Bears

Hub Arkush’s 2022 NFL draft positional preview: Safety

Baylor safety Jalen Pitre shouts to his teammates during a game against Texas Tech on Nov. 27, 2021 in Waco, Texas.

Teams historically have been reluctant to use high picks on safeties, but this year’s crop offers one sure top-10 pick and several others with solid first-round grades.

Although the lines have become blurred between the strong safety and free safety positions, this class is pretty evenly split between natural coverage guys (free) and run stuffers/tight end shadows (strong).

There will be eventual NFL starters here available well into Day 2.

DAY 1 PROSPECTS

1. Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame (6–4, 220, junior)

Some believe Hamilton is the top prospect in this draft regardless of position. With his unique size and rare athleticism for a man this big, there is no end to the ways he can be used in either a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme. He plays with great intensity and physicality, and good luck getting a contested ball from him. Basically safeties just don’t go No. 1 overall, but he’s enticing enough to be the exception and is just too talented to last past No. 5 or 6.

2. Daxton Hill, Michigan (6-0¼, 191, junior)

Hill’s got the speed and tools to play nickel or even as a boundary corner, but his quickness, recognition and ability to play man or zone in coverage while ranging from sideline to sideline vs. the run make him a true free safety. He’s solid against the run but not an in-the-box run stuffer, and safeties who can cover like this in the passing game are few and far between.

3. Jaquan Brisker, Penn St. (6-1¼, 199, senior)

Brisker isn’t quite the athlete Hamilton and Hill are, but he can do it all at a high level, and his toughness and willingness to live in the box to take away the run when necessary is impressive. He was hampered by injury last season at Penn State and still shone through, so his best football probably still is in front of him.

DAY 2 PROSPECTS

4. Lewis Cine, Georgia (6-2¼, 199, junior)

He’s another plus-size safety, and he blazed a 4.37 40-yard dash time at the combine. Cine is known more for his toughness, massive collisions and run-stuffing ability than coverage skills. Although he should be OK shadowing most tight ends and running backs, he could struggle occasionally matched up on top receivers.

5. Bryan Cook, Cincinnati (6-0½, 206, senior)

Cook is thick, strong and nasty, a true in-the-box run stuffer who’ll have a career as a prototypical NFL strong safety. He has some limitations with speed and coverage ability, but he can cover and will just have to be used in specific schemes that don’t expose him to a lot of No. 1 receivers. Physicality will be his trademark.

6. Jalen Pitre, Baylor (5-11, 198, redshirt senior)

Every team in the NFL would love to have a handful of Jalen Pitres in their locker room. The kid’s attitude and work ethic are off the charts. Like so many safety prospects, his game against the run is well ahead of his coverage skills, but with technique work and coaching, he’s hard to bet against because of his approach and character.

7. Nick Cross, Maryland (6-0, 212, junior)

Cross is another rare blend of size, speed and athleticism with a 4.34 40 time and 37-inch vertical jump logged at the combine. He would just as soon blow receivers up as cover them, and no matter who they are, NFL receivers will have to play with their heads on a swivel in Cross’ area of the field.

8. J.T. Woods, Baylor (6-0½, 195, senior)

Longer and leaner than Pitre, his Baylor teammate, Woods has sprinter’s speed and can jump out of the gym. He also has excellent ball skills and hands, although his hands are small. Woods needs coaching and focus, but he has all the tools.

9. Tycen Anderson, Toledo (6-1¾, 209, senior)

Anderson has a rare combination of size and speed with a nose for the ball that has some scouts drooling, but he’s got shortcomings in coverage that will need a lot of work if they’re correctable. Minimally he should be a solid special teams specialist and dependable No. 3 safety.

DAY 3 PROSPECTS

10. Verone McKinley III, Oregon (5-10½, 198, redshirt junior)

McKinley is neither the athlete, speed merchant nor body type of our other top safety prospects, but he was a highly productive player at Oregon with excellent ball skills and what appears to be a God-given feel for the position and the game. He could be a steal in the fifth or sixth round.

11. Kerby Joseph, Illinois (6-0½, 203, senior)

Joseph had only one full season starting at Illinois and took advantage of it in ‘21, showing off excellent ball skills with five interceptions. Unlike most of our safety prospects, he’s better in coverage than vs. the run, but he’s flashed a lot of room for growth with coaching and patience.

12. Juanyeh Thomas, Georgia Tech (6-1, 212, senior)

Thomas is a long, lean athlete with a big wingspan and large hands. He’s a developmental prospect at safety who could quickly become a core special teams contributor while learning NFL schemes and coverage.

13. Percy Butler, Louisiana (6- 0, 194, senior)

14. Smoke Monday, Auburn (6-1, 207, senior)

15. Dane Belton, Iowa (6-0½, 205, junior)

16. Quentin Lake, UCLA (6-1, 201, redshirt senior)

17. Delarrin Turner-Yell, Oklahoma (5-9½, 197, senior)

Previous entries in this series

Quarterback

Running back

Wide receiver

Tight end

Offensive tackle

Interior offensive line

Defensive line

Edge rusher

Linebacker

Cornerback

Hub Arkush

Hub Arkush

Hub Arkush is the Senior Bears Analyst for Shaw Local News Network and ShawLocal.com.