By Russ Lande
Acquiring frontline starting safeties is key to building a successful defensive unit in the NFL. Just look at the Seahawks. Could their pass rush have been as effective without the likes of Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas covering the ground they did?
I believe teams will continue to seek out safeties like these that can handle tight ends man-to-man, excel in deep coverage alignments and provide run support. The 2014 draft may not have one name teams will be fighting to move up for, but after evaluating film and speaking to numerous scouts, there are three safeties in a close battle to be the first one selected: Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Louisville's Calvin Pryor and Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward.
After this year's combine, neither Clinton-Dix nor Pryor pulled away from the pack, while Ward was advised not to workout due to a minor foot injury, so it's not really clear who stands out. Not only are all rated similarly by many scouts, but they're significantly different players.
Clinton-Dix has received the most national attention of the three (playing for Alabama has that effect) and while he was a very good college player, he is not an elite NFL prospect. At 6-foot-1, 208 pounds, he's bigger than both Pryor and Ward and excels in coverage when he reads the play correctly. But from studying six games, it seems clear that Clinton-Dix has questionable instincts, as he's often late reading and reacting to plays in front of him and tends to misread the quarterback, which leads to false steps or getting caught flat-footed. When he attacks the play, he shows good quickness coming up the field in run support, and displays the range to make plays from sideline to sideline. He can also be a strong and violent tackler when he stays over his feet and wraps up.
Compared to Clinton-Dix's sometimes cautious style, Pryor is an aggressive player who never stops attacking. At 5-foot-11 and 207 pounds, Pryor lacks the ideal height for an NFL safety, but is very muscular and well-built. He reads and reacts well, moves quickly through traffic, and is constantly around the ball against the run and on passes in front of him. Though he is very willing to throw his body around to make big hits, he has a launch-and-lunge approach and often ends up grabbing at the runner's legs, which leads to missed tackles. Blessed with quick feet, excellent speed and an explosive closing burst, Pryor has exceptional range versus the run and can get outside to blow up receivers from two deep coverage. The trouble is that Pryor's aggressiveness causes him to bite and step up on fakes, allowing separation behind him too easily.
Even with that flaw, Pryor is a worthy talent -- but not the most consistent and well-rounded of the bunch, in my opinion. That honor goes to Ward, who at 5-foot-11 and 193 pounds is the smallest of the three safeties discussed. Though he lacks the explosive closing burst that NFL teams prefer, he has nearly all the other traits to be a quality starter. It makes sense that Ward began his college career as a cornerback before switching to safety -- he has outstanding coverage instincts, awareness and ball skills. He also has the ability to cover slot receivers and tight ends in man coverage, while still reacting well to deep passes. Ward consistently makes plays to break-up or intercept passes without committing penalties. While he will likely need to add 10 to 15 pounds to his frame to handle the pounding of the NFL, he is a strong form tackler who consistently wraps up while delivering a blow.
Though none of these safeties are premier prospects and should not be drafted in the first twenty picks, I have a feeling a team will select one on the opening day to avoid settling on a player who doesn't fit into their system. I believe that Clinton-Dix will always struggle with consistency in coverage due to questionable instincts, and while Pryor will make many big plays, he'll give up his fair share as well. While Ward will need to prove his durabilty, I'm confident he will turn out to be the best safety of the three in two years time. Just you watch.
Russ Lande writes about college scouting and the NFL draft for Sports on Earth. He is GM jr. scouting and college scouting director for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and the Big 10 Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him@RUSSLANDE.