2014 NFL Draft: Evaluating the safeties

Andy Lyons

I did not get to review as many safeties as I wanted (on call this week). I wanted to put these notes out here for myself personally to get better at evaluating safeties. Personally, I think this is the hardest position in football to watch because of scheme, responsibility, coaching. You can see the tangible things with speed, hitting power but much harder to see awareness and diagnosis because of the aforementioned conditions. These players are in no particular order as I think they could all be first rounders talent wise. I watched some other players during the season and thought they bared mentioning down below.

Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix Alabama mid 1st
Watched 9 games via DraftBreakdown: 3 in 2012 and 6 in 2013

Special Skills:

Downhill player- If HCD is in a position to attack he excels. Very good at sniffing out run plays (pre-snap). Great when everything is in front of him. Trouble comes when he has to turn his hips and go.

Ball skills- HCD has decent hands but did drop a few easy ones. Rarely gambles on going for the INT. Does not give up big plays this way. Able to track the ball on tips get picks out of it.

Speed/Frame- He has above average speed for a S. Once he diagnoses a play or route he can explode with short area burst to blow up the play. Not a flier but more than functional vs TE's and possession receivers. Frame makes up for some awareness short comings and hesitation. Good size for the position.

Average Skills:

Athleticism- I saw too many times where he failed to turn his hips and follow a WR or TE close enough to make a play for the ball. Too often he was lagging behind. Not very good at going up and getting the ball. Seems a little stiff and top heavy.

Tackling- His tackling improved from 2012 to 2013 but he could still use improvement. Is not very physical. HCD is only a thumper when the ball carrier is not looking. Not a solid wrap-up tackler.

Awareness- He is great at sniffing out run plays (sometimes fooled by misdirection) but is very tentative when in zone playing deep 3rd or in cover 2. Looks like he is second guessing what he is seeing on the field. Sometimes leads to him missing opportunities for PBU and INT. Can be sucked in on broken plays to aggressively chasing QB (vs Auburn vs OK 2013).

Needs significant improvement (Negatives):

Man coverage- He did not do a lot of it, but seemed to struggle against shifty receivers (vs OK, vs VT). He was good at staying on deep routes or long developing ones. HCD had a hard time adjusting to out's especially (about 10-15 yard range).

Aggressiveness- HCD would be too aggressive in the run game at times, especially on misdirection (vs Auburn 2013). He was far too timid vs the pass especially when not in direct man coverage. He feels like more of a finesse player.

Bottom Line:
I do not get all the adulation for HCD. He looks like a solid prospect but nothing spectacular. He has the speed to keep his mistakes from being catastrophic and good hands. He needs quite a bit of development as far as route recognition and trusting his instincts in the pass game. If the Panthers got him at 28 that is fine, but him going in the top 15 would upset me after watching all of this tape. I don't think he will ever be a primetime Safety ala Ronnie Lot, Earl Thomas, Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed.

Jimmie Ward Northern Illinois late 1st - late 2nd
Watched 6 games via DraftBreakdown- 1 in 2012 (vs FSU) and 5 in 2013

Special Skills:

Tackling- Very good wrap-up tackler. Can thump (especially in coverage) but brings the man down. Proper technique in breaking down and then driving through to the ground. Will cut low if player is much larger or when trying to dive through linemen on screen. Not aggressive in tackling, rarely takes bad angles.

Man and Off man coverage- Ward has an excellent jam. Stones receivers in their tracks. Definitely disrupts timing. Able to stick with man with hips and burst. Does surprisingly well vs slot receivers. He does well in off man to limit catches to short gains, does not give up big plays. Ward has effective burst but not amazing.

Ball skills- Has decent hands and can make some spectacular INT's (vs Akron 2013 on sideline, vs Toledo 2min mark). Prefers to go for PBU over INT. Rarely gambles so this could also account for lack of INT's. Good awareness when the ball is in the air. Able to track well and high point. I was more impressed as I went along in film study. May have better hands than I initially thought.

Average Skills:

Speed/Athleticism- Able to flip hips with receivers and stick to them in press/bail and off man. Ward is an effective blitzer and blows up plays in the backfield on run downs. Good speed at safety. Better leaping ability than I had expected. Good burst but not amazing.

Motor/Aggressiveness (run game)- I lump these two together because they are hard to gauge. Sometimes it looks like he is taking the play off on the backside. This could be a function of truly playing his responsibility to keep backside contain so a big play does not bust (vs Rashad Greene FSU 2012).

Versatility- Ward lined up at slot or outside corner a lot. This shows that NIU had confidence in his coverage skills. It also did not allow him to play the deep 3rd a whole lot. That may have retarded his growth as a player. May also have a difficult time in Cover 2 as a deep safety. Normally played pseudo CB in zone more than safetyesque. Has experience on punt return team.

Lack of tough competition- Did not play solid competition week in and week out. Did well against FSU but NIU was not in a power conference. Would have been nice to see him go against elite athletes regularly.

Zone coverage- I liked what I saw of Ward in zone. The problem is he primarily played man. He shows good recognition and burst to the ball. Understood angles to get underneath or over the top for potential INT's. I cannot rate this a strength. Would have needed to see more tape.

Needs significant improvement (Negatives):

Size- Looks too light. He is not afraid to mix it up in the box but he can get lost in the shuffle. Definitely needs to add weight to be a more effective run stopper. Should give him more pop and ability to withstand the wash.

Block shedding- This is kind of related to his size. Has a hard time against bigger blockers. Ward is engulfed too often to be a constant in the box Safety.

Bottom Line:
Ward is an impressive player. If he had been in a power conference he may be higher regarded. As it is, I see a high 2nd rounder that could sneak in to the 1st. I think he fits the Panthers by being a great tackler and not giving up big plays. Plays very responsibly and only gambles when applicable. His versatility in his assignments adds value in the fact he can be put in sub packages immediately. Could be that joker type player for the Panthers. May have a learning curve at the next level but should still be solid if not spectacular. Just wish he could have proved it week and week out against SEC, PAC, ACC, Big10, and Big12 to give us more visual proof.

Calvin Pryor Louisville mid 1st - late 1st
Watched 5 games via DraftBreakdown: vs Cincy vs Miami vs USF vs UCF vs Rutgers

Special Skills:

Explosive athlete- Turns speed in to power. Very explosive breaking and the ball and tackling. Has good short area quickness and burst. Has decent speed, can struggle at long distances.

In the box- Pryor is a great in the box safety. Can make plays behind the line of scrimmage in the run game. Can stick with the shifty receivers in man. Plays well in zone in tight spaces.

Average Skills:

Tackling- Big hitter. Can definitely lay the boom. Pryor is inconsistent from game to game in tackling. Will have an amazing game (vs Rutgers 2013) or a horrible one (vs USF 2013). Does not consistently wrap up.

Man coverage- Especially good at sticking to his man in press bail. Can be a little rough further down the field. Fluid athlete that can turn and break well. Did not get thrown on a lot so limited tape for me.

Run game- Pryor makes some impressive plays in the backfield blowing up TE's and FB's. Can make an impact before the RB gets going. However, he takes horrible angles and fails to break down properly. Sometimes looks to be going for the big hit instead of the sure thing.

Ball skills- I did not see enough tape where Pryor was being thrown at to judge him on this skill. Looks to have good hands when going for the INT. Never saw him drop one. He normally kept everything in front of him instead of breaking on routes to disrupt. Went more for the hit in that regard.

Needs significant improvement (Negatives):

Awareness/Instincts- Seemed to be fooled too often vs misdirection and play fakes (vs UCF 2013). Does not recognize routes well, especially in zone coverage. Hesitant to make plays in the pass game outside of a sure INT or a tackle.

Zone/deep coverage- Struggles to stick with his man. Tends to focus more on QB than receiver in his area. Does not have a natural "feel" for where the receiver is or the intentions. This happened more on routes 8+ yards downfield.

Bottom Line:
Maybe I did not watch enough tape on Pryor. I do not get all the press for him either. He looks to be a solid player that will not get you burned and may have the occasional big hit or INT but not on a regular basis. I feel he and HCD are not really playmaking safeties, especially for their lofty statuses. If they were projected more in the 22-32 range I would understand. Currently I think Pryor has a lot of things to work on with awareness and tackling. I could see him being the pick because of his ability to play in the box but also have a lot of speed to make up for mistakes. It will take time for him to hone his craft, I do not expect a big rookie year from him.

Lamarcus Joyner Florida State late 1st - Early 3rd (wildcard)
Watched 9 games via DraftBreakdown: 2 in 2011 5 in 2012 and 2 in 2013.

Special Skills:

Speed/Athleticism- Great burst. Excellent short and intermediate speed. May not have the 3rd gear but can get from 1-2 quickly. Definitely turns speed in to power. Great leaping ability for his size. Not a fluid athlete but puts forth maximum effort.

Tackling- Joyner was a better tackler than I would have expected. Able to wrap up and stop much larger opponents. Digs in shoulder and drives forward. Also a thumper. Surprised how well he translates speed to power in the hitting department. Not a dirty hitter either, always targets at sternum or lower.

Motor- Extremely high motor. Does not give up on plays. Keeps driving through blockers, tackles and when returning. Runs very hard when in the open to try and out work the other opponents.

Play maker- Very impressive ball skills and return skills. Has a knack for coming up with big plays (FF, INT, KR, QB hit force INT). Joyner seems to make at least one impact play per game. Has great added value as KR. Nearly beat Clemson by himself in 2013 (2 INT's and FF). Extremely effective blitzer.

Deep 3rd coverage- Joyner is adept at angles and timing when the ball is in the air. Can create a PBU or cause an incompletion with a big hit. Very savvy at using the sideline to cause INC's.

Average Skills:

Man coverage- Good breaks, can mirror effectively. A little stiff in the hips and can struggle against excellent route runners. Had a rough game vs Devin Street (Pitt 2013).

Aggressiveness- Sometimes over aggressive in the run game. Has a harder time dealing with shifty ball carriers and receivers. Hips are a little stiff and he has trouble breaking down from going full speed. Only a minor knock since it is not a habitual thing.

Needs significant improvement (Negatives):

Frame- Unfortunately has a diminutive frame. Will be hard for him to stick with 6'3"+ receivers in jump ball situations. He looks lanky though and may be able to put on more weight to keep from getting bullied by blockers.

Block shedding- Has a hard time getting off of blocks. He is good at block avoidance but never seems to get off of a soild block.

Bottom Line:
If Joyner was 3 inches taller he would be a 1st rounder easy. Amazing playmaker that can tackle, return kicks and be versatile in coverage. He definitely could take over at SS or FS. Would fit right in for sub packages and be an excellent blitzer when called upon. May start on special teams but will make an impact all the same. I think he is currently underrated by a lot of the draft media. It just looks like he has "it" with football, not exactly sure how to explain. He could fail if not put in the right role and expected to be something he is not (press/bail, run stuffer). Joyner needs a mix to keep teams guessing and let his playmaking abilities shine. Would be ecstatic to see him as a Panther in the 2nd round.

Extra Notes:
I really like watching Ahmad Dixon of Baylor during the season. He got to play a ton of snaps because of Baylor's prolific offense so he should be at least further developed from a recognition point of view. I still think Dixon needs coaching up but will have a role in the NFL on ST at least. Look for him in the 4-5 range. Also watched a fair bit of Kenny Ladler when reviewing Jordan Matthews and Andre Hal. I like him around the same range as Dixon. He is a little limited physically but can diagnose and move on the play. Not a world beater and probably not starter material, but good special teamer and sub package player (3 Safety looks). I also did not add in Antone Exum since I reviewed him with CB's. I think he is near top 5 for safety play and would be a starter in his rookie season if healthy. Excellent size and skills. The full write-up is with the CB eval I did.

I am going on my trip today so will not be able to watch the draft or converse on here. Hopefully the Panthers get some solid players, even if it's not exactly who we wanted.

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