Much like the 2020 class, the 2021 NFL Draft is going to be loaded with top prospects on offense. Prospects like Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields are going to command a ton of attention during the draft cycle, and deservedly so. But don’t let the recent trend of heavy offensive focus fool you into thinking there isn’t talent on the other side of the ball.
The 2021 NFL Draft class is going to have a lot of intriguing defensive prospects. The safety class, in particular, should draw a lot of attention. There’s going to be something for everyone in this class. If you like fast, rangy players who can play single-high, this class has them. Maybe you prefer a heavy-hitter who comes up in the box and provides great run support. The 2021 class has that, too.
If you’re anything like the scouts in the NFL, however, you’re likely looking for a prospect who can fill a number of roles. In a recent tweet, NFL Network personality and former scout Daniel Jeremiah theorized that NFL teams are now looking for safeties who double up on either playing single-high, being a force player on the edge and/or provide solid slot coverage. Who are the top safeties in the 2021 NFL Draft who can check at least two of those boxes?
Top safeties of the 2021 NFL Draft
We begin our look at the top safeties of the 2021 NFL Draft with a player who I was surprised didn’t declare for the 2020 NFL Draft: Hamsah Nasirildeen. The talented Florida State product would have likely been a high pick in this year’s draft, but with his return to school, he has the chance to check off more of those boxes.
Right now, Nasirildeen is purely a box safety at the next level in my eyes. He’s the strongest of this group when it comes to run support. He’s a very solid tackler and isn’t afraid to hit anyone. He wraps up nicely and doesn’t miss very many tackles. Even with bigger running backs, Nasirildeen is adept at getting his man to the ground.
Where he struggles a bit is with the coverage aspects of the position. He doesn’t always exhibit great range and has questionable speed at the position. He’s strong and physical enough to provide coverage on tight ends, but right now I question how consistent he’ll be lined up against NFL wide receivers or when asked to cover a running back in the flat. If he can improve his coverage skills, he should be a sure-fire first-round pick in 2021.
Next, we come to the most complete of these top-5 2021 NFL Draft safety prospects: Texas safety Caden Sterns. My goodness is there a whole lot to like about Sterns’ tape. He’s not quite as strong in the run support aspects of the position as his predecessor on this list. However, that’s not to say that he’s not good at it. Where Sterns excels, however, is in coverage.
Of all the safeties on this list, Sterns probably has the best range. He’s not necessarily the fastest of the group, but he covers his area better than anyone else here. He has very good ball skills across the middle of the field and can make a play on balls that very few other safeties in this class can.
If there was a knock on Sterns, it would be his tackling. He’s a good tackler, but he’s not great in that aspect. He needs to get better at wrapping up and making sure he finishes each tackle. Even with that knock on him, I expect Sterns to be the first safety off the board in the 2021 NFL Draft. He’s a good one to watch.
If you don’t know the name Andre Cisco, you need to start watching some Syracuse football. Out of all the top safeties in the 2021 NFL Draft class, Cisco has the best ball skills. He led the NCAA in interceptions (7) as a freshman, then backed it up by leading the ACC — and came in seventh in the nation in interceptions (5) in his sophomore season. He’s also very good in run support. Not quite as strong in that aspect as Nasirildeen, but above Sterns.
He also checks off the versatility box, as Cisco can rotate to a single-high look and provide you with a rangy safety. He can also move outside to cover wide receivers in the slot. He doesn’t quite have the speed and range of Sterns but is more than capable.
If there’s a knock on his game, it’s that he needs to be more consistent in his tackling as well. The effort and “want to” is there, but too often he looks to make a big hit instead of wrapping up and securing the tackle.
It’s incredibly early, but right now, Nasirildeen, Sterns, and Cisco are my top-3 safeties in the 2021 NFL Draft class. Each one of those guys, should they continue to progress next season, can make a case for being a first-round selection.
Jevon Holland, the safety from Oregon, would be next on my list and is likely a high-second round selection. In a lot of ways, he’s Caden Sterns-lite. Holland has better range than Cisco and better coverage skills than Nasirildeen but is not as strong in run support as either of them. That’s not to say he won’t lay the wood on a guy when he gets the chance, though.
Holland has better ball skills than Nasirildeen and is on par with that of Sterns. Where he falls short in my eyes is with the versatility aspect of the position. I’m not confident in his ability to consistently cover wide receivers in the slot. However, what he does lack in that aspect, he makes up by adding versatility with special teams. He is a very good punt returner, and that should interest a lot of teams.
Rounding out our look at the top safeties in the 2021 NFL Draft class is Georgia Bulldogs’ safety Richard LeCounte. LeCounte may be my lowest-rated safety of this bunch, but he’s still a very solid prospect.
LeCounte does everything well but does not stand out in any one aspect of playing the position. His strongest asset is his versatility, being able to move across the field and play both safety and corner. That’s going to be a big checkmark in his favor when it comes time for his evaluation. However, I don’t think his overall coverage skills quite match those of Sterns or Holland. He doesn’t provide the run support that Nasirildeen does, and he doesn’t have the ball skills of Cisco.
In a highly competitive 2021 safety class, LeCounte rounds out the top-5, but I would still place him in the middle-to-late portions of the second round. This is going to be a very fun class to watch. I can’t wait to see how each of these guys progress throughout the 2020 college football season.