Who is the best safety prospect in the 2014 NFL draft class? How about who are the top 10?
We take a look at that as the upcoming crop of talented safeties is introduced to you, the fan and draft enthusiast, as we lead up to the NFL Scouting Combine in February.
What do NFL scouts look for in a safety prospect? We're looking for recognition skills to find the ball, the speed and agility to change direction and then accelerate to the pass or ball-carrier, and the physical skills to put the runner on the ground after he has the ball. You can learn more about those individual traits in our "How to Scout" series.
These 10 players represent the best of the best at the safety position. Some are free and strong. Some are fierce hitters and smooth, savvy ball hawks. Some are a mixture of all. If your favorite NFL team needs an upgrade at either safety position, these are the players you'll want to get to know between now and the May 8 NFL draft.
Recognized by NFL teams as the top safety at the 2014 Reese's Senior Bowl, Northern Illinois free safety Jimmie Ward is turning heads with his smooth footwork and excellent speed from the secondary.
Ward definitely looks the part of an NFL free safety. He's compact and quick and has exceptional burst to close on the ball once he identifies where it's going. While not the incredible tackler some of the other safeties in the class are, Ward is a wrap-up player who will bring down ball-carriers in space.
Heading into the opening of draft season, Ward's stock is rising.
Versatile and impressive, USC's Dion Bailey has the skill set of a cornerback and the body of a safety. Once in the NFL, he could play either at a high level.
The most important aspect of Bailey's duality is his speed. He's fast enough to turn and run with wide receivers but also shows the range in zone coverage to attack the flats or bail to get depth. When you see his fluid movements, it's easy to understand why teams are drooling at the aspect of introducing him to their secondary.
A natural player at free safety, Marqueston Huff moved to cornerback for the Reese's Senior Bowl and showed NFL teams just how versatile he can be. Huff has NFL-caliber ability at either position.
What you like most about his game is his athleticism. He's a multi-positional athlete who has played running back, cornerback, safety and return man. That's added value to an NFL roster. Huff can come in as a starter at safety, a nickel cornerback working in the slot or outside on the boundary and help on special teams from day one.
Huff is more than just an athlete, though. Watch him attack the ball in space, and you see a physical player with the size to back up his mentality.
One of the true strong safety prospects in the 2014 draft class to rank inside my top 200 heading into the draft process, LSU's Craig Loston loves to hit.
Loston is an intimidator and a throwback to the days when strong safeties were actually strong and SportsCenter opened its NFL highlights with big hits. But he's adaptable to today's game. Turn on the game film, and you see a fluid, linebacker-sized safety running alleys and making plays for the LSU defense.
Coming into the NFL, Loston will have to learn to tone down his aggressiveness in coverage, but there's no doubt he'll leave his mark on NFL wide receivers anytime they enter his territory.
You can't watch Florida State's Terrence Brooks without being in awe of his quickness, body control and agility. He moves like a point guard, and that's basically what he is on defense. Leading the charge from the secondary, Brooks is NFL-ready.
The added value to Brooks' agility is that he can play anywhere in the secondary. Florida State used him at cornerback. At the Senior Bowl, he showed the toughness to line up at strong safety if needed. That versatility is a big influence for NFL teams—especially in the secondary.
Brooks is experienced, productive and game-day ready.
The line between free and strong safety in the NFL continues to blur, and with that comes a need for a big, physical, fast safety who can play either in space or when taking on the run.
Enter Kenny Ladler.
The big Vanderbilt safety has the size to play up against the run and take on blockers, but he's shown consistency in his back pedal, in getting depth and in coming up to attack the ball. Ladler isn't the fastest guy on the field, but his length and instincts help him make up for any stiffness.
Sometimes it's as simple as watching a guy play football, and Ladler can flat out play football.
The Baylor Bears have upped their game recently, and the NFL has been happy to accept the high number of prospects the program is sending to the big leagues as of late. The next man up is Ahmad Dixon, and this safety is a playmaker ready for the NFL.
Dixon has the size to bring the pain to wide receivers, tight ends and ball-carriers who enter his territory. He's fast when asked to close on the ball, too, which makes him an ideal player to attack inside and outside runs and routes in a more spread-out NFL day and age.
Dixon needs some work on his flexibility and stiffness, but the way he attacks the ball is certain to catch the eye of NFL scouts. He has exciting instant-impact ability as a starting strong safety.
The top-ranked strong safety in this year's draft class, Washington State's Deone Bucannon definitely passes the eye-ball test.
When offensive players see the Cougars' strong safety coming in to make a play on the ball, you can forgive them for thinking he's an outside linebacker. Bucannon hits like a linebacker but moves like a smaller safety prospect. And he uses that speed to produce all over the field as a tackler, as a ball hawk and as a coverage safety.
This highlight-reel hitter will have NFL fans in awe come September.
A hard-hitting, bone-crushing free safety from Louisville, Calvin Pryor is a treat to watch.
Pryor is a physical player from snap to whistle. He loves to use his hands in coverage but does so in a way that allows him to avoid penalties at the college level. He's also physical when he's not near enough to pull and slap at wide receivers, given his top-level closing speed and the way he comes in to lower the boom on anyone with the ball.
Pryor has the athleticism and strength to make an impact as a starter in his first NFL game.
A dynamic free safety prospect from the school of Nick Saban, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is the top ranked of all safeties heading into draft season.
With exceptional quickness and the range to close on the ball both in the flats and deep down the field, Clinton-Dix shows the duality NFL scouts want in a safety prospect for today's game. He's smooth, balanced and shows the backpedal and change-of-direction skills to be a factor from his first snap in the league.
Top-notch in coverage and when playing the ball, Clinton-Dix is just as likely to lay out a ball-carrier as he is to pick off an errant pass. He's a true three-down weapon for a defense.