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Draft Coverage

2023 Combine preview: Safety

The NFL game has changed over the years where teams aren't so much looking for that enforcer-like safety who strikes fear in receivers going over the middle, but rather a player with versatility and ball skills who can play center field and intercept the football or drop down in the box and be an extra defender against the run.

The good thing about this year's NFL Draft class of safeties is there's a lot of flexibility with how teams can use a lot of the players in this class.

Top 5 safeties to watch at the Combine:

1. Brian Branch, Alabama, 6-0, 193

Versatility is certainly the name of Branch's game. He's a dynamic athlete who can play safety, corner or drop inside to slot corner. Teams covet defenders who give them that kind versatility. With NFL defenses in sub packages better than 70 percent of the time, Branch is just the kind of hybrid player teams are on the lookout for.

View photos of the defensive back prospects who were invited to the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine.

2. Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M, 6-3, 195

Johnson is a long and rangy athlete with terrific speed and coverage skills. His 26 coverage stops over the last two seasons were the fourth most among Power Five defensive backs, according to Pro Football Focus, and his 91 targets went for only 368 yards (4.0 yards per target).

3. Ji'Ayir Brown, Penn State, 5-11, 210

Brown has a real nose for the football and the ball skills to match. He recorded six interceptions as a sophomore in 2021 and followed that up with four more picks this past season. He also chipped in 74 tackles and 4.5 sacks in 2022.

4. Jammie Robinson, Florida State, 5-11, 194

Robinson started all four of his years in college first at South Carolina in 2019 and 2020 and then at Florida State the last two seasons. He recorded 60-plus tackles and at least one interception in all four seasons. He's as sure a tackler as there is in this group and has the versatility to play nickel too.

5. Sydney Brown, Illinois, 6-0, 205

Brown played a lot of box safety this past season because of his ability to play the run, be physical and tackle, but he also has terrific speed and ball skills. He recorded six interceptions this past season, returning one for a touchdown. He was clocked at 19.73 miles per hour at the Senior Bowl as one of the 15 fastest players on the National Team.

Combine sleeper to watch: JL Skinner, Boise State, 6-4, 220

Skinner has terrific size and versatility having played deep and box safety and slot corner for Boise State. He recorded six interceptions the last two seasons. He struggled some in 1-on-1 coverage at the Senior Bowl, but teams are going to love his size and skillset in the right system as a potential Day 2 pick.

View photos of the linebacker prospects who were invited to the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine.

Lions' need at the position: Moderate

Lions general manager Brad Holmes looks to have found another Day 2 draft hit with the selection of Kerby Joseph last year in the third round. Joseph had 82 tackles, four interceptions, eight defended passes, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery in 14 starts as a rookie. There are some coverage things Joseph can clean up (allowed five touchdowns), but that will come with more experience.

Detroit re-signed veteran safety Tracy Walker to a three-year extension last offseason to be one of the key building blocks on defense, but Walker suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 3. His rehab seems to be going really well according to his social media updates, but whether or not he's ready to go by training camp or the regular season will really help determine how big of a need safety is for the Lions this offseason.

DeShon Elliott, who started 13 games at safety this past season, is an unrestricted free agent. He had 95 tackles (72 solo), five tackles for loss, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery this season. His potential departure would leave the Lions a little thin at the position with veteran C.J. Moore also set to become an unrestricted free agent.

That leaves Detroit with Walker, Joseph and cornerback-turned-safety Ifeatu Melifonwu under contract for next season. Safe to say this will be addressed in free agency, the draft or both.

Key stat: Of the 4,446 passing yards allowed by Detroit this season, only 1,782 yards came after the catch (40.1 percent). This ranked as the sixth fewest YAC yards allowed in the NFL.

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