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NFL draft preview: Safeties have become a top priority in recent years

The safety position enjoyed a resurgence in the NFL this offseason.

Big-money deals worth potentially more than $40 million over the life of the contracts were signed by Landon Collins (Washington), Earl Thomas (Baltimore), Tyrann Mathieu (Kansas City) and LaMarcus Joyner (Oakland). Those deals come after a year in which some top free-agent safeties languished on the open market for an extended amount of time.

The importance of the position also is reflected in recent draft trends. Eight safeties have been chosen in the first round over the last three drafts. Add in 10 more safeties chosen in the second round over the same time span, and that’s 18 players chosen in the money rounds of the draft.

It seems unlikely that there will be multiple safeties chosen in the first round this year, but that doesn’t mean it’s a down year for the position. As many as eight players at the position could be gone before the second round concludes Friday night.

Overall draft grade: B

The Best: Johnathan Abram, Mississippi State. A 4.45-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine solidified Abram’s spot atop the positional rankings. That followed a year in which he was a first-team All-SEC selection, leading the Bulldogs with 99 tackles (including nine for losses), three sacks, two interceptions, five passes defensed and one forced fumble.

Abram was a dual-threat quarterback in high school before focusing on the defensive side of the ball during his college career. He has a reputation as a ferocious hitter, with his scouting report on nfl.com describing him as a “blunt force-striker.”

"He grades out as one of the better options for teams looking to deploy an effective ‘big nickel’ defender near the box,” the scouting report concludes.

At the NFL Scouting Combine, Abram compared his game to that of Thomas, who was a first-round pick by the Seahawks in 2010.

"He's always around the ball, so that's how I try to play,” Abram said. “I'm always around, but as well, I try to be a thumper, coming out here and hitting like Kam Chancellor as well." Abram was also asked about his reputation as a big hitter: “My wife, we talked about it a lot. She says if you're not hitting like Bobby Boucher, you're not really hitting.”

Bills View: Next to quarterback, safety is probably the most settled position on Buffalo’s roster. Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer are locked into starting roles, while Rafael Bush is a trusted veteran as the top backup. The team also has a developmental player in Siran Neal, a fifth-round draft pick a year ago. Additionally, Dean Marlowe played well in his lone start of 2018, and will be back to compete for a job again this year.

It’s at least somewhat interesting that the Bills have reportedly brought two of this year’s top safeties – Florida’s Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Virginia’s Juan Thornhill in for pre-draft visits. Both of them are projected as second- or third-round draft picks, and it’s hard to see the Bills investing a top-100 pick on the position.

In the family: Delaware’s Nasir Adderley is the cousin of Herb Adderley, a Pro Football Hall of Famer who starred for the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys in the 1960s. Nasir Adderley got playing time as a true freshman at Delaware, starting 11 games in 2015 and leading the Blue Hens with eight passes defensed. As a senior in 2018, he repeated as a first-team All-Colonial Athletic Association selection, leading his team with four interceptions and seven passes defensed to go along with 87 tackles in 12 starts. Some scouts believe Adderley could be moved to cornerback in the NFL.

Second guess: Alabama’s Deionte Thompson is going to get drafted, although there are some in the scouting community who feel he would have been better served returning to the Crimson Tide for his final year of eligibility.

"I don't think Deionte Thompson finished up the season the way you'd want to finish it up,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “That Clemson game … put a lot of doubt in some people's minds. Can he really run? That was a concern there.

"I thought he kind of had some big games early on in the season where you got really excited about him. I want to say Ole Miss was one of those. But I thought he would have been one, go back, maybe get a little bit stronger, and then you go from being in that – I have him kind of in the mid to late second-round range. He goes back to school and gets a little bit stronger and a little bit more consistent as a tackler as well as just making some more plays down the stretch, I think you're talking about somebody that's a first-round lock next year.”

Sleeper: BJ Blunt, McNeese State. Blunt was named the Southland Conference Defensive Player of the Year and was a first-team FCS All-American after finishing with 102 tackles, including 20 for losses, 11 sacks and six passes defensed in just 10 starts in 2018.

Top 10 safeties

1. Johnathan Abram, Mississippi St., 5-foot-11, 205 pounds. A dual-threat quarterback in high school, Abram started his college career at Georgia before transferring.

2. Taylor Rapp*, Washington, 6-0, 208. A dual citizen of Canada and the U.S., Rapp impressed coaches as a freshman by playing through a broken hand.

3. Deionte Thompson*, Alabama, 6-1, 195. Struggles against Oklahoma and Clemson will potentially drop Thompson out of the first round.

4. Darnell Savage Jr., Maryland, 5-11, 198. Moved up the draft rankings after his height and weight at the NFL Scouting Combine exceeded expectations.

5. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson*, Florida, 5-11, 210. Made his mark early with the Gators, intercepting two passes in the Outback Bowl as a freshman.

6. Juan Thornhill, Virginia, 6-0, 205. Made it on ESPN’s Sportscenter in high school for his highlight-reel dunks on the basketball court.

7. Nasir Adderley, Delaware, 6-0, 206. Also has value as a kick returner. Returned five kickoffs in 2018 for 149 yards, taking one of them for a touchdown.

8. Amani Hooker*, Iowa, 5-11, 210. Named the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year in 2018 after stuffing the stat sheet with 65 tackles, four interceptions and a safety.

9. Jaquan Johnson, Miami (Fla.), 5-10, 191. A team captain for the Hurricanes who looks better on film than he does in combine drills.

10. Marquise Blair, Utah, 6-1, 195. Attended Dodge City Community College in 2016, being named a first-team junior college All-American.

*-Underclassman.

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