As always, every prospect will be limited to two categories max so as to not just list one player (Isaiah Simmons) over and over.
Build: Jeremy Chinn, Southern Illinois
There are two reasons the answer is not Isaiah Simmons. For one, since I am limiting each player to just two sections, there is no chance I’m wasting one of the best safety’s two slots on his build. Second, the answer may not even be Simmons anyway considering one may argue Simmons is too tall and stout, which can lend to him being a bit stiff at times.
That is not a concern with Jeremy Chinn. At 6-foot-3 and 221-pounds, Chinn is an inch shorter and seventeen pounds lighter than Simmons. Additionally, Chinn measured in with 32 ⅛” arms — about an inch and a quarter shorter than Simmons.
Just looking at him, Chinn is a tall, lean athlete with just enough pack in his punch and hop in his step to play all over the field from linebacker to strong safety to free safety.
Speed: Isaiah Simmons, Clemson
4.39. Four point three nine. At 6-foot-4 and 238-pounds, no earthly being should be able to run a sub-4.40 40-yard dash, but perhaps Isaiah Simmons really is from another planet.
Regardless of size, Simmons' speed is absurd. According to Mockdraftable, a 4.39 40-yard dash ranks in the 95th percentile among safeties and in the 89th percentile among all defensive backs, which would include cornerbacks. Simmons is somehow taller, bigger, and faster than Derwin James, who many viewed as an unthinkable athlete in his own right.
The speed is clear as day on film, too. Be it from a linebacker spot (which Simmons did not play as much of in 2019), a safety position, or at the nickel, Simmons always looked like the best athlete on the field. Simmons can trigger downhill toward the line of scrimmage with as much raw speed as he shows moving sideline to sideline, both of which blend together to make him a threatening strong safety prospect similar to James or Kam Chancellor.
Even in deep coverage, Simmons flashes the speed and range of a high-end safety. Over 100 of Simmons' snaps in 2019 came from a legit free safety alignment, which was not at all the case the previous season. For whatever reason, DC Brent Venables developed an even higher confidence in Simmons' speed and processing as a cover guy and let a linebacker-sized man roam around 20 yards down the field in both one-high and two-high shells. On paper, it sounds absurd, but Simmons made it look as natural as any.
The truth about this play is that Simmons is not doing some Earl Thomas impression as a legit ballhawking free safety. Rather, Clemson have a called rotation that spins Simmons from a one-high alignment to be a deep-half player to the short side of the field while a DB at much shorter depth on the wide side of the field bails up to be the deep-half player to that side. In other words, Simmons was always going to be moving towards this play by nature of his assignment, but the speed at which he covers that ground and beats the ball to the catch point with time to spare should not be possible at 240-pounds.
Agility / Change of Direction: K’Von Wallace, Clemson
Another Clemson guy! For every "elite" versatile defensive back, there must be a counterpart who serves to fill in the holes of the defense wherever the "elite" player is playing away from. A Robin to the "elite" player's Batman, if you will. Ronnie Harrison was Robin to Minkah Fitzpatrick's Batman at Alabama, for example -- and for my money, that 2017 Alabama secondary is the best and most cohesive a college secondary has looked in at least a decade.
Anyway, K'Von Wallace was that for Simmons. Though not a linebacker in stature or dripping with track star speed, Wallace is a plenty good player in his own right who did well to fill in opposite Simmons. In many cases, this meant playing a split-field alignment opposite Simmons or filling into the nickel whenever Simmons rolled down into the box. Heck, Wallace even played a bit as a box and line of scrimmage defender himself.
On top of strong tackling skills, it is Wallace's smooth hips and short-area burst that gives him the tools to function as a split-safety and nickel defender. He has the seamless transitions in and out of breaks necessary to keep up with slippery wide receivers from the slot, as well as the raw explosive ability to close on passes in his area when operating out of zone shells.
Wallace's play style holds up via his athletic testing, too. Though his 4.53s 40-yard dash is nothing to note good or bad, Wallace posted a 6.76s three-cone time, which ranked first among defensive backs and second only to Denzel Mims among all NFL combine participants in 2020.
Tackling: Xavier McKinney, Alabama
A compilation of Xavier McKinney's tackles last season would serve as the best defensive back tackling teach tape around. As is often the case with Nick Saban's favorite defensive backs, McKinney is sharp as hell not only in the way that he sees the game, but in the way he approaches it. You can tell in McKinney's form and urgency that his tackling style isn't an accident -- it's something he's spent time on perfecting.
McKinney understands how to break down, drive through his near foot, and wrap up around a ball carrier's midriff to dismantle their core balance and bring them down. On top of near-flawless technique, McKinney also plays with excellent strength for a defensive back. Not only does he pack a punch (like against Clyde Edwards-Helaire on that second clip), but he has the muscle to wrap players up and rip them down, if need be.
If anything, McKinney's average athletic ability can get him beat in space from time to time, but even then, McKinney regularly takes excellent angles to the ball. It is rare that McKinney exposes himself to being beaten in space and he still is not a bad tackler by any means in that regard.
If a defensive coordinator really wants a guy to patrol the sticks and not allow anyone to cross that imaginary line, McKinney is the man for the job.
Processing: Xavier McKinney, Alabama
Back-to-back categories for Xavier McKinney here. As alluded to in the previous section, McKinney is a fantastic processor of the game. His athletic ability fails him at times, but no safety in this class, not even Isaiah Simmons, sees and understands the game quite like McKinney. He has a rare understanding of angles, leverage, and opposing tendencies, and his work in the film room leading up to game day is easy to see.
The execution on tape isn't the only barometer for McKinney's excellent processing either. In a year in which Alabama's secondary was having a bit of a "down" season talent-wise, Saban trusted McKinney to be their most versatile player. Nickel, dime linebacker, split-safety, free-safety -- McKinney played all over the board and often filled into the most difficult positions on the defense without much help. In turn, McKinney's versatility protected players such as free safety Jared Mayden, who just did not have the agility and short-area trigger to be anything other than a single-high safety, which he was allowed to play frequently because of McKinney.
Of course, the Saban "trust" thing is mostly conjecture on my end, but if you look back at all the safeties Saban has given the most responsibility to such as Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Eddie Jackson, and Fitzpatrick, he doesn't often miss.
Man Coverage: Isaiah Simmons, Clemson
Of all the category winners, this may actually be the most contentious, even though consensus top-10 Isaiah Simmons is the choice. To some, one of the concerns with Simmons is that he is too tall and stiff to manage playing in man coverage, especially against some of the NFL's smaller and quicker slot receivers. While that may generally be somewhat true, Simmons is more often going to be matched up on tight ends and "big slot" receivers anyway.
And even so, many of Simmons' man coverage reps against standard slot receivers are good, particularly when working vertically. Simmons understands very well how to mirror a WR's stem and flip his hips to run with them while attaching himself into their hip "pocket" to help slow their momentum.
Against some of the shiftier route runners Simmons will see in the NFL, he will surely lose some reps, but the same is true of almost all of the league's top cover safeties. It's why they are safeties, not cornerbacks. If a player is that special in man coverage, there is a zero percent chance a coach is putting that talent at safety over cornerback. Just look at Jalen Ramsey.
So while Simmons may not necessarily be elite in man coverage when compared to cornerbacks and legit nickels, he is on the high-end of the spectrum as far as safeties go -- and that is all that really matters given that he is, well, a safety.
Zone Coverage: Grant Delpit, LSU
As far as underneath zones such as hook and curl/flat assignments, Xavier McKinney likely has the edge over Grant Delpit. However, Delpit is the best deep zone defender in this class, which is a bit more of a valuable skill than being able to dominate in the short area. When Delpit is really clicking, he looks like he can be one of the best single-high safeties in the league.
Ole Miss' QB sort of gifts Delpit the interception here by overthrowing the WR, but even had this ball been perfectly in stride, Delpit would have been there to break up the pass. Delpit flew all the way over from his alignment right between the hashes to the sideline as swiftly as anyone but Earl Thomas could. That kind of range is incredibly rare to find.
Likewise, Delpit has a sharp eye when playing routes that break in front of him. Be that from a one-high or two-high shell, Delpit has the eyes and trigger to be a lethal ballhawk and pass disruptor.
In this clip, Delpit is playing over the hash and has to midpoint between the two pass-catchers playing on either side of the hash. Delpit does not commit one way or the other until the quarterback begins to draw his arm back, so Delpit's only time to close on the ball is within the small window from the quarterback's wind-up to the ball hitting the receiver's hands. There is no real opportunity to jump this early. And yet, Delpit still manages to sprint over just in time to deliver a crushing blow to the potential pass-catcher, knocking the ball loose right at the goal line to prevent a touchdown.
Eyes, trigger, speed -- Delpit has it all.