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Safety Valve

by DJ Boyer on May. 8, 2014

The last line of defense between your defensive squad and the end zone a team is sworn to protect is none other than the safety position. With the ever-changing landscape of the NFL, there is more pressure put on cornerbacks and the safety is charged with providing support defending the run and the pass. It’s an intriguing position because of all the different ways a safety has to offer to support the defense and how the roles differ depending upon your defensive alignment.

 

The Top Prospects:

 

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has been regarded as the top safety available for most of the season although Calvin Pryor may end up going first. Clinton-Dix looks like he will go in the #13-#20 area of the first round. He is more of a centerfield type, but is not a true “ballhawk”. The only knock on Clinton-Dix is that he is not a physical safety and his tackling skills are average. His best attribute may be his communication skills. Clinton-Dix is like a quarterback for the defense as he made many of the defensive calls at Alabama on the field and showed a true understanding of formations and offensive packages. Clinton-Dix is not one to give up the big play or be beaten deep, as he is equally effective against the run as he is the pass.

 

Calvin Pryor has pretty good speed and instincts and he is a more physical player than Clinton-Dix despite both being viewed primarily as free safeties. Pryor picked up the slack for teammate Hakeem Smith, who struggled at Louisville this season after being viewed as an elite prospect. He shows a nice blend of both upper and lower body strength while showing to be very durable and reliable.  Is very similar to Clinton-Dix in that he is equally effective against the run as he is against the pass. Two teams that seem to be expressing the most interest are the Bears and Ravens at #14 and #17 respectively.

 

Jimmie Ward is a fringe first round prospect that will likely not last past #40 overall if he indeed makes it out of the first round without being chosen.  He should be selected after Clinton-Dix and Pryor but there is a small chance Ward could be selected first, because, of the three, he is the one true strong safety in the bunch.  Ward is far from being a polished prospect but he impressed about as much as any player at the Senior Bowl.  Another area where Ward excels is covering tight ends, something we see that is needed more and more in the NFL today. Ward is a good match for Baltimore and Green Bay and those are the likely teams where he will go if he is taken in the first round.

 

Second Tier:

 

Dion Bailey is a player we are hearing varying reports about. Although he is thought to be a better run defender, he led the USC Trojans with five interceptions, giving teams hope that he can be just as effective defending the pass. Bailey could have returned to school for another year but since he already earned his degree, made the decision to make the jump. Dion Bailey was a very consistent performer that registered over 220 tackles in his three seasons as a starter for the Trojans. He was the leader in a secondary that faced added pressure this season after so many defensive line starters battled injuries. Bailey has experience at linebacker but transitioned back to safety for his final year at USC. He battled through some injury issues himself this season with arm and ankle injuries but has been mostly durable only missing a large chunk following shoulder surgery early on. He should be drafted in the 3-5 round range when the draft rolls around.

 

Terrence Brooks will be held in higher regard for teams that are looking for a tough run defender. The fact that Brooks is moving up the boards is the reason why some feel fellow Florida State safety Lamarcus Joyner is so open to being a cornerback. Mitchell is getting increased attention at the safety position and is built more like a prototypical safety (5’-11”, 200 lbs). Brooks has cornerback experience and can play the slot or even blitz off the edge. He hits well but doesn’t always wrap up ball carriers, so he will have to improve technique at the next level. Brooks could go late in the second round where teams like Indianapolis and New Orleans both have starting safeties to replace after losing them in free agency. He is a versatile athlete who may contribute more on special teams right out of the gate than on defense.

 

Deone Buchannon is #2 strong safety on our board behind Jimmie Ward and both players are moving in the right direction on the boards heading into the draft. Buchannon could be taken as early as the middle stages of round 2 and fall as low as the early part of the third day in the fourth round. He is not a true athlete, has some stiffness, and lacks the sideline-to-sideline range you look for, but in the bone-jarring hit department, he is not lacking. Buchannon is the strongest and fiercest hitter in the draft class and produces highlight film tackles with regularity. He is well-rounded in that he intercepted six passes this past season and is a great compliment in coverage and when doubling up downfield. Buchannon is one of the players that will be taken outside of round one that might make the biggest impact as a rookie, as he just seems like someone who will find the field and contribute right away.

 

Ahmad Dixon looks like a solid third day prospect that should go between rounds 4-6 with the 5th round seeming likely. We don’t want to use the word “dirty” player, but Dixon has been known to take rule interpretations to the max. Every team needs that one guy who just gets under the skin of an opponent and in the secondary that can be a good thing. If a team is looking for this type of player look no further than Dixon. He has been known to launch himself and leave his feet but his talent always shines through. Dixon is a game changer and is always looking to strip a ball, make an interception, or cause a turnover somehow. He is a team player and has improved over time. The right coaching staff will need to get a hold of Dixon to ensure he doesn’t stray too far from the norm in the NFL, but he will turn a few teams off with his antics.

 

Craig Loston was a prospect that was regarded as a first round pick when the season began. Loston has always had bouts with inconsistency and would disappear for long stretches during games, but when push came to shove he was there. He fought through a nagging leg issue that plagued him for most of the season and limited him to a meager 51 tackles. Loston is still a solid choice and the fourth round seems most likely, but he could slide into 5th round territory. Teams like Miami, Arizona and Green Bay have been linked to Loston and seem to be showing a lot of interest. Loston is a player who seems like he would be drafted much higher had he declared after his junior season. He is one of the most naturally talented prospects at safety so he will still find a way onto the field. Versatility will help, as Loston looks like a strong safety prospect but can play free safety with ease.

 

Ed Reynolds had the option to come back to Stanford for one more season but opted to enter the 2014 draft class. Reynolds may be slipping a bit on the boards but this is not due to poor play or showings, just the fact that some other prospects are starting to move up and Reynolds might be pushed down the option board a bit. The fact that Reynolds played at Stanford always helps as NFL squads love the pro ready offensive and defensive sets that transitions well for life in the NFL. Reynolds could stay as a third round prospect but a tumble down into rounds four or five seems more likely. He is a very instinctive player with wonderful instincts. His tackling sometimes yields mixed results but he also comes from terrific lineage as his father played linebacker for the Giants and Patriots.  He is more of a natural free safety but seems better in run defense than playing the pass deep downfield. He will mis-time jumps and needs work with his aerial skills, but he is very durable and a leader on the field.

 

Lurking:

 

Tre Boston was a little more active than the North Carolina coaching staff would have hoped for over the last two seasons. Boston started his career as a cornerback but made the move to safety. Draft analysts started to list him high on the draft board having Boston as a solid third rounder but that seemed to do more with tackle numbers than actual play. The front seven has been underachieving at North Carolina for a few seasons and Boston made a lot of stops downfield, but was not as impactful as teams were looking for when they watched the tape. Boston looks like a 7th rounder but he has a ton of athletic prowess and could be used on special teams in the return game. He is more quick than fast and his play recognition skills will need to improve. He shows good footwork and is solid in pass coverage and double team support. Tre Boston will last in this league most likely as a key backup.

 

Marqueston Huff helped his stock tremendously at the Senior Bowl as he showed he can play with the speedy receivers and match up with taller targets. Huff has a well-rounded game and seems to be coming into his own at just the right time. The last game of the season for Wyoming saw Huff dominate with 20 tackles, in one of those types of performances late in the year that seem to suggest he has elevated his game. He looks like a 4th or 5th round prospect but he has been rising fast and could go even higher on draft day. He seems to play taller than his 5’11” frame would indicate.

 

Kenny Ladler made the All-SEC team so you would think he would be near the top of the safety class. Next to Deone Buchannon he is the biggest hitter at the safety spot and may be a better fit as a strong safety versus the free safety spot that he seemed to play at Vanderbilt. The problem may be speed for Ladler and may have teams thinking he could be better suited as a linebacker than playing in the secondary. Ladler is underrated and warrants consideration starting in the 3rd round. However, he is more likely a solid 6th round selection, but he will contribute right away, even on special teams. Ladler had 3 career blocked punts as a member of the Commodores, and combine that with his five interceptions and five forced fumbles as a senior, and you can clearly see making an impact is not foreign to Ladler.

 

Isaiah Lewis logged three years as a starter at Michigan State and four years seeing significant action in the Big Ten so being clutch and playing in big games is not new. Lewis was overshadowed by the play of Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard in the past, so he always had players or teams trying to avoid them and pick other spots in the secondary giving Lewis a host of opportunities to make plays. He is one of the better blitzers from the secondary as he will rank favorably with teams looking for aggressive secondary players. Pittsburgh and Miami have courted Lewis at their respective facilities on multiple occasions and he looks like a prospect that will go during the middle of the third day of the draft.

 

Brock Vereen is another late riser who seems to be getting a lot of interest late in the draft process. More people were interested in coming to the Pro Day at Minnesota for DT Ra’Shede Hageman, but while he had a respectable Pro Day, many left talking about the performance of Brock Vereen. Vereen already had an impressive sub 4.5 from the combine and his positional drills at Pro Day put him near the top of the charts in all categories. Vereen looks a little slow to react on film but he shows good form when tackling and good body positioning when in coverage with sound footwork. He will need some coaching but the fundamentals are there as well as the lineage (Brother of Patriots running back Shane Vereen). New England is a natural place where he is being linked but Kansas City, Washington, Minnesota and Atlanta all seem to have their names in the hat. He looks like a solid round 4-6 selection which is impressive since at the start of the year he was graded as an undrafted free agent.

 

Ty Zimmerman is a prospect that seems to have a flair for the dramatic. Zimmerman had 13 career interceptions at Kansas State and 11 of them occurred in the second half of football games; talk about rising to the occasion. He returned two interceptions for touchdown this past season and was locked in as a solid third round prospect.  Zimmerman started all four seasons and made one of the All-Big 12 teams in each of his four seasons. He suffered a torn labrum though midway through his senior season and tried to play through the pain, but eventually was shelved and had surgery. Zimmerman will be fine for the start of the year but it caused him to miss the Combine and he was still rehabbing when Pro Day rolled around. The injury was similar to what TCU corner Jason Verrett is going through this year and what Alabama CB Dee Milliner went through last year. It should drop Zimmerman a round or two but he will hear his name called and have a chance to contribute. He is not particularly fast or strong but he takes good angles in the open field and has a strong field sense and presence about him. He made many of the defensive calls at Kansas State and has leadership qualities that shine through on the field.