Grading the pro potential: Free safeties

One of the players vying to be the first safety selected on Thursday is called overrated by NFL scout Dave-Te' Thomas. Thomas gives his scouting opinions on several of the top free safeties, including one playmaker who he considers vastly underrated.

The free safety position will have two players go in the first round, as Alabama's HaHa Clinton-Dix and Louisville's Calvin Pryor are in a dead heat to see which of the tandem hears his name called first. While he is coveted as a strong safety, Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward might be selected earlier as a free safety, especially if a team that wanted to grab Clinton-Dix or Pryor find that both are off the board.

The main reason that Louisville had the nation's top-rated defense in college football last season was because of Pryor's "sheriff"-like ability patrolling the deep third of the field, while linebacker Preston Brown stuffed the inside run and rush end Marcus Smith wreaked havoc on quarterbacks in the backfield. Pryor and Hakeem Smith formed the best safety tandem in college football the last two years and gave the Cardinals their own version of "Thunder and Lightning" in the defensive backfield.

Pryor is smart and instinctive enough to make the calls and handle the assignments in the secondary. He needs only minimal reps to retain and does a good job of taking the plays from the chalkboard to the playing field. He plays with solid football instincts and awareness. He shows the ability to anticipate the receiver's moves and won't get fooled by fakes or pump action by the quarterback. He will not have any problems grasping the mental aspect of a complicated playbook.

The Louisville safety can play the trail, cover or give a cushion when operating in man coverage. He can flip and burst in the deep secondary, as it is rare to see him separate from the receiver for too long once he locks on. He is alert and aware playing in the zone, and shows good timing when breaking on the ball. He also has solid ball reactions and leaping ability to get to the pass at its high point.

Closing on plays at the opposite side of the field, Pryor has more than enough range to cover up for his teammates' mistakes. He looks faster in his stride when he keeps his pads down, and the thing I like about him is that Pryor is not one to give much cushion, as he prefers to run step-for-step with the receiver. He closes on the ball in a hurry and knows how to use his long arms to reach around and deflect the pass out of the opponent's hands. He has exceptional body control on his leaps, getting good elevation, and his hands appear soft and natural, as he can pluck the ball outside of his frame.

Unlike most free safeties in this draft class, Pryor is not afraid to come up and hit in run support. He can be an explosive hitter who will square up and put his helmet under the receiver's chin and shows good hip rotation and change-of-direction agility to mirror on underneath routes. He stays in position on his press technique and is active with his hands to prevent the receiver from pushing off. He also has excellent timing, getting a good break on three-step throws.

Jimmie Ward is more impressive when playing the pass rather than coming up and playing in the box. The Northern Illinois product will need to add bulk and lots more strength if he is to play strong safety at the next level but, as a free safety, he shows quick reactionary skills. Opposing offenses would have been smart to steer clear of his territory in 2013, as he displayed very good pass thievery skills (see 2013 Iowa, Purdue, Kent State, Akron, Massachusetts, Toledo and Utah State games).

Ward has that natural feel for finding the ball, thanks to his quick decision-making that allows him to read and react in order to get to the pass in a hurry (31 passes defended during his last 27 appearances). He is seldom fooled by play action and misdirection, doing a nice job of keeping action in front of him.

More than 35 percent of his tackles in his last two years came outside his territory, as he is alert to defensive breakdowns and feels it is his responsibility to serve as the "last line" for his unit. He is not the type that will bite on misdirection or play action, evident by his ability to easily read the quarterback, and he makes plays on the ball in flight. He sets the tone of the game with his aggressive play and does not hesitate to close once he spots the ball.

The NIU defender has exceptional blocker awareness and, because of that vision, he is able to slip through blocks to make plays in tight areas. He just has that natural feel for the ball, showing awareness in zone assignments. He does a nice job of keeping the play in front of him. He keeps his head on a swivel, tracking the ball in flight and times his leaps to get to the pigskin at its high point.

However, he shows some hesitation stepping into the box to make plays in run force, as he seems to be aware that he does not have the strength to take on bigger blockers in the trenches. Where most of his stops are made is when he is on the move and roaming the field. He gets a good jump on the play in man coverage and it is rare to see him get caught out of position. He breaks on the ball well and gets a good jump from the hash.

While most teams have Clinton-Dix as an early first-round draft pick, I have a "buyer beware" tag on anything the Tide secondary has produced the last few years. The Jets are wondering if they made a mistake using the ninth pick on Dee Milliner last year. Tampa Bay has gotten decent production from Mark Barron, but he's spent quite a bit of time in the trainer's room. Cincinnati likely will use their first-round choice on secondary help, as 2012 first-rounder Dre Kirkpatrick has had a horrible time trying to get on the field.

Clinton-Dix was forced to sit out two games during the 2013 season when the NCAA said he violated rules by accepting a $100 loan from a staff assistant. But he was able to continue practicing during the suspension and stayed close to the program.

It was later revealed that he was playing with a torn meniscus in his knee, suffered while preparing to take on Auburn in the Iron Bowl. He somehow managed to play in the game, but underwent surgery shortly after. "I felt a lot of catching in my knee,'' Clinton-Dix said. "It was hurting very bad, but I just played through it. My teammates kept me up and motivated. I just kept going and tried not to think about it.

The question is – is he another injury-risk factor like the three defensive backs taken from the Tide as first rounders the last two years? And where is the production, with two interceptions and no forced fumbles last season?

Florida State's Terrence Brooks is a free safety who packed a punch when working inside the box, making 33 of his 56 tackles in run support last season, limiting those ball-carriers to 67 yards. He also provided the team with a "sheriff" in the deep area of the field, as just 17-of-52 passes targeted into his area (32.69 percent) were completed.

That production level helped Brooks play a vital role for an FSU defense that led the nation in scoring defense (12.1), pass defense (156.6) and interceptions (26), while ranking third in total defense (281.4). Important to that success was the safety's ability to wreak havoc in the backfield as a blitzer, as his eight tackles behind the line of scrimmage not only ranked fourth on the team, but ranked second among all the defensive backs in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Brooks started his last 27 games – 14 at free safety and 13 at strong safety - appearing in a total of 48 contests, as he recorded 126 tackles (88 solos) with five interceptions and 15 pass deflections. He does not take any wasted steps in transition out of his breaks. He has a very good feel for turning and locating the ball and is quick to read, recognize and react, seeing the horizon and making plays on it.

The thing I like about Brooks is that he anticipates the passer almost immediately to break on the thrown ball. He is explosive getting to the catch point and times things out well to attack and strip the receiver from the ball. He has very good acceleration and playing speed and is quick to close. He has that long stride needed to cover ground quickly and that sudden burst out of his breaks to make plays on the ball. He also has the valid speed (4.42 40-yard dash) to challenge any receiver on deep routes and accelerates out of his turns with good urgency. He has more than enough quickness to defend the deep third of the field and is very quick to support vs. the run.

While he's sort of the "Rodney Dangerfield" in the Southeastern Conference, constantly passed over for league postseason honors, at least until last year. But for my money, Vanderbilt's Kenny Ladler is the best "value board" free safety in this draft.

With his quick feet and hip flexibility, Ladler did an excellent job of not only mirroring the receivers and disrupting his opponent's route progression, but was the "ultimate savior" with his timely hits and "take no prisoners" approach to the game. His ability to track the ball in flight, along with outstanding leaping ability, saw him consistently win battles to get to the ball vs. much taller receivers, along with taking on big blockers and running backs after opponents managed to break free from the Vanderbilt front-seven defenders.

Throughout his career, Ladler has done more than his fair share of keeping his opponents out of the end zone. It is not hard to notice that he has the blazing speed to make plays at the opposite end of the field or when his linemen and linebackers fail to deliver in front of him.

In 50 games at Vanderbilt, Ladler delivered 63 touchdown-saving tackles -- 40 vs. the run and 23 vs. the pass -- after an opponent broke clear of other Commodores defenders.

Ladler is an explosive hitter who can cause a receiver to hesitate before getting to the ball, knowing that the safety is about to deliver a vicious hit. He has the ability to be a highly effective wrap-up tackler, as he has the strength to thump on contact and will throw his body at the ball-carrier. He is best when allowed to make plays in front of him rather than taking a side. When he can keep the action in front, he is a reliable tackler will explode into the opponent.

The Vanderbilt defender shows good tackling form, as he faces up, hits with physical pop and causes fumbles with his ability to reach around and dislodge the ball from his opponent (see 2013 Missouri, Georgia, Texas A&M and Tennessee games). He is a very consistent hitter who can get ball-carriers down in space, coming to balance quickly. He plays low in his pads and strikes with good force. He never gets reckless in attempts to wrap, and when he strikes opponents, they feel it.

Ladler does a nice job of "forming up" and coming to balance before making the tackle. Facing up to ball-carriers, he is a sure tackler who wraps up and brings the "lumber" behind his hits (eight opponents left games in 2013 with various injuries after being tackled by Ladler). He has the athletic agility to run laterally, clear trash and deliver the keen hit. He is a functionally strong striker who does a nice job of impeding the runner's forward progress by attacking the outside leg of his man.

Southern California's Dion Bailey won't win too many foot races vs. the rest of the safety class, but if any NFL secondary coach is looking to capture the success that Seattle has produced from their hard-hitting safety tandem of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, they might find a player that fits that mold in Bailey. The old adage when talking about aggressive tacklers in the defensive backfield is to say that player "hits like a linebacker" and that is exactly what some team will get in this Trojans hybrid.

The Pittsburgh Steelers met with all of the top safeties at the 2014 NFL Combine, and Bailey could be a nice fit alongside another forrmer Trojan, Troy Polamalu. "I feel like my game resembles Troy Polamalu's game very well," Bailey stated. "He went through the same transition in college as me, playing linebacker his first couple years and then playing safety. He transitioned to the NFL really well, so I'm hoping I have the same career."

There is no doubt that Bailey excelled in USC's hybrid linebacker/safety position, much like Polamalu played when he suited up for the Trojans. In his first two seasons playing inside the box, Bailey recorded 81 and 80 tackles, respectively, combining for 10 stops behind the line of scrimmage.

Bailey was a ferocious in-the-box safety this past season. In his three-year career at USC he racked up 222 tackles, but also had 16.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage, causing three fumbles while coming up with 3.5 sacks, in addition to intercepting 11 passes, including five this past season.

The question is speed. Bailey's 40 time of 4.66 didn't evoke memories of Polamalu's 4.3 or Carnell Lake's 4.4 coming out.

One player rapidly rising on draft boards is Wyoming's Marqueston Huff, who is a versatile defender with experience playing outside in man coverage. Do not let his adequate weight room numbers and thin frame fool you, as this kid can hit – to the tune of 249 tackles during his career. He plays with good field vision, is quick to pick up schemes and gets a good jump on the ball because of the way he can anticipate the receiver's moves through the route. He has proven effective at reaching around and knocking the pass away from the receiver. The one knock is that he seems to do a better job of recognizing the plays develop when it is in front of him than in deep territory.

With his quickness, balance and hip snap, Huff can turn and make plays on the ball, even though he does not stay in his peddle as long as I would like. He does a good job of shadowing the receiver in the short area and can trail on deep routes due to his acceleration. He is not the type that will allow a big cushion, preferring to stay on the hip of the opponent. He moves and adjusts to the receiver's moves much better when he stays close to his assignment. He can get turned around some by the bigger receivers on deep routes, but will generally mirror without much separation.

Another player on the rise is Lonnie Ballentine of Memphis, a player with sprinter's speed trapped inside a linebacker's body (4.39 in the 40-yard dash at 6-3, 219). He has the ability to not only stay tight with the receiver on deep routes, he shows great aggression to combat them for the ball. He looks decisive on combo routes and does a nice job of locating receivers in front of him. With his quickness, he generates the explosion and burst to close in a hurry. His cover skills are equally effective, whether playing the man or making quick reactions when operating in the zone.

The later rounds will see a few versatile defenders with experience at cornerback and free safety hear their names called – Jemea Thomas of Georgia Tech, Robert Nelson of Arizona State and Tre Boston of North Carolina. North Carolina State's Dontae Johnson is another free safety candidate, but with his speed and man coverage skills, he's more likely to be selected as a corner.

Western Kentucky's Jonathan Dowling is an early-round player, but off-field issues will keep him on board until the draft's third day. Injuries will probably push Ohio State's C.J. Bryant, Kansas State's Ty Zimmerman and Mississippi State's Nickoe Whitley into the priority free agent class.


CREAM OF THE CROP: Calvin Pryor (Louisville)

BEST OF THE REST: Jimmie Ward (Northern Illinois; could be drafted at either safety position, but think as a free safety, he is first round material).

MOST UNDERRATED: Kenny Ladler (Vanderbilt)

MOST OVERRATED: HaHa Clinton-Dix (Alabama)

SUPER SLEEPERS: Marqueston Huff (Wyoming) and Lonnie Ballentine (Memphis)

#PRYOR, Calvin   5:11207 4.5818 34 ? 09'08" 4.36.98 71
WARD, Jimmie (FS) 5:11193 4.479 3810'05" 4.246.89 72
#CLINTON-DIX, Ha'sean 6:01208 4.5811 3309'11" 4.167.16 6.71
BROOKS, Terrence   5:11198 4.4210 3809'11" 4.377.35 6.33
LADLER, Kenny   6:00207 4.5724 36 1/210'07" 46.78 65
#BAILEY, Dion   6:00201 4.6614 3409'06" 4.156.97 5.94
HUFF, Marqueston (CB) 5:11196 4.4915 35 1/209'10" 4.197.26 5.94
THOMAS, Jemea  (FS) 5:09192 4.5219 3710'05" 4.157.03 5.74
#REYNOLDS, Ed   6:01207 4.5115 3809'09" 4.287.09 5.55
NELSON, Robert (CB) 5:10175 4.4614 3610'02" 4.146.9 5.47-FA
BALLENTINE, Lonnie   6:03219 4.3918 3810'05" 4.477.18 5.37
JOHNSON, Dontae   6:02200 4.4512 38 1/210'04" 4.246.82 5.36
#DOWLING, Jonathan   6:03190 4.528 33 1/209'10" 4.247.04 5.17
BOSTON, Tre (CB) 6:00204 4.5918 3509'08" 4.317.04 56
%BRYANT, Christian,"C.J."   5:09198 4.5416 3309'06" 4.216.97 4.97
%ZIMMERMAN, Ty   6:01202 4.57NL 33 1/209'07" 4.337 4.97-FA
PINKINS, Eric 6:03222 4.4425 39 1/210'06" 4.317.02 4.8PFA
%WHITLEY, Nickoe   6:00205 4.5919 3309'03" 4.287.11 4.8PFA
DEERING, Jeremy   6:01200 4.4118 33 1/210'06" 4.326.99 4.7PFA
HUDSON, Camren   5:10199 4.5127 3710'03" NLNL 4.7PFA
VAN DYKE, David 5:11199 4.4618 38 1/209'10"    4.6FA
WRIGHT, Demetrius   6:00203 4.520 3409'11" 4.377.26 4.6FA
PATTERSON, Avery   5:08191 4.5410 32 1/209'06" 4.326.9 4.6FA
ORMS, Parker   5:10190 4.577 3210"02" 4.256.8 4.6FA
#WARREN, Pierre   6:00194 4.598 3510'05" 4.517.38 4.57-FA
NEWSOME, Isaiah   5:11200 4.6616 3710'07" 4.347.27 4.5FA
LOWE, Daytawion   5:11195 4.4510 37 1/210'01" 4.527.62 4.5FA
JOYCE, Mark   5:10190 4.4814 3310'01" 4.256.93 4.5FA
PORTER, Tre (CB) 5:11208 4.53        4.5FA
BROOMFIELD, Deon 6:00202 4.57        4.4FA
HIGHSMITH, AJ   5:11204 4.59        4.4FA
LYNN, Gabe   6:00206 4.62        4.4FA
MARSHALL, A.J.   5:11189 4.69        4.4CMP
WALLACE, Devin   5:11205 4.58        4.4CMP
KEY, D.J.   5:11195 4.63        4.4CMP
MOODY, Dexter   6:01213 4.58        4.4CMP
WASHINGTON, Jacques   6:00220 4.65        4.4CMP
OLABODE, Elisha   5:09194 4.77        4.3CMP
BRONSON, Ryan   6:01182 4.58        4.3CMP
PRATT, Fabrice 6:01189 4.44        4.3CMP
#ADDISON, Nick 6:01189 4.67        4.3CMP
SMITH, Ryan 6:01193 4.54        4.3CMP
CUNNINGHAM, Avery 5:11202 4.52        4.3CMP
SAILORS, Blake 5:11186 4.55        4.3CMP
MAGAZU, Damon   5:11204 4.63        4.3CMP
OBENG-AGYAPONG, S. 5:10209 4.6        4.3CMP
WILKES, Jeremi   5:09190 4.57        4.3CMP
DEMPS, Gerald   5:10200 4.59        4.3CMP

Immediate starter...Should have a major impact to the success of the franchise, barring injury...Possesses superior critical factors...Plays with consistency and without abnormal extra effort...Rare talent.    
7.6-8.0Star Quality Eventual starter...Should make a significant contribution in his first year...Possesses above average critical factors...Has the talent and skills to start...Will contribute to upgrading the team...Can play without abnormal effort, but has some inconsistency in his play that will improve with refinement and development...Has no real weakness.
7.0-7.5Impact Player Possesses at least average to above average critical factors in all areas...Will contribute immediately, whether as a starter or a valuable reserve...Will move into the starting lineup with seasoning...Above average player who needs to refine certain areas.
6.5-6.9Eventual Starter Could move into the starting lineup within three years...Has average critical factors in all areas...Needs further development, but has the ability to contribute.
6.0-6.4Potential Starter Could force himself into the starting lineup with improved perform- ances...Will make a team...Has average critical factors in most areas, but at least one with less than average quality that he will have a hard time overcoming...Probable draft choice.
5.5-5.9Roster Player Has the ability to serve as a key reserve and possible future starter... Possesses average critical factors, but more than several areas are less than average...Plays with normal extra effort.
5.0-5.4Project Has the skills to play pro ball with proper tutoring...May make a team based on need...Possesses no real strong critical factors and is probably below average in several areas that the player will have a hard time overcoming...Possible draft choice, but only if that team is caught short on talent available at that position.
4.6-4.9Develop- mental Could make a team with an impressive showing in training camp... Not strong in most critical factors...Deficient in more than one area that he will not be able to overcome...At least average in the factor of competitiveness...May not make a team due to his limitations.
4.1-4.5Camp Player Has redeeming qualities that could allow him to play in the pros with improved performances...Deficient in more than one critical factor... Might make a team, but will always be the player that squad will look to replace.
3.5-4.0Reject Might make a team, but has glaring deficiencies in several critical factors...Below average competitor whose athletic skills will allow him to enter training camp, but has a difficult time in trying to make a team.

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