More than just impressive talent is powering the potential for Louisville safety Calvin Pryor to be a first-round selection in the 2014 NFL draft.
That claim is not to be confused with an indictment of his individual prowess as a football player, which—judging by what he put on film his junior season—is plenty good enough to warrant his name being called within the first 32 picks in May.
It is used in this context to show that Pryor is about to enter a perfect storm of sorts, a time when the NFL is desperate for better safety play and the importance of the position in defending today's modern offenses continues to grow.
Also, every decision-maker in the NFL is just weeks removed from watching Seattle's safety combination of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor beat up the most potent offense and quarterback in league history on the biggest stage. In a copycat league, such a performance is worth its weight in replication gold.
Talent evaluators will look at Pryor and see a little bit of Chancellor—a monstrous, well-built safety who blew apart the underneath game of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. The former fifth-round pick is an enforcer type who can also cover, an increasingly rare breed in the modern NFL game.
There's even a little bit of Thomas to Pryor's game, as he displayed impressive range from sideline to sideline when Louisville asked him to play the deep half.
But maybe the best comparison for Pryor is former Indianapolis Colts safety Bob Sanders, a fearless wrecking ball of a safety who eventually went on to be named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2007. At 6'2" and 208 pounds, Pryor is a bigger, potentially faster version of the 5'8" Sanders.
An early entry to the draft, Pryor brought the same kind of reckless energy and playmaking ability during his three years at Louisville.
Maybe no game from Pryor's junior season shows this better than an October 2013 contest with Rutgers. Draft Breakdown's cutup of the game can be viewed below.
Less than a minute in, Pryor makes his presence known in Chancellor-esque fashion. Playing a deep high safety, Pryor explodes onto the screen and blows up the Rutgers running back with a violent collision.
Later, he cuts down a ball-carrier in the backfield on two different occasions, first taking on a tight end off the left edge and then shooting the gap and beating a fullback off the right.
Maybe his best play comes with Louisville up seven points in the fourth quarter, when he ranges from all the way in center field to intercept a deep attempt along the near sidelines. He breaks on the route, catches the football and manages to keep his feet inbounds.
Throughout the cutup, Pryor is aggressive in flying up to support against the run. And unlike earlier games in 2013—such as Louisville's bout with Kentucky—Pryor's aggressiveness is in a contained, refined form.
Source: Sports Reference
He's received rave reviews since declaring.
Pre-combine, NFL.com has profiled Pryor as a "complete safety" with "instincts" and "ball skills" who might be "the most physical player in the draft."
Former Louisville and current Texas head coach Charlie Strong told ESPN's Mel Kiper (subscription required) that Pryor was "one of the best players" he has ever coached.
Vance Bedford, his former defensive coordinator at Louisville, called Pryor a "coach on the field" with a "high football IQ" and a penchant for delivering big but clean hits, per Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Bedford's full summary:
He had three games in a row where he hit somebody and they did not finish the game. He doesn’t want to injure anybody, but he brings a certain physicality that if you’re going to throw the ball down the middle of the field, you’re going to pay a price. That’s how the game used to be played. He did things the right way and that’s what people like about him so much. And he’s a coach on the field—high football IQ. He controls everything. Gets guys lined up. Makes the checks. He does it all.
Bleacher Report's own Matt Bowen, an NFL safety from 2000-06, believes Pryor's stock will only go up as the draft process moves forward.
"Pryor should see his stock continue to rise as the draft process continues because of his speed, angles to the ball plus how he sets his pads on contact," Bowen said in an email interview. "[He's] a downhill player that also has an athletic skill set."
The NFL has taken notice of that skill set. And a stunning number of teams are in need of a player fitting Pryor's description.
Quite possibly, no position in the game is as devoid of league-wide talent as safety. Just look at the first round of May's draft. As many as 15 of the first 22 teams could claim the safety position as a top-four positional need.
Sure, there are still stars, including Thomas, Chancellor, Eric Berry, Jairus Byrd and Eric Weddle. But the days of true difference-making players roaming the back end of defenses—think of Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed, Brian Dawkins, Darren Sharper and Nick Collins—have started to fade.
"Overall, the safety position can improve," Bowen said. "But I also believe it is becoming a premium position, which will impact scouts in how they grade safeties moving forward. You want players that have that physicality but can also take away the deep ball and challenge receivers and tight ends at the line of scrimmage."
The decline of the position certainly has a lot to do with the evolution of the game, as rules are becoming more liberal for offenses and more suffocating for defenses. Maybe the safety position's best tool—straight-up intimidation—has been mostly stripped away with rules that prohibit certain type of hits.
Still, rule changes can't explain all the regression. This position is simply going through a cycle of talent deficiency.
The NFC North—a division I covered exclusively for Bleacher Report this past season—featured arguably the worst safety play in the entire NFL, with at least three of the four teams potentially in need of huge upgrades in free agency or the 2014 draft.
Will Calvin Pryor be a first-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft?
In Chicago, the Bears' combination of Chris Conte and Major Wright finished last season in the running for the league's worst safety duo. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the pair missed over 30 tackles and allowed nearly 1,000 passing yards and nine touchdowns last season. We highlighted Chicago's glaring need at safety in-depth here.
The Green Bay Packers weren't far behind Chicago at safety. Starters Morgan Burnett and M.D. Jennings combined to play roughly 1,800 total snaps, but the Packers received zero interceptions and forced fumbles. Instead, the duo allowed nine touchdown passes and an opposing passer rating of 148.1. Green Bay's stunning lack of production from its safeties was discussed at length here.
The Minnesota Vikings looked to have one-half of their safety equation in place with former first-round pick Harrison Smith, but when he went down with a significant injury in 2013, Minnesota's back end collapsed. Andrew Sendejo and Jamarca Sanford both allowed opposing passer ratings of over 100.0 for a defense that ranked dead last in points and second-to-last in yards.
The waters were calmer in Detroit, where Louis Delmas and free-agent acquisition Glover Quin made up one of the NFC's better safety duos.
The Bears pick at No. 14 in May's draft, with the Packers slotted in seven selections later at No. 21. It's possible each franchise will be inclined to use its first-round pick on a safety, given a player such as Pryor or Ha Ha Clinton-Dix falls that far.
The world-champion Seahawks showed just how important safety play can be in today's NFL. Anchored by All-Pros in Thomas and Chancellor at the back end, Seattle finished 2013 ranked first in yards, points, passing yards and passer rating against (64.7).
In the Super Bowl, the Seahawks held Manning—who threw for more touchdowns and yards than any quarterback ever—to a passer rating of just 73.5, his second worst of the year. And the Broncos offense, which averaged 37.9 points per game, scored just eight, a full 12 points behind its next-lowest total in 2013.
Chancellor made a strong case to be the game's MVP, as he led the team in tackles, picked off a Manning pass and delivered the boom on more than one of Denver's receivers.
But Seattle isn't the only defense thriving with the help of strong safety play. The rest of the league's top-five scoring defenses—Carolina, Cincinnati, New Orleans and San Francisco—all received above-average or better play from their safety groups.
The old adage that good defenses are built up the middle—particularly at inside linebacker and safety—is coming back in full force.
"If you look at the Seahawks and 49ers, they both can dictate the game from the safety position," Bowen said. "[They play] a physical brand of football that shows up on tape when they deliver a violent blow on contact."
These realities make it even more likely Pryor will be a first-round pick come May.
The NFL simply has too many teams in need of a safety like Pryor, and the results from defenses such as Seattle and San Francisco have provided a blueprint many teams will attempt to copy on defense.
Pryor has the talent, and the NFL has the need. It's likely to result in a first-round match.