Patriots draft positional preview: Safeties
PATRIOTS PRE-DRAFT POSITIONAL PREVIEW: SAFETIES
The Patriots have been neutered at the top of the 2016 NFL Draft, but they aren’t wholly impotent with 11 total picks . . . including four in the first 100 picks. Enjoy this Patriot-centric look at the team’s status at safety, the best available players at that position and which direction the Patriots may be inclined to go when they are on the clock.
SAFETY NEED LEVEL: 3
Do the Patriots need a safety for 2016? No, not really. Their top four players at the position from 2015 will all be back, including starters Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung. Part-time starter Duron Harmon -- who played the deep middle portion of the field when the team used its three-safety packages -- and last year's second-round pick Jordan Richards will also return. But could the Patriots use another player at that spot for 2017 and beyond? Perhaps. While McCourty, Chung and Richards are all under contract through at least 2018, Harmon is in the final year of his deal. As Bill Belichick's lone proven free safety behind McCourty, Harmon's role is a significant one. He started in seven games last year, including both playoff contests, and he finished as a top-20 player at his position, according to Pro Football Focus. Barring a down 2016, there could very well be a team somewhere that will be willing to pay him like a starter. The Patriots may be inclined to find a rangy safety that in this year's draft if they're at all worried about losing Harmon to free agency. Still, their need level here is a long way from desperate.
Karl Joseph, West Virginia, 5-10, 205 pounds
In what is generally a ho-hum class of safeties, Joseph pops. An instinctive heat-seeking missile who finishes plays violently, he'll provide opposing receivers a twinge of doubt before they run over the middle of the field. His draft stock took a hit after he tore his ACL early last season, but he's still the top safety in the class.
Vonn Bell, Ohio State, 5-11, 199 pounds
More of a classic free safety, Bell secured the back end of one of the most talented defenses in the country last season. He doesn't project as a game-changer at the next level, but he's a good athlete who will consistently find himself in the right place at the right time due to his football smarts.
Keanu Neal, Florida, 6-0, 211 pounds
Neal may be the best combination of size and athleticism at the position. He looks the part of an NFL strong safety and stood out as a thumping tackler in Gainesville. In the right scheme, he should quickly boost his new team's ability to defend against the run, and he's athletic enough to play in space.
Jeremy Cash, Duke, 6-0, 212 pounds
Neal may be gone before the Patriots pick at No. 60, but we're starting to get into prospects who may still be available even though they're thought of as one of the best at their position this year. Cash is a multi-faceted tweener, who saw success as a blitzer for the Blue Devils but is athletic enough to cover backs and tight ends. He may find himself being used as an outside linebacker as a pro.
Darian Thompson, Boise State, 6-2, 208
With above-average size for the position and a knack for getting his hands on the football (five picks in 2015), Thompson will be an attractive target for teams in the market for well-rounded safeties. Though his technique as a tackler could use work, he plays with an edge that will translate.
Justin Simmons, Boston College, 6-2, 202
One of the leaders of a talented Eagles defense in 2015, he finished the year with five picks. A heady player who knows how to get his teammates aligned in the secondary, Simmons is an effective tackler who also covered kicks in college. Though he may not have the prototypical build for his position, his combine numbers -- 40-inch vertical, 10-foot-6 broad jump, 6.58 three-cone -- could make him an intriguing option for the Patriots as a special teamer and a reserve free safety.
DeAndre Houston-Carson, William & Mary, 6-1, 201 pounds
A three-year starter at corner, Houston-Carson dominated his FCS competition last year as a free safety. A team captain, he has extensive experience on "teams," having racked up nine blocked kicks in his career. The Patriots have had success with small-school defensive backs in the very recent past. Could they be enticed to use one of their 11 selections on another?
Kevin Byard, Middle Tennessee State, 5-11, 216 pounds
You can't argue with the production this Pro Football Focus favorite put up for the Blue Raiders. A well-built but rangy free safety, Byard has 19 career picks, including four last season. If the Patriots believe he can play as a true single-high free safety, they may like the idea of bringing him aboard thanks to his savvy and ball skills. The level of competition he saw in Conference USA may help knock down his draft grade in war rooms across the league.
Tyvis Powell, Ohio State, 6-3, 211 pounds
Bell's collegiate partner in crime has the frame that might make him look like a destroyer in the running game. He didn't play with that kind of physicality for the Buckeyes, but his speed (4.46-second 40-yard dash at the combine) and his hands (seven interceptions in 2014 and 2015) could make him a fit for a Harmon-like role in the future.