NFL Draft ’14: Ranking the safeties

Apr 29, 2014, 4:54 PM | Updated: 4:54 pm

It’s not often the Arizona Cardinals’ team needs are so clearly defined.

But after free agency and with the draft right around the corner, it really has never been more evident the Cardinals need help at the safety position.

Luckily, this draft is deep in talent at safety, which could come in handy for the Cardinals. GM Steve Keim could fill a position need in the first three rounds and find an immediate impact player in the process.

Most people have a consensus top safety, but my grades came out slightly different than others. The grades I give are based on how I think the player will perform once in the pros, not where he will be drafted.

Ranking the safeties in the 2014 NFL Draft

1. Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois

5-11, 193 lbs.

The Northern Illinois product is the best coverage safety in the draft based on my grading.

Ward played great in man coverage from the slot and was deft in matching up against wide receivers, backs and tight ends despite his less-than-ideal size.

Ward, who played both safety positions and cornerback in college, mirrors well and has a strong understanding of zone coverage.

He wasn’t asked to play in a single-high very often and can get overly physical with receivers downfield.

He fills runs lanes well and tackles well for his size.

Ward’s ability and versatility will make him a weapon in the NFL if he gets with the right defensive coordinator.

Where he’ll go: Late round 1/Early round 2

2. Terrence Brooks, Florida State

5-11, 198 lbs.

Brooks is maybe the closest thing to Seattle All-Pro Earl Thomas in this draft. He is a rangy, athletic safety that you can leave in single coverage in the back end of the defense or line up in slot coverage and let him man up on receivers.

Brooks has excellent anticipation skills and baits quarterbacks into bad decisions. He didn’t always finish plays in the back end and is more adept at knocking balls down than making game-changing plays.

Against the run, Brooks is willing and able at times, but he isn’t as skilled at knifing around potential blockers or finding lanes as Ward, which keeps him slightly below on his grade sheet.

Where he’ll go: Early second round

3. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama

6-1, 208 lbs.

When Alabama produces a safety prospect like Clinton-Dix, one that is so versed in playing in a deep-cover look, you stand up and take notice.

Clinton-Dix is one of the most naturally gifted safeties to come out in a while, is smooth in coverage, has the size/length combination that teams are looking for and played in man coverage and zone extensively while at Alabama.

He was best when asked to play half-field coverage in the back end where he was able to move and make plays, but Clinton-Dix wasn’t bad when in man coverage, either.

Clinton-Dix is a good tackler and a highlight-reel hitter, but lacks quick recognition skills to diagnose and make plays against the run.

Where he’ll go: Mid-first round

4. Deone Bucannon, Washington State

6-1, 211 lbs.

Reminiscent of former Cardinal Adrian Wilson, Bucannon is a physically intimidating, zone coverage-type that can play enforcer in the back end.

He lacks the turn and run ability of today’s cover safeties and won’t lock up wide receivers or tight ends in man coverage.

Bucannon can line up in the box and play as an extra linebacker, making him an asset in run defense.

He has excellent tackling ability, closes coming downhill and tracks the ball carrier well.

He won’t do much in man coverage, but if dropped into a zone, with his ability to track and make plays on the ball, Bucannon has day-one starter written all over him.

Where he’ll go: Late round 1/Early round 2

5. Calvin Pryor, Louisville

5-11, 207 lbs.

Pryor is an aggressive safety prospect who flies to the ball and is a physically imposing, big-hitting run stopper.

He shows adequate cover skills, with the ability to man up with players in the slot if needed, but is much better as a zone cover man who is able to keep the play in front of him.

Pryor isn’t the best as a deep cover man who can protect against top-end speed receivers, and lacks the elite speed to lock down players in man coverage.

He’s maybe the best run defender in the draft, but too often takes bad angles and is reckless in how he attacks the ball. Pryor is a terror when coming downhill.

Pryor too often forgets to break down and just make the plays in front of him, instead looking to make a big hit or highlight play.

Pryor has to get better in coverage and play under control in order to hit his peak.

Where he’ll go: Round one

6. Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State

5-8, 184 lbs.

The second Seminole on this list, Joyner is another in the line of undersized but highly-skilled cover safeties.

Joyner is similar to the Cardinals’ Tyrann Mathieu, as he can line up inside as a slot corner or play in the safety position as a single high or in zone coverages.

Joyner is a big play waiting to happen at times though, as he roams and gambles quite often.

He plays bigger against the run than you would expect and is a good tackler who wraps up and makes plays in the run game.

The biggest question surrounding Joyner is where he will line up in the NFL. If he gets a coach that understands how to use his versatility, he can be an incredibly impactful player in 2014 and beyond.

Where he’ll go: Day two

7. Ed Reynolds, Stanford

6-1, 207 lbs.

Reynolds is a big, long, rangy safety who can make plays in front of him or when the defense can get to the quarterback. The Stanford product also has the ability to get to routes in front of him consistently.

Reynolds has a tendency to be a step late in coverage, but still makes a lot of big plays.

Against the run, Reynolds plays with a slight hesitation and doesn’t always get to the ball carrier at the most opportune time, instead making ankle tackles to save big plays or meeting the back as the third wave.

Reynolds’ instincts are solid, the question is can he get back that burst that has caused him to play a step behind too often?

Where he’ll go: Day two

8. Dion Bailey, USC

6-0, 201 lbs.

Bailey is an experienced, highly physical and multi-talented safety prospect who has had success at both linebacker and safety in college.

Bailey is excellent in zone coverage where he can keep the ball in front of him consistently and shows true ball hawk capabilities when he’s in that position.

While Bailey has the size/length/speed combo to be an asset in man coverage, he lacks the quick hip turn and natural run with ability to be a true cover safety.

Bailey’s experience as a linebacker shows in his run defense, as he reads and reacts well with the ability to take on and shed blockers to get to the ball carrier.

Like other big-hitting strong safeties, Bailey is overly aggressive and too often goes for the kill shot instead of just making a tackle, which causes him to fall off runners.

Bailey needs to be brought along slowly as a coverage safety, but if used as a zone safety that can keep plays in front of him, he’ll be a success.

Where he’ll go: Day two

9. Ahmad Dixon, Baylor

6-0, 212 lbs.

Dixon will remind Cardinals fans of a safety they’re familiar with — Yeremiah Bell.

While Dixon is younger and more athletic than Bell, he plays the game similarly.

Keep him in short zone coverage and let him keep an area “clean” and he’ll do an excellent job. Ask him to maintain half the field or keep players from getting deep and trouble will follow.

Dixon is strong enough to play with bigger, slower tight ends in man coverage, but he isn’t someone you’ll ask to turn and run in press coverage out of the slot.

Dixon shows an incredible ability to come downhill and be a force in the run game, and will do so viciously and without regard for his body.

Dixon is a throwback-type who needs to play close to the line of scrimmage early and often, something he does extremely well.

Where he’ll go: Round 3/Round 4

Others to watch: Craig Loston, LSU; Marqueston Huff, Wyoming; Brock Vereen, Minnesota

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