The top returning safeties in college football entering the 2017 season have the ability to protect the secondary, stack the box and wreak total havoc.
Safeties do a little bit of everything for a defense. They’ll support the cornerbacks in pass defense, fill running lanes like linebackers and even blitz the pocket when there’s an opportunity to catch the offense off guard. At least that’s the plan for those DBs lining up between the corners in the defensive backfield. Safeties are defensive Swiss Army knives, with the 10 below set to be the most influential all-around playmakers of 2017.
Top Returning Safeties
10. Taylor Rapp, Washington
As a true freshman, Rapp learned in the shadow of safety Budda Baker and cornerback Sidney Jones. As a sophomore, he could become the leader of the rebuilt Husky secondary. Rapp quickly adjusted to the speed of the game, earning Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year as a part-time starter. He’s already way ahead of schedule in his development as the quarterback of the secondary, playing with the toughness, instincts and maturity of an emerging star.
9. Chase Hansen, Utah
Hansen is an all-purpose athlete who’s really coming into his own as a safety. The former quarterback is still learning the many nuances of playing in the secondary, yet he posted a team-high 90 tackles, 7.5 stops for loss, three picks, nine pass breakups, four fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles. The Utes could move the 6-3, 216-pounder again this year, possibly to linebacker, where he’d have another opportunity to advertise his multidimensional skill set.
8. Marcus Allen, Penn State
In Allen, the Nittany Lions have the equivalent of an additional linebacker on the field at all times. The senior is a fearless 6-2, 202-pounder who revels in lowering his shoulder and hammering the man with the ball. He did that plenty in 2016, tallying a team-best 110 tackles, including six behind the line, to earn Third Team All-Big Ten. Allen won’t contribute much to the pass defense, but he’ll again be a major asset versus the run.
7. Justin Reid, Stanford
Reid took a big step toward being one of the country’s top young safeties in 2016, drawing praise as an honorable mention All-Pac-12 pick. He has total package potential, a 6-1, 198-pound athlete who’s equally adept against the run as the pass. Plus, he can always pick the brain of an NFL safety, older brother Eric who plays for the San Francisco 49ers. Reid was third on the Cardinal in tackles a year ago, while tying for first in pass breakups.
6. Jordan Whitehead, Pittsburgh
Whitehead suffered through a difficult sophomore season, due in large part to an arm injury suffered late in the year. He’ll be doubly motivated to bounce back in his junior—and possibly final—year with the Panthers. Whitehead is determined his 2015 form, when he earned consensus Freshman All-American for posting a team-high 109 tackles. He’s the physical and emotional linchpin of a Pitt defense looking to author its own rebound from 2016.
5. Armani Watts, Texas A&M
Watts struggled to remain healthy in the second half of the 2016 season, limiting his overall production. But he’s still the same active safety who led the Aggies with 126 tackles as a sophomore a year earlier. When at full strength, Watts roams the field with contagious energy and enthusiasm, quickly filling lanes and wrapping up in space. He knows only one speed, flying to the ball like a fireman into a burning building.
4. Ronnie Harrison, Alabama
Harrison is one of the rising stars among safeties and a future pro as early as 2018. He took a quantum leap as a sophomore, finishing second on the Tide with 86 tackles, including 56 solos. Harrison checks off all of the boxes in an elite free safety, from his 6-3 and 216-pound frame and devastating hits to his big-play potential. After missing the All-SEC Team in 2016, he’s about to stockpile individual honors commensurate with his emerging talents.
3. Quin Blanding, Virginia
The NFL is ready for Blanding. He’s just not quite done playing in Charlottesville, which is great news for the rebuilding Cavaliers. Blanding is a three-year starter and a three-time member of the All-ACC Team. He’s done about all he could for the UVA defense since arriving from Virginia Beach, amassing 358 career tackles while setting the standard for the underclassmen. Blanding is big and smart, and ideally suited to cover centerfield for Bronco Mendenhall and the Hoos.
2. Godwin Igwebuike, Northwestern
Wraps up in space like a safety. Blankets receivers like a corner. Igwebuike is exactly what coaches look for in a versatile defensive back. The senior has been starting since his rookie year, so he brings a ton of experience into his Wildcat finale. He also has momentum, parlaying a team-high 108 tackles and two picks into a spot on the All-Big Ten Second Team. Igwebuike’s most obvious attribute is his speed, jetting to the play to make a stop or to prevent a completion.
1. Derwin James, Florida State
James is one of the top players in the country, regardless of position. Unfortunately for the Seminoles, they only got one full game from him in 2016, the result of a torn meniscus. It was a harsh setback for a young player who displayed an uncommon array of abilities from the safety spot. At 6-3 and 211 pounds, with great speed and instincts, James’ measurables are second to none at safety. Now, he just needs to regain his health and resume building on an auspicious debut in Tallahassee.