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This story is from our 2017 Pro Football Weekly NFL Draft Preview Magazine, which features over 250 scouting reports from Greg Gabriel. Order yours here

Follow the money and the premium draft picks, and safety is the least important position on a defense.

It’s also the position that teams are desperately looking to fill with a game-changer, and the position that is one of the strongest in the 2017 NFL Draft.

We haven’t seen a safety taken in the top 10 in the draft since Mark Barron in 2012, and he’s now a linebacker. The last safety to go in the top five? Eric Berry in 2010, and we know what he’s accomplished in his NFL career.

Other top-10 choices like LaRon Landry or Michael Huff might keep teams from reaching for a safety. But look at what Keanu Neal meant to the NFC Champion Falcons, or how important Landon Collins was to the Giants’ defense last season. It’s apparent why LSU’s Jamal Adams, Ohio State’s Malik Hooker and Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers will be getting just as much, if not more, attention in the coming weeks as the draft’s cornerbacks and edge rushers, the sexy and rich defensive positions.

***

Malik Hooker played only two seasons of high school football, then one as a starter in college, but it was remarkable. Hooker was a first-team All-American for the Buckeyes in 2016, intercepting seven passes while also racking up 5.5 tackles for loss.

“He’s got freaky ability,” Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano told PFW. “Great range. He’s one of the best I’ve ever coached. Incredible ball skills. He really has incredible hands and ability to catch the ball. When the ball is in the air, he believes it’s his, and then he goes and gets it. Once the ball is in his hands, he’s an incredible ball-carrier.”

Hooker reportedly underwent surgeries to repair a torn labrum and a hernia on Jan. 16 that prevented him from participating in the NFL Scouting Combine, but think about this: he put up those numbers in 2016 playing through those injuries.

"The injury happened Nov. 26 in the game against the team up north," Hooker told reporters at the Combine. "When that happened, I didn’t really notice it until after the game. After the game, I couldn’t really walk, I was limping. In practice that week, I wasn’t able to run as well and I just kept playing through it. I played the Clemson game with the injury as well."

Jamal Adams was an All-American for LSU as a true junior. He leaves Baton Rouge with five career interceptions, 17.5 tackles for loss and 15 pass breakups.

"Leadership is definitely my main [attribute]," Adams said at the Combine. "As well as on the field, I can play everything in the back end, whether that's covering in the slot, whether that's playing man-free, whether that's being in the A and B gap, filling that hole, or locking down tight ends. I feel like I'm versatile to play everything in the back end, and that's what makes me a special player."

Those two join Peppers, the versatile and electric athlete, to give the draft three blue-chip safeties and back-end game-changers.

***

Schiano, who spent five years as an NFL coach including two as a head coach for the Buccaneers, explained why we see such fluctuation at the position in terms of the draft. Last year’s first-round safeties, Neal and Karl Joseph, were considered reach picks by some analysts. No safety went in the first round in 2015, and none went in the first 17 picks the previous two seasons.

“I think you can get away with a good player at safety and not a great player. But when you have a guy like an Ed Reed, if he’s that outstanding, he can really change a game,” Schiano said. “But if he’s not that outstanding, incrementally I don’t think it’s as big a jump from a good player to a great player.”

As for the player he coached last season, Hooker, Schiano believes some team is going to get that "great" player at the safety position.

“I put Malik in that class of rare, rare ability in his range,” he said. “When you’re a free safety, a deep safety, range is everything. ... That’s where he’s unique.”

Finding a player who can range from sideline to sideline can be a “lifesaver, both in the run game and the pass game,” Schiano said. With the increased passing in the NFL game to go along with the Rob Gronkowskis and Travis Kelces running down the middle of the field, finding that rare safety can change a defense. That’s why the position has evolved over the years.

“Nowadays, you have big tight ends who can run, so they’re pretty much like a receiver in a tight end’s body. A safety has to do more than just tackle,” Bears assistant defensive backs coach Roy Anderson said. “They have to be able to cover guys and get guys lined up, so you want smart guys who are good in football situations. Just have to have the total package, but it’s changed how offenses have evolved.”

Texas A&M’s Justin Evans is in the second tier of safeties in this the NFL Draft. With four interceptions last season, Evans hopes to be that ball-hawking cover safety that teams hope to find every spring.

“Offenses these days throw the ball 50, 60 times a game, I feel like it’s just as important as playing quarterback on offense, a safety roaming, playing free safety is just like a quarterback,” Evans said. “I feel like it’s really important for a defense.”

UConn’s Obi Melifonwu is going to intrigue teams with his 6-foot-4 frame to go along with the ability to run with big receivers and tight ends. His outstanding Combine performance, which followed a strong Senior Bowl week, has vaulted Melifonwu into the first-round conversation.

“I think I can be very good at the next level, especially with my versatility and the amount of receivers that are getting taller, the tight ends that are getting taller, I could definitely be an asset to every team,” he told reporters at the Senior Bowl.

Anderson, who coached in the Senior Bowl, said it’s important for safeties in 2017 to show traits that are usually associated with cornerbacks.

“You want to see guys who can back pedal, turn their hips and guys who can play the ball downfield,” Anderson said. “A lot of times you see guys who don’t judge the ball downfield, but you want guys who can attack the ball, high-point it and make plays on the ball.”

***

When Schiano talks about Reed and those elite safeties, the type of player he believes Hooker can be, he’s discussing the most instinctive players on the defense. No position on ‘D’ relies on instincts like safety. Players have to read the quarterback to make a play on the ball.

Anderson said during the pre-draft process, especially in an All-Star game setting like the Senior Bowl, coaches can see how draft prospects react to unique situations.

“A new play they haven’t seen, how do they adjust? Can they be the quarterback on the field and get guys lined up? If you see guys doing that,” Anderson said, “then you know, ‘Hey, this guy’s a football player.’”

Schiano is confident that whichever team selects Hooker will find those important instincts.

“He really has great spatial relations,” Schiano said. “You can coach a guy until you’re blue in the face, but to get him to understand when the quarterback is looking at a certain area and the receivers running, to get him to connect the dots and understand where that interception point is going to be, that’s not easy. That to me is instincts. Malik’s really blessed in that. That’s one of his strengths. He can really put together the pieces in his mind almost subconsciously and get in the right spot.”

Evans prides himself on instincts and having a strong football IQ to try and predict what the offense is going to do next.

“It’s a God-given talent. It’s natural ability, really,” he said. “I don’t think you can really teach instincts. You can teach technique and to see something a little quicker, but instinct-wise. I feel like it’s just natural.”

***

Evans isn’t expected to be a first-round pick, let alone a top-10 or even top-five selection like Adams or Hooker, but he has the same goals as the other highly touted players at his position.

“We’re all trying to do the same thing,” he said. “They got them in the top five, so I’m trying to be just as good as them if not better. We’re all trying to be better than each other.”

Hooker’s medical evaluation may help boost Adams to be the top safety taken, and Adams' combination of size, speed, strength and athleticism will be valued highly in the center field of any secondary.

Other early-round safeties include Washington’s Budda Baker, Utah’s Marcus Williams, Florida’s Marcus Maye and Alabama’s Eddie Jackson. Teams can certainly find Pro Bowl safeties in the later rounds, but this is the draft to find that potentially franchise-boosting player to patrol the back end for years to come, and for Schiano’s money, that player can be Hooker.

“As good as he played, his best football is ahead of him just because he hasn’t played a ton,” Schiano said. “I think he’s going to get better and what he did this year was outstanding. He’s going to make somebody really happy.”

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