Top 10 S in the 2023 NFL Draft: Brian Branch Emerging as the Top Prospect

Could a surprise name emerge at the top of the 2023 NFL Draft safety class late in the cycle? Here's how the group stands in the present moment.

The 2023 NFL Draft safety class remains an enigma, even as the 2022 campaign slowly winds down during bowl season. But there’s still an exciting blend of talent and versatility present. Whether you want a menace in the box, a versatile nickel defender, or a classic do-it-all utility piece, there are molds to choose from in this group.

Top 10 Safeties in the 2023 NFL Draft

10) Sydney Brown, Illinois

The Illinois secondary is absolutely stacked with talent. Devon Witherspoon is the best of the bunch — a potential Round 1 cornerback in waiting. But there’s also Jartavius Martin, Kendall Smith, and senior safety Sydney Brown, who could be one of the group’s biggest sleepers.

Brown was a premier playmaker this past season, accumulating six interceptions and seven pass deflections in a talent-dense defensive backfield. At 6’0″, 205 pounds, Brown has great density, and that shows in tackling situations. His speed and ability to convert at his size, however, is a compounding factor in his ranking here.

9) Jay Ward, LSU

If there’s a candidate on this list to rise up draft boards through the latter portions of the 2023 NFL Draft cycle, it’s LSU’s Jay Ward. Ward embarked on a career year in 2022, serving as the primary nickel defender for the Tigers.

What’s exciting about Ward’s projection is his versatility. He’s a stellar athlete with fluidity and burst at 6’2″, 188 pounds. He began his career as a cornerback, and he has that man coverage ability. But Ward can also manage zones downfield, and he’s a handful in run support with his range, length, and quick recognition.

8) Brandon Joseph, Notre Dame

It’s been a gradual but steady retreat from the top of the 2023 NFL Draft rankings for Brandon Joseph. He was once an early target as a potential first-rounder, after winning Big Ten Newcomer of the Year honors with a six-interception campaign in 2020.

MORE: 2023 NFL Draft Big Board

Joseph regressed in 2021 and was somewhat up and down in his first season at Notre Dame. He still struggles mightily coming downhill, but the flashes of coverage instincts and in-space athleticism at 6’1″ will always ensure that Joseph has some interest.

7) Jammie Robinson, Florida State

It’s appropriate that Jammie Robinson has the first name that he has, because a good portion of Robinson’s film consists of him charging downhill, jamming into ball carriers with vicious ferocity and zeal.

Robinson is a force coming downhill. He recognizes plays quickly and plays fast, and has the density to shock runners with his 5’11”, 203-pound frame. Robinson isn’t just an enforcer, however. He can also play in the slot, cover in man, and manage space in zone.

6) Jordan Battle, Alabama

Jordan Battle‘s scouting report has remained relatively steady over the past few seasons. The 6’1″, 206-pound DB isn’t going to be a coveted first-rounder like Alabama safeties of the past, but there’s a reasonable outcome where he becomes a decent NFL starter.

An adequate summation of Battle’s profile is “solid but unspectacular.” He’s not elite in any one area, but Battle has good size, above-average athleticism, and solid play-recognition ability, and he’s shown he can make plays when in position. He’s a good utility safety, who can hold his own in coverage.

5) Ji’Ayir Brown, Penn State

With nine interceptions and nine pass deflections over the past two seasons, Ji’Ayir Brown has been one of college football‘s most productive playmakers at the catch point. That coverage ability becomes even more exciting when you learn about his projection as a strong safety.

Brown brings good range and physicality in the box, and his 5’11”, 208-pound frame translates incredibly well in contact situations. He gravitates to the ball with unyielding consistency and always finds himself in position to make crucial plays.

4) Christopher Smith, Georgia

One of the few holdovers from the legendary 2021 Georgia Bulldogs defense, senior safety Christopher Smith put together another stellar campaign on the back end, racking up three interceptions and five pass deflections while helping Georgia return to the College Football Playoff.

At just under 5’11” and 195 pounds, Smith doesn’t have the elite size or length that’s often coveted from safeties in the present. But his foundational skills — functional athleticism, fluidity, high-level instincts, and playmaking ability — will guarantee a place for him in an NFL secondary.

3) JL Skinner, Boise State

JL Skinner officially declared for the 2023 NFL Draft on Dec. 20. But in truth, he’s been viewed as a potential early-round safety prospect since the early summer months. When he tests at the NFL Combine, Skinner’s athleticism at 6’4″, 220 pounds, could win teams over across the board.

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Skinner has elite explosiveness and eye-catching range for his size, but that athleticism isn’t even the most exciting trait with him. He can still refine his coverage technique a bit more, but Skinner has a definite playmaking gene in both phases, and his sheer physicality at contact is truly unmatched.

2) Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M

There’s still more projection involved in Antonio Johnson‘s evaluation than preferred, but there’s reason to believe the Texas A&M defender can be a much better pro than college player. That’s not to say he was bad, either. Johnson was exceptional in 2021 and flashed more brilliance in 2022 — but the best is still to come.

Johnson can, at times, still be up-and-down in coverage, but he has the high-end length and explosiveness at 6’3″, 200 pounds, to blanket receivers out of the slot. In the box, his range, physicality, and disruptive mindset can be nightmare-inducing for opponents, as he showed down the stretch in 2022.

1) Brian Branch, Alabama

There’s one non-cornerback who truly separated himself in 2022. That prospect is Brian Branch. Predominantly playing the slot for Alabama but also occasionally rotating back to safety, Branch distinguished himself as a premier talent and could be a Round 1 pick in April.

Branch isn’t an overwhelming size threat at 6’0″ and under 200 pounds, but with him, high-level talent and functionality combine to form a dangerous defender. He’s explosive, fleet-footed, and extremely physical. Beyond that, Branch is incredibly smooth and nuanced in man coverage, and quick to recognize plays and trigger with tenacity.

Honorable Mentions

  • Ronnie Hickman, Ohio State
  • Tyler Nubin, Minnesota
  • Jerrick Reed II, New Mexico
  • Mark Perry, TCU
  • Gervarrius Owens, Houston
  • Quindell Johnson, Memphis
  • Demani Richardson, Texas A&M
  • Trey Dean III, Florida
  • Ja’Von Hicks, Cincinnati
  • Daniel Scott, California

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