Ranking The Safeties
It used to be NFL teams would look for two kinds of safety: one who could play the deep middle and cover a receiver, one who could step up into the box to play the run and maybe blitz.
They're still looking for those kinds of safeties, only now they're looking for guys who can do as many of those things as possible by themselves.
This isn't a great crop of safeties are far as versatility is concerned. There are some prospects who are in the classic free safety mold, others who are more typical of the traditional strong safety. A couple of prospects could be worth top-15 picks, and as many as five could be off the board by the end of Round Two.
Here's a look at the top 10 safety prospects in this draft:
1. Calvin Pryor, Louisville: While Clinton-Dix has long been considered the premier safety in this year's draft class, it is Pryor who has emerged as the most complete prosect of the bunch. He has the ball skills and range to cover the deep middle as the free safety, and he has the size (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) and physicality to be a classic hammer-dropping in-the-box strong safety. Versatility is a virtue, and there isn't a scheme where Pryor wouldn't be able to contribute in a variety of ways.
2. Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, Alabama: Ha Ha projects as the classic free safety, a natural centerfielder who can range from sideline to sideline and make plays on the ball. He has the hands, instincts and the closing speed to be a first-rate ballhawk. But he lacks a physical element, which will limit his ability to help in run support. He's willing to step up against the run; he's just not a strong tackler, and he seems to struggle shedding blocks.
3. Craig Loston, LSU: It's a pretty shallow year in terms of safety prospects; beyond Pryor and Clinton-Dix, there's a considerable dropoff. Still, Loston has the skill set to establish himself as the best of the next. Every time I watched LSU this season and noticed a big hit, it was delivered by Loston. Like Pryor, he seemed to inject himself into every play, either against the run or rallying to the ball after a reception. Loston answered some questions about his coverage skills at the Senior Bowl, and he should satisfy the stopwatches in Indianapolis. He may not be taken until the late second or early third round, where he'll be a terrific value pick.
4. Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois: Ward's a bit of a tweener. At 5-10, 190, he might be a little on the slight side to play strong safety, though that would suit his physical style. He's fast and makes plays around the ball, but perhaps lacks some of the instincts to play free safety. Ward possesses the kind of tenacity and athleticism that will make teams want to find a place for him. He's played himself into the 2nd round and could be the third safety off the board.
5. Ed Reynolds, Stanford: Reynolds is a bit of the flip side of Ward. He has the size to play in the box, but he's more comfortable in coverage. He just might lack the speed to cover sideline to sideline or to chase down the top-flight burners. Reynolds could line up at either spot, or he could find himself a situational contributor in Big Nickel packages, as he can stick with even the swiftest tight ends.
6. Deone Bucannon, Washington State: Bucannon has everything you look for in a strong safety: size (6-1. 215), aggressiveness (Pac 12's top tackler in 2013), leadership. If he proves at the Combine to be faster than he appears to be, Bucannon will rocket up draft boards. As it stands now, he's the third or four strong safety off the board, most likely a second round pick.
7. Terrence Brooks, Florida State: With all the prospects from Florida State's defense who might be looking at position switches (Christian Jones, Lamarcus Joyner, Telvin Smith), Brooks is right where he belongs. He's a natural free safety who properls himself into plays all over the field. He's not a consistent enough tackler to help out with the run too often. Still, his skills will translate well and he should be the kind of prospect who contributes early, if unspectacularly.
8. Dion Bailey, USC: Bailey arrived at USC as a promising safety. Then, after a redshirt season, switched to linebacker for two years. He moved back to safety in 2013 and it looked like his natural position, though he'll come into the NFL with work to do. He's comfortable around the ball, but he just hasn't played the position long enough to anticipate routes. He has average size (6-0, 200) but could find himself a bit of tweener, caught between the two positions he played in college.
9. Ahmad Dixon, Baylor: Dixon has the look of a solid strong safety. He's aggressive against the run and is physical in all phases of his game -- maybe even a little reckless at times in his tackling. His weakness is in coverage. Dixon can handle tight ends and bigger slot receivers, but he lacks the fluidity to take on the more elusive receivers. Dixon will make plays in front of him, but I don't see him chasing down receivers or flowing to the sidelines.
10. Brock Vereen, Minnesota: High energy, highly athletic and high Football IQ, Vereen could be on the move up draft boards. He could be a Day Two selection. He's one of those prospects who could be helped or hurt more by the measureables at the Combine than the drills. Coaches need to come away comfortable that Vereen has the size and strength to be a force on defense. Otherwise, he's a somewhat limited free safety candidate.