Top 10 SEC safeties heading into the 2019 season
The SEC is loaded at the safety position heading into the 2019 season, especially in the top-tier of players. There are a few big-name stars at the position, but for the top teams in the conference, depth at safety is great, too.
Safeties are the last line of defense for teams, but these guys are ranked on our top-10 list because of their ability to make plays all over the field, not just deep in the secondary. To succeed in today’s game, safeties need to be able to come up and make big hits in the run. They also need to be able to read quarterbacks’ eyes and make big plays 40 yards down the field.
The guys on this list can do just that. The versatility among these safeties is off the chart and we can’t wait to see how they perform this fall.
With no further ado, here’s how we rank the top 10 safeties in the SEC for the upcoming 2019 season:
10. Nigel Warrior, Tennessee
Warrior definitely took a step back in Jeremy Pruitt’s first year as Tennessee’s head coach. However, he still had a good season, amassing 64 tackles, one for a loss. Now, in Pruitt’s second year, I think Warrior will be more comfortable.
Last year, he still showed great instincts in the secondary, including this tackle for a loss against Auburn, when he diagnosed a screen pass and made a huge play:
— PFDZ (@PFDZ44) June 10, 2019
Warrior has a lot to prove this year, but if the Vols’ defense takes a step forward, a bowl game should be in their future.
9. Donovan Stiner, Florida
Stiner’s biggest play in 2018 effectively ended the Gators’ narrow 13-6 win over Mississippi State in Dan Mullen’s return to Starkville. He came sprinting into the backfield on a safety blitz called by DC Todd Grantham, blowing up QB Nick Fitzgerald before he even had a chance to read the field:
That wasn’t all Stiner brought to the table in 2018, though, as he recorded 49 tackles and had two interceptions. He’s expected to share time with senior S Jeawon Taylor this fall, but I think Stiner brings more to the table.
He has a clutch gene you can’t teach, and he has experience in big moments. I expect him to get a lot of playing time this year, and to make the most of that time.
8. Brad Stewart, Florida
Stewart only has one speed, and that’s 100 percent. He’s a beast on the field and is all over for the Florida defense.
As you can see here below, he was the one to make the play that sealed Florida’s win over LSU this past season:
— PFDZ (@PFDZ44) December 20, 2018
After recording 41 tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble last season, Stewart is primed for an even better year in 2019. CB C.J. Henderson will get the headlines in the secondary, but Stewart will make some big plays for the Gators this fall.
7. Jeremiah Dinson, Auburn
Dinson plays a great center field for the Auburn defense, showing off strong ballhawking skills and play-making ability down the field. Here’s a play he made against Southern Miss last year, covering a lot of ground to snag an interception:
— PFDZ (@PFDZ44) June 5, 2019
He had two interceptions and three pass breakups last year, but he also isn’t afraid to come up and make tackles against the run. He had 64 tackles in 2018, four of which were behind the line of scrimmage, and also forced a fumble.
Here he is taking on a Southern Miss running back head-on:
— PFDZ (@PFDZ44) June 5, 2019
He and Daniel Thomas (see below) make a great safety tandem, and with the talent in front of them on the Auburn defense, it’ll be exciting to watch them play this fall.
6. JaCoby Stevens, LSU
I’m way higher on Stevens than a lot of people. I know that, but I’m not apologizing for it. I love that LSU DC Dave Aranda basically created a new position that highlights Stevens’ strengths last year.
Stevens will play primarily in what is called the “quarters” position in 2019. Per a report from The Advocate, that position is a “glorified linebacker,” but is basically a safety who plays closer to the line of scrimmage and has a lot of freedom to seek out the ball.
Grant Delpit spent time at the position last year, as did John Battle. However, when Stevens took that spot, he stuck there. And he’ll play it again this fall. Here he is making a play behind the line of scrimmage against Texas A&M:
— PFDZ (@PFDZ44) February 21, 2019
And here he is on another play vs. the Aggies, throwing his blocker aside and bringing down QB Kellen Mond on a QB read play:
— PFDZ (@PFDZ44) February 21, 2019
Getting both Delpit and Stevens on the field at the same time only adds to how scary the LSU secondary is, and it’ll be fun to see how Aranda uses his two tough, physical safeties this fall.
5. Richard LeCounte III, Georgia
LeCounte, who is entering his junior season, has been overshadowed by other elite members of the Georgia secondary the past two years. In 2019, he’ll have J.R. Reed alongside him (see below), but this is the season where he could really make a name for himself.
In 2018, he made 74 tackles (one for a loss), snagged an interception and forced two fumbles. He shows great instincts on the field, as evidenced here by his pick of Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa in the SEC Championship Game:
Georgia S Richard LeCounte is one of my favorite early prospects there. His instincts and ball skills are on full display here as he picks off Tua. pic.twitter.com/6m4Xwj7kHm
— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) May 12, 2019
That’s a great feel for his zone in a Cover 2 look. Here he is having a good feel for where the first-down marker is and making a great play on third down vs. Tennessee:
— PFDZ (@PFDZ44) May 1, 2019
Reed will still get the headlines in the Georgia secondary, but LeCounte is a strong player, too. Georgia’s safeties are some of the best in the SEC.
4. Daniel Thomas, Auburn
As mentioned above, Dinson is a great safety in his own right, but Thomas has the talent to be a special playmaker. He’s already shown a great nose for the ball and plays with a fearlessness that makes the Auburn defense one of the best in the nation.
Thomas had 74 tackles last year, including two for a loss. He had two interceptions, returning one for a touchdown, and two forced fumbles. Here’s the one he returned for a touchdown, coming against Alabama State:
— PFDZ (@PFDZ44) June 8, 2019
He also plays the run well, feeling very comfortable around the line of scrimmage, both against running backs and bringing down receivers in space on screen plays:
— PFDZ (@PFDZ44) June 8, 2019
The one spot where Auburn had a lot of turnover defensively this offseason was in the linebacking corps, so Thomas and Dinson both may need to step up and help make more plays during the 2019 campaign.
3. J.R. Reed, Georgia
The Bulldogs have perhaps the best safety tandem in the SEC, with Reed and LeCounte playing alongside each other. Reed had 66 tackles (two for a loss), two interceptions and one sack last season.
Like a lot of guys on this list, Reed excels at diagnosing plays and making a tackle as soon as possible. Look at this sniffed out screen pass vs. Tennessee:
— PFDZ (@PFDZ44) April 28, 2019
And here he is against the run vs. Kentucky:
— PFDZ (@PFDZ44) June 7, 2019
The Bulldogs have an intriguing group of secondary players this year, and Reed will be the unquestioned leader of that unit. If he has another big year, the Bulldogs should compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff once again.
2. Xavier McKinney, Alabama
McKinney was an overlooked player for the Crimson Tide defense at times last year, but when you have guys like Quinnen Williams, Mack Wilson and Deionte Thompson on the roster, that’s understandable.
Still, he had an outstanding year, recording 74 tackles (third on the team behind Dylan Moses and Thompson), six tackles for a loss, three sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. Here’s a pick he returned for a touchdown against Ole Miss:
Great job by Alabama S Xavier McKinney to bait the QB and come away with a pick six. McKinney might be the best FS in the 2020 NFL Draft. pic.twitter.com/yIDRYX9Zbr
— Rob Paul (@RobPaulNFL) June 6, 2019
Here he is forcing a fumble on an option play against The Citadel:
— PFDZ (@PFDZ44) April 15, 2019
He allowed the worst passer rating for opposing quarterbacks among any returning SEC safety, per Pro Football Focus:
Xavier McKinney allowed very little in coverage. pic.twitter.com/mrWeAXeiHQ
— PFF College (@PFF_College) June 27, 2019
McKinney might be the second-best safety in the country, but he’s still No. 2 in the SEC because of…
1. Grant Delpit, LSU
Delpit is not only the best safety in the SEC, he’s the best safety in all of college football. Much like Jamal Adams a couple of years ago, Delpit can make any play you need him to make on the field and should be a top-10 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft (he could even do better than Adams, who was the No. 6 overall pick in 2017).
The Tigers are planning to use Delpit more around the line of scrimmage this fall, and that should highlight his ability to be where the ball is. However, it’ll be important for DC Dave Aranda to avoid limiting Delpit’s natural ballhawking skills. He had an SEC-best five interceptions in 2018.
Look at the impressive range he shows here, covering half the field to make a diving interceptions against Ole Miss:
LSU safety Grant Delpit showing range from single-high while DK Metcalf getting locked up by Greedy. pic.twitter.com/kjGZD288SY
— Jared Stanger (@JaredStanger) June 30, 2019
Delpit also had an impressive five sacks last year, including this one against Arkansas:
— PFDZ (@PFDZ44) July 2, 2019
As I said above, he can truly do it all. He’ll be the top playmaker on the LSU defense this fall, and it’ll be fun to see the creative ways Aranda uses the elite safety.