NFL Draft Rankings 2014: Safety

On the surface of things, life is becoming quite difficult for the safeties. With new rules about hitting in the head and neck area, plus growing concern about knee injuries, the permissible strike zone defensive players are working with is shrinking at a rapid rate. Naturally, many players, specifically safeties, are decrying this as destroying the game, and to an extent, I feel for them. At the surface of things, you cannot strike the player in the head, but you also have to avoid his legs. It does not leave much room for error, but at the same time, realistically, safeties should not have been aiming for the head or legs in the first place. No one should. So realistically, what does it say that these players are complaining? To me, it says that they had no qualms about this beforehand. To speak up now that they are being asked to perform in a manner which will prevent them from seriously injuring their opponents shows me that these reforms were completely necessary.

Furthermore, I wanted to look into how much of an issue this really is, namely, how many penalties are the best safeties in the NFL drawing, and how many of them are related to either personal fouls or unnecessary roughness? While “Top Safeties in the NFL” is a debatable subject, the players I looked at included Jairus Byrd, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Eric Berry, and Harrison Smith. Harrison Smith is not one of the top safeties in the NFL but I love the way he plays and he has the potential to be on this list in the future. In any case, Smith had one penalty all season, and it was unnecessary roughness. Jairus Byrd had two, only one was unnecessary roughness. Eric Berry had 6 penalties, but none of them were unnecessary roughness. Kam Chancellor had 6 as well, two unregistered personal fouls, and one unnecessary roughness. And finally Earl Thomas had four, with two unnecessary roughness calls. Look, everyone is going to define a lot in various ways, but from my perspective, the most egregious offender was Chancellor with three related penalties, and I hardly consider three to be indicative of Chancellor struggling with the rules. The point I am trying to make is that if a player really is one of the best, then he will not get flagged because either A. It’s not that hard of an adjustment to make or B. He was already aiming there. Kam Chancellor is widely regarded as one of the hardest hitting safeties in the league, and yet he clearly is not having issues with this.

Fortunately, I believe that this problem will resolve itself. Players will be taught at younger and younger ages the proper way of playing the game, and eventually these safeties that complain about the NFL “ruining the game” will be phased out. For the time being, we just need to endure.

And for one last time, I’d like to remind everyone of how this column works.

How it works-

I will start each of these posts by examining which teams need the players in question. By in large this is only going to be teams that are in need of a new starting player, not necessarily a backup.

For each player I will provide analysis, statistics from the 2013-2014 season, and a general idea of where I believe they will be taken in the draft.

Things to keep in mind-

The rankings that I post here are based on my observations of the player’s statistics, game tape, and any rumors that leak out to the general public. I make no claims to have insider knowledge into the draft process or any teams overall plan this is merely my own ranking system if I were evaluating these player for any given NFL team.

As with any ranking system, it is all relative. Scouting reports by professionals can differ greatly for the same individual for the same game. So my rankings by no means the definitive order.

I love football. I love the NFL, and college football, and I love sharing what I love with other people. And that is the ultimate point in creating these rankings: To share what I know about the players who will be a part of my favorite football event of the year, namely the draft. Whether you love the draft process as I do, just want to know a little bit more about some of the top college players outside of those at Wisconsin, or are simply interested in who your favorite team could be looking at in May, I want these rankings to be informative.

Now let’s get to it.

Teams looking to draft a safety in the 2014 Draft:

St. Louis Rams: Strictly speaking, the Rams probably have bigger needs to fill than safety, but even with that being said, I think there is a good possibility that they target someone in May’s Draft. Right now they have T.J. McDonald and Rodney McLeod, both of whom are 23, so obviously that is not the issue. McLeod has been in the league two years, and played in 16 games each year, but he only has one year of starting experience. McDonald, meanwhile, missed 6 games during the season because of a fractured leg, but he was productive upon his return. I am assuming at this point you are wondering why I even put the Rams on here if they have two young players with starting experience. It all comes down to upside and depth. Not everyone is sold that McLeod and McDonald will take the next step forward to becoming an elite pair of safeties, and when you consider the talent in the top half of this year’s safety class, I think the Rams will have to give guys like Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Calvin Pryor a good hard look before deciding to go elsewhere. What’s more is that beyond those two safeties, the Rams lack a competent replacement. Given that McDonald could reasonably play either strong or free safety but lacks star upside at either position, grabbing either Pryor or Clinton-Dix would solidify a strong Rams defense even further.

Detroit Lions: For the record, the Lions’ secondary as a whole needs a make over, but I decided to go with safety after the departure of Louis Delmas. The Lions were able to replace him with James Ihedigbo from Baltimore, but he is 30 years old and on the back swing of his career, plus he is better in run support than coverage. This does make him a good pair with Louis Delmas who primarily plays in coverage, but the bottom line is that Ihedigbo is not the long-term solution for the Lions, and since I am no longer convinced that they can perform a miraculous turnaround and take control of the NFC North, the Lions will need to find a new safety before their stop-gap of Ihedigbo runs out of time. Currently he is only in Detroit on a 2-year deal, a perfect length of time for a veteran to coach a young player.

Dallas Cowboys: Last year Dallas finished with a defense that was ranked 3rd worst in the NFL in passing yardage. While some of that assuredly comes back to Morris Claiborne being injured, the tandem of Claiborne and Brandon Carr is a solid cornerback duo, which means the burden falls on the Cowboy safeties. Right now J.J Wilcox and Barry Church are slated to start for the Cowboys, and while Barry Church seems like a viable option after breaking out in a big way last year, the fact remains that Church has one good season to his name and that Wilcox has seen limited playing time after one season in the NFL. Bottom line, assuming that Church is a legitimate safety now, if the Cowboys plan to start someone with as little experience as Wilcox, they would be better served to draft either Clinton-Dix or Pryor and let someone with a considerably higher ceiling that Wilcox get the playing time and work towards improving a defense that really struggled last year. I doubt that Wilcox will be an impact player for the Cowboys, but Pryor and Clinton-Dix certainly have the potential to be. Wether or not they can prevent the Cowboys from going 8-8 again, well, that remains to be seen.

Washington Redskins: This is a pretty significant need for Washington, and if they actually had a first round pick, I would think that safety would almost assuredly be in the mix. Current starters Brandon Meriweather and Ryan Clark are both on the wrong side of 30, with Clark turning 35 in October. A year ago Meriweather really struggled, and he has yet to play a full season since leaving New England three years ago. Clark meanwhile has been a productive player for the Steelers for the past eight years, but as I said, he is getting older, and since the Steelers let him walk in free agency, one has to question how much he has left. Meanwhile Washington does have Bacarri Rambo, a talented safety from Georgia they drafted a year ago, but it does not appear as though he is close to being ready for the spotlight. Washington has a ton of needs they need to sort out and few picks to address them with, so they could very well pass on taking a safety this year, but the clock is ticking, and if Meriweather or Clark disappoint this next season, this will become an even bigger issue than it already is.

Indianapolis Colts: The day that Free Agency began this year, long time starter for the Colts Antoine Bethea signed a contract with San Francisco, leaving a huge hole in the back end of the Colts’ defense. Coach Chuck Pagano has already said that they would like to acquire a safety in the draft, showing that whatever the Colts want to say about in-house replacements, they are not completely sold on the idea themselves. They do have LaRon Landry, who had a decent if not great year, as he missed 4 games and failed to record a single turnover. But starting across from them at this moment would probably be Corey Lynch, who over the past two years has played in 8 games and recorded a total of 5 combined tackles. You will forgive me then if I say that Lynch does not inspire tremendous confidence in me. Granted he did play well for a couple of years in Tampa Bay and one year in San Diego, but he has not played more than 5 games over the past two seasons with Tennessee and Indianapolis, and has never recorded more than 47 tackles in a single season. It would be difficult for anyone to replace Bethea, an organizational cornerstone that had not missed a game since 2007, but whatever safety the Colts decide to draft most likely has a better shot at doing a good job than Lynch.

Green Bay Packers: This decision depends on what the Packers decide to do with several members of their defensive backfield. No matter what, the infamous M.D. Jennings has moved to Chicago, giving Packers fans even more reason to dislike him, and Sam Shields is going to stay in the green and gold for quite some time. Furthermore Tramon Williams will most likely play opposite Shields, and inspires some confidence that at least statistically, he had one of his best seasons last year. Still, Williams is 31 years old and corners do not always age well. That still leaves the Packers with three talented young players in Micah Hyde, Davon House, and Casey Hayward, rumors are that either Hyde or Hayward could play safety next to Morgan Burnett, or potentially if Coach McCarthy has enough confidence in the younger guys, Williams could shift to safety much like Charles Woodson once did. But, Hyde has limited experience, Hayward is coming back from an injury, and House is probably not suited to play safety. So unless one of those three can replace Williams at corner, it would behoove the Packers to look at taking a safety in the first round. Theoretically at least one of the top two safeties should be available when the Packers make their selection, and given the emergence of Alshon Jeffery, that makes three top receivers the Packers would face twice a year, so making sure the secondary has talent and depth is imperative.

Safeties:

#1. Calvin Pryor, Louisville

Height: 5’11, Weight: 207 lbs.

2013 Stats: 75 Tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3 Int

NFL Combine: 4.58 40-yard Dash, 18 reps Bench Press

Comparing Pryor and Clinton-Dix is almost like comparing apples and oranges, because their style of plays are so completely different. At the NFL level, Pryor is most likely a strong safety and Clinton-Dix probably a free safety, so while they are both safeties, how they play is completely different. But at the end of the day I need have to rank them, and I am going to put Pryor ahead because from my perspective he is a slightly better prospect. As far as stats are concerned, Pryor had a great season, coupling the 75 tackles and 3 interceptions with 2 forced fumbles and 4 pass deflections. A year ago Pryor was able to rack up 100 tackles as a defensive back and had 5 forced fumbles and 7 deflections, so while this year was not quite as good as the previous one, Pryor still put up great numbers. The 5.5 TFL and 2 forced fumbles is part of why Pryor will most likely be a strong safety, Pryor’s numbers indicate that he plays close to the line of scrimmage and charges in head first to make a play, a highly aggressive and physical safety.

At the Combine Pryor was a limited participant, but he was a top performed in the Bench Press, placing fourth in the defensive back group with his 18 reps, and he finished with the 8th fastest 40 time among safeties, ironically tying one Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. That being said, Pryor’s Pro Day was apparently disappointing, putting up numbers that fell short of expectations, and Pryor’s height is also a concern to some as he checked in at 5’11 rather than the 6’1 Louisville had listed him at.

Watching Pryor’s tape confirmed my suspicions that he should play strong safety. Sure enough, Pryor plays with a highly aggressive attitude, charging into the fray once he knows where the play is going. Extremely hard hitter, Pryor can easily make the case that he hits harder than anyone else in this draft class. That being said, his recklessness can cause some problems, namely if he takes bad routes or misses his tackle, it is hard for him to recover. Not that he does not try. Still, Pryor does have excellent instincts and his natural play-making ability should allow Pryor to make himself known fairly soon after being drafted. As I said he angles could use some polish, and Pryor did not play much man coverage for Louisville. Pryor’s physicality should allow him to play against some of the tight ends in the NFL but his height could prevent him from fully negating them.

At the end of the day, if a team needs a strong safety, Pryor is the one that they will want to draft, and he could feasibly start from week 1 depending on the scheme and fit. That being said Pryor will have his share of growing pains, namely learning a more precise way of utilizing his strength, but if he can do that, Pryor’s ceiling is as high as anyone’s in this draft. It is hard for me to see Pryor falling out of the first round, and he could go as high as the middle of the first round, most likely shortly following or followed by Clinton-Dix.

Final Decision: Middle 1st Round

 

#2. Ha’Sean (Ha Ha) Clinton-Dix, Alabama

Height: 6’1, Weight: 208 lbs.

2013 Stats: 51 Tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 Int

NFL Combine: 4.58 40-yard Dash, 4.16 20-yard Shuttle, 11.63 60-yard Shuttle

Ha’Sean, better known as Ha Ha, Clinton-Dix might be my second best safety, but he is the top free safety in this draft class. Much like Pryor, Clinton-Dix put together a better statistical season a year ago compared to now. Last year for the Tide Clinton-Dix racked up 5 interceptions and 9 pass deflections, flashing his incredible range and ball-hawking tendencies. This year Clinton-Dix was more involved in stopping the run game, attempting to showcase a little more versatility in his game. Ultimately Clinton-Dix only gathered 3.5 TFL, and he still carries the perception that he shies away from contact, so while he showed a slight increase in tackles for loss, it really does not affect his overall perception that much.

With the drills Clinton-Dix ended up as a top performer in the 20 and 60 yard shuttles, both of which are designed to test an athletes’s agility and change of direction speed. Based on what I saw in his on-field drills, this is no surprise to me. Clinton-Dix was able to switch directions and alter his trajectory with minimal effort. And although his backpedal was not perfect, he shuffled his feet and changed directions with impressive quickness. Clinton-Dix also tracked the ball well, always putting himself in position to make the catch, although he did not do this consistently, an issue that plagued him at Alabama this past year. Though catching is not the most important quality a safety can have, dropping easy catches is not something that the NFL will allow. Bottom line, Clinton-Dix looked the part of a ranging free safety ideal for the NFL.

Whereas Pryor could be criticized for playing too recklessly, Clinton-Dix will be criticized for playing too conservatively. Clinton-Dix does not consistently run down the ball carrier, especially not when there are other players that should be able to make the tackle. No one will mistake him for an enforcer, but that does not mean that Clinton-Dix is not a good safety. Clinton-Dix is an excellent cover safety, and at 6’1 he can match up with NFL tight ends, at least in height if not in physicality. But while Clinton-Dix can play man coverage, ultimately his calling is as a primarily zone-oriented safety. He does a good job reading the quarterback’s eyes and anticipating where the opponent wants to go with the ball. Combine that with his quick-twitch agility and excellent changing speed, and once Clinton-Dix overcomes his apparent fear of contact, he could be a great ballhawking safety.

The more I evaluated Clinton-Dix, the more starkly contrasted he and Calvin Pryor were. Realistically, an NFL team’s big board is going to rank these guys based on what they need, free safety or strong safety. If a team wants an enforcer, Pryor is the man. If they want a ball-hawk, go with Ha Ha. Either one of these guys could be the first safety drafted, it just comes down to need. But at the end of the day, Clinton-Dix is incredibly talented and has great upside in the NFL. He has size, speed, and instincts, he simply needs to become a little more aggressive. Clinton-Dix has the talent to go in the middle of the first round, and I think that is where he will end up.

Final Decision: Middle 1st Round

 

#3. Jimmy Ward, Northern Illinois University

Height: 5’11, Weight: 193 lbs.

2013 Stats: 95 Tackles, 2.5 TFL, 7 Int, 10 Pass Deflections

NFL Combine: 9 reps Bench Press

Jimmy Ward is another one of the undersized, small school players that still puts up good numbers, and manages to turn a few eyes. Ward’s statistics certainly do that, after accumulating 7 interceptions and 10 pass deflections. Throw in a forced fumble, a sack, and 2.5 TFL, and you get a sense for just how important and effective Ward was for the Huskies’ defense. Given Ward’s aggressive style of play, he most likely translates to strong safety in the NFL, despite his size. It may be possible for teams in need of a free safety to call Ward’s name as well, but it would take more effort ant coaching to put him there as opposed to the strong side. The bottom line is that Ward produced for three years as a starter at Northern Illinois, and Ward is going to continue to do so at the NFL level, wether he is put at strong or free safety, or used in special teams. For that matter, Ward does have 4 career blocked punts to his name.

Unfortunately Ward barely participated in the NFL Combine, and only performed on the Bench Press, and even then only managed 9 reps. There is not much to say about his Combine, except that he may have been better off passing entirely, rather than doing the Bench Press at all. However, Ward was impressive at his Pro Day, running an unofficial 4.47 40-yard Dash. A few days after his Pro Day, Ward did undergo surgery to have a screw inserted into his foot but he is expected to return to play before the Draft happens, so showcasing his flatline speed is important before the surgery. His Combine was uneventful, but his Pro Day certainly helped him.

Watching the tape on Ward, you can see his speed and reaction times, especially in the running game. He moves from sideline to sideline well and is an active presence all over the field, but he is not without fault. His reaction times in coverage could stand to be faster, and in man coverage he is clearly limited by his height. Also, several of the interceptions I saw were a result of a poor throw, rather than Ward’s own talent. I am not convinced that he can match up against a tight end in the NFL, but that being said he is still a highly aggressive safety that has a good feel for the position. More polish will be needed before Ward can start, but given his experience on special teams, he should find ways to help his team even if he cannot start at the safety position.

Ward is not Pryor, nor Clinton-Dix. Polish and overall talent wise, he does not match up well with them. But Ward has spent the past four years at Northern Illinois, a program that is constantly underrated. He is only 5’11, and NFL teams wonder if he has the size to ever match up. Now when you combine his aggressive nature with those perceived slights, it can be used to motivate Ward to become a productive starter for the NFL. Tyrann Mathieu of the Arizona Cardinals is only 5’8 and he made an impact as a rookie, so if Ward is willing to learn and use his attacking style of play in a way that will be effective at the NFL level, Ward could easily be a starting caliber safety. Most likely a second round prospect, some teams love him, others do not, but one of the teams that likes him will most likely take him sometime in the second round.

Final Decision: 2nd Round

 

#4. Deone Bucannon, Washington State University

Height: 6’1, Weight: 211 lbs.

2013 Stats: 114 Tackles, 4.5 TFL, 6 Int, 1 Pass Deflection

NFL Combine: 4.49 40-yard Dash, 19 reps Bench Press

Bucannon leaves Washington State as one of their all time leaders in both tackles and interceptions, a product of his four year career as a starter for them. In every year he has played, his total number of tackles and interceptions has risen every year, impressive considering how long he has been playing. Having only one pass deflection is slightly concerning for this past year, but his 6 interceptions assure doubters that Bucannon was still a force against the passing game. This past year Bucannon also racked up 3 forced fumbles, so in total he was able to create 9 turnovers on his own.

The NFL Combine was a rousing success for Bucannon. He finished as a top performer in the 40-yard Dash, Bench Press, Vertical and Broad Jump, and the 3-cone Drill, so as far as measurable traits are concerned, Bucannon pretty much nailed it. However in the on-field drills Bucannon was not as successful. He looked most comfortable when asked to run downhill towards the play, mirroring his natural position of strong safety. In the coverage drills however, Bucannon had a few missteps. He was stiff in his transitions, and did not look comfortable in his backpedal. Furthermore in one drill Bucannon charged downhill, but when the play shifted to a coverage assignment, Bucannon’s change of direction was sloppy at best, making me believe he could struggle against fakes in the NFL.

I loved the physicality that Bucannon showed in his tape, but beyond his style it was quite clear that Bucannon should be limited to strong safety. Though his top end speed at the Combine was impressive, he was unable to chase down most ball carriers if he missed his tackle or took a bad angle, which was more frequent than one would like. That being said when Bucannon did hit an opposing player, he hit them hard. Bucannon was an enforcer for Washington State, and will most likely assume that role in the NFL. One other issue I saw from his tape was problems matching up in man coverage. Though he has the size and jump to physically go toe-to-toe with NFL tight ends, he was inconsistent in shadowing the receivers and as I previously stated, if someone gets past him, odds are Bucannon will not be running them down.

 

Bucannon has a lot of good things going for him. He is athletic, experienced, and mature, as he was a team captain for WSU for three years. He is a consistent producer that gets better as time goes on, and he already has the right mentality for an NFL strong safety. That being said, he has kinks in his game. While he is strong against the run, he is equally weak in coverage. His ability to diagnose a play needs work, and his overall technique could use some polish. But at the end of the day, Bucannon has good upside to start in the NFL, and if a team can help him work through the issues that he has, his talent, size, and athleticism could make him an excellent safety. He could start from week 1 on special teams, but is ultimately a work in progress, so slotting him in the 2nd round should be about right.

Final Decision: 2nd Round

 

#5. Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State University,

Height: 5’8, Weight: 184 lbs.

2013 Stats: 69 Tackles, 7.0 TFL, 5.5 Sack, 2 Int

NFL Combine: 4.55 40-yard Dash, 14 reps Bench Press

Joyner has been flipping back and forth between safety and corner for Florida State for a few years now, but I decided to include him as a safety because that is where I think he will ultimately end up. Theoretically he could play the nickel corner at 5’8, but his speed will prohibit him from matching up with most slot receivers. As for his statistics, Joyner has been productive over a four year career, and this past season he set new personal records in total tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, and forced fumbles. His interception and pass deflections suffered as a result, but no one will complain about added production and versatility. Before this season I would have thought Joyner would be limited to free safety duty, but with his increase production at the line of scrimmage, it might be possible that he could play the strong side as well.

The Combine did not go terribly well for Joyner. While he managed to put up respectable numbers, including being a top performer for the vertical and broad jump, but ultimately his measurables left you thinking that if he had just done a little bit more, it could work. As it stands, by and large Joyner is an average athlete, and with his size, above average would give him a much better shot at starting. As far as his on-field drills go, they were mostly brutal. Far too many moving parts and too many mistakes in space to believe that he could be more than starting-caliber or special teams. His transitions were sloppy, his backpedal was uneven, and ultimately it was not a good performance for Joyner.

Like most of the other safeties on this list Joyner is a strong runner downhill and he excelled in blitz packages, but could struggle in slot coverages. But, Joyner did showcase traits that are unable to be measured. He is a smart player, and makes great adjustments at the line of scrimmage before the play. He can read an offense well and it puts him in a position to make up for his physical limitations. It might be hard to see him getting by on smarts alone in the NFL, but it should be good enough to get him a shot. After all, he did start for a national-championship caliber team. I love his aggressive nature and the tenacity he plays with, but ultimately he has physical limitations that will be hard to overcome at the next level.

If only Joyner could combine his football IQ with the physical traits of Bucannon, but that is impossible. Joyner is a tough player, and a respected leader at Florida State, and he will get a chance to play at the NFL level, but he has a long way to go before he can start in the NFL. I said before that Tyrann Mathieu is able to succeed despite being the same size as Joyner, but Mathieu is more athletically gifted than Joyner and that may prove to be the difference between the two. I would say Joyner should go in the third round, but if a team believes he can break the mold of short players, he could be taken in the second. He has a reasonable floor as a special teams leader, but with a limited ceiling, third round should be close to where he does get drafted.

Final Decision: 3rd Round

Before I close this, there are two other safeties I’d like to briefly mention. Brock Vereen, a safety for Minnesota that absolutely killed it in the combine and has good bloodlines, his brother Shane plays running back for New England. He had a good career for the Gophers and he might be able to produce in the NFL. Also closer to home, Dezmen Southward. He was unable to participate at the NFL Combine, but at the Wisconsin Pro Day, Southward shined, running an unofficial 4.35 40-yard Dash, which if accurate would tie for the fastest 40 time by a safety since 2006 (the year they started recording these numbers), and almost assuredly makes him a top performer in that category over that time frame. As if that was not good enough, he also had a vertical jump of 42 inches, which would put him second since 2006 behind only Eric Berry. Bottom line Southward inspired a lot of confidence in his athletic talents, and almost assuredly boosted his draft stock.
That is gonna do it for the safeties, and for my positional rankings. Hopefully you will have enjoyed reading these as much as I did writing them, and take comfort in the fact that the Draft is only a little more than a week away. And once that’s over, we can start projecting and ranking the players for next year’s draft

By Mike Veldhuis