Thursday, May 08, 2014

2014 NFL Draft: Safeties

And finally for this years draft, it's the safeties.

Thank god it's almost over. As much as I love football even I get burnt out this time of the year. I think this is why I don't watch college football on a regular basis, because by this point my eyes are already permanently scarred from having to look at Boise State's field multiple times (seriously, why would you buy a ticket to watch football on that epilepsy inducing field?).

But before we finally crawl over the May 8th finishing line and descend into the boredom induced madness that is the NFL off season we still have one last group to tackle. Safeties. And if I'm honest, I kind of have a soft spot for safety players.

Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed, Adrian Wilson back when the Cardinals went to the Super Bowl, Brian Dawkins at the Eagles, all players I've thoroughly enjoyed watching over their careers. And probably my favourite player of all time would be former 49ers safety Ronnie Lott. So I love watching safeties play and I think I'm actually going to enjoy covering this group a lot.

Just for definition purposes we're predominantly looking at two types of players today; free safeties and strong safeties. Free safeties are the more athletic generally, often required to range over considerable distances deep down the field and sometimes match up man to man against an opponents third string receiver. The strong safety is usually a bulkier type, more of an impact player in the running game and often only required to cover a running back or tight end in man to man coverage.

And as always - for the final time in 2014 - this list is ordered the way it is because that's how the list I'm working from is ordered. The placement of a player on the list doesn't necessarily indicate what I think about them.

It also looks like I might just have enough time to produce a big board, possibly having to do it Thursday afternoon. If I have time I also want to put up an adjusted board, which is basically similar to the big board but with players grouped by rounds to account for the fact that I'm often quite high on players who may not be drafted until the later rounds.

For now though let's dive right in, starting with....

Calvin Pryor, Louisville
Alright, so um, Calvin Pryor. A first rounder because... ?


Why? I don't get it. Sorry.

He's not a bad safety by any means. I can see him playing strong safety in the NFL, perhaps as a backup guy or a developmental guy. He can tackle, doesn't mind getting his head stuck into challenges, and athletically he's not bad. But he's not a first round pick.

He's not an exceptional pass coverage safety. He doesn't have exceptional instincts against the run, although he at least does react quickly once the play has developed. He's just average. I really don't know what else to say about him.

If you pick Pryor when players like Marqise Lee or Odell Beckham or Dee Ford etc are still on the board then you need your head examined. You're crazy. Any one of those three makes a greater impact than Pryor. Pryor is a fifth round pick, maybe a sixth depending on the state of your board. He's ok, he can probably keep the position warm until you find a better player, but he's a not a first round pick by any stretch of the imagination.

If you need a safety that bad then Michael Huff and Jim Leonhard are still available in free agency and they're going cheap. Cheaper than a first round pick and with more experience.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama
Again, not a bad player. But again, not a first round pick. Third round maybe? Fourth?

He's just not that exceptional. He's solid and has some decent coverage skills, it just seems like his body is not able to keep pace with his brain. He can see things happening and reacts to them, but he's just not quick enough to arrive in time to make the play. Part of the problem is because he has questionable positioning, by which I mean he doesn't always line up in the right spot. Subsequently he'll see a pass pattern develop and react, but is too far away (given his speed) to make the play.

That's not something that can be corrected easily and at the NFL level the speed of the game just went up a notch. That doesn't mean that Clinton-Dix can't play, he can. But he's always going to be just a step or two behind the play, a step or two short of making that crucial interception or pass break up. That's not what first rounders are made of. It's a waste of such a high pick.

Deone Bucannon, Washington State
So I watched Deone Bucannon and then tried to figure out why in the hell he was so highly rated? Then I went to do some research and lo and behold, guess which safety scored highly in all the combine events? Deone Bucannon.

A combine stand out who was average on the field. He really did nothing special for Washington State. When I went to look him upon Google I initially discarded the possibility that he might have been a top combine performer because it would have shown in the games. That's how slow he plays on the field, such that his significant combine results are masked.

Mentally he's always two or three steps behind the game and some of his tackling was appalling. In my books he's a seventh round/undrafted type who you pick up because your board is nearly empty and because your scouts think he can be magically converted into an all pro safety just because he runs quickly in shorts.

Brock Vereen, Minnesota
Another combine standout I see... *Sigh*

When you're getting - as my nephew would say - "pwned" by college tight ends that probably won't even get drafted, then that's a warning sign. Missed a lot of tackles as well. And generally didn't do much to excel.

He does make the occasional play and for that we have to give him some credit. I suspect there are people out there who measure the very good moments very favourably versus the bad moments, but I'm not one of them. I think right up until as late as the sixth or seventh round there will be better plays still on the board.

Dezmen Southward, Wisconsin
Ok, now we're cooking.

Before we go any further just keep in mind that Southward only played football in his senior year in high school before transitioning to safety in college, where he spent a lot of time on the bench in the first two years and has only recently moved into the starting team.

The reason that's important is because Southward already looks like a really smart football player. Add on to that the fact that he put up numbers on his pro day at Wisconsin that would have beaten every other safety in this draft for the 40-yard dash (and the vertical jump I think?) and would have even beaten most of the corners as well, and you start to realise why Southward is quite interesting.

Is he perfect? No, by no means. He still has a lot of flaws. But in terms of experience Southward is effectively the equivalent of a college sophomore this year and yet he already shows a number of instinctive traits for the position.

Down in the red zone he can feel the play developing and knows the receiver is sliding into space without actually having to look at him, just by watching the quarterback. He hands off and picks up motioning receivers with ease and communicates effectively with his team mates, adapting the coverage call on the fly. When he sees run he comes down hill quickly, but also with discipline and doesn't leave his assignment.

As for the negatives, sometimes when pursuing from the backside he'll take a bad angle (too shallow). His man coverage skills are ok, but he's still learning how to cope with sudden cuts by receivers and where to position himself to affect the throw. That might improve in time, but then again it might not. For someone with his speeds in shorts he should be better at recovering when beaten, but he doesn't flip his hips quick enough and has trouble getting his feet reset once he has.

Now the negatives have to push him down. Let's not get too excited here, he's a project. Projects don't (or at least shouldn't) get drafted highly. But let's also be realistic here; he's already demonstrating excellent mental capacity for the safety position at an early stage in his development and he has the physical traits to make the most of any further improvements.

I'd be tempted to give him a shot from the fourth round onwards. If I felt really good about my defensive backs coach and perhaps if I had an experienced safety to mentor him, room mate in training camp and all that, I might even be tempted to go for him in the third round.

I think Southward is a name to keep an eye out for 2-3 years from now, probably playing at the free safety position where his instincts and speed would be best suited. Very intriguing young prospect.

Terrence Brooks, Florida State
Ok, I'm interested to know something; on what basis did Calvin Pryor and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix end up above Brooks in the draft standings? I'm really interested to know what people think they see in those two players that make them first round worthy that they don't see in Brooks?

Is Brooks a first rounder himself? Hmmm... maybe? I think it's more of a case of Clinton-Dix and Pryor being over rated. But Brooks is good. He could start in the NFL at free safety I think. There are better players in this draft who will have more of an impact, but nobody should be disappointed with picking up Brooks.

The key to his play is his instincts in the open field combined with his speed. He reads the quarterbacks eyes, takes good angles to the ball and has the speed to get there in time to make a play. He's a bit of a "hitter" as opposed to a tackler which can cause problems, but at least he's not afraid of contact. Contributes on special teams as well and in a pinch could probably fill in at corner for emergencies.

For me? I think Brooks is probably a second rounder. It's hard to put a finger on it but basically I think there are better, more impactful players available and that generally free safeties have limited opportunities to influence the game, but Brooks is good. He's certainly better than Pryor and Clinton-Dix I feel.

Craig Loston, LSU
You wanna talk about honey badgers, then here's your man.

Loston is not a great coverage safety and may struggle if forced to go man to man against some of the better tight ends in the NFL, let alone some of the better receivers. At the same time though, Loston is a fast, hard hitting strong safety candidate, one that will leave more than a few bruises on the opposition over the course of a game.

A lot of Loston's value depends on how each team sees him in their scheme. Teams that want to get better against the run and are happy to compensate for Loston's weaknesses by playing a lot more three deep coverage will see more value in him than a team that plays a lot of man coverage.

Because of that degree of inflexibility in scheme Loston loses some value. He's really being drafted in the wrong era. If this was twenty years ago then Loston would probably be a first round pick, maybe a top ten. In the age of the pass though he falls I'm afraid.

Me personally? I think a third rounder is good value for him and you hope that you can do something with his coverage game, or just disguise it. He's not terrible in coverage, but it is a weak point. Great run defender though.

Ahmad Dixon, Baylor
I've seen worse, let's put it that way. I've also seen a lot better.

Hard to place Dixon. He's reasonably quick, which is about par for the course with Baylor. Trouble is he doesn't do much with that quickness. He's not a great coverage guy, often being mentally a step or two behind the receiver. He does tackle, but he's not exactly blazing to get involved, and he often takes poor angles or fits into the wrong hole.

Overall I think Dixon has enough athletic ability to tempt someone, but for me I just think I'd pass.

Dion Bailey, USC
At a bit of a disadvantage because he originally started in college as a safety, then had to put on weight to move to linebacker, then was moved back to safety for 2013.

It's clear to see why he was initially shifted to linebacker, because he's not a good safety. Sure he sometimes gets tackles when he blitzes, but overall he looks lost. In the game against Stanford this season he was directly accountable for some of the runs that USC gave up inside on trap plays because for some reason he was wondering around to the side, neither deep enough to play coverage or short enough to blitz. He looked like he was still stuck in outside linebacker mode.

And that's really the major problem with Bailey. He dropped weight and moved back to safety, but mentally he's still playing like a linebacker and it's inhibiting his performance. He doesn't approach the game the way a safety should. For that reason I personally would pass on Bailey.

Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State
Wasted as a safety.

The thing with Lewis is that at the strong safety position he's in his element, right up until the point where he has to cover a receiver down field. Then the whole thing falls apart because he just doesn't have the awareness or the skill set to do it reliably. People will just target him.

As a weak side "Will" linebacker in a 4-3 defense though? Man that's an interesting proposition I think. He's quick and I mean he plays a lot quicker than his 40 time at the combine. He loves hitting people and is a pretty good tackler, so there's no problems there.

For me I think he's a seventh/undrafted (board dependent) developmental project to switch to the weak side linebacker spot where his level of coverage skills would be better suited and where his willingness to tackle would be much appreciated. Tempting prospect if he's there late.

Tre Boston, North Carolina
There's one thing above all else that amuses me about Boston; he had one of the highest bench press scores among defensive backs at the combine with 18. Given that the weight is 220lbs and he weighs almost that much, it's like only being able to do 18 push ups. I don't know why I find that amusing, I just do. And we wonder why most corners struggle to tackle.

Anyway, Boston. Erm, he's ok. Played at strong safety but like Lewis I think he might be better off as a project at weak side linebacker. His coverage skills just aren't up to much, but he likes tackling so maybe he could transition. I don't think he's a priority really, grab him if he goes undrafted and see what you can do.

Vinnie Sunseri, Alabama
Honestly, Sunseri is probably not going to cut it at the next level as a safety. He has decent enough intelligence and instincts for the game, but athletically he just can't get his body to catch up with his mind. He might sneak a spot somewhere as a back up, emergency free safety and/or special teams guy, but that's going to take some work.

There is hope though for Sunseri I believe.

This is a long shot, but watching him on the run back of his huge touchdown return against Texas A&M, I think Sunseri might have a shot as a running back. He cut well on the move, which is a combination of him being short and not especially that quick in the first place, and he used his blockers intelligently.

He's a safety so he can handle the contact and shouldn't have any problems blocking blitzers in pass protection. Indeed his knowledge of blitzing and pass rushing combinations acquired from playing defense might actually make him a sort of "poacher turned gamekeeper" as a running back. Coupled with a decent pair of hands for catching passes he might just be the right candidate to become a three down back.

It's worth a shot I think. If Sunseri went undrafted I'd give him a call and offer him that chance in camp at running back.

Kenny Ladler, Vanderbilt
Horrible tackler. Just awful. Not sure if Ladler really has what it takes to match up man to man in the NFL and in zone he makes a lot of mistakes. He just doesn't seem to react until it's far too late.

There was one play I saw which was a run where he didn't stop backpedalling and start coming down hill until the running back had already crossed the line of scrimmage. He had no potential deep threats so there was no reason for him to keep backpedalling, not least because he had originally lined up quite deep to start with.

On occasion he will read a deep receiver and make a nice break on the ball which I think makes Ladler dangerous. Not to the other team, but to the team that might draft him. I can see a scout looking at that and then talking himself into over looking the many negatives in order to focus on those very rare moments of creativity and good play, thus wasting the teams draft pick on a player who doesn't have a long term future in the NFL. I'd pass.

Ed Reynolds, Stanford
Marginal potential as a back up free safety I think. Always seems a little slow to react and doesn't seem to have the instincts of when to leave his position (because of a low threat level) and shift to help out elsewhere. I'd probably pass, unless I badly needed free safety help and could use him as an undrafted back up.

C.J. Barnett, Ohio State
Now Barnett I could see as a back up. Probably not quick enough to do so at free safety but I think as a back up strong safety he has a chance. He's not a bad tackler and reacts reasonably quickly to running plays. He can sort of cover down the field, but not to a consistent level that would allow him to stay on the field as a starter. As a seventh rounder/undrafted I think he has value.


And that's a wrap at 15 for the safeties. Finally reached the end. Although actually there are two more players that I want to look at which I'll do in a separate post in just a second, and then it looks like I do have time to put together a big board.

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