Even if Ward could play like Hercules, our staff has recognized who the elite prospect at the strong safety position actually is — hard-hitting, fire-eating Washington State standout Deone Bucannon. Ward fans can make a strong argument that he belongs at strong safety but, comparing athleticism and production, the NIU product is better off trying to claim top honors as a free safety at the next level.
Bucannon is an imposing figure, built more in the lines of a Cover-2 linebacker, as he stands 6-foot-1 and weighs in at 211 pounds. Ward tips the scales at 5:10.5, 193. At the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, Bucannon put up the 225-pound bar 19 times during the bench press test, third-best for the defensive backs in attendance. Ward struggled to lift the bar nine times.
Both impressed in the speed drills, with Ward clocking 4.47 seconds in the 40-yard dash, including a 1.54-second burst in the 10-yard run. Bucannon blazed the 10-yard mark at 1.54 seconds on the way to recording a 4.49-second 40-yard dash. Ward's jump ball skills shined through during the vertical jump test, measuring a 38-inch leap, while Bucannon was right behind at 36 inches. Both tied for the second-best broad jump with a 10'06" mark. The 20-yard shuttle produced a 4.24-second time for Ward and 4.26 for the Cougars standout. Bucannon added a 6.86-second three-cone drill and Ward ran 6.89.
In 55 games, Ward delivered 320 tackles, 18th-best among active NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision performers. Bucannon tallied 384 hits in 49 appearances, the fourth-best total in school history and fifth-best among the major colleges' active players. Ward caused four fumbles, with the WSU All-American forcing seven. The NIU senior had 11 interceptions for 142 yards and Bucannon added 15 thefts, third-best ever by a Cougar, running them back for 170 yards.
The Cougars' defensive captain not only has emerged as one of the elite strong safeties in the college ranks, but he is one of the major reasons for the Washington State football program earning a bowl berth for only the 11th time since the Cougars began competing on the gridiron in 1894. Last year's New Mexico Bowl appearance was WSU's first bow game in a decade.
What separates Bucannon from most players that perform at his position is his incredible "nose for the ball," coupled with a "search and destroy" approach when challenging ball-carriers, tight ends and receivers that dare to come into his territory. One that thrives on initiating contact, the defensive back ranks second on the school career-record chart with 268 solo tackles, the most registered by an NCAA FBS active player.
One of the better inside-the-box hitters in the game, he has made 222 plays vs. the ground game, as Bucannon recorded 22 of those hits on third-down plays and three more during fourth-down snaps. One of the major reasons the Cougars ranked 18th nationally in red zone defense is their safety recording 89 of his 384 tackles in that area, including making 30 stops on goal-line stands. Thanks to his range, he has successfully come out of his area to deliver 44 touchdown-saving tackles.
As impressive as Bucannon's dominance in run support has been, he is highly effective in shutting down the passing game. He is tied for the national lead among active players with 14 interceptions, tied for third in WSU annals. With the man-coverage skills one would expect from a cornerback, and not a safety, he has been a terror in press coverage. Among the 297 passes targeted into his area during his career, he has jammed and/or rerouted his opponents away from 118 of those tosses (39.73%), coupled with recording 14 thefts while deflecting 14 other throws.
With his eye-opening performance that included a nation-high 19 touchdown-saving tackles, Bucannon became just the fifth defensive back in school history to receive first-team All-American honors. The first to garner that award was Ken Greene in 1977, followed by Paul Sorensen in 1981, Lamont Thompson in 2001 and Marcus Trufant in 2002. Since they began competing in football in 1894, only three other Cougars have been named to the All-American first-team, besides the secondary quartet.
Washington State University Cougars
Since arriving on campus at 186 pounds, Bucannon performed in the 190-pound range during his first three seasons with the varsity. Prior to his senior year, extra hours in the training room saw Bucannon return for his final season as a chiseled 217-pounder, one that possesses a good bubble, thick thighs and calves, large hands, low body fat, defined chest and arms, tight waist and hips. He displays very good size to play his position, as the downhill player has enough bulk to be utilized as a Cover-2 linebacker, in addition to playing the middle of the field. He has very good upper-body definition and "washboard abs," along with a frame that can easily carry another 10 pounds of bulk without it impacting his overall quickness.
The first thing you notice upon eye contact is that Bucannon displays excellent change-of-direction agility, doing a very good job of opening his hips. He shows balance and body control throughout his backpedal and a quick burst to make plays in front of him. He has a valid second gear, along with the field savvy and instincts to know when to take proper angles to the ball when working in space. He displays the ability to accelerate quickly to the ball and generates a sharp closing burst because of his loose hips. He times his leaps properly and has natural hands for the interception, evident by his 14 career thefts. He also stays in control and does not show wasted motion through transition. He is much quicker than his timed speed indicates, especially when playing down hill. He is strong enough to excel in run support (most scouts agree that no other strong safety in college can play vs. the run like Bucannon — see 2013 Southern Utah, Stanford, California and Oregon; and 2012 Brigham Young, Colorado, California and Stanford contests) and while he might have been a little tight in the hips earlier in his career, he appears to be moving with much more fluid change-of-direction agility in 2013. He has a good initial burst to accelerate and make cross-field tackles (see 2013 Auburn, California and Oregon State; and 2012 BYU, Colorado and Arizona State games), along with outstanding hands (former prep wide receiver) and jump-ball ability to make the big play challenging for the ball at its highest point. With his above-average balance and agility, he could play a big role on the blitz, as he's very good at slipping under and running around bigger offensive linemen in attempts to flush the quarterback out of the pocket or chase down ball-carriers on end-arounds.
Bucannon is an intelligent player who picks up plays quickly. He needs minimal reps to retain and shows very good field vision and awareness. He keeps his head on a swivel, doing a nice job of tracking the ball in flight. Despite playing in some confusing defensive schemes, he handles the action in front of him well and is capable of handling the mental aspect of the game. He made great strides reading and diagnosing plays and is the type that even savvy quarterbacks never fool with misdirection or play action. With his instincts and awareness, he is the type that could end up calling plays and handing out assignments in the secondary at a very early stage in his future pro career.
Wherever the coaches want him to play, whatever scheme they need him to perform in, Bucannon is more than up to the task, whether dropping back into the deep zone to prevent the big play (has prevented opponents from reaching the end zone on 44 running plays that appeared to be certain touchdowns and on 28 passes that he came off his assignment to make the cross-field tackle before the receiver can score). He is a tough, physical tackler who gives total effort until the whistle. He is hard on himself, always pushing to get better, evident by the way he "re-did" his body to add close to 20 pounds of bulk prior to the 2013 season, yet appears quicker at his new weight than he did at 192 last year. He plays with a high intensity level, whether in games or practices. His toughness lets him compete in the box, as he relishes mixing it up in the trenches (see 2013 Auburn, USC, California; and 2012 BYU, Colorado and Washington games). He is fun to watch on the field, as he is the type that will hit anything that gets into his territory. He competes with good aggression and is a high-motor type that will hustle in pursuit. He simply wins a lot of battles vs. bigger blockers that he shouldn't, but he just plays hard all over the field, which has made him a fan favorite. Off the field, he's a nice guy. On the field, his persona instantly changes, as he always seems to be on a "search and destroy" mission. He really likes to hit targets and is always around the ball looking to make the play. He is the type of player in the Doug Plank/Gary Fencik mold (ex-Chicago Bears greats). Defensive guru Buddy Ryan would have loved to have this kid play for him!
Key and Diagnostic Skills
Due to his maturity and experience, along with starting at a very early age, his ability shines through in his read-and-diagnostic skills. Bucannon has a very good 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 timing his leaps to get to the pigskin at its high point. He shows no hesitation stepping into the box to make plays in run force. He is quick to locate the ball when working through trash and even quicker to process the play as it develops. He gets a good jump on the ball and has the speed to stay on the hip of his pass coverage assignment and is rarely caught out of position (only flub in 2013 was being boxed out on a 30-yard touchdown run by Ka'Deem Carey vs. Arizona). He is not the type that will get overaggressive, but does hit with authority. He breaks on the ball well and gets a good jump from the hash.
Man Coverage Ability
Strong safeties are more known for their aggressive downhill hitting ability rather than their man coverage skills, and while he is a fierce downhill tackler, Bucannon is also like a slot cornerback for his ability to handle one-on-one assignments. He has produced 24 touchdown-saving tackles in aerial coverage, defended 28 passes (14 interceptions and 14 break-ups), along with rerouting or jamming receivers away from 118-of-297 passes targeted into his area (25.93 pass completion percentage). He limited quarterbacks to just a 21.35 pass completion percentage as a senior, allowing only 19-of-80 attempts to be caught. Bucannon is equally effective making plays in front of him or playing in the zone. He can mirror the tight ends, backs and slot receivers on underneath routes, as he has that valid second gear needed to recover when beaten deep. He does a good job of opening his hips and turning on the ball, showing no wasted motion through transition. If playing in a system that will man him up on slots receivers and tight ends, he will do a very good job. He is the type that can cover the speedier receivers on deep patterns. He easily stays on the hips of the tight ends (see 2013 Idaho, Stanford and Oregon; and 2012 Oregon, Stanford and California games). When he gets his hands on the opponent and gets physical, he will generally reroute his man or jam him at the line of scrimmage. He possesses quick-twitch moves, along with the flexibility to sift through trash, combat blockers and run with slot receivers and backs working underneath. He possesses good feet coming out of his backpedal and can accelerate and close when needed to make plays at the opposite side of the field (see 2013 Oregon State and Arizona; and 2012 Oregon State and Arizona State games). He is such a physical hitter that a pro team can even utilize him as a Cover-2 linebacker in nickel and dime packages.
Zone Coverage Ability
When Bucannon plays deep in the zone, little, if anything has a chance to get behind him. This is one of his best assets, as he shows alertness and a good feel for the ball. He is quick to locate the pigskin when working in the box and gets a good jump on the play due to his ability to anticipate and diagnose the patterns. He is a highly effective ball-hawk with natural hands for the interception (see 2013 Southern Utah, Idaho, Stanford, California and Arizona State; and 2012 Oregon and Oregon State games). He is quick to turn out of his backpedal and has a sharp burst, staying low in his pads while driving hard with his legs to neutralize receivers making plays in front of him. His vision and feel for the play will generally see him in position to make the tackle. The thing you see on film, especially when handling switch-offs, is his uncanny ability to keep a good relationship with the receiver he is assigned to pick up. He has that veteran's ability when it comes to anticipating and reading the quarterback, and this allows him to consistently get a good jump on the ball. He also has outstanding range, which lets him play a deep centerfield, but he can close with good urgency and keep plays in front of him.
Until this season, Bucannon looked more like a downhill tackler, but while reworking his body frame, he has also developed better looseness in his hips, allowing him to better mirror receivers on deep routes (see 2013 Auburn, Idaho, Stanford, Oregon State and Arizona State games). He does a very good job of keeping his feet and turning his hips properly breaking out of his backpedal. He maintains balance and body control, taking no wasted steps in transition. He has the flexibility to turn and run, staying low in his backpedal and rarely gets up on his heels or get his weight back. He breaks cleanly and stays in control, thanks to his loose hips. He shows above-average quickness in transition. Few strong safeties appear to be as smooth and easy in his pedal like the Cougar has shown this season and the result has seen him not only record the lowest pass completion percentage (21.35%) of any defensive back in the Pac-12 Conference.
Ball Reaction Skills
Bucannon looks very decisive in his read-and-diagnostic skills (see 2013 Auburn, USC, California and Arizona games), as he consistently makes proper adjustments to be in position to make the play. He gets in and out of his breaks cleanly and shows good explosion in his initial move. When he gets himself in position to make the play, he hits with good aggression and willingly combats bigger receivers and tight ends going for the ball at its highest point. He is equally effective closing in the short area and when having to run and close on long plays. He appears to have much looser hips as a senior and with his second gear, he can explode out of his breaks and demonstrates crisp change of direction agility, instantly making the tackle when working in space. When he lays back and plays "centerfield," he does so with excellent timing and that has given him great success attempting to make the interception.
Bucannon excels when working downhill, as he shows urgency and explosive acceleration making plays in front of him. He has good hip snap, swivel and lateral movement to change direction and string the plays wide. He is perfectly suited for playing strong safety, but he possesses the second gear needed to mirror receivers on deep routes. When he locates the ball in front of him, he displays very good take-up speed to challenge receivers. He shows very good agility and body control in his turns and is that type of high motor player that always hustles in pursuit. He covers a lot of ground when needed to make plays at the opposite side of the field and will not hesitate to step inside the box and make plays vs. the running game. He also has the lower-body flexibility to turn, run, get under the ball and come up with the big interception (see 2013 Southern Utah, California and Arizona State; and 2012 Oregon games).
Bucannon has excellent balance, timing and leaping ability, as he has defended 28 passes during his career. He knows how to utilize his above-average leaping ability to get to the ball at its high point. He shows very good body control flowing to the ball, taking no wasted steps when closing. He has good angle technique to close the cushion, especially when asked to support vs. the outside run (see 2013 Auburn and California; and 2012 Brigham Young, Colorado and California games_. While he does a good job of mirroring the receiver, he shows very good intent to attack the ball. He gets good height competing for jump balls (36 1/2-inch vertical leap) and will not hesitate to go vertical in a crowd to get a piece of the ball.
Bucannon is a natural hands catcher and excellent ball thief. He catches the pigskin with his hands properly extended from the body's frame. When he competes for the ball, he will generally get a piece of the pigskin. He uses his hands with force in pass coverage, doing a good job of jamming and rerouting tight ends, backs and slot receivers when attacking at the line of scrimmage. He is also able to snatch the ball at its high point, demonstrating functional interception skills (see 2013 Southern Utah, California and Arizona State; and 2012 Oregon and Oregon State games). Thanks to his time playing wide receiver in high school, he does a nice job of getting his head turned around and his fingers spread apart to make the interception without having to break stride.
Bucannon is like a linebacker when he has to step inside the box and support vs. the run. His tackling ability, wrap-up technique and range closing on plays along the opposite sidelines have seen him make an incredible 48 touchdown-saving tackles in run force. He has a nose for the ball in tight areas, delivering a total of 12 stops-for-loss (both solos and assists), along with bringing ball-carriers down at the line of scrimmage for no gain on 35 other plays. When working in the box, Bucannon is quick to read and react to the run. He takes good angles to the ball and will not shy away from contact working in-line. He is not asked to blitz much, but shows very good acceleration in back-side pursuit. He is a tough tackler who stays low in his pads and rarely takes passive arm tackles, rather preferring to extend his hands to wrap and secure. He will attack the line of scrimmage with aggression, but will not overrun the play. He is just too active with his hands and has underrated power that allows him to shed the larger offensive linemen, and he is quick to recover and redirect when driven away from the play. He simply flies to the football in the open field and plays with a nice blend of speed to leverage and control when making the big stop at the line of scrimmage or in the backfield. He also has keen eyes, as he is quick to spot and take good angles when trying to clog the rush lanes.
Bucannon makes good body adjustments, staying low in his pads while driving hard with his legs to push back the lead blocker through the rush lanes when working in the box. He takes good angles to the ball when in space and is very active with his hands when encountering the smaller blockers in the open field. He generates good power behind his tackles, doing a nice job of breaking down and exploding into the ball-carrier. He will not hesitate to fill the alley, demonstrating no concern that he might get punished a bit by the larger offensive linemen. He is even better tackling in the open field, as he shows good wrap-up technique and strength when delivering his hits. He's become a big hitter, evident by his school-record (for defensive backs) 366 tackles, fifth-best among active players in college football (most by a defensive back). He can "blow people up" if on track to make the play and will break down, face up and wrap with authority. He has the feet and balance to run laterally, clear trash and make plays in tight areas. He is probably the most functionally sound tackler of any safety eligible for the 2014 NFL Draft. .
Special Teams Coverage Skills
Bucannon is a rarity in college — a full-time starter who still loves to get out and "mix it up" as a member of the coverage units. He is a "heat-seeking" missile that has the forward burst to break up the wedge and the balance to sift through trash, locate the returner and securely bring down the opponent to prevent the big runback. Even though he has not been used much in punt coverage, his elevation skills could see him become a valuable commodity as a kick blocker at the next level.
LEROY Butler-ex-Green Bay Packers and Rodney Harrison-ex-New England Patriots: Bucannon is sort of a cross between two great safeties that performed in the NFL until recently. Like Butler, he always seemed to be in the right place, whether it was nabbing an interception (14), picking up a fumble or forcing one (10 total). Still, it is his durability and leadership that make him the player he is, as he is always working on areas of his game he feels he has to improve.
Intimidation was key for Harrison, and Bucannon is "cut from the same cloth," as he plays as if he is on a "search and destroy" mission. Much like the former Patriot, he is a multitalented safety that punishes receivers across the middle of the field or running backs who meet him in the hole.
Bucannon is a well-built athlete with a thick frame that can carry at least another 10 pounds of bulk with no loss in speed. He shows very good field instincts and vision, having the intelligence and valid instincts to play a variety of roles in the secondary. He shows a good nose for the football, especially when working the zone or in run force. He is quick to locate the ball when operating through trash and shows aggression filling the rush lanes.
He is a very effective eighth man working in the box, displaying a knack for always being around the ball. He gets a very good jump on the ball when coming out of his backpedal, taking no wasted steps in transition. Bucannon can run, hit and change directions when playing in space. He shows no hesitation attacking ball-carriers at the line of scrimmage. He has valid speed and above-average balance and body control, evident by his ability when taking proper angles to the ball. He also has the active hands and natural strength to prevent the offensive linemen from washing him out of the play, as he knows how to use his hands effectively to keep blockers away from his body.
Bucannon packs a punch behind his tackles, staying low in his pads and driving hard with his legs to take his opponent down cleanly. He is also active with his hands, doing a nice job of jamming and rerouting slot receivers and tight ends in the short-area passing game. He has enough functional speed to stay on the hip of the faster receivers on long routes, but he also does a very good job of tracking the ball in flight. He is best when playing the zone, as his instincts and field vision lets him see plays develop quickly in front of him.
He has enough range to play centerfield and his 14 interceptions and 14 pass deflections are evidence that he is a solid ball hawk. He is quick in and out of his breaks, showing the open hips to be very fluid in transition. He can mirror the tight end underneath and stays tight with the slot receivers up the seam. When working the zone, he gets a very good jump on the ball on plays coming from the middle hash.
Bucannon will square up and hit with good pop and is a solid wrap-up tackler. He appears very instinctive going for the jump ball, timing his leaps to get to the pigskin at its high point. He is not used much in blitzing situations, but does know how to slip through and avoid blocks in back-side pursuit. He also has the ability to quickly change direction when reacting to the ball in space. His versatility and ability to perform on most special teams adds to his value as a draft prospect. Based on his consistency throughout four years as a strong safety, Bucannon projects as a player who will continually improve throughout his career. If he continues that progress, he could become the best strong safety prospect developed coming out of the 2014 NFL Draft.
Dave-Te' Thomas has more than 40 years of experience scouting for the NFL. With the NFL Draft Report, Thomas handles a staff that evaluates and tests college players before the draft and prepares the NFL's official Draft Packet, which is distributed to all 32 teams prior to the draft. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.