It wasn’t that long ago that safeties weren’t looked at as a primary position in the NFL Draft. Many felt they could draft a serviceable safety in the middle rounds. Things have changed, and the safety position has become much more important in today’s defenses.

Today, the safety has to be able to cover, support the run, and have range. He also has to be one of the most instinctive players on the defense. This year, the safety class is good but not great. There are only two who have a chance to go in the first round but there are plenty more who will go in the first three rounds and contribute. With that said, he are my top five.

1) Ha Ha Clinton-Dix – Alabama

Clinton-Dix is a third-year junior and a two-year starter for Alabama. At 6013 – 209, he has good safety size to go along with good speed and overall athleticism. He has some corner movement skills, and that helps him in coverage, as he is often used to cover a slot receiver.

He is an alert, instinctive player who makes plays versus both the run and pass. While he is not a box safety, he will come up to support the run, showing good shed and tackling skills. He has range in zone to go along with the skills to play man on tight ends and slots.

Clinton-Dix had arthroscopic knee surgery in December to clean up some meniscus problems, but he was still able to work at the combine. While I’m sure there are no medical issues, each team’s medical staff will make their decision on the surgery. Assuming he is given a clean bill of health, he should be the first safety drafted and go in the first half of the first round. He can play either free or strong and will start right away.

2) Calvin Pryor – Louisville

Like Clinton-Dix, Pryor is a third-year junior. He has been starting since his freshman year. He is a physical safety who loves to hit and throw his body around. When I originally wrote up Pryor, I estimated his size at about 6’1 – 210. I was a little off, as he measured 5111 – 207 at the combine. I thought he was going to be a sub 4.5 guy, and it turned out he ran a 4.55.

Still, he is a very good athlete who can pedal, turn, and change direction. His transition is also very good.
Pryor lines up both deep and in the box, He is an excellent run support safety who can be a blow-up hitter. In coverage, you don’t see him locked up in man coverage too often, but he is a very good zone player with instincts and awareness. He has excellent range to the sideline and helps over the top.

Pryor has the tools to play free or strong safety in the NFL and will probably get drafted between the 20th and 30th picks in the first round. He will come in and start right away.

3) Jimmie Ward – Northern Illinois

Ward is a three-year starter for Northern Illinois. In the Northern defensive scheme, he played closer to the line of scrimmage in 2012 than he did in 2013. He has also been used to play man coverage on inside receivers.

He has adequate size at 5106 – 197 but is very fast (4.49). He ran that time with a broken foot, so there is no telling how fast he really is. He had foot surgery right after the Northern Illinois pro day.

Ward is a very good athlete with quick feet, loose hips, and quick change of direction. He is a quick reactor with top instincts. He shows anticipation and is around the ball. He is effective in run support, showing the ability to shed and tackle. He is also a good blitzer coming off the edge or on delays. Ward shows the suddenness to play man and has the awareness and anticipation needed in zone. His ball reactions and ball skills are good. 

I see Ward as a better fit a strong safety, but he can play free. He is an eventual starter for a team that has good safeties but will start right away for a team with a need. Assuming his foot surgery went well, I see him going in the second round.

4) LeMarcus Joyner – Florida State

I am not usually a fan of small defensive backs, especially with the league stocking up on jumbo receivers. Still, Joyner is impressive on tape.

He is listed as a safety, but really plays as a fifth defensive back. He is part safety, part corner, and part linebacker. He will usually line up on an inside receiver when they play versus three wides. In their base defense, he is almost like an OLB.

When you look at his size (5080 – 184), you don't believe he will make it, but this is a tough kid who is fearless and makes plays. He has great instincts and anticipation. He is also a very effective pass rusher. When is the last time you saw a 5’8” guy get 5+ sacks in a season?

How Joyner is used in the NFL is a question to be answered by the team that drafts him. He has the hips and feet to be a nickel corner and the toughness to play safety. I see him as a bit of a wild card selection come draft day. He could go as high as the second round but more likely goes in the third round.

5) Deone Bucannon – Washington State

Bucannon has more prototypical size for a safety. He measured 6010 – 211 at the combine and can run a 4.49. He has been a starter since early in his freshman year and been a productive player for Washington State.

He is not as instinctive as the players listed above. He will misdiagnose some plays and can be a little late reacting, but he still makes some big plays. In run support, he comes up quickly and is aggressive, but he will miss some tackles because he doesn’t consistently wrap up.

In coverage, he is best in zone where he does a good job keeping things in front of him. He is very aware on zone, and two of his interceptions were made when he helped a teammate who blew a coverage. His range and ball skills are very good. He flashes in man coverage, being best versus shorter routes.

Bucannon is an interesting guy in that he is aggressive and makes plays. The problem is, he also gives up plays. I see his best fit at strong safety, and I feel he will be an eventual starter at that position. His play says he is a third rounder, but his athleticism says second round. We will find out come draft weekend.

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