last season, NFL defenses saw a significant jump in two-high or two-deep safety coverage usage to limit the overall increased efficiency in passing, raising the demand for teams to have more than one versatile safety. Gone are the days when teams can get away with having a free safety who can play deep and a strong safety who specializes in run support and can be hidden away playing underneath zones. Both safeties must have a variety of skills.
Vic Fangio’s system has permeated throughout the league. Brandon Staley is the most successful coach from his tree and his fast rise in the league has also added to the system’s popularity. In Fangio’s playbook, both safeties are designated as “$”. There is no separate designation for free safety and strong safety.
The classic strong safety is becoming increasingly archaic, and some have resorted to moving to linebacker. In this new world, both safeties have to be able to play deep, rotate in the box and hold up in man coverage. With the rule changes made for player safety, the ability to dish out big hits is no longer desirable or effective. Teams need two athletes who can play in space for these two-high coverages to work.
Kyle Hamilton, Daxton Hill and Lewis Cinema are the top three safeties in this draft class. All three fit the modern mold and can give teams queens on the chessboard and open up the playbook for their future defensive coordinators. Though they offer versatile skill sets, they have different body types and vary in their strengths and weaknesses. Hamilton is the consensus top safety, but I have all three graded more closely than most.
Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame
Hamilton will be one of the tallest and lengthiest safeties in the NFL at 6-4 with 33-inch arms. What makes him unique for a long athlete is that he’s loose and can smoothly change directions. His combine and pro day 40 times were surprisingly slow — reportedly, scouts had him timed in the low 4.7s. However, The Athletic’s Bruce Fieldman reported that his top-end GPS speed improved to 21 mph in 2020. His range does show up on the field as he’s made some fantastic closing plays.
At Florida State, 6:00 remaining in third quarter, fourth-and-2
Hamilton lined up close to the second level, playing man-to-man coverage on the running back.
The offense ran a boot play with the running back going across the formation in hopes of creating a rub on Hamilton to free him. However, because Hamilton played slightly behind the second level, he had a free path to the running back.
Hamilton was able to close the distance from across the field, tip the ball and force an interception.
Hamilton is a jack-of-all-trades who can do a little bit of everything. He can play top-down and wrap up tackles from the second level, can be disruptive in underneath zones with his length and has the ability to play some man coverage. However, his pure man coverage ability is a bit overstated. He can be slow with his feet and reaction and get beaten. His length covered up his poor man-to-man technique in college, but I wouldn’t want to see him play press on NFL receivers.
When he’s playing as a middle-of-the-field safety, he could get his eyes in the wrong place and let receivers get behind him. I believe his best fit is in a two-high system. In Cover 2, he’ll easily be able to cover a half field with more defined reads and fill the alley with authority. In Cover 4, he’ll be effective matching routes from deep with underneath help so he won’t be asked to run step-to-step on sharp cuts underneath. Additionally, he can rotate down to the box and play underneath zones.
Daxton Hill, MI
Hill is undersized at 6-feet, 190 pounds. However, he plays with an attitude of a pit bull and isn’t afraid to run into offensive tackles at full speed to get through blocks in run support. Admittedly, I might have a soft spot in my heart for these types of players. At Michigan, he played a lot in the slot but also lined up as a deep safety. Where Hill separates himself is his elite man-to-man ability and closing speed. It’s notable that Michigan had no hesitation lining him up in man coverage against some of college football’s best slot receivers. Even in man coverage, he’s physical and wants to dominate receivers at the line of scrimmage with aggressive jams.
At Penn State, 10:50 remaining in the first quarter, third-and-4
Against Penn State, Hill was regularly matched up on Jahan Dotson, who could be a first- or second-round pick in this year’s draft. On this play, he was lined up in off coverage against Penn State’s stacked alignment to avoid being picked.
Dotson released inside and vertical, but Hill maintained his outside leverage because he had help inside.
Dotson tried to shake him at the top of the route, but Hill didn’t overreact and smoothly flipped his hips to stay on top of Dotson.
His game against Dotson was one of his most impressive performances of the season and showed he could at least be a high-level nickelback if he can’t perform at safety. Hill can get overaggressive in man coverage when he tries to jam too hard at the line of scrimmage or bite on double moves, but he has the movement skills and burst to be very effective against shifty slot receivers.
One of the reasons he isn’t automatically slotted as a nickel and can play safety at his size is his burst and first step. When he’s playing deep safety or in an underneath zone, his closing speed pops on tape.
At Penn State, 1:52 remaining in the first quarter, first-and-10
Here, he’s lined up in the nickel in Cover 4. His job is to match the slot with outside leverage.
As the slot broke inside, he shuffled inside with him but maintained his outside leverage and kept his eyes on the quarterback. The quarterback made the correct read by looking to the outside slant as soon as he saw Hill shuffle inside.
The quarterback didn’t take a false step and made a quick decision, but Hill was able to burst out of his stance and dove toward the pass and nearly intercepted the pass on the outside slant.
Hill’s click-and-close ability is reminiscent of the Arizona Cardinals’ Budda Baker, who is more undersized than Hill. He can knife into the backfield in a hurry and make tackles behind the line of scrimmage, chasing down plays from the weak side. He’s an effective blitzer because of his sheer explosion from a two-point stance and can hold his disguise until the last second. In the right system, Hill can be a true joker because of his ability to play man-to-man, burst and tenacity.
His size will push him to get drafted late in the first round or in the second round. Baker fell to the second because of size. I’m not saying Hill will be as good as Baker, but they share a lot of the same qualities that allowed Baker to excel despite being one of the smallest safeties in the league.
Lewis Cine, Georgia
Cine is tall (6-2), long, has elite athleticism, but is on the skinnier side. He ran a 4.37 40 with a 1.51 10-yard split and broad jumped 133 inches (96th percentile), which is a measure of explosion. His range shows up on tape and he routinely takes great angles to the ball — one of the most important skills for a deep safety — and although he’s light, he’ll meet the ball carrier with as much force as he can generate out of his 199-pound frame.
Versus Alabama (SEC Championship Game), 13:03 remaining in the first quarter, second-and-10
On this play, Cine (16) was responsible for playing the B-gap from a deep alignment.
He read his keys, quickly diagnosed run and got his eyes on the running back. He kept his shoulders squared to the line of scrimmage and quickly came off the roof to play his gap.
Alabama running back Brian Robinson Jr. outweighed Cine by more than 25 pounds, but Cine stopped all of his momentum and held Robinson to a short gain even though Robinson looked to have a nice hole. Cine’s tape is literate with him taking great angles and throwing his body into tackles. Because of his weight, he’s susceptible to getting run over at times, but he’s fearless. He’ll have to learn how to cut tackle more in the league.
Unlike Hamilton and Hill, Cine isn’t nearly as good in man coverage. He doesn’t play with great balance and doesn’t show great route recognition when he’s in man.
Versus Alabama (SEC Championship Game), 6:28 remaining in the fourth quarter, third-and-5
On a critical third-and-5, Georgia was in man coverage against Alabama’s bunch. The Bulldogs had a “lock-and-levels” call, meaning each defender was locked onto a man but played on different depths to avoid getting picked. Cine had the point (man on the line of scrimmage in a bunch).
The point ran a vertical stem and shook Cine at the top of the step with a little fake to the outside before breaking flat inside.
Cine bit hard on the fake and the receiver had about four steps of separation before the catch and room to run after the catch.
Though Cine isn’t as versatile as Hamilton and Hill, he has the ability to be a top-notch deep safety and that’s a valuable skill in today’s league. He would be excellent in a system that uses a lot of Cover 2.
In the past three drafts, only three safeties have been selected in the first round, and one of those safeties (Isaiah Simmons) was drafted with the intention of playing at linebacker. This year, there’s a chance that three safeties get drafted in the first because of the increasing value in the position and the intriguing skill sets of Hamilton, Hill and Cine.
(Top photo of Dax Hill: Steven Branscombe/Getty Images)