Top 10 S in the 2023 NFL Draft: Brian Branch Challenging for the Top Spot

Could a surprise name emerge at the top of the 2023 NFL Draft safety class? Boise State's JL Skinner is looking to solidify his stock this season.

The 2023 NFL Draft safety class remains an enigma, even as the 2022 campaign slowly winds down. But there’s still an exciting blend of talent and versatility present. Whether you want a menace in the box, a versatile nickel defender, or a classic do-it-all utility piece, there are molds to choose from in this group.

Top 10 Safeties in the 2023 NFL Draft

10) Mark Perry, TCU

His name doesn’t often get mentioned among the top safeties in the 2023 NFL Draft. But perhaps it’s time more respect is afforded to one of the unsung heroes of TCU’s defense: defensive back Mark Perry.

Perry, who transferred over from Colorado after putting up three interceptions in 2021, has 57 tackles, four tackles for loss, and two deflections in 10 games this year. It’s not eye-popping production by any means, and making plays on the ball is one area where Perry can improve. But he’s absolutely a case of tape > production.

Perry stands at 6’0″, 215 pounds. On tape, he moves incredibly freely for that size. He’s fleet-footed, agile, explosive coming downhill, and offers enough range on the back end. He can play in space as a two-high safety and also has the short-area athleticism, technique, and physicality to hold his own in the slot.

All in all, Perry is a versatile, athletic defender who also offers tenacious physicality and excellent tackling ability in support. The team that notices Perry and takes a chance on him, could very well stand to benefit.

9) Jay Ward, LSU

Jay Ward may end up having one of the largest spreads of any 2023 NFL Draft safety prospect. At 6’1″, 180 pounds, one has to wonder how Ward’s lean frame will project to the NFL. He’ll need to add weight, but if he can, his projection is a very unique one.

Ward is a former cornerback who’s played on the boundary before, and he has the lateral agility and fluidity to match with his length. He made the switch to safety in 2021, and now shifts between true safety and the nickel role, where his coverage building blocks translate very well.

Ward’s background grants him very natural coverage ability. But even more surprising is Ward’s ability in run support. Despite being underweight for his frame, he’s a sound tackler who uses his length to wrap up, processes quickly, and takes good angles to the ball.

8) Kenny Logan Jr., Kansas

Some safeties just rack up numbers in college. Kenny Logan Jr. is that kind of safety for Kansas. After amassing 110 tackles and six deflections in 2021, Logan has 80 tackles, two picks, and three more deflections in 2022 — a testament to his all-around playmaking ability and consistency on the back end.

MORE: Top 10 Cornerbacks in the 2023 NFL Draft

When you see his production, Logan’s background becomes all the more intriguing. He has kick-returning experience, and that brand of athleticism shows up often in space. But he also has the range to cover ground, close windows in deep coverage, and quickly enforce in run support.

Kansas’ success in 2022 has granted the program much-deserved recognition, but Logan still feels a bit overlooked in the 2023 NFL Draft safety class. He’s an exciting prospect with proven two-phase ability, and he could go on to be a solid pro.

7) Brandon Joseph, Notre Dame

Brandon Joseph‘s six-interception 2020 campaign with Northwestern feels like it was a lifetime ago. Since then, Joseph regressed a bit in 2021, before transferring to Notre Dame and showing familiar inconsistencies with tackling and pursuit angles on early 2022 tape.

Joseph still sometimes struggles coming downhill — an issue that will lose him some appeal in NFL scouting circles. But the flashes of playmaking ability and natural instincts in coverage are more than enough to sustain excitement for Joseph’s projection.

A 29-yard pick-six against Syracuse several weeks ago was one of those moments for Joseph. Joseph quickly recognized a quick in-breaking concept, loomed, and then broke in front of the pass, and used his explosiveness to house the interception. He still needs to be a more consistent two-phase player, but Joseph’s coverage upside remains very exciting.

6) Jordan Battle, Alabama

Jordan Battle‘s 2023 NFL Draft projection is one that’s remained relatively stable throughout the entire process. He’s a fairly safe, well-rounded safety prospect with a modest degree of projected versatility — at times overrated and underrated all at once.

The Alabama helmet decal may inflate Battle’s stock some. He’s not quite the dynamic athlete or playmaker that we’ve seen produced by the Crimson Tide in the past. His best trait might be his overall solidity, even if he’s a master of none.

But therein lies the security with Battle’s projection. He has good size at 6’1″, 210 pounds. He can come up into the box and tackle. He’s able to read routes and break on passes in coverage, and has enough burst to work with in intermediate zones. He’s a bit unspectacular, but there’s a role waiting for Battle as a two-high strong safety.

5) Christopher Smith, Georgia

Christopher Smith isn’t going to wow anyone on the initial eye test. He’s around average size at 5’11”, 190 pounds, and may be a bit smaller. And while he’s a good athlete, he doesn’t have elite deep speed or burst.

Where Smith wins — and where NFL safeties often need to win to stay on the field — is with his quick processing and high football IQ. He’s fluid and fleet-footed in space, very quick to react to breaks, and adept at following the QB’s eyes to the ball.

Smith’s overall mix of physical and mental tools affords him the versatility to play in space or in the slot, and he has the ball skills to convert. Over the past two seasons, Smith has five interceptions and nine pass deflections.

4) Ji’Ayir Brown, Penn State

Last cycle, the Penn State Nittany Lions had Jaquan Brisker come off the board in Round 2 to the Chicago Bears. There’s a chance they have another safety go just as high in the 2023 NFL Draft in Ji’Ayir Brown.

Brown shined alongside Brisker in 2021, and in 2022, he’s taken on the mantle as one of Penn State’s premier defensive players. Over the past two seasons combined, Brown has 128 total tackles, 6.5 TFLs, three sacks, nine interceptions, eight pass deflections, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries.

Brown’s production has simply been elite, and he has the tools to match. He’s a well-built 5’11”, 208-pound defender with a documented 4.45 40-yard dash and a 3.99 shuttle time, per Bruce Feldman. The explosiveness and short-area quickness translate for Brown in both phases — coming downhill with aggression and tracking in coverage to generate turnovers.

3) Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M

It hasn’t been the season that Texas A&M expected or hoped for. After coming into the year with incredibly high expectations, the Aggies are out of bowl contention. Expectations weren’t met on a team level, and Antonio Johnson has been a bit underwhelming in that sense as well.

But down years shouldn’t distract from the baseline level of talent for rare athletes.

MORE: 2023 NFL Draft Big Board

Johnson hasn’t been quite as consistent as a tackler or in coverage as he was in 2021. But he’s still an incredibly long and physical 6’3″, 200-pound DB with the explosiveness and fast feet to be a fantastic big slot at the next level.

If Johnson, a true junior, declares, there will be debates about where exactly he falls on the board. His 2021 campaign was a revelation and is a representation of the ceiling that NFL teams can unlock with him, with proper utilization and coaching.

2) JL Skinner, Boise State

JL Skinner excited the summer scouting process as one of PFN’s highest-rated safety prospects and a potential first-round selection. The 2022 campaign hasn’t quite elevated him into the unquestioned SAF1, but he’s remained a vital component of the Boise State defense and a visible high-end talent on tape.

Rare players are all the rage in a modern NFL that’s become dominated by mismatches. And when you come across a safety with the size, athleticism, and physicality that Skinner provides, it’s hard to look away.

At 6’4″, 220 pounds, Skinner has excellent size, to go along with elite explosiveness, high-end range in pursuit, and surprising short-area twitch as a mover. He brings the thunder downhill, just as you’d expect for a prospect with his build. But he’s also very able in coverage and has the potential to be a defense-defining talent in the NFL.

1) Brian Branch, Alabama

Who you have as the top safety in the 2023 NFL Draft is just as much a matter of preference and schematic need as it is a matter of talent. There are several prospects of varying molds with the skills to be considered.

However, if we’re judging on profiles alone, without schematic preference, Brian Branch has arguably made the most compelling case in 2022.

The Alabama star has 62 tackles, eight TFLs, two sacks, and seven pass deflections this year, and he’s coming off one of the best games of his career against Ole Miss.

At 6’0″, 190 pounds, Branch has solid proportional length and the high-energy athleticism to man the slot and suffocate receivers in coverage. He’s extremely physical at the stem and aggressive in run support, but also has the explosiveness and ball skills to make plays in coverage. He can be a high-level slot defender, but Branch’s skill set implies exciting versatility in the modern NFL — the mark of a top DB prospect.

Honorable Mentions

  • Ronnie Hickman, Ohio State
  • Tyler Nubin, Minnesota
  • Jerrick Reed II, New Mexico
  • Jaylon Carlies, Missouri
  • Gervarrius Owens, Houston
  • Quindell Johnson, Memphis
  • Demani Richardson, Texas A&M
  • Trey Dean III, Florida
  • Ja’Von Hicks, Cincinnati
  • Sydney Brown, Illinois

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