The development of the safety position is a critical aspect of the Paul Guenther defense and has been a perpetual question mark for many fans. Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock did little to address the situation in free agency other than adding a nice depth piece in free safety Curtis Riley. Karl Joseph is entering his fourth season and will reach a critical stage come May 3rd, when the Raiders need to decide if they will pick up his fifth year option.
In all likelihood, the Raiders will not address safety early in this draft due to other needs at edge, tight end, and running back. However, this draft has a plethora of mid round and late round options that have significant upside and talent that can be molded into starters in a year or two.
Malik Gant, Marshall
One of the hardest workers you will see on the football field, Gant is a walk on who earned a scholarship prior to 2017. Gant has the body of a prototype NFL safety standing at just over six feet tall and weighing in at 209 pounds. His physical profile from the combine is above average to average with a nice balance of forty speed, bench press, and jump traits.
Scouts will be torn on Gant from a skill set perspective. He has games where he does well in man coverage, and others where he was not able to keep up with hard angle cuts. He does very well in run support and in zone coverages, especially defending a hash mark. In 2018, he recorded 95 tackles, 9 for a loss, had two interceptions, and eight pass break ups. There are times he will get spun on a route, but he shows a good ability to communicate and handle pick routes. His lack of ball skills is concerning, but his effort and chatty approach are infectious.
Will Harris, BC
Boston College has a handful of relatively under the radar stars who can be very solid starters in this league for a long time. Harris is the other half of the Boston College safety tandem that few people talk about. In his freshman season, Harris started the final three games and played 38 more games as a defensive fixture in the following three seasons.
Harris has an ideal combination of size and speed. Standing at 6’1, he is tall enough to adequately cover tight ends in man coverage. He also scored well in every athletic drill at the combine highlighted by a 4.41 forty yard dash and a 6.91 three cone drill. In terms of a coverage safety, Harris can do it all, in spite of not recording a high quantity of interceptions in college. Where he is lacking is in run support. In that regard, he is a decent tackler, just not a thumper and he is not great at getting off of blocks.
Khari Willis, MSU
Quite possibly the best man coverage safety in this class, Willis can be a situational coverage man with significant upside to fit into deep coverage responsibilities for Paul Guenther. An interesting comparison for Khari Willis would be Jabrill Peppers. They have similar athletic traits along with physical stature. The big difference is Jabrill Peppers was also viewed as someone with upside on offense and return team giving him a level of hype that Willis could never hope to attain.
Known as a team leader with high character, Willis started for over three years at a top program that regularly produces NFL caliber talent. His range is very good and he can come from a deep location presnap to make a tackle around the line of scrimmage quickly. Add this to the fact that he locked down tight ends in multiple games as a senior, and you have the makings for a quality specialist player at the bare minimum. The Raiders generally lack a skill set that can take tight ends out of the game, but Willis could be a mid to late round addition that excels there.
Mike Edwards, UK
An interesting note regarding the Raiders and Mike Edwards. General manager Mike Mayock and defensive assistant Jim O’Neil, who works with the defensive backs, met with Kentucky prospects Mike Edwards, Josh Allen, and Lonnie Johnson. Where Edwards really provides value is in his versatility. This is a guy who lined up across the defense for Kentucky and can fit multiple roles including traditional safety roles, slot responsibilities, and nickel/dime defender roles.
Kentucky felt compelled to use Edwards all over the place because he is hard nosed tackler and run defender. On top of that, he seems to have a real nose for zone coverage and understands his responsibilities both short and deep even though he was caught against play action from time to time. It would be nice to see an athletic profile based on testing for Edwards, but he did not have any combine drills done. Because he is a little short, his value for the Raiders could definitely be in a nickel slot defender role.
Saquan Hampton, UR
If it were not for a pair of shoulder injuries in back-to-back seasons for Saquan Hampton, we could have been coming into the 2019 draft talking about him as the top safety in the group. Rutgers has a tradition of playing some professional type defensive looks and Hampton was able to flourish in multiple plays. Although he has the size, Hampton does not seem to possess the ideal agility to cover athletic tight ends, but neither is he a single high safety. He could be devastating in a two high safety alignment, where could be protecting a hash mark and can blow up receivers after the catch.
Hampton finally made it through a whole season in 2018 and was a team captain; he is respected as a leader as well. Put the combination of his size, athletic profile, run defense instincts, and his background with pro style looks together, and Hampton would be an ideal fit in the old Tampa 2. Guenther’s defense shares some of those concepts and could translate into the Raiders having interest in him during the later rounds.
Marquise Blair, Utah
Do not be fooled by this prospect. He is tall, rangy, and looks/plays like a weakside linebacker in many respects, but he is absolutely a safety at heart. A former JUCO stand out, Blair made it to Utah and immediately had an impact on their defense in 2017. He continued his outstanding play in 2018 and ended with second team All-PAC-12 honors.
Despite his size, Blair is not much of a tackler. In fact, it is probably the weakest part of his game even though he spent a decent amount of time in the box for Utah. He played in a variety of coverages including both single and two high looks. There is a saying people will have when they are looking to buy a house. “That one has good bones”. This applies to Blair. He checks the boxes you are looking for when establishing the basics of what could make a good NFL player. Everything will come down to development and putting those bones to good use.