The class of safeties in the 2021 NFL Draft is one of several position groups without a clear “alpha” who can set the depth chart and push for a top-15 pick. But while the position group lacks elite top end talent, that doesn’t mean the position is bad, either. It has a number of prospects who will go on to be starters or important role players for their defenses and could provide great value on the second day of the draft.
As with other positions in a similar situation, many of the safeties in this draft class have intriguing traits, but also enough warts to warrant caution from teams. In the case of Cincinnati’s James Wiggins, those are issues with injury. Wiggins tore his ACL just before the start of the 2019 season, then suffered a setback over the winter. He returned to the field in 2020, but then had to contend with a series of nagging injuries. He still flashes the athleticism that made him an ascendant player following his breakout sophomore season, but it remains to be seen how his injury history will impact his draft stock.
Prospect: James Wiggins
Games Watched: vs. Army (2020), vs. UCF (2020), vs. ECU (2020)
Red Flags: ACL (2019), Arm/Leg (2020)
Games Played: 23
Tackles For a loss: 3.0
Forced Fumbles: 10
Passes Defensed: 11
Games Played: 9
Tackles For a loss: 1.0
Forced Fumbles: 1
Passes Defensed: 6
Best: Versatility, athleticism, coverage, competitive toughness
Worst: Injuries, range
Projection: Starting safety with scheme versatility
(Note: Wiggins is Safety number 1)
Cincinnati safety James Wiggins has good size and versatility to play a variety of safety roles at the NFL level.
At 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, Wiggins has the size to play close to the line of scrimmage as a box safety, and he has the football IQ and coverage ability to drop into zone coverages as a deep defender. Cincinnati used him in both roles on their defense, though he was more commonly aligned as a deep safety in the tape viewed.
Wiggins is an experienced and smart player who reads offenses quickly, wasting little time in diagnosing the play and acting on his read. He shows good awareness of the play as a zone defender, quickly reacting to route concepts as well as trusting his eyes when reading the quarterback. He has a strong closing burst and uses his length and instincts well to be disruptive at the catch point. Wiggins also flashes quick feet and hips that are fluid for a safety, appearing to move comfortably in space.
He has a quick trigger downhill as a run defender and is unafraid of contact. Wiggins generally takes efficient angles to the ball, putting himself in position to tackle with good form. He is a wrap-up tackler who tries to get the ball carrier on the ground first, but is also capable of delivering big hits.
Wiggins’ biggest concern is his injury history and whatever impact that may have had on his athleticism. He missed the 2019 season with a torn ACL and struggled with injuries (arm and leg) over the course of the 2020 season. Wiggins was considered a “freak” athlete with excellent long speed and explosiveness prior to his injuries. Teams will want to pay close attention to his medical reports to see if he can get back to his sophomore form as an athlete — not to mention assess the potential for reinjury.
Overall Grade: 6.0 - This prospect is versatile and well rounded with the upside to start in a variety of schemes. However, he carries injury red flags which will have to be assessed.
At his best, James Wiggins projects as a starting safety with true scheme diversity in the NFL. He has the athletic upside and experience to man any safety position except, perhaps, the centerfield of a Cover-1 shell.
There are questions regarding Wiggins’ athleticism in the wake of his injuries, but he did flash a return to form later in the 2020 season. That gives hope that he can be the impact player he showed himself to be in his sophomore season, and perhaps more as he gets further away from those injuries. But even if Wiggins can’t quite recapture that lost athleticism, his experience and discipline would still make him a useful piece. He might not have the versatility to play every coverage, but he could still help a defense as a nickel safety playing in a Cover-3 or Cover- 4 defense.
Teams will certainly be attracted to his football IQ and competitive toughness, and it’s easy to see a coach wanting to work with him. He has the profile of a player who could be a useful piece for a long time and a potential steal if everything works out in the right situation.