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Steelers 2023 NFL Draft Big Board: Safeties

The BTSC big board crew is back to analyze and rank every notable safety in the 2023 draft class.

Alabama v LSU Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Draft season is here, ladies and gentleman, and BTSC is excited to bring you our exclusive NFL Draft Big Board for the third consecutive year! Between January and April, we will be giving you an in-depth look at over 250 prospects in this draft class, ranking and analyzing noteworthy prospects at each position.

We will unveil this board one position at a time, with the final top 250 draft board coming out right before the draft. This compilation of rankings, stats, and analysis is completed by a combination of BTSC staff and community members. The rankings and grades are my own and will be updated throughout the process, while the stats and measurables are compiled by site moderator SNW. The analysis is a collaborative effort, which includes myself, Ryland B., Jeremy Betz, Noah_E., Necksnation, John O’Malley, Adam Curry, and Steve Martucci.

As it pertains to the grading scale, first-round grades will include top-five, top-ten, mid first, and late first grades. Rounds 2-4 will have early, mid, and late grades, while grades fifth round or worse will have a generic round grade. Prospects with a Round 7 grade will not be differentiated from those with an undrafted grade.

Just like last year, each big board article will be a complemented by a separate article discussing whether or not the Steelers should draft said position in the 2023 NFL Draft. Ryland will be heading up that portion of the draft coverage once again this year.

Our next position on the board is a position the Steelers could see major changes at: safety. With Terrell Edmunds and Damontae Kazee both set to hit the free agent market, it is within the realm of comprehension to believe the Steelers have their eyes on some of the top safeties in the class.

If you have any thoughts on this safety class, be sure to share it in the comment section below. Let’s dive in!

1. Brian Branch | Alabama | 6’0”, 190 lbs

2022 Stats: GP 13, T 90, TFL 14, S 3, Int 2, PD 7.
Wilbar’s Grade: Late 1st

Jeremy Betz: Brian Branch is the total package at Safety, with the versatility to play multiple positions in the secondary. In deep coverage, Branch displays impressive eye discipline and range. He has good ball skills and excels in man coverage against WRs and TEs on the perimeter. Branch is even better in a hybrid LB role as an enforcer in run support. He can really lower the boom on RBs in the hole and on crossing routes over the middle. He has good speed and athleticism to run with more athletic pass catchers. What separates Branch from the other safeties in this class though is his work as a blitzer. Branch diagnoses the play well and can affect QBs in the backfield and track scrambling passers with ease. Probably a mid to late 1st round pick in 2023, Branch can start right away and his experience in a pro-style defensive scheme means the transition to the NFL should go smoothly.

2. JL Skinner | Boise State | 6’4”, 218 lbs

2022 Stats: GP 12, T 65, TFL .5, Int 4, PD 5.
Wilbar’s Grade: Mid 2nd

Andrew Wilbar: Skinner is quite the prospect. At 6’4”, the Boise State product possesses unparalleled length in this class of safeties. When Skinner reacts quick enough, he does a good job of getting in passing lanes and making plays on the ball, as his ball skills are one of the most intriguing parts of his game. The downside is that he sometimes struggles reacting quickly to the ball, causing him to give up the occasional big play. His ball-tracking skills down the field are superior to just about anyone, and he has the speed to keep up with most receivers 1-on-1 once he accelerates to full speed. There is still development that needs to take place, but he may have the highest ceiling of any safety in the class.

3. Antonio Johnson | Texas A&M | 6’3”, 200 lbs

2022 Stats: GP 9, T 71, TFL 5, S 1, Int 0, PD 1.
Wilbar’s Grade: Mid 2nd

Ryland B.: There’s a lot to love about Antonio Johnson’s play at safety. He’s a heat-seeking missile when coming downhill, not just making highlight-reel hits but being a secure tackler as well. He’s a feisty and effective blitzer with a high motor and great range near the line of scrimmage. Johnson’s athleticism and elite burst make him solid in coverage, but his backpedal, hip-switch, and general lateral movement can be just a tad slow. His instincts in coverage can be inconsistent at times. Johnson still has a lot of work to do as a center-fielder safety, but as a nickel back or box safety he has some great potential. His fearless style of play reminds in some ways of former Steeler Mike Hilton.

4. Sydney Brown | Illinois | 6’0”, 200 lbs

2022 Stats: GP 12, T 60, TFL 3.5, S 1 Int 6, PD 7.
Wilbar’s Grade: Mid 2nd

Andrew Wilbar: Brown measured in at 5’10” at the Senior Bowl, which is 2 inches shorter than he was listed as. Nonetheless, he is a living missile on the field. Brown is a dynamic athlete who possesses great range, fluidity in coverage, and outstanding instincts. One of the biggest risers at the Senior Bowl, Brown has consistently showcased his ability to come downhill and play the run, hang with dynamic receivers in coverage, and even blitz off the edge. I want to see the Steelers bring back Terrell Edmunds as much as anyone else, if not more; however, if that does not work out, I would love to bring in Brown as a replacement. Do not take this comparison out of context, but from the hair, to the athleticism, to the ability to make splash plays, he does show flashes of a prime Troy Polomalu when at his best. He is still a little rough around the edges, but the ceiling is super high for Brown.

5. Ji’Ayir Brown | Penn State | 5’11”, 205 lbs

2022 Stats: GP 13, T 74, TFL 7, S 4.5, Int 4, PD 3.
Wilbar’s Grade: Mid 3rd

John O.: Brown is an interesting downhill player. Despite being a safety, he has solid blitz skills. He comes downhill in the running game and fills gaps fairly well. His tackling isn’t flawless. He’ll miss a few. But he creates turnovers and plays several roles – blitzer, deep middle on passing downs, and a quasi-LB role at times when long yardage is needed. His movement in a straight line looks fine. His combine times aren’t known yet, but his straight line speed seems acceptable. The main issue will be his mobility side to side. His hips look a little stiff, and his stocky build occasionally gives him trouble getting to the sideline or into passing gaps. He anticipates at times which may help him. He had a great INT against Auburn via anticipating a throw and contorting his body to catch the ball. He plays a little like Edmunds although Brown is likely better at blitzing. He likely possesses less speed and agility than Edmunds though. If Edmunds departs, I could see Brown in the black and gold. His ability to cover TEs and play coverage generally will be the issue. He can do the rest once his tackling gets a primer. Penn State had a good pass rush this year plus useful blitz packages so it’s unclear exactly how much work in coverage Brown will need. He will clearly need work; it’s the question of degree that’s the tougher part of the equation. Overall, he’s either another Edmunds-type player or Anthony Smith so he may go in the draft anywhere between rounds 2-5. There’s a huge gap between those players.

6. Jordan Battle | Alabama | 6’1”, 210 lbs

2022 Stats: GP 13, T 71, TFL .5, Int 1, PD 2.
Wilbar’s Grade: Mid 3rd

Noah_E: Battle possesses a very intriguing blend of size and athleticism. He’s a very fluid mover who can change direction quickly as well as break on the ball in an instant. In coverage, he has a high football IQ, great instincts, and he reads the quarterback well. At 6’1” and 210 pounds with a projected 40 in the mid 4.4’s, Battle is a big hit machine. He also has solid ball skills but hasn’t been able to translate them into many turnovers. Battle is also a tick late in play recognition, and he has a major tackling problem. He oftentimes won’t wrap up, and his technique overall is sloppy. He is well worth a first-round pick, and if he can clean up his tackling problem, he could be a game-changer for a defense.

7. Jammie Robinson | Florida State | 5’11”, 199 lbs

2022 Stats: GP 13, T 99, TFL 5, S 1, Int 1, PD 5.
Wilbar’s Grade: Late 3rd

Andrew Wilbar: Robinson is not the biggest safety in this class, but he is athletic, strong, and disruptive. Accumulating nearly 100 tackles in 2023, Robinson is sure to please an NFL team with his fantastic run-defending abilities. My biggest concern comes in the mental part of the game., as he does not always have the greatest sense of what the offense is doing when in zone coverage. He simply looks lost at times, and part of the issue may simply be getting more experience and learning the common offensive route combinations. While I do believe it is a fixable issue, it does expose his rawness. He may not be a huge contributor his rookie season, but in a man-heavy scheme, he could flourish down the road.

8. Brandon Joseph | Notre Dame | 6’1”, 192 lbs

2022 Stats: GP 10, T 30, TFL 0, Int 1, PD 1.
Wilbar’s Grade: Late 3rd

Andrew Wilbar: Once considered a first-round prospect, Joseph’s stock has slowly fallen since transferring to Notre Dame. After his 2020 season at Northwestern which included six interceptions, many expected him to be a household name in his draft class. However, the schematic, cultural, and positional changes that occurred during his time with Irish negatively affected his game, and he is now hoping just to maintain enough relevance to be a mid-round selection. Overall, I still like his game more than most. We’ve seen a big downturn in terms of ball production, but ball skills should not be a question. He is a former receiver who has proven he can make plays on the ball. He shows promise as a tackler but misses some of the basic ones when trying to do too much and go for a big hit instead of a sound tackle. His athletic testing numbers will likely determine how high is is selected, but as of now, I expect him to be taken early on Day 3.

9. Christopher Smith | Georgia | 5’11”, 190 lbs

2022 Stats: GP 15, T 61, TFL 5, S 1, Int 3, PD 5.
Wilbar’s Grade: Late 3rd

Noah_E: You often hear people call a safety a “centerfielder,” and that’s exactly what Christopher Smith is. His range is truly phenomenal, he’s always around the ball, and he doesn’t allow guys to get behind him. His instincts and play recognition are some of the best in the class, allowing him to be all over the field. Smith also reads the quarterback very well and has solid ball skills. He is a bit undersized and his thin frame limits him physically as a run defender. He tends to have trouble taking on blockers and will get taken out of the play more often than you’d like. He is sometimes a tick slow to recognize route combinations, but his speed and quickness usually make up for it. If he can put on a little muscle, he could be a very good player.

10. Jalen Green | Mississippi State | 6’1”, 197 lbs

2022 Stats: GP 13, T 50, TFL 3, Int 2, PD 7.
Wilbar’s Grade: Early 4th

Andrew Wilbar: Green is a lanky defensive back with great arm length and savvy coverage skills. The big issue is tackling. He lacks the physicality to make tackles in the open field consistently, his frame could really use a little extra weight. On a positive note, he plays the ball well and has impressive ball skills. Long-term, his best fit may end up being cornerback, but his read-and-react skills are impressive enough for teams to at least give him a try at free safety. I think he possesses better speed than most people give him credit for, but we will see what happens at the combine. Overall, I think Green most definitely has starting upside. He just needs to choose between corner and free safety and try to master one.

11. Jartavius Martin | Illinois | 6’0”, 195 lbs

2022 Stats: GP 13, T 64, TFL 3, S 1, Int 3, PD 11.
Wilbar’s Grade: Mid 4th

Andrew Wilbar: Martin formed quite the tandem with Sydney Brown, and the two enjoyed outstanding success in 2022. Martin exploded onto the scene in his fifth year, amassing 3 interceptions, 11 passes defended, and 2 forced fumbles. As it pertains to his on-field abilities, I absolutely love the toughness and physicality he plays with despite having a relatively slender frame. His downhill mindset gives him a mental advantage when defending the run, and although his play recognition skills are not the greatest, he knows when and where to shoot a gap and make a big stop. I think a team like New England, who plays high doses of man defense, would be an ideal fit for Martin.

12. Trey Dean III | Florida | 6’3”, 206 lbs

2022 Stats: GP 12, T 81, TFL 4.5, SCK .5, PD 4, FR 2
Wilbar’s Grade: Late 4th

John O.: Dean is more Kazee or Norwood than he is an Edmunds-type. He is smooth and decent size, albeit he plays more lean than truly physical. Dean moves well, has some instincts, and is a better pass defender than someone like Brown from Penn St. Dean generally played a hybrid role in college. Florida played him close to the line sometimes on running plays, and he rewarded his team with tackles and solid play. Dean also played coverage on running backs out of the backfield, TEs, and deep routes for WRs. He has one on one cover skills, including as to mirroring receivers, but he needs to get his head around more in defending routes. As a tackler, he is willing, but none of his tackles are splash plays. He will grab a leg and hold on for dear life or do a basic wrap up. He’ll miss some also. He instinctively undercut a pass for what should have been an INT in the FSU game, but he dropped the ball. Later, he got beat deep on a post route by an agile WR. So Dean isn’t perfect. But he knows how to play, is versatile, and can likely help a team as a fourth safety, if not in a more pronounced role. He strikes as a middle round pick (3-6) that might do well in a specific system favoring his traits.

13. Ronnie Hickman | Ohio State | 6’1”, 205 lbs

2022 Stats: GP 13, T 53, TFL 1.5, Int 1, PD 7.
Wilbar’s Grade: Early 5th

Jeremy Betz: Hickman has great size for the position and plays his best as an “in-the-box” strong safety. A solid tackler, Hickman is strong in run support, but he can also hang with TEs in man coverage. He can sometimes get lost in zone schemes and can be moved off his spot by savvy QBs and creative route combinations. That, along with Iffy ball skills has hurt Hickman’s Draft stock, but teams looking for a safety with the versatility to play around the LOS and in man coverage on the back end could find good value on Day 3 targeting Hickman.

14. Rashad Torrence II | Florida | 6’0”, 205 lbs

2022 Stats: GP 12, T 84, TFL 0, Int 0, PD 1.
Wilbar’s Grade: Early 5th

Andrew Wilbar: Torrence is a true downhill safety that possesses great closing speed, impressive quickness, and good functional strength. The downside is that he plays stiff and struggles to come up with splash plays for the defense. I do like his footwork, and he is consistent in man coverage, but as good as he can be coming downhill to make plays against the run, he needs to add more weight to consistently bring down bigger ball-carriers. He is a relatively fluid mover, but when he does get beat deep, he struggles to recover, as he lacks ideal recovery speed. At the end of the day, there is definitely starter potential here, but technical issues in his game may limit him to special teams early on.

15. Kaevon Merriweather | Iowa | 6’0”, 211 lbs

2022 Stats: GP 12, T 47, TFL 2, Int 3, PD 3.
Wilbar’s Grade: Mid 5th

Ryland B.: Merriweather is a bit of a Terell Edmunds type of safety: he’s solid all-around and reliable but not the flashiest. That’s not exactly a bad thing, either. Merriweather has good size for the position and is a smooth athlete. He’s fluid in coverage with great technique and instincts. He’s solid and willing in run support, but again, there’s just not a ton of splash on the tape. This lack of playmaking ability may hurt Merriweather’s draft stock, but I see him as a reliable starter in the NFL.

16. Brandon Hill | Pittsburgh | 5’11”, 195 lbs

2022 Stats: GP 12, T 67, TFL .5, Int 0, PD 2.
Wilbar’s Grade: Mid 5th

Ryland B.: Hill is a slightly undersized safety who can struggle with bigger pass-catchers like tight ends. He is a quick mover with choppy feet and an aggressive style of play. This can be a good thing, but Hill can be a little overly enthusiastic when biting on run fakes. He’s pretty sticky in man coverage overall, however, and a willing run defender. Hill’s lack of size and great safety instincts will limit his impact at the next level. I see him as a nickel corner more than anything in the NFL.

17. Chamarri Conner | Virginia Tech | 6’0”, 205 lbs

2022 Stats: GP 11, T 67, TFL 2, Int 0, PD 2.
Wilbar’s Grade: Late 5th

Andrew Wilbar: Toward the end of the draft, you will see a run on safeties with five years of college under their belt. Conner is another one of those prospects who accepted the extra year of eligibility to return to school. Unfortunately, he did not do much to improve his draft stock in 2022. In fact, I would have had a higher grade on him in last year’s class than I do now. While versatility and physicality are necessary traits for a defensive back, Conner was much more inconsistent in coverage in 2022. He gives receivers too much space to work with in tight areas, and if he is playing man coverage and gets beat off line, he struggles to recover and make up ground on the receiver. There may be late-round value here, but unless something changes between now and April, I would not encourage the Steelers to invest draft capital on him.

18. Avery Young | Rutgers | 6’1”, 205 lbs

2022 Stats: GP 12, T 84, TFL 2, S 1, Int 1, PD 4.
Wilbar’s Grade: Late 5th

Andrew Wilbar: A fluid defensive back from Rutgers, Young is an experienced, yet intriguing, option toward the end of the draft. A five-year contributor for the Scarlet Knights, Avery accumulated 22 passes defended in his career, with 10 of those coming his freshman season. Most expect Young to run in the low 4.5s, but if he can somehow get into the mid-4.4 range, I think he could go as early as the fourth or fifth round. He has the versatility needed to play slot corner in an instance, and he is an incredibly fluid mover. He maintains loose hips throughout each rep, and he does a great job recognizing plays pre-snap. The big concern is his lack of physicality and inability to perform at a high level against the run.

19. Xavier Henderson | Michigan State | 6’1”, 210 lbs

2022 Stats: GP 7, T 38, TFL 3, Int 0, PD 1.
Wilbar’s Grade: Late 5th

Andrew Wilbar: Henderson is a strong run defender at the strong safety position, but do not expect many flashy plays. Over five college seasons, Henderson only recorded three interceptions and 9 passes defended, and he did not have many pass-rushing assignments outside of a brief stint during the 2021 season. Fortunately for Henderson, his consistency from down to down as well as his ability to read and react in a timely fashion give him value as an NFL prospect. His role as a rookie will likely be limited to special teams, but if he can learn to take better tackling angles, he could become a nice rotational number three safety.

20. Jaiden Woodbey | Boston College | 6’0”, 221 lbs

2022 Stats: GP 12, T 79, TFL 2, Int 0, PD 2.
Wilbar’s Grade: Late 5th

Noah_E: After an exceptional year as a true freshman in which he recorded 59 total tackles, 7 pass breakups, plus a forced fumble, Woodbey had an injury ridden and overall disappointing next two years. He transferred to Boston College and in two years logged career highs in total tackles (71), solo tackles (36), and interceptions (2). He plays with a relentless motor and is an exceptional open-field tackler. He showed he can line up in the box as a linebacker and run with tight ends in man coverage. He’s also a very physical player and is not afraid to take on blockers. His versatility is enticing, but his lack of twitch and overall long speed will scare some teams away. A switch to linebacker would probably benefit him.

Best of the Rest

21. Gervarrius Owens | Houston | 6’0”, 200 lbs

2022 Stats: GP 12, T 74, TFL 1, Int 1, PD 8.
Wilbar’s Grade: 6th

22. DeMarcco Hellams | Alabama | 6’1”, 208 lbs

2022 Stats: GP 13, T 108, TFL 3, S 1, Int 1, PD 7.
Wilbar’s Grade: 6th

23. Jay Ward | LSU | 6’1”, 180 lbs

2022 Stats: GP 13, T 60, TFL 2.5, Int 1, PD 4.
Wilbar’s Grade: 7th/UDFA

24. Daniel Scott | California | 6’2”, 205 lbs

2022 Stats: GP 12, T 85, TFL 2.5, Int 3, PD 4.
Wilbar’s Grade: 7th/UDFA

25. Quindell Johnson | Memphis | 6’1”, 195 lbs

2022 Stats: GP 12, T 77, TFL 5.5, Int 4, PD 4.
Wilbar’s Grade: 7th/UDFA

What are your thoughts on these safety prospects? Do any of them make sense for the Steelers? Let us know your thoughts on these prospects in the comment section below!