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Patriots draft preview 2023: Safeties that could be on New England’s radar

New England lost long-time starter Devin McCourty to retirement this offseason.

Alabama v Ole Miss Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

For the first-time in 13 years, the New England Patriots will take the field next season without Devin McCourty patrolling their backend.

While McCourty is an impossible player to replace from his leadership off the field to his skills and knowledge of the system on the field, plenty of talent remains in New England’s safety room. The team resigned Jabrill Peppers this offseason to join Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger, and Joshuah Bledsoe, while Jalen Mills may also factor into this group.

As the team did not address the position in external free agency they may be comfortable with the current group. But, with Mills and Dugger in contract years and no real player who has experience in a single-high role, they could look to the draft to add to their back end.

While this year’s safety class is considered weaker than year’s pasts there is still some intriguing talent. Let’s take a look at which prospect could be on New England’s radar.

Patriots positional draft preview: Quarterback | Running back | Wide receiver | Tight end | Offensive line | Defensive line | Edge/Linebackers | Cornerbacks

Round 1

Brian Branch (Alabama): The lone safety projected to go in the first-round of this year’s draft, Branch was a three-year starter and do-it all safety in Nick Saban’s defense. While he primarily played the “star” position last year for Saban he moved around from the slot, to in the box, to deep safety. He succeed anywhere he was on the field as he was the only FBS player last season to record 90-plus tackles, 14.0-plus tackles for loss and at least two interceptions.

Branch should be in store for another versatile role in the NFL due to his combination of athleticism, instincts, and awareness. At 6-foot-0, 190 pounds he could be a potential fit as more of a deep safety for the Patriots.

Day 2

Illinois v Minnesota Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Antonio Johnson (Texas A&M): Johnson will be in the running to be the second safety off the board behind Branch. Johnson is a physical presence at 6-foot-2, 198 pounds. He primarily played in the box for the Aggies where he can attack in the run game and handle zone coverage duties.

Jordan Battle (Alabama): Branch isn’t the only safety from Bama expected to go early in this year’s draft, as Jordan Battle is currently projected to come off the board on Day 2. Branch primarily took on free safety duties for Saban while Branch moved around the secondary, but was not a-one-trick-pony by any means.

Like Branch, Battle’s football IQ may be his best trait. He possess good size (6-1, 209) but boasts just an average athletic profile which may have helped lead to his poor ball production — just 16 pass breakups in 54 career games. Still, he is extremely reliable in the backend and was voted a team captain in ‘22.

Alabama isn’t the only school with two top safeties in this year’s class, as Illinois has an impressive duo in Sydney Brown and Jartavius “Quan” Martin. Both players were five-year starters for Bret Bielema’s team.

Sydney Brown (Illinois): Brown was used mostly in the box at college where he plays much more physical than his 5-foot-10, 211 pound frame would suggest. He’s physical in coverage but can struggle with some of the more athletic receiving options. Brown also has special teams experience as a gunner in 2022.

Jartavius “Quan” Martin (Illinois): Martin may be a strong fit for the Patriots secondary as a versatile cornerback and free safety. New England may eye him as a potential deep safety option due to his athletic profile. Martin led all safeties at the Combine with a 1.44 10-yard split, 44-inch vertical and 11-1-inch broad jump. He also should get a strong recommendation from Bielema who shouted out his intelligence and football-IQ.

Jammie Robinson (Florida State): New England hasn’t met with many safeties during the pre-draft process but Robinson was one of them. Robinson is undersized (5-10, 191) a tad to play in the box although he doesn’t play like it. He is a physical run defender who seeks out contact when coming downhill. Robinson is at his best when he can read-and-react, but average long speed (4.59 40-yard dash) could limit his usage in the NFL.

Ji’Ayir Brown (Penn State): Brown is another physical presence from the safety position who rotated from a deep-safety to in the box for the Nittany Lions. Like Robinson, Brown fires downhill with force and lives for contact. His eye for contact can backfire at times, however, as he recorded 24 missed tackles over the past two seasons. While he isn’t a great athlete (5.99 RAS), Brown was highly productive tallying 19 pass deflections and 10 interceptions in 26 starts the past two seasons.

Christopher Smith II (Georgia): Smith primarily played free safety for Kirby Smart’s defense. Smith showcases strong awareness and ball skills from the backend but his combination of size/speed could hurt his draft stock. The former Bulldog measured in at 5-foot-11, 192 pounds and had a poor Combine performance headlined by a 4.62 40-yard dash (2.91 Relative Athletic Score). And while he’s a willing tackler he recorded 11 missed tackles last season.

Early Day 3

JL Skinner (Boise State): Skinner’s draft stock will be interesting to monitor. Skinner has unique size at the position at 6-foot-3, 209 pounds and is a strong athlete for his build. He played all over the field for Boise State recording over 100 defensive snaps in the box, in the slot, and playing deep last season. However, Skinner suffered a torn left pec while training for the bench press and underwent surgery in March 2023. He’s been for the draft process and his availability to start the year will be TBD.

Marte Mapu (Scramento State): also checks in at the 6-foot-3 mark but is a bit more filled out then Skinner at 221 pounds. He’s an strong athlete at his size and his ability to quickly diagnose plays allowed him to be used as a hybrid nickel at Sacramento State. Like Skinner, he too suffered a torn pectoral muscle in February which required surgery.

Ronnie Hickman (Ohio State): New England has taken one Ohio State player in the Bill Belichick tenure, but that player happened to be a versatile safety in Nate Ebner. Perhaps that trend repeats itself 11 years later with Ronnie Hickman.

Hickman wore several hats for the Buckeyes defense throughout his career. Last season he recorded 164 snaps in the slot, 379 snaps in the box, and 203 snaps as a deep safety. He had a breakout year too allowing just 13 catches on 30 targets for 107 yards to go with a pick and five pass breakups. Hickman also has special teams experience and DeMarcus Covington got a first-hand look at him during the Senior Bowl.

Brandon Joseph (Northwestern): After transferring from Northwestern, Brandon Joseph was a one-year starter for Notre Dame. Joseph aligned mostly deep for the Fighting Irish but showed his versatility at Northwestern aligning in the slot and in the box as well. Joseph is not an explosive athlete and struggled to replicate his 2020 redshirt freshman season, in which he was a Consensus All-American, the past two seasons. He does provide significant special teams experience.

Late Day 3

DeMarcco Hellmans (Alabama): If you thought you’d seen the last of Alabama safeties in this group, think again. DeMarcco Hellmans was a former four-star recruit who has three years of starting experience for the Crimson Tide. He does not have the athletic profile of the other two Bama safeties but is a solid athlete and always seems to be around the ball. He led Alabama with 108 tackles last season and also logged over 400 career snaps on special teams.

Daniel Scott (California): Scott has some intangibles that the Patriots usually gravitate towards. In his two years as a starter, Scott was productive leading the team in interceptions and proving the ability to come downhill as a run defender or blitzer. He also impressed at the Combine as his 6.75 three-cone and 4.17 short shuttle topped all safeties. Scott was also voted a team captain and has tons of special teams experience (661 snaps) - which earned the team’s special teams MVP award in 2019.

Jason Taylor II (Oklahoma State): Taylor II falls in a similar bucket as Scott. Taylor seemed to improve every year throughout his collegiate career and finished his senior season with 99 tackles, 13 pass breakups, and six interceptions in 13 starts. He has good instincts as a field general and recorded over 500 career special teams snaps.

Avery Young (Rutgers): It wouldn’t be a list without a pair of Rutgers defensive backs. Avery Young has been used all over the backend throughout his Scarlett Knights career. After playing over 1,600 snaps along the boundary at cornerback during his first three seasons, Young transitioned to more of a box/deep safety over the past two seasons.

Christian Izien (Rutgers): Izien was the other safety from Rutgers who New England saw at the Shrine Bowl. He was a four-year starter at strong safety that is extremely built and is an explosive athlete. Teams may take him off their radar due to his 5-foot-8, 199 pound frame. Izien also has 572 snaps of special teams experience.

Also in the Shrine Bowl department and worth mentioning are Trey Dean II from Florida, Gervarrius Owens from Houston, A.J. Finley from Ole Miss., and Jordan Howden from Minnesota.

Dean had an impressive week in Vegas and was named the game’s defensive MVP. His performance may have moved him into the top-150 but a tough showing at the Combine and injury bumped him back down to the later half of Day 3. Howden, meanwhile, was a five-year starter at Minnesota who impressed athletically at the Combine. He doesn’t always seem to play with that speed but has a high football IQ and is another safety with significant special teams experience.

Boise State’s Tyreque Jones also participated in the Shrine Bowl but falls in more of the physical, box safety mold at 6-foot-2, 195 pounds. New England also saw hybrid safety/linebacker Jaiden Woodbey in Vegas as well as his Pro Day at Boston College.