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Ranking the top defensive backs in the 2021 NFL Draft: Bob McGinn’s grades are in

Bob McGinn Apr 28, 2021comment-icon@2x.png 18 save-icon@2x.png

This is the 37th year Bob McGinn has written an NFL Draft Series. Previously, it appeared in the Green Bay Press-Gazette (1985-2001), the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (1992-2017) and BobMcGinnFootball.com (2018-19). Until 2014, personnel evaluators often were quoted by name. The series reluctantly adopted an all-anonymous format in 2015 at the request of most scouts. This will be a nine-part series.

PreviouslyQBs | RBs | WR/TE | OL | DL | LB

The disagreements run deep at cornerback and safety in the NFL Draft this year. Except, that is, at the top.

Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II, the surest of selections on the defensive side of the ball, and Texas Christian safety Trevon Moehrig easily won the vote among personnel executives as the best players at their respective positions.

In a poll of 19 scouts, Surtain claimed 12 first-place votes. In a poll of 20 scouts, Moehrig captured 15 firsts.

Twelve cornerbacks and 16 safeties picked up at least one vote as selectors were asked to name their top five at each position. A first-place vote was worth five points, a second-place vote was worth four and so forth.

Surtain, with 87 points, was followed by Jaycee Horn (71, four firsts), Caleb Farley (52, two), Greg Newsome (17), Tyson Campbell (15), Asante Samuel (13), Kelvin Joseph (11), Eric Stokes (eight), Ifeatu Melifonwu (five, one), Benjamin St-Juste (three), Paulson Adebo (two) and Aaron Robinson (one).

Moehrig, with 91 points, was followed by Jevon Holland (50, two firsts), Andre Cisco (46, one), Richie Grant (36), Elijah Molden (28, one), Divine Deablo (eight), Tyree Gillespie (eight, one), Talanoa Hufanga (eight), Hamsah Nasirildeen (six), Jamar Johnson (five), Caden Sterns (five), Darrick Forrest (four), Jamien Sherwood (two), Shawn Davis (one), Brandon Stephens (one) and Trill Williams (one).

The runaway victory for Moehrig was as much an indictment of the competition as it was acknowledgement of his talent. Jamal Adams, who was drafted No. 6 in 2017, and Mark Barron (No. 7, 2012) were the only safeties taken among the top 10 in the last 10 years.

“You’ve got to have safeties, so one is going to go in there somewhere,” said one personnel man. “It got worse when (Paris) Ford ran a 4.9 (40-yard dash). A lot worse.”



Moehrig, a third-year junior, was similar to Surtain in one important aspect: He doesn’t have a major weakness.

“He’s the only safety that I think can possibly go in the first round,” an NFC scout said. “He has a real good skill set other than short arms. He can get the ball. He has (cornerback) feet. He’s not a killer, but he can get people down in space. Good football player.”

Four executives used the word “clean” to describe Surtain’s performance during his three seasons as a starter and his lineage as the son of a former Pro Bowl cornerback.

“Five years from now, he’s going to be everything you thought he’d be,” said an AFC personnel director. “There’s no gray area with him. You know exactly what you’re getting.”

Surtain will become the 10th Crimson Tide cornerback drafted since coach Nick Saban took over at Alabama in 2007. Seven of the first nine were first- or second-round picks, and their track record isn’t very good.

Dee Milliner, the No. 9 pick in 2013, was a bust. Kareem Jackson, the No. 20 choice in 2010, and Dre Kirkpatrick, the No. 17 choice in 2012, have enjoyed long, solid careers, but neither had made a Pro Bowl team. A pair of second-round selections, Javier Arenas (2010) and Cyrus Jones (2016), were busts.

Marlon Humphrey, the No. 16 pick in 2017, finally broke through and made the Pro Bowl in each of the past two years. Then Trevon Diggs, the Cowboys’ second-round choice a year ago, played pretty well as an 11-game starter.

“Everybody says Saban is a guru,” one executive said. “But the way he teaches them there, you’ve got to reteach them out of the technique because it doesn’t work up here.”

Another personnel evaluator who has scouted everywhere in the Southeast for years said Surtain is easily the best cornerback in his memory from Alabama.

“He’s the most complete one, and here’s why,” the scout said. “He can tackle. He can play man to man. He can judge the ball in the air.

“On top of that, he is a low-maintenance, great young man. He’s not a look-at-me, eyes-on-the-prize guy. He is a legitimately clean corner. Some people might knock him for short-area suddenness. He gave up a few plays, but he’s got Pro Bowl potential.

“Humphrey came off that great 2016 season. He’s played well. But at this point, Surtain has played better than Humphrey.”

Jaycee Horn of South Carolina is the second-rated corner behind Surtain. It’s cloudy after that, especially given the fact that Virginia Tech’s talented Caleb Farley underwent back surgery to have two discs repaired on March 23.

Most scouts expect three to five cornerbacks to be taken in Round 1. The record of six is shared by the 1997 class, which was headed by Shawn Springs at No. 3, Bryant Westbrook at No. 5 and Tom Knight at No. 9, and last year’s crop.

“Surtain and Horn have kind of separated themselves,” an AFC evaluator said. “Straight off tape, Farley’s the third best. I could see six (being taken). If the run goes early, like where Surtain goes, then all of a sudden they could catch fire.”



Ranking the cornerbacks

1. Patrick Surtain II, Alabama (6-foot-2, 208 pounds, 4.42 40, Round 1): Described by several scouts as a complete player.

“He’s everything you want,” said one. “He can run with the little guys, and he’s big enough and strong enough to fight off the big, strong wide receivers. He’s close to being a shutdown guy where you can say, ‘You got this guy. Make sure he catches only two or three passes for 12 yards.’”

Started 38 of 41 games for Alabama before declaring a year early.

“He has a touch of stiffness even though, technically, he mitigates it very well,” a second scout said. “He’s a pro more than the other. He and his dad were very similar. Both really good technicians. Almost to the point where you don’t appreciate the athletic ability.

“When he ran fast on pro day, some people were shocked. (Darrelle) Revis was like that. Some of these guys are so smooth and technically sound, they don’t rely on their speed all the time.”

From Plantation, Fla., Surtain finished with 117 tackles (six for loss), four interceptions and 31 passes broken up (PBUs).

“He walks in as a starter,” a third scout said. “He’s as polished as anybody. I wouldn’t say he has any shortcomings, but I don’t think he’s a natural catcher of the ball.”

His father, Patrick (5-foot-10½, 194, 4.53), played 11 seasons, had 37 picks and made three Pro Bowls.

“I think he’s better than Marlon Humphrey coming out,” said a fourth scout. “He’s ready right now. Loves the game. Competes. Same guy every day. They all rave about this guy (at Alabama).”

His 10-inch hands tied for the largest at the position.

2. Jaycee Horn, South Carolina (6-foot-0½, 205, 4.40, Round 1): Third-year junior, three-year starter.

“From the last couple drafts, he fits right there with (Denzel) Ward and the kid in Green Bay (Jaire Alexander),” said one scout. “He’s on that level. He’s a better ball guy than Surtain. You’ve got to keep him from grabbing up the field. His penalty rate wasn’t all that bad. He grabs because he’s trying to dominate people, not because he’s in trouble. He’s got to learn (he’s) not going to dominate people up here.”

His father, Joe, was the quirky four-time Pro Bowl receiver for the Chiefs, Saints and Falcons from 1996 to 2007.

“He’s grabby, and you’re going to have to really coach him up,” said a second scout. “But his pro day was sensational. It’s almost like he knew Surtain’s numbers the day before and he was motivated to beat him, and he did. But he’s not nearly as good.”

Had jumps of 41½ inches (vertical) and 11-1 (broad), and his arms were measured at 33 inches.

“He tries to intimidate people,” a third scout said. “But he can cover and he’ll hit you. He’s a kid that freelances. His mistakes come because he made the wrong guess. He’s jumping or sitting on routes. He’s feisty. He can reroute receivers. He’s really aggressive.”

From Alpharetta, Ga., Horn started 29 games, finishing with 101 tackles (seven for loss), two picks and 25 PBUs.

“Plays the game the right way,” a fourth scout said after ranking Horn No. 1. “He’s a big, physical guy on the outside, which is hard to find these days.”

Caleb Farley has first-round talent, but teams are concerned with his injury history. (Steve Mitchell / USA Today)

3. Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech (6-foot-2, 197, no 40, Round 1 or 2): So much of his draft position and career hinges on the medical reports.

“I think he might have the most upside if he’s healthy,” said one scout. “He’s relatively (new) to the position. He would run 4.3 or better (on the 40). I think he’s the fastest (cornerback). He has real size and length (position-best 33⅝-inch arms).

“But he has two different discs in his back that he has had work on, and he had a knee (injury). How much more tread does he have on his body? He might drop out of the first because of his injuries.”

Played quarterback in high school at Hickory, N.C., but moved to wide receiver as a redshirt freshman. Suffered a torn ACL in August 2017 and was shifted to cornerback in ’18. Underwent back surgery in early 2020, then had the disc repair a month ago.

“His medical is worrisome,” a second scout said. “He can absolutely fly. He’s got a lot of potential.”

Started 23 games at cornerback in 2018 and ’19 before opting out in ’20.

“I mean, you talk about a risky pick,” said a third scout.

Finished with 56 tackles (one for loss), six picks and 25 PBUs.

“The kid didn’t play for a whole year, and all of a sudden he gets back surgery,” said a fourth scout. “The question is, why didn’t he get it taken care of earlier if he was having issues? Someone will take a swing at him in the first, though.”

Added a fifth scout: “He’s the best athlete of the group and has the most upside of the group. But his injury history is a concern. He’s got the best deep-ball skills of the group.”

4. Greg Newsome II, Northwestern (6-foot-0, 192, 4.38, Round 1 or 2): Third-year junior, three-year starter.

“Great kid,” said one scout. “Smart, steady player. A little bit unspectacular with his play-making ability but a good athlete. Has pro height/weight/speed, pro instincts, pro mentality. A lot to like.”

The Chicago native played in just 21 of the Wildcats’ 40 games the past three years. Missed 19 games with an assortment of nagging injuries.

“Durability is my only concern because he never played a full season,” a second scout said. “He’s fluid, can flip his hips, run. He didn’t have much ball production, but they never threw his way for three or four games this year. He had like only one target in a three-game stretch. The 40 obviously helped him. I didn’t think he necessarily played that fast, but at least he’s got that speed.”

Finished with 71 tackles (one-half for loss), one pick and 25 PBUs.

“He’s a perfect nickel,” a third scout said. “Strength is probably his biggest deficiency. The guy gives effort. He’s athletic enough to tackle guys. He wins the 50-50 (balls) more with quickness, savvy and instincts than he does physicality and presence. He’s really good in a lot of things, but no flat-out wow. These guys usually end up in the second round.”

5. Tyson Campbell, Georgia (6-foot-1, 193, 4.39, Round 1 or 2): Played at American Heritage School (in Plantation, Fla.) under coach Patrick Surtain on a team that included Patrick II and Auburn WR Anthony Schwartz.

“He might be the most explosive and sudden of all these guys,” said one scout. “That’s saying a lot. He’s just got instant movement. Little bit more of a reactor right now than a natural feel guy. He just smothers guys. Hard to beat. In run support, he triggers and tackles strong. He’s gifted. Just needs some polish. He reminds me of William Jackson II.”

Ranked behind only Surtain in the high-school cornerback class of 2018.

“Athletically, he is a freak,” said a second scout. “But there are some mental busts in there that really screw him up. If anything, you’ve got to get into his head and find out who he is. I think he’ll be an outside corner. He’ll tackle (well) enough.”

Started 24 of 33 games, finishing with 89 tackles (3½ for loss), one pick and 11 PBUs. A third scout said he didn’t like Campbell’s hands.

“He’s got everything and cannot get a ball down,” a fourth scout said. “The coaches there tried everything imaginable and nothing helped.”

Campbell’s vertical jump of 34½ inches was the lowest of the 10 cornerbacks.

6. Asante Samuel Jr., Florida State (5-foot-10, 180, 4.40, Round 2): One team removed him from its draft board because of his size and what they thought was his overinflated opinion of himself.

“There will be size limitations, but he compensates in other ways,” one scout said. “He’s undersized but very productive. He can play outside or inside.”

Playing mainly right corner, Samuel started 23 of 32 games over three seasons before opting out after eight games in 2020 and declaring for the draft.

“Good player, just (small),” a second scout said. “Has good instincts and cover skills. He’s a marginal tackler and hitter, but he’ll go after the ball. There are guys that aren’t tough that won’t go after the ball, but he will. Also has good hands.”

The Sunrise, Fla., native finished with 96 tackles (three for loss), four picks and 33 PBUs. Arms were 30⅛. His father, Asante (5-foot-11, 185, 4.52) played 11 seasons as an NFL cornerback, intercepted 51 passes and made four Pro Bowls.

“More of a slot,” a third scout said. “But he’s an excellent athlete and is quick as can be. He plays like his dad. He just knows what he’s doing. He attacks the ball. But his size does show up. He can get pushed around, and in run support he’s more of an ankle-biter, drag-you-down type.”

7. Kelvin Joseph, Kentucky (5-foot-11½, 197, 4.34, Round 2): From Baton Rouge, he was the No. 2 prospect in Louisiana in the class of 2018. Played sparingly as a freshman before being suspended for the final game and transferring to Kentucky. After sitting out 2019, he started nine games in ’20 before opting out of the last two games.

“There are certainly some inconsistencies in his game and probably (off the field), I would say, that likely will hold him back from being the best he can be,” one scout said. “If he decides that football’s No. 1, he can be a really good player. I don’t think he’s a bad kid, but he’s it’s hard to bet on him.”

Added another scout: “It depends on your level of tolerance. He’s very talented.”

His collegiate stats in 20 games (nine starts) were 37 tackles (one-half for loss), four picks and six PBUs.

“He’s as talented as the top three guys,” a third scout said. “He’s got a little bit of inconsistency in his play, but when it was time to play against the big receivers, he would step up to the challenge. He did pretty well against Alabama.”

Said a fourth scout: “He’s got instinctual issues, but I want him to go high.”

Eric Stokes was a Georgia state champion sprinter in high school. (Jay Biggerstaff / USA Today)

8. Eric Stokes, Georgia (6-foot-0½, 194, 4.31, Round 2): Third-year junior with 25 starts in 36 games.

“I like him, but he has worse ball skills than (Tyson) Campbell,” one scout said. “He had more interceptions than Campbell, so the ball might find him, but he’ll never be a natural at (picking off passes).”

Finished with 78 tackles (two for loss), four picks and 26 PBUs.

“He’s a starter,” said another scout. “He just doesn’t take the ball away the way other guys do.”

Ran the fastest 40 of the group. In fact, he was a state-champion sprinter in high school in Covington, Ga., clocking 10.39 seconds in the 100 meters.

“He needs to improve his ball skills,” a third scout said. “The height/weight/speed are going to be too hard to pass up.”

A fourth scout said Stokes brought to mind cornerback Stanford Routt, the 38th pick in the 2005 draft by the Raiders.

“He’s stiff,” he said. “He’s a track guy playing football.”

9. Ifeatu Melifonwu, Syracuse (6-foot-2½, 208, 4.50, Round 2): Fourth-year junior from South Grafton, Mass., backed up in 2018 then started 19 games in 2019 and ’20.

“Great feet and body control for a guy that big,” one scout said. “When he gets up and presses, it’s easy for him. Turns and runs smooth. Has the size and speed to smother guys. When he’s playing off, he’s not silky as far as transition, but he can burst out of stuff. Not sure about his true grit in run support, but he gets guys down.”

His brother, Obi, was drafted as a safety in the second round by the Raiders in 2017 out of Connecticut but has played in just seven games in four years. Currently with the 49ers.

“Everybody knows those bloodlines,” said a second scout. “Little bit of a finesse guy like his brother. With his brother playing safety, it was a little more detrimental. (Ifeatu) being a corner, he can get away with it a little more. He’s just got to be more efficient as a tackler.”

Finished with 88 tackles (five for loss), three picks and 26 PBUs. Probably better in a Cover-2 or Cover-3 coverage scheme.

“He’ll be scheme-specific, but he’s got a chance to be starter-level eventually,” said a third scout. “He’s not ready to go immediately. He is interesting.”

Excelled in the vertical jump (41½ inches) and broad jump (11-2).

10. Paulson Adebo, Stanford (6-foot-1, 198, 4.44, Round 2 or 3): Redshirted in 2017, made first-team All-Pac-12 in ’18, struggled in ’19 and opted out in ’20.

“Very similar to Jaylon Johnson last year,” one scout said. “Jaylon was an ideal zone-scheme corner. (Adebo) is like that, but he’s got better ball skills and better straight-line speed. He’s at the line for what I would say you want for a man-to-man corner. I’d give him the nod over Johnson, who went middle of the second round last year (to the Bears).”

Adebo’s 10-inch hands are tied for the largest at the position.

“He’s stiff, but he’s big and physical, can run fast and he’s tough,” a second scout said. “More of a press guy, like what the Seahawks do.”

From Mansfield, Texas, Adebo started 21 of 22 games in college, finishing with 97 tackles (3½ for loss), eight picks and 34 PBUs.

“(A bit) tall in his transition,” said a third scout. “If he plays more man coverage, it will expose it more. In zone, you can kind of mask it a little.”

11. Aaron Robinson, Central Florida (5-foot-11½, 188, 4.39, Round 2 or 3): Covered kicks at Alabama in 2016 before transferring to UCF and sitting out ’17. Missed six games with a concussion in 2018 before serving as the nickel back covering slot receivers the past two seasons.

“Best nickel defender in the draft,” one scout said. “He’s got everything you want. The thing that holds him back is the consistency of the instincts. Sometimes he gets sloppy.”

From Deerfield Beach, Fla., Robinson started 19 of 42 games for UCF, finishing with 109 tackles (7½ for loss), three picks and 21 PBUs.

“He’s got height and he runs well,” a second scout said. “He’s a little grabby and sort of duck-footed. I wouldn’t use the word awkward, though. He’s not super fluid, but he does have some explosion to him.”

Said a third scout: “They played him more as a slot in that off-ball safety position. He is tough as hell. He’s got short-area cover quickness and twitch. You don’t really want him on the outside covering, but as a slot-hybrid type of guy, he’s a really good player.”

12. Benjamin St-Juste, Minnesota (6-foot-3½, 202, 4.58, Round 2 or 3): Played briefly as a freshman at Michigan in 2017 before sitting out all of ’18 due to a hamstring injury. Rather than agreeing to sign a waiver giving up his scholarship, he entered the transfer portal and was eligible immediately because he graduated in May 2019. At Minnesota, he started 14 of 18 games over two seasons.

“He’s one that really popped at the Senior Bowl,” one scout said. “He was OK off his college tape, but then at the Senior Bowl he gained a lot of momentum. Big, long, press corners who can run fit the league now.”

Other than the 40, which was average for his height, he stood out at pro day. His 4.01 short shuttle and 6.63 3-cone led the position.

“On double moves, when he needs to mirror and match guys, that’s where he shows a little bit of stiffness,” said a second scout. “He’s not always fluid. I don’t think he trusts himself, either. He gets a little grabby. He also didn’t have much ball production. The length obviously is there, and he tested well.”

From Montreal, St-Juste finished with 62 tackles (1½ for loss), no picks and 13 PBUs.

“Talented player,” said a third scout. “Has great feet and is very athletic. Good speed, very good instincts. He’s good enough in run support. Just hasn’t played much.”

Other top cornerbacks: Ambry Thomas, Michigan; Rodarius Williams, Oklahoma State; Marco Wilson, Florida; Robert Rochell, Central Arkansas; Zech McPhearson, Texas Tech; Shaun Wade, Ohio State; Kary Vincent, LSU; Bryce Thompson, Tennessee; Keith Taylor, Washington; Darren Hall, San Diego State; Thomas Graham, Oregon; Deommodore Lenoir, Oregon; Tre Brown, Oklahoma; Avery Williams, Boise State; Cam Bynum, California; Olaijah Griffin, Southern Cal; Shakur Brown, Michigan State; Isaiah Dunn, Oregon State.

Ranking the safeties

1. Trevon Moehrig, Texas Christian (6-foot-0½, 202, 4.51, Round 1 or 2): TCU’s MVP on special teams as a freshman before starting at free safety in 2019 and ’20.

“I don’t remember the last safety that could both tackle and cover,” said one scout. “That conference (Big 12) probably is the best passing conference in football, and he was really good. He covered the slot most of the time. There are very few safeties that can actually cover. I’d try him at corner just to see if he could play out there.”

Played cornerback and wide receiver in high school at Spring Branch, Texas.

“I didn’t see special, but I saw a lot of good,” said a second scout. “I appreciate the way he played. He can play in the middle of the field and he can play down. He’s one of the few guys who is fully interchangeable. I’m not saying he’s great covering the slot, but he knows how to play within himself.

“I like the angles he plays with in the run game. He’s tough. He’s got the size. His speed is fine.”

Finished with 125 tackles (4½ for loss), seven picks and 28 PBUs.

“He’s more of a post player than a consistent physical player,” a third scout said. “I think he’s unanimous (as the No. 1 safety). He’ll be on the brink of (making the Pro Bowl).”

Arms were just 30⅝ inches. A fourth scout remained unimpressed.

“I don’t see anything to him,” he said. “You can see he knows how to play … but he’s not really fast, he’s not really athletic, he’s not a knock-you-out tackler or anything. He’s just OK.”

2. Jevon Holland, Oregon (6-foot-0½, 207, 4.46, Round 2): Here’s another player with a light resume. He started two of 13 games as a freshman in 2018 and all 14 in ’19 before opting out in ’20.

“He’s a rookie starter,” said one scout. “I was at his workout. He worked out really well. He can play down in the box but is also athletic enough to play on the deep end. You can do a lot of things (with him). He ran a 4.46 (40) and had ball skills.”

Finished with nine interceptions, leading the Ducks in 2018 and ’19.

“He has put on a lot of weight since he last played (listed at 196 in ’20), but he ran well with it,” a second scout said. “He can play nickel, but I see him more as a free (safety). Good player, really smart. He’s going to have some issues with quicker guys, but against certain guys, you’ll be able to get away with him. I think he’s a starter.”

The Pleasanton, Calif., native also made 110 tackles (4½ for loss) and broke up 19 passes.

“He’s a ‘tweener,” a third scout said. “Not a corner athlete. (Doesn’t have ideal) safety strength and toughness. Didn’t see a lot of twitch or change of direction.”

3. Andre Cisco, Syracuse (6-foot-0½, 216, no 40, Round 2 or 3): Third-year junior, three-year starter.

“He has more ability than all the safeties,” one scout said. “Long arms (32½ inches), big hands (10⅝ inches), runs fast, jumps high, smart. Plus, 13 interceptions. Doesn’t hunt, but he can get the ball and can cover. He’s a boom-or-bust.”

Started just one year in high school at Valley Stream, N.Y. Instant starter as a freshman at Syracuse. Suffered a torn ACL in a collision with a teammate in warmups before the team’s third game in 2020.

“He’s a risky one with the medical,” a second scout said. “But he’s really smart. Really instinctive, tough.”

Finished with 136 tackles (two for loss), 13 picks and 29 PBUs.

“Probably the least reliable tackler of the top three (safeties),” a third scout said. “He’ll go for some kill shots and miss. I like the athlete. Obviously he’ll slide because of the injury, but a good, solid player.”

Richie Grant, right, racked up an impressive 291 tackles at UCF. (Reinhold Matay / USA Today)

4. Richie Grant, Central Florida (5-foot-11½, 198, 4.56, Round 2 or 3): From Fort Walton Beach, Fla., his only FBS offer was from UCF. Redshirted in 2016, played extensively in ’17 and started 33 games from 2018 through ’20.

“He was my favorite guy at the Senior Bowl,” one scout said. “He played every position in the secondary. Both safeties, nickel and a steady helping of outside corner during the game. His school film wasn’t as good as the Senior Bowl. His physical skill was good, not great.”

Didn’t clock a blazing 40 (4.56 seconds), but his 3-cone of 6.78 seconds led the position.

“The thing he doesn’t have trouble with is hitting you,” a second scout said. “That kid will probably start.”

Impressive production. Finished with 291 tackles (11½ for loss), 10 picks, seven forced fumbles and 29 PBUs.

“He’s very good at tackling out of the middle of the field,” said a third scout. “He has the best tackling rate of any of the safeties. He has knock-back power. He can stop people. Doesn’t have great long speed, but has enough.”

5. Elijah Molden, Washington (5-foot-9½, 192, 4.61, Round 2 or 3): His father, Alex (5-foot-9½, 186, 4.46), was the No. 11 pick in the 1996 draft. An NFL cornerback for eight seasons, he finished with 12 interceptions.

“This kid has everything going for him,” said one scout. “Great kid, smart, good on the board. He’ll wind up starting and being a good player.”

From West Linn, Ore., Molden played off the bench in 2017 and ’18 before serving as the nickel back covering slot receivers in 2019 and ’20.

“He’s a Tyrann Mathieu/Budda Baker type of guy,” a second scout said. “But where do you play a guy who’s 5-foot-9 with 29-inch arms? He doesn’t really cover well enough to play nickel. Not really big enough to play in the box. Not enough range to play out in the open field.

“But he is a damn good football player and will play 10 years in this league. Plays the game the right way. I think he’s as good as (Antoine) Winfield Jr.”

Finished with 153 tackles (seven for loss), five picks, four forced fumbles and 25 PBUs.

“I like him as a player, but he’s not those guys,” a third scout said referencing Mathieu and Baker. “He’s a good player, but that’s rarefied air. He think he’s a zone nickel and a late third- or fourth-round pick.”

“I think he can survive in nickel if he’s in a zone-type deal,” a fourth scout said. “Because he didn’t run well, obviously, you don’t want to match him up. I don’t think he has the body armor to last there (safety).”

6. Divine Deablo, Virginia Tech (6-foot-3½, 226, 4.45, Round 3): Some teams have him graded as a box safety, others view him as a weakside/dime linebacker.

“You think you’re going to get Kam Chancellor,” one scout said. “This kid doesn’t have that kind of mentality. Chancellor would knock your teeth (out). Deablo is athletic as a tackler, but he’s not mean or explosive or anything like that. But the upside’s really good.

“He played a lot of sub linebacker in the Senior Bowl and did really well. He doesn’t have a ton of wiggle as far as man coverage, but he can play in zone because he’s fast, long and pretty instinctive.”

Spent 2016 at wide receiver, his high-school position in Winston-Salem, N.C., before moving to defense in ’17.

“Interesting guy,” a second scout said. “He’s in the mold of (Kyle) Dugger and (Jeremy) Chinn. An absolutely fabulous kid. I don’t know where you play the guy. There will be some concerns in one-on-one coverage. He’s got a little tightness to him. He loves the game. You’ve just got to figure him out.”

Started 33 of 51 games, finishing with 206 tackles (12½ for loss), six picks and 17 PBUs.

“I didn’t think the guy could run,” a third scout said. “I estimated 4.7. Then he did. He’s best in the box, but has free-safety range. I imagine he’ll end up playing linebacker.”

7. Talanoa Hufanga, USC (6-foot-0½, 199, 4.63, Round 4): Third-year junior, three-year starter originally from Corvallis, Ore.

“Strictly a box safety,” one scout said. “He plays the game hard, but his lack of foot speed will catch up to him in the NFL. He’s very tough. People have been trying to make him a linebacker, but at the end of the day, he’s going to be too small.”

His 40 time was the slowest of the top 12 safeties.

“He’s the same type of player as Deablo, but Deablo is bigger and faster,” said a second scout. “(Hufanga) made some big hits in games and everybody got excited about him. He’s aggressive. Linebacker-type mentality. But a ‘tweener.”

Finished with 203 tackles (16½ for loss), four picks and 12 PBUs.

8. Jamar Johnson, Indiana (6-foot-0, 205, 4.58, Round 4 through 6): From Sarasota, Fla., he started just one game for the Hoosiers in his first two seasons.

“The guy wasn’t on the radar at the beginning of the year,” said one scout. “It’s not like Indiana is producing a lot of juniors. Then he had two interceptions in the Ohio State game and all of a sudden you’re an All-Pro. That’s what happens nowadays.”

Finished his junior season with seven career picks and declared for the draft. Played 31 games, starting nine.

“He didn’t test all that great, but I like him,” said a second scout. “He plays with a lot more range than (his times indicate). Good man cover player. Good blitzer off the edge.”

Missed too many tackles in 2020. “He moves like a starting safety, but his tackling would be a liability,” a third scout said.

Finished with 70 tackles (eight for loss), the seven picks and 14 PBUs.

Other top safeties: Hamsah Nasirildeen, Florida State; Tyree Gillespie, Missouri; Shawn Davis, Florida; Caden Sterns, Texas; Jamien Sherwood, Auburn; Darrick Forrest, Cincinnati; Brandon Stephens, Southern Methodist; Richard LeCounte, Georgia; Trill Williams, Syracuse; Damar Hamlin, Pittsburgh; Ar’darius Washington, Texas Christian; Christian Uphoff, Illinois State; Joshuah Bledsoe, Missouri; James Wiggins, Cincinnati; Brady Breeze, Oregon; Tre Norwood, Oklahoma; Mark Webb, Georgia; Paris Ford, Pittsburgh.

The Skinny

Two-year starter Zech McPhearson, left, has a master’s degree from Texas Tech. (Scott Wachter / USA Today)

Unsung hero

Zech McPhearson, CB, Texas Tech: Spent three years at Penn State without playing much but graduated with a degree in labor and employment relations. Moved to Lubbock, Texas, as a grad transfer and produced as a two-year starter. He has adequate height/weight/speed (5-foot-11, 193, 4.50), a 40½-inch vertical jump, strong leadership skills and a love for the game. He also completed his master’s degree at Texas Tech in interdisciplinary studies.

Scouts’ nightmare

Richard LeCounte, S, Georgia: One of the more shocking 40 times on the pro-day circuit occurred March 17 in Athens, Ga., when LeCounte clocked 4.76 in his first run and 4.82 in his second.

“You would never think he was that slow watching him on film,” said one scout. “It’s hard for me to draft 4.8.”

A three-year starter, team leader and producer against both the run and pass, LeCounte had his final season end five games early when his dirt bike was struck by a vehicle and he suffered multiple injuries. Once an early-round prospect, he might be fortunate to be drafted now.

Scout to remember

Carroll Hardy: An athlete for all seasons, Hardy spent 24 years in the Denver Broncos’ personnel department in various director and scouting roles. The team reached three Super Bowls during his tenure. He helped assemble the “Orange Crush” defense of the 1970s. A native of Sturgis, S.D., Hardy starred in three sports at Colorado before being drafted in the third round by the 49ers in 1955. After one season as a receiver, Hardy turned to baseball. His eight-year, 433-game career was made famous with the Red Sox when he became the only player ever to pinch-hit for Ted Williams. He died in 2020 at the age of 87.

Quote to note

NFC personnel executive: Michigan State has had at least one player drafted every year since 1940. Now that streak might be in jeopardy. Cornerback Shakur Brown, a pesky ballhawk, is the Spartans’ best hope, but he ran poorly (4.63) at pro day.

Said the executive: “Hell of a streak. He’s an undersized, instinctive nickel with ball production, but he doesn’t have that twitchy quickness that you need at nickel. This is their only shot.”

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