Thin safety class features more size than usual

Posted April 26, 2012 @ 3:57 p.m.
Posted By Nolan Nawrocki

This is the last of a 12-part series that offers up scouting reports on PFW’s top five-ranked players at their respective positions in the 2012 NFL draft. Full scouting reports and the latest buzz on nearly 500 draft prospects, including results from roughly 200 pro days, can be found in PFW’s Draft Database.

Similar to the safety class of 2008, this year’s crop lacks both quality and depth. Injury concerns did not keep Miami’s Kenny Phillips from entering the first round, and they do not figure to keep Mark Barron out either, but his double-hernia surgery could bring value to the back half of the first round. Notre Dame’s Harrison Smith stands alone as the only true starting free safety prospect in the draft. Boise State’s George Iloka and Oklahoma State’s Markelle Martin have the size and physical talent to pique the interest of coaches, but will always have limitations as starters. Oregon State’s Brandon Hardin, despite missing the season with injury, could find a role. Alabama’s DeQuan Menzie may project better to safety than corner, and Michigan State’s Trent Robinson may prove to be a better corner than safety, but their coverage skills and toughness will allow both to carve niches.

1. SS Mark Barron, Alabama
Ht: 6-1, Wt: 213, Sp: 4.50e, Arm: 33 5⁄8, Hand: 9 1⁄2

Notes: A special-teams player as a true freshman in 2008, recorded 18 tackles, zero pass breakups and zero interceptions with one sack in 14 games while learning multiple DB positions. Stepped into the lineup in ’09, when he started all 14 games at strong safety for the national champs and responded by posting 76-11-7 with 31⁄2 tackles for loss and half a sack. Led the Southeastern Conference in interceptions and tied for the lead in passes defended (18). Started all 12 games in which he played at strong safety in ’10, logging 75-6-3 with three tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble. Won another national title in ’11, logging 68-5-2 with five tackles for loss and one sack in 13 games (12 starts). Underwent double hernia surgery in February and did not participate at the Combine. Two-time team captain.

Bottom line: Alabama coach Nick Saban wisely protected him in coverage as a senior and allowed him to excel in the box, where he is most physical and consistently shows up in run support. However, he showed he possessed enough range off the hash as a junior and is capable of becoming an interchangeable back-half defender. Double hernia surgery might affect draft status, but not much given dearth of safety talent in the draft. Can walk into a starting lineup from Day One and become a leader in the secondary. A good functional football player who has drawn comparisons from scouts to Seattle Seahawks Pro Bowl safety Kam Chancellor. 

NFL projection: First-round pick.

2. FS Harrison Smith, Notre Dame
Ht: 6-1 7⁄8, Wt: 213, Sp: 4.58, Arm: 32 5⁄8, Hand: 10 1⁄4

Notes: Redshirted in ’07. Moved to linebacker for the ’08 season and started 9-of-13 contests (seven at outside linebacker and two at inside linebacker), recording 57 tackles, seven pass breakups and zero interceptions with 81⁄2 tackles for loss and 31⁄2 sacks. His non-starts were because the Irish started an extra defensive back. Started all 12 games — the first six at free safety and the final six at “Sam” linebacker — in ’09, posting 69-4-0 with 61⁄2 tackles for loss and one forced fumble. Led the team in interceptions in ’10 after recording 91-7-7 with half a tackle for loss in 13 starts at free safety. Tied Sun Bowl and school records with three interceptions against Miami (Fla.). In 13 starts at safety in ’11, he totaled 90-10-0 with three tackles for loss and one forced fumble. Two-time team captain.

Bottom line: Very consistent, savvy, instinctive, interchangeable safety with the competitiveness and football-playing temperament to command a secondary and factor readily against the run and pass. Offers comfort as the last line of defense and could be a good functional starter for a long time.

NFL projection: Top-40 pick.

3. FS George Iloka, Boise State
Ht: 6-3 5⁄8, Wt: 225, Sp: 4.63, Arm: 34 5⁄8, Hand: 9 5⁄8

Notes: Played all 13 games in 2008, drawing five starts at free safety, and recorded 63 tackles, six pass breakups and four interceptions with 61⁄2 tackles for loss and one sack. Started all 27 games at the FS spot the next two seasons — totaled 48-5-1 with 21⁄2 tackles for loss in ’09 (14 games) and 63-5-2 with three tackles for loss and a forced fumble in ’10 (13 games). Logged 58-1-0 with three tackles for loss and one forced fumble in 13 starts — first 10 games at free safety and the final three at cornerback — in ’11.

Bottom line: Narrow-framed, exceptionally long, rangy free safety prospect with growth potential and intriguing upside given his combination of rare size and starter-caliber athletic ability. However, missed tackles repeatedly show on tape, has not proven to be a playmaker and might be more of a deterrent in the pros, especially given the proliferation of athletic tight ends.

NFL projection: Second- to third-round pick.

4. FS Brandon Hardin, Oregon State
Ht: 6-2 7⁄8, Wt: 216, Sp: 4.50, Arm: 31 1⁄2, Hand: 9 1⁄8

Notes: Redshirted in 2007. Saw action in 13 games at cornerback in ’08, making 13 tackles, zero pass breakups and no interceptions with half a tackle for loss. Fractured his left hand and right wrist in early October against Utah and played the rest of the season with the injuries. Was part of a three-man rotation at cornerback in ’09 while playing in all 13 games with three starts at right cornerback and recording 29-4-1.  Made all 12 starts at RCB in ’10 with 63-3-0 with 11⁄2 tackles for loss, one sack, three forced fumbles and one blocked extra point. Graduated in June. Missed the ’11 season after suffering a broken shoulder, which required surgery, during fall camp but returned to play in the East-West Shrine Game in January ’12.

Bottom line: Intriguing size-speed prospect who looks like a safety and was athletic enough to play corner in college. Has desirable intangibles and at worst should be a versatile, valuable backup and core special-teams player. Has more upside than former OSU safety Sabby Piscitelli, who was overdrafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2007.

NFL projection: Third- to fourth-round pick.

5. FS-CB DeQuan Menzie, Alabama

Ht: 5-10 34, Wt: 202, Sp: 4.69, Arm: 30, Hand: 8 58

Notes: Was a prep standout in Georgia before attending Copiah-Lincoln Community College (Miss.) for two years, where he recorded 40 tackles and six interceptions in 2008 and 51 tackles and one interception in ’09 as a two-year starter. At Alabama, suffered a torn Achilles in April ’10 but returned to start the season opener against San Jose State. Played in 12 games (six starts) in ’10, recording 33 tackles, four pass breakups and zero interceptions with five tackles for loss and two sacks. Made two starts at RCB spot and four as a nickel back. Started all 13 games for the national champions in ’11 and totaled 41-11-1 with four tackles for loss, 11⁄2 sacks. Returned his lone interception 25 yards for a TD against Arkansas. Suffered a left shoulder injury at the Senior Bowl and did not run at the Combine because of a strained right hamstring.

Bottom line: Tough, competitive college cornerback who projects better to safety, where his physicality plays better. Might not have the juice to start, but could be a solid backup for a zone team and become a fourth safety and special-teams producer. Has make-it qualities and will find a way to contribute. Scouts have compared him to a poor man’s version of Houston Texans starting SS Glover Quin.

NFL projection: Fourth- to fifth-round pick.

Click here to read scouting reports on intriguing safety talent.