A few days ago, ESPN's Matt Williamson tweeted there could be 10 starting safeties in this year's draft class. It's an interesting theory because it's an astronomically-high number to project. It's also difficult to say who is the best in this class, let alone how all of them project to the NFL.
Depending on how you view Florida International's Johnathan Cyprien, you might consider him the best pure safety in the class. But an argument can also be made for Texas' Kenny Vaccaro, who appears to be the top safety for most. Both are solid prospects but also fits for specific roles and teams.
Some teams are in need of a true free safety that can control the deep real estate in between the numbers, while others are looking for one that can play in the slot and erase slot receivers from games. It's two different worlds, really, and that's why it's so difficult to rank the players. Cyprien may rank higher in one role but Vaccaro may in another one. Who's to say one is better than the other overall? General managers, that's who.
They are drafting players for specifically their team, which has a specific role for each player in a specific scheme. So what is a Kenny Vaccaro's specific role in the future? Can he be a single-high safety or is ill-fit for it? What about as a split-field defender or in the slot?
Vaccaro is best fit as a split-field safety or slot defender. He is not the ideal single-high safety as I see it. He can do the job, but I would like to see a safety with more range and discipline in that role, both of which he lacks. However, he is a very good prospect as a split-field safety and an even better one as a slot defender.
A split-field safety can be defined as a two-high shell defender who covers only half of the field, such as in Cover 2 (five under, two deep zone). It's generally easier to find these types of defenders because they don't rely on range as much reading keys and being fundamentally sound.
In the slot is where Vaccaro does his most damage. He has exceptional foot quickness, which enables him to mirror receivers seemingly with ease. That was obvious against West Virginia this past season, when he matched arguably the most dynamic receiver in the draft, Tavon Austin, step for step. It wasn't a fluke performance, either; he matched slot receivers effortlessly throughout the season.
If a coach's job is to put his players in best position to succeed, then Vaccaro should be in the slot. That doesn't necessarily means he's limited, however, it just means that he's the most valuable defender in that alignment.
C is for center-fielder
While Vaccaro's best in the slot, Johnathan Cyprien is best as a single-high safety.
What a single-high safety means is that he is the lone defender lined up in between the hashes and is responsible for the deep areas of the field. One example of this would be in Cover 1 (Man-Free). This type of coverage requires a safety who has range to cover from number to number, has fluid hips and ball skills to attack the football when it's in the air. These are all traits that Cyprien has.
What makes Cyprien intriguing is that he can also play in the box as a run defender because he's physical and aggressive in reading his keys. He doesn't hesitate to attack downhill and can lay the wood in the process. For some, this is the reason why he's considered a better player than Vaccaro but as noted, it all goes back to what a team is looking for at the position.
Finding the Right Fit
If a team wants to draft Vaccaro, then they probably have another player who can play deep and cover ground while Vaccaro plays man coverage underneath. On the other hand, if a team drafts Cyprien, then they are probably looking to draft – if they don't already have one – a slot defender who can match up underneath.
Overall, a case can be made for either one because they both excel in areas that are absolutely vital to winning games. It's just a matter of what you're looking for.