Positional Analysis: Safeties

The Vikings could end up with a similar set of safeties as they had last year, but it would surprise no one if they drafted one for development who could fight for playing time in the near future. We analyze the production, statistics, strengths, weaknesses and draft projections of the top 10 options, including Gophers product Brock Vereen.

VIKINGS SAFETIES – Harrison Smith, Jamarca Sanford, Kurt Coleman, Andrew Sendejo, Robert Blanton Mistral Raymond.

TEAM NEED – Much like at cornerback, there is a need to upgrade, but not a need that screams out. Smith is a potential Pro Bowl talent and the competition between Sanford, Coleman, Sendejo, Raymond and Blanton should be fierce at training camp. A rookie will have a tough time cracking a young veteran group that is fighting for pecking order. A draft pick here on the first two days will change the dynamic. Third-day choices will have to earn a roster spot. While a player falling into the Vikings' lap could significantly change the dynamic of the 2014 makeup of the safety crops, barring an early pick, we may be looking at the same group again in 2014 with the addition of Coleman.

POSITION OVERVIEW: This isn't a great class from top to bottom, but there is some elite talent at the top, especially Alabama's HaHa Clinton-Dix and Louisville's Calvin Pryor. Once those two are off the board, it will be a long time before the third safety is selected. There will be safeties sprinkled throughout all seven rounds, but there may not be an overabundance of NFL stars coming out of the Class of 2014.

THE CREAM THE OF THE CROP

HaHa Clinton-Dix, Alabama, 6-1½, 208 –
Third-year junior…A two-year starter who made starts in 18 of 31 games over the last two seasons…Emerged in 2013, making 51 tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss with two interceptions and four passes defensed…First name is Ha'Sean, but was nicknamed HaHa by his grandmother when he was young…Has prototypical size, long arms and excellent straight-line speed…Has elite read-and-react skills…Has excellent technique and uses his athleticism to his advantage…Has good closing burst and sideline-to-sideline coverage skills…Has very limited production for a player of his talent…Bites too often on fakes and misdirection and will take himself out of plays...Looks for the kill shot too often and misses tackles as the result of his own aggression…Was not asked to run with slot receivers too often…Ran a 4.58 40 at the Combine with 11 reps of 225 pounds, a 33-inch vertical jump and a 9-11 broad jump. PROJECTION: A physical specimen who didn't have ideal college production, but if you saw any Alabama games last year, he stood out like few others. A true difference-maker, he will go in the top half of the first round and could be in line for a long career and several trips to the Pro Bowl along the way.

Calvin Pryor, Louisville, 5-11¼, 207 – Third-year junior who started 32 of 38 career games…Finished his college career with 218 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss, two sacks, seven interceptions, 18 passes defensed and nine forced fumbles…An All-Big East selection in 2012 and All-American Athletic Conference first-team pick in 2013…Good size for an NFL safety…A big hitter who was a tackling machine and made plays at and behind the line of scrimmage…Has explosive closing speed when delivering a hit…Plays with a mean streak and can intimidate across the middle…Has been able to stay healthy, but has a playing style that could well lend itself to injury because he makes Troy Polamalu-type leave-your-feet plays…Inexperienced in man coverage and allows receivers too much of a cushion…Is a half-step slow when forced to change directions quickly…Is not a true ball hawk and looks more for the big hit than making a pick…Ran a 5.58 40 at the Combine with 18 reps, a 34½-inch vertical jump and a 9-8 broad jump. PROJECTION: There is no more physical safety in the draft than Pryor. He is a throwback to the old days of the NFL before receivers got protection from the rules. He won't make it much past the midway point of the first round and there are some scouts who think he has a brighter NFL career ahead of him than Clinton-Dix. An immediate starter.

THE NEXT LEVEL

Deone Bucannon, Washington State, 6-1, 211 –
Fourth-year senior who started 43 of 49 career games…Finished his college career with 384 tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss, 15 interceptions, 23 passes defensed and seven forced fumbles…A first-team All-America in 2013…Has an ideal blend of speed, muscle mass and height…A durable player who is battle tested…A big hitter who had exceptional production numbers, including 220 tackles the last two years…Was a standout against the top college talent at the Senior Bowl…Is undisciplined in his style and will get caught anticipating and occasionally gets burned…Doesn't have good technique in his backpedal and will need a lot of refinement in that area…Can be slow arriving on the deep pass and will leave corners on an island at times…Is not a sound wrap-up tackler and will whiff occasionally when he lowers his head before contact…Ran a 4.49 40 at the Combine with 19 reps of 225 pounds, a 36½-inch vertical jump and a 10-5 broad jump. PROJECTION: One of the standouts at the Senior Bowl, he is a difference-maker who, with a little polish, will be a solid pro. He looks to be a priority pick somewhere in the second round.

Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois, 5-10¾, 193 – Fourth-year senior who started 39 of 41 games in his final three seasons…In that span, he had 299 tackles, six tackles for a loss, 11 interceptions, 30 passes defensed and four forced fumbles…Had four blocked punts on special teams…A ferocious tackler who had 62 solo tackles as a senior…A very fluid athlete who changes direction with ease and without losing speed…Has excellent man coverage skills…When you look at his skill set, he may be the most well-rounded prospect at the position…Played marginal competition and was often a man among boys…Has some off-field red flags that will get some teams to drop him significantly on their draft boards…Durability hasn't been a concern, but his style jumping from NIU to the NFL will be cause for concern…Gets his hands on receivers too often and will likely draw flags for it in the NFL…Didn't run or jump after getting a medical exclusion for a right foot injury, but did nine reps of 225 pounds. PROJECTION: Ward is a talented player who could justify a second-round pick and someone will likely take that plunge. But he has a big learning curve and some off-field question marks about his character/maturity that will likely hurt his stock when picks start coming off the board.

Terrence Brooks, Florida State, 5-1, 198 – Fourth-year senior…Two-year starter who made 27 starts in that span, registering 107 tackles, nine tackles for a loss, four interceptions and three forced fumbles…First-team All-ACC as a senior…A quiet team leader who puts in the extra time in the weight room and film study…Has excellent read-and-react skills…Has good balance, body fluidity and control and redirection skills…Delivers the big hit…Has a lean frame that doesn't look as though it can handle much more in the way of adding muscle or bulk strength…Doesn't have ideal quick-twitch movement to stay with slot receivers…Spent more time as a backup cornerback than a starting safety…Doesn't consistently wrap up on tackles…Doesn't have great hands and looks to break up passes rather than intercept them…Ran a 4.42 40 at the Combine with 10 reps, a 38-inch vertical jump and a 9-11 broad jump. PROJECTION: An interesting prospect who is undersized by NFL standards for his style of play, but his athleticism is hard to deny. He will need some time to refine his game, but could be a steal late in the second or early in the third round.

Ahmad Dixon, Baylor, 6-0, 212 – Fourth-year senior…Started all 39 games in his final three seasons, posting 272 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss, four interceptions, 15 passes defensed and two forced fumbles…Has excellent footwork and eliminates the cushion quickly…Makes a big difference in the run game…Has a good combination of size, speed and athleticism…A very physical tackler who rarely misses…Played the "Bear" position in the Baylor defense – a hybrid linebacker/safety position that doesn't naturally translate to the NFL…A half-step slow when asked to change direction…Is not quick to read and react on seeing routes develop…Needs to improve his angles – both vs. the run and with crossing routes in front of him…Ran a 4.64 40 at the Combine with 14 reps, a 32-inch vertical jump and a 9-3 broad jump. PROJECTION: A strong athlete who is a heavy hitter, but was a scheme-driven player that was a linebacker-safety ‘tweener. He has all the skills to become an NFL safety, but will need to change his game and become more field-aware. That should drop him into the third round.

THE BEST OF THE REST

Craig Loston, LSU, 6-0¾, 217 –
Fifth-year senior…Two-year starter who had 112 tackles, seven tackles for a loss and five interceptions in that span…Started at linebacker in 2012 due to injuries there and returned to safety as a senior…Prototype size for a strong safety…A hard worker and team leader on the field, in practice and in film study…Makes pre-snap adjustments and almost invariably the adjustment works…Needs to improve his tackling because he doesn't have good technique and misses tackles too often…Only played one year at safety…Doesn't have a strong upper body and will lose some face-to-face battles…Ran a 4.65 40 at the Combine with 12 reps of 225 pounds, a 32½-inch vertical jump and a 9-11 broad jump. PROJECTION: A raw prospect with all the intangible necessities to be an elite NFL safety, but just one year of starting experience. Those types of players typically are deeper down some teams' draft boards and he will need to find a team that fits his strengths to come off before the end of the third round.

Dion Bailey, USC, 5-11¾, 201 – Fourth-year junior…Started 33 of 39 games, finishing his career with 223 tackles, 16.5 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks, 11 interceptions, 19 passes defensed and three forced fumbles…A solid technician who consistently takes good angles and finishes plays…A willing and impressive run support safety…Has good read-and-react skills and rarely gets caught out of position…Doesn't have an ideal closing burst…Doesn't have sideline-to-sideline range to break up bombs when in the middle of the field…Played a hybrid linebacker in 2011-12 and has just one season of experience at safety…Didn't lift at the Combine with a left shoulder injury, but ran a 4.65 40 with a 34-inch vertical jump and a 9-5 broad jump. PROJECTION: Another player with more starting experience at linebacker than safety, but safety is the only place he projects at the next level. He showed some very positive signs in 2013, but looks to be a project that will take a couple of years to develop, which usually drops a player to the third day of the draft.

Maurice Alexander, Utah State, 6-1¼, 220 – Third-year junior who missed the 2012 season due to injury…In 2013, he had 79 tackles, nine tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks and one interception…A big hitter who played a safety/linebacker hybrid position and consistently delivers the kill shot…Has good initial burst and is an effective blitzer…Has good leaping ability and can break up passes with ease…Played marginal competition that made him look better on tape than he is…Very limited experience at the position…Is too aggressive at times and will take himself out of plays…Didn't not lift at the Combine after getting a medical exclusion for a right wrist injury, but ran a 4.54 40 with a 38-inch vertical jump and a 10-3 broad jump. PROJECTION: An interesting prospect who played less-than-elite competition and is raw in terms of technique and experience. A logical candidate for a fourth-round flyer for a team known for developing athletes into NFL players.

Brock Vereen, Minnesota, 5-11¾, 199 – Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter who played more cornerback than safety, finishing his career with 200 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss, three interceptions and two forced fumbles…First-team All-Big Ten as a senior…Team captain…Brother of New England running back Shane Vereen and the son of Henry Vereen, who was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers…Made a lot of money with an outstanding performance at the Combine (see below)…Is assignment-sound and rarely gets himself out of position…Has good range in both the pass and the run game and consistently high points the ball when it arrives…Is undersized for an NFL safety and may have to add bulk…Doesn't have fluid hip-flipping ability and loses ground when forced to turn and run…Struggles to get through blockers when engaged trying to get the ball carrier…Ran a 4.47 40 at the Combine with a whopping 25 reps of 225 pounds, a 34-inch vertical jump and a 9-9 broad jump. PROJECTION: A versatile player who has played everywhere in the secondary, he is on the lines of a jack of all trades but the master of none. He will be on the board deep into the draft and looks like an ideal player to reunite with his brother in New England.

OTHERS TO WATCH

Antone Exum, Virginia Tech, 5-11¾, 213
Jonathan Dowling, Western Kentucky, 6-2¾, 190
Dez Southward, Wisconsin, 6-0¼, 211
Daniel Sorenson, BYU, 6-1½, 205
Ed Reynolds, Stanford, 6-1, 207
Vinnie Sunseri, Alabama, 5-11¼, 210
Tre Boston, North Carolina, 5-11¾, 204
Kenny Ladler, Vanderbilt, 6-0¼, 207
Marqueston Huff, Wyoming, 5-11¼, 196
Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State, 5-10, 211


John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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