B/R NFL Draft 100: Top Safeties
The safety position has a renewed importance in the NFL these days. Earl Thomas, Kenny Vaccaro and Eric Weddle all represent the style of play teams want, and need, at the position. But how does the incoming class of rookies look?
That’s what the NFL Draft 100 aims to identify. Looking only at the film, who is the best?
The B/R NFL Draft 100 metric is based on scouting each player and grading the key criteria for each position, which are weighted according to importance on a 100-point scale. Unlike our NFL 1000 series, this project factors in upside for each player—as the NFL draft is as much about upside as it is about production.
Safeties are judged on coverage (40 points), run defense (20), speed (20), upside (20) and all of the technique, athletic ability and football intelligence needed to play the position.
In the case of ties, the ranking is based on which player I would prefer personally.
Subjective? Yes. But ties are no fun.
I scouted each player with these key criteria in mind. The following scouting reports and grades are the work of months of film study and in-person evaluation.
7. Ahmad Dixon, Baylor
Dixon doesn't jump off the film in terms of coverage—he's not an ideal zone or single-high player—but he does do a good job of intimidating receivers and limiting targets over the middle. He doesn't show great range or fluid ability in getting depth, but he attacks when coming up to play the ball. You can worry about hip flexibility and the fact that he's a bit stiff and slow, but he does an exceptional job of putting a hat on targets when they enter his area.
Dixon is at his best coming down to support the run. He's a classic in-the-box safety with the strength to take on ball-carriers and make impact hits. He's built like your throwback strong safety and plays like one, too.
Dixon lacks the speed to run with top-end safeties, but if you think of him as an in-the-box player (like a linebacker), his speed is more manageable. It has to be stated, though, that in a straight-line situation, Dixon doesn't have the burst and second gear of today's safety.
In the right scheme and system, Dixon has the ability to be a stud. He's a hitter and a coachable defender with impact upside.
Dixon is more of a throwback style of safety, much like Donte Whitner or Troy Polamalu. His big, thick frame and aggressive ability to take on the run project him as an early contributor, but his limitation as a coverage safety does call into question his three-down ability. Dixon is likely a scheme-specific fit, but he is a talented player nonetheless.
6. Ed Reynolds, Stanford
Ed Reynolds shows an opportunistic ability in coverage. When the guys in front of him get pressure on the quarterback, Reynolds has the vision, range and hands to create turnovers or challenge for the ball. However, he too often waits on the ball and seems to hesitate for a beat before attacking a route. He does make plays going forward to attack underneath routes and when tracking back for depth, which is a big positive. Reynolds' awareness is high-level, and he saw the field exceptionally well against some diverse Pac-12 offenses.
Throughout the course of his career Reynolds has improved as a run defender, to the point where he's coming up in the box to stuff inside runs. He makes tackles at the point of impact and doesn't allow runners to take him for a ride down the field. He can take poor angles on the outside and doesn't have the elite speed to chase down runners on the sideline.
Reynolds shows good closing speed in a short area, but he lacks the deep speed to be great. His coverage range and ability to run down ball-carriers on the boundary are limited by his lack of pure burst.
Reynolds can be tough to evaluate because he did make plenty of plays, and the awareness and football IQ he showed are intriguing. If he can learn to be more aggressive as a tackler and more consistent as a cover man—two coachable areas—he has starter ability.
Reynolds made plenty of plays for the Stanford defense, but can he excel outside of the system and protection of that particular defense? He has solid translatable skills and upside, but he must learn to play more disciplined and make his own opportunities in coverage.
5. Deone Bucannon, Washington State
A classic strong safety, Deone Bucannon is not at his best in coverage. He does show good ability to track the ball deep and make a play with soft hands, but he's best used as a freelancing hitter and intimidator over the middle. If asked to lock up a receiver or tight end in man coverage, he'll struggle with speed and quick changes of direction due to stiffness in his hips. When allowed to play in a zone, though, he's much more comfortable and productive.
Bucannon is a very active, aggressive hitter. He comes down to take on the run and has the strength and bulk to be a factor in traffic. On the edge, he displays good closing speed and takes above-average angles to tackle ball-carriers. And while Bucannon will straight-up lay the wood, he needs to do a better job of coming upfield to make the hit and not track laterally so much.
Closing speed, track speed and field speed are all different things, and Bucannon shows good closing speed when attacking the ball. He may not blow you away with his 40-yard-dash time or track speed, but he's a gamer with the ability to explode when coming up. He doesn't have the straight-line speed (or field speed) to turn and run down receivers, but he is very good at moving toward the line of scrimmage.
There is room for Bucannon to grow in terms of his coverage skills and awareness while learning to play in a more diverse defensive system. His strength, burst and aggressive tackling ability will allow him to play early in his career, but there's still considerable potential for him to improve as a coverage safety.
A hard-hitting safety prospect with the tools and skills to play right away, Bucannon is a much better coverage safety than you might expect from a classic strong safety profile. He currently projects as a Day 2 pick in the 2014 draft.
4. Terrence Brooks, Florida State
The Florida State defense allowed Terrence Brooks to be a playmaker in coverage, and he responded. The Seminoles used him as a nickel cornerback and as a single-high center fielder, showing off his ability to cover in both man and zone situations. Brooks shows good discipline to stay with his man when locked up in single coverage and sees the field well. His anticipation skills are high level, and his ability to read the field and diagnose the play on the go are also very developed. He shows good positioning, but he also dropped several interceptions in 2013.
Brooks can struggle to break off blocks, but he does show a willingness to come down into the box and make attempts on the ball. As a tackler in the open field, he's very good, and he can even be violent. But a good stalk block or rub from a moving blocker will throw him off his game.
A natural athlete with good movement skills, Brooks has the speed to compete with backs and receivers down the field. You see the burst from his lower body in his change-of-direction skills and the way he attacks outside runs. Speed is not an issue here.
Brooks is a talented, NFL-ready player. But how much room does he have to grow? There is obvious room for upside in terms of coverage awareness and route-recognition, but as a center fielder, he doesn't have as high of a ceiling. Brooks' current ability is very good, but his room to improve isn't as big as others.
One of the top coverage safeties in the entire draft, Brooks has been overlooked due to a very talented Florida State draft class. With his ability to step right in to a defense and play the role of center fielder, his stock is on the rise.
3. Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois
A top-level cover man on film, Jimmie Ward has the range, quickness in space and awareness to be very good at tracking the ball and limiting receptions. He shows the speed and vision to find and attack the ball as well as the hands to produce turnovers. In man-to-man coverage, he's a dog on receivers and can get positioning to stab at the ball or undercut a receiver's body for jump balls. Ward's technique in hip-flipping is high level, as he's able to quickly change directions without losing speed or momentum.
Ward flashes ability as a big hitter, but that alone doesn't make him a good run defender. His aggressive style of play is a plus, but his smaller frame and highlight-style-hit mentality are both negatives if he's asked to come down and attack angles. He made plays against a smaller conference schedule, but he doesn't show the skills to hang in the box against NFL-level blockers or ball-carriers.
Ward doesn't test as an elite athlete, but he plays very fast on film. Granted, he was often playing against weaker competition. However, against Florida State, there was no noticeable lack of speed in his game against top-end athletes.
Physically and athletically, Ward comes into the NFL maxed out. He's a small-framed player that doesn't show room to grow without sacrificing speed or agility. His football IQ and awareness can always get better, but making the jump from Northern Illinois to the pros may be a bit of a concern.
A potential late first-round talent, Ward has the vision, aggressive attitude and three-down skill set to play immediately in the NFL. He brings big value as a versatile safety/cornerback with the talent to play in the nickel or when lined up in either safety spot.
2. Calvin Pryor, Louisville
Turn on the Louisville game film and you'll likely want to see more of Calvin Pryor in coverage. Listed as a free safety, the Cardinals defense allowed him to freelance and play down in the box often. Pryor has the speed to be an effective single-high safety, but he's much better playing the ball in front of him as opposed to tracking it deep or behind his head. He's instinctive and sees the ball well, but he doesn't show consistently fluid movement when attacking the ball in-flight.
Pryor is at his best defending the run, as he's a top-tier tackler. And while he does go for the massive hit often, he's smart about going low to hit the knees/thighs of a runner and secure an open-field tackle. Pryor does a very good job of chasing angles and running clean alleys to play the ball in front of him. He's not a wait-and-catch tackler; he is an aggressor.
Pryor's game speed is good enough to play for a long time in the NFL. He won't win any races, but he does a good enough job attacking plays outside the hashes and has the speed to give chase against ball-carriers. In a short area, his burst is NFL caliber.
Once unleashed in an NFL defense, Pryor has big room to improve. Given his versatility as a kind of hybrid free/strong safety, he has massive upside in that he can develop in either direction and bring big value to an NFL defense.
The top strong safety in the 2014 draft class, Pryor has the range and strength to provide an immediate impact against the run. While he doesn't bring elite coverage skills, he's still talented enough to warrant first-round consideration.
1. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama
As the top man in the Alabama defense, Clinton-Dix was asked to read and react as much as any safety in college football. He's accustomed to life as a single-high player, and he excelled as a center fielder. His range is high level, and he shows very good recognition skills. You will see his angle to attack outside throws as flat at times, but for the majority of the plays in which he was helping over the top he was on time and impactful. When asked to hover and read the quarterback, Clinton-Dix is rarely out of position.
Coming down from his spot atop the secondary, Clinton-Dix does a very good job breaking down in space and making tackles. He has a good aiming point and doesn't sell out for the big hit; he instead goes for a high-accuracy tackle. He's not big enough to effectively shed blocks on a consistent basis, but he is excellent running through alleys and making plays past the line of scrimmage.
Clinton-Dix does not time well as a runner, but the closing speed shown on film is high quality. He's quick and explosive coming up to play the ball or when targeting a receiver over the top, but he can show some stiffness and average speed when turning to run deep.
The Alabama defense is essentially an NFL scheme, so don't expect much improvement from Clinton-Dix in terms of scheme. However, he has room to improve his technique when flipping his hips to turn and run, and he can also improve his read-and-react timing. If he gets a half-second faster at reading the quarterback, those over-the-top hits will become big interceptions.
A do-it-all safety prospect, Clinton-Dix has upper-level abilities in every aspect of the game. He's the type of player who walks in and starts from Day 1. And while he may not be on a level with Earl Thomas or Kenny Vaccaro as a prospect, he's right on par with the next group of top-tier safeties.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!