Darnell Savage Jr.’s remarkable rise from a relatively unknown three-star high school prospect to a respected if still overlooked college player at Maryland reached a once hard-to-imagine peak when the undersized but lightning-fast safety was picked in the first round of the 2019 NFL draft on Thursday night.
Savage, who as a senior last season in College Park was selected second-team All-Big Ten before being voted the top defensive back at the Senior Bowl and becoming perhaps the biggest breakout star at this year’s NFL scouting combine, was taken No. 21 overall by the Green Bay Packers.
While he was the first and only safety taken in the first round of the draft, which began Thursday night in Nashville, Tenn., it is Savage’s versatility as as hybrid defensive back — and his speed both on defense and kick returns — that helped Savage leapfrog over other, more highly publicized players.
By Savage following former teammate and still close friend DJ Moore, who was taken No. 24 by the Carolina Panthers as the first wide receiver in last year’s draft, it gave the Terps first-round picks in back-to-back years for the first time since Shawne Merriman and Vernon Davis went 12th and sixth overall, respectively, in 2005 and 2006.
Despite a more than respectable senior year statistically — with 52 tackles, including 5 ½ for losses and four interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown — the 5-foot-11, 198-pound Savage was considered by most to be a fourth-round draft choice in the 2019 draft after the season ended.
But that assessment started to change — dramatically as it turned out — when Savage played well in front of NFL scouts, coaches and executives during the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., and took on a completely different narrative at the combine in Indianapolis, where Savage ran the 40-yard dash in 4.36 seconds.
Even after his performance at Lucas Oil Stadium, most thought Savage had moved up to early in the third round at worst and mid-to-late second round at best. Yet in the weeks before the draft, Savage continued to shoot up the draft boards of several teams.
“There's no player that's got more steam and momentum right now in this draft than Darnell Savage,” said Daniel Jeremiah, a draft analyst for the NFL Network and former Ravens scout said in a conference call last week. “Teams love him, love him to the point where I would not be surprised if he found his way into the first round.
“The only thing he's lacking is just kind of ideal size, a little bit undersized, but he ran 4.3 [40-yard dash], he plays to that 4.3. I would say absolutely he's a top-40 pick, and I think he's got a real chance to sneak into the first round.”
Draft gurus such as ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay both picked Savage to go in the first round.
Kiper had him going No. 27 overall to the Oakland Raiders. McShay, who on a recent teleconference said he would be surprised if Savage lasted until the third round, had Savage going to the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots with the 32nd and final pick of the first round.
There were several media reports in Washington the past couple of days that Savage made a second trip to Redskins Park, with the possibility of the team using the No. 15 pick on Savage, or at least trading down a little to get him. There was also a report that the Houston Texas could take Savage with the No. 23 pick overall.