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2023 NFL Combine preview: 8 safeties the Lions should be watching

Identifying who and what to watch at safety during the 2023 NFL Combine.

Ohio State Buckeyes v Georgia Bulldogs Photo by Steve Limentani/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The 2023 NFL Combine is underway, with the first prospects arriving in their positional groups on Monday. Over the first few days, players will get medical checks, meet with NFL teams, and take the podium to answer questions from the media. Then on Thursday, March 2, the league will start four days of televised coverage of on-field drills.

This is the final article in our series that explored the participants at this year’s combine, focusing on prospects that the Detroit Lions should be keeping a close eye on during positional activities. If you missed any of our previous installments, check them out here: Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive linemen, interior defensive linemen, edge rushers, linebackers, and cornerbacks.

Last up: safeties

Team need

With presumed starters Kerby Joseph and Tracy Walker under contract, and former third-round pick Ifeatu Melifonwu in the fold, safety looks like a minor need on the surface. But with injury (Walker), free agent (DeShon Elliott), and developmental (Melifonwu) question marks, the Lions may feel the need to grab some insurance at the position.

What to watch for

A lot of the same traits listed amongst the cornerbacks group should be paid attention to here as well. Are they balanced through their hips and how fluid are they when unlocking their hips? The biggest thing that will separate safeties is their ability to click and close, so any drill that highlights a change of direction will be helpful in understanding a player’s positional range.

Now, on to the prospects.

Note: Brian Branch (Alabama) is arguably the top safety in this class, but in Detroit, he would most likely play nickel corner, which is why he was listed in the cornerbacks article and not the safeties.

The DB/LB hybrids

Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M, 6-foot-3, 195

Cut from the same mold as Jeremy Chinn (Panthers) and Kyle Dugger (Patriots), Johnson is a hybrid player who rotates between safety, the slot, and linebacker. Right now, Johnson can be an impactful player against the run but needs some polish on his coverage skills. In Detroit, he would probably live as a slot option who is schemed to stay in the box as much as possible as he develops. Like Chinn and Dugger, he will likely come off the board in Round 2.

JL Skinner, Boise State, 6-foot-4, 211

I’m cheating a bit here because Skinner injured his shoulder a week before the Combine and won’t be participating, but he spends about 60% of his snaps in the box and loves to use his length/power to deliver hits. He’s excellent in run support and can run with tight ends, which should get him drafted on Day 2.

The NB/SAF hybrids

These are players who would primarily play in the slot for the Lions but also have the positional range to play safety.

Christopher Smith, Georgia, 5-foot-11, 195

Smith is so good in coverage, I almost included him in my cornerbacks article as another option behind Brian Branch as a nickel corner. He’s an incredibly hard worker, pushes his body to the limits, and is fearless when attacking downhill, despite his size. His frame and instincts as a deep safety have pushed him down draft boards—typically estimated to be in the third-round range—but he would be a plug-and-play slot corner for the Lions, and is a player I’d feel comfortable seeing the Lions grab with any of their Day 2 picks.

Jartavious “Quan” Martin, Illinois, 5-foot-11, 194

One of “my guys” in this draft class, Martin has a lot of the same traits that make Brian Branch special. He is quick to close on screens and runs, and is fearless when taking on blockers much bigger than him. Silky smooth in coverage, Martin plays through the offensive player when tackling or breaking up a play. Martin is flying way under the radar on most draft boards—where he seems to only have Day 3 grades.

Jammie Robinson, Florida State, 5-foot-11, 197

Twitchy, physical, and aggressive, Robinson is probably best suited as a nickel corner in the NFL. He plays with a mean streak, looks to deliver punishment against runners, and approaches every snap like the game is on the line. One of the biggest drawbacks for Robinson is his length (under 30” arm length) but that trait can be covered up by sticking inside. Bottom line with Robinson is he fits the culture and has potential starting-level traits at inside nickel.

Anthony Johnson Jr., Iowa State, 6-foot-0, 208

Johnson is a bit of a Day 3 sleeper right now. He started his career at corner, then shifted to safety—splitting his time equally between the slot and the box—and in the NFL he may benefit from shifting inside full-time. Like most of the prospects in this section, Johnson is quick in small spaces, likes to deliver hits, and isn’t afraid to take on blockers. His leadership and never-give-up-on-a-play attitude will be appealing to this coaching staff.

Ballhawks

These are players who would play primarily at safety, but could see as many as a third of their snaps in the slot. Basically, if they slide on draft day, they’re worth considering because of their potential upside.

Ji’Ayir Brown, Penn State, 5-foot-11, 210

Brown’s projected value is all over the map. I highlighted him earlier in the season because of his ability to be a ball-hawking safety, but I wasn’t sure he’d be much more than that. Now, if you look around the draft community the reviews are heavily mixed. NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein has Brown ranked as a top 40 prospect, The Athletic’s Dane Brugler lists him at No. 68 on his big board, PFF checks him in at No. 120, while The Draft Network lists him as prospect No. 300. If he does slide to Day 3, his 10 interceptions in the past two seasons is worth taking note of.

Sydney Brown, Illinois, 6-foot-0, 200

Brown is a terrific run defender with instincts for the ball in the air (10 career interceptions) who spends most of his time in the box but can give a team reps in the slot as well. He has a lot to gain at the Combine because there are debates in the draft community about his overall athleticism. If he can prove his doubters wrong, his stock should go up and he could come off the board on Day 2. But if he struggles, and his stock slides, the Lions may consider investing in him because he looks plenty athletic on film and his reported college GPS scores—something the Lions covet—speak to his ability to lay it on the line when on the field.