position the Heisman finalist is going to play at the next level? My gut tells me that he is going to settle as a Strong Safety who will contribute on special teams, especially early in his NFL career. Moves fluidity through his hips which helps him move both vertically and horizontally in pass coverage. Has incredible instincts against the run, and thanks to his high motor and downhill ability, he can quickly disrupt and breakup runs up the middle and along the edge. One of Pepper’s best qualities is his ability to defend against tight ends. His speed and physicality help him go toe-to-toe with tight ends in small, intermediate, or deep coverage. You can line Peppers up anywhere on the field in blitz packages and he has shown the ability to get to the QB. Has a great blend of speed that he can mix up and adjust to throw receivers off balance in pass coverage.

I do question his ballhawk abilities. Since his start at Michigan he only has one interception, and none this past season. Strictly a strong safety at the position, as he struggles in deeper coverage. Will need to continue to work on his mechanics as a tackler. On film, Peppers did not wrap his arms around his opponent opting instead to hit them straight on. Lastly, his draft projections are a bit scattered at the moment. However, I have him as a top twenty five selection. Some team is going to love the overall package Peppers offers on defense, offense, and special teams to justify selecting him with their first round pick. Like Hooker and Adams, Peppers will also hear his name called on day one.

Draft Projection: (Top 25) 1st Round

Obi Melifonwu, FS - Connecticut: 6’4”, 219 lbs. 40 Time: 4.53

2016 Stats: 118 Tackles, 4 Interceptions, 3 Passes broken up

A ridiculously gifted and talented athlete who has gone very much under the radar thanks to little attention UConn football receives. However, he is about to put on a show for everyone at the Combine later this week. Has laser focus on the ball, and can play the centerfield position evaluators seek in the free safety position. Pass coverage skills is a major plus, and has shown ballhawk abilities with multiple interceptions each season at Uconn. Has plenty of experience at the position as well, playing through his senior year as a four-year starter. Has tremendous straight line speed, especially towards his opponent, which helps him finish his tackles with force.

Melifonwu can focus on and track the ball well, but will need to continue working and improving his anticipation on where the pass is heading. Has to do a better job of reading a QB’s eyes and progressions. Can get off-balance with his feet at times in open space which causes him to get to the receiver late. His athletic and physical traits are off the charts. He should be a home run at the combine. That means nothing come game day on Sunday’s, however there is so much to like, and at the moment Obi looks like an early day 2 pick with the potential to sneak into the back of the first round.

Draft Projection: (Early Day 2) 2nd Round

Justin Evans, SS - Texas A& M: 6’0 193 lbs. 40 Time: 4.58

2016 Stats: 86 Tackles, 4 Interceptions, 6 Passes broken up

Another strong safety and big hitter that the 2017 NFL draft has to offer. A great athlete with impressive physical tools. Plays well in pass coverage who can disrupt passing lanes and finish the plays with bone jarring hits to the receiver. Has ballhawk abilities with reliable hands, reeling in multiple interceptions during his time with the Aggies. Ability to change direction in motion, and moves well in the straight line as well as going from east-to-west. Plays a fearless and physical brand of football. Doesn’t hold back one inch and finishes his hits. Plays his best in run coverage, and breaks up and disrupts runs up the middle and along the edge. What I really like about Evans is his ability to wrap around his opponent and bringing them to the ground quickly.

Evans plays with tremendous aggression, and at times that got him in trouble and out of position. I am concerned about his durability as a strong safety. Will need to bulk up and add more muscle to his frame. Struggles against tight ends, and will need to improve his pass coverage abilities against them. Had some missed tackles in open space this season. However, I love the brand of football he plays, and at the moment, carries great value as a day two selection in the draft.

Draft Projection: 2nd-3rd Round

Outside Looking In

Marcus Williams, FS - Utah: 6’1, 195 lbs. 40 Time: 4.55

2016 Stats: 64 Tackles, 5 Interceptions, 3 Passes Broken up
Draft Projection: 3rd Round

Budda Baker, FS - Washington: 5’10” 192 lbs. 40 Time: 4.65

2016 Stats: 71 Tackles, 2 Interceptions, 6 Passes broken up
Draft Projection: 3rd Round

Eddie Jackson, SS - Alabama: 6’0” 194 lbs. 40 Time: 4.59

*2016 Stats: 24 Tackles, 1 Interception, 2 Passes broken up (*Broken Leg)
Draft Projection: 3rd-4th Round

Marcus Maye, FS - Florida: 5’11”, 203 lbs. 40 Time: 4.63

*2016 Stats: 50 Tackles, 1 Interception, 6 Passes broken up (*Broken Arm)
Draft Projection: 3rd-4th Round

Fish Smithson, FS - Kansas: 5’10”, 197 lbs. 40 Time: 4.63

2016 Stats: 93 Tackles, 4 Interceptions, 7 Passes broken up
Draft Projection: 4th Round