Grading the pro potential: Strong safeties

Washington State's Deone Bucannon is the cream of the crop of what is otherwise a weak draft class. Bucannon has the versatility to play in the box and in deep coverage, while Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward might be better suited at free safety.

Lost in all the hoopla about how deep the cornerback class is, the safety position might have the least depth of any position in the 2014 draft pool. Whether you are looking for cat-quick free safeties or hard-hitting men on the strong side, teams will have to invest a draft pick earlier than the player's true value, or be left scrambling to find some big cornerbacks that might adjust to playing inside.

While the free safety position is where two players are likely to be selected in the first round – Calvin Pryor of Louisville and HaHa Clinton-Dix of Alabama, the best safety in this draft hails from the Pacific Northwest in Washington State‘s Deone Bucannon, a player with linebacker-like skills vs. the run, drawing comparisons to former Dallas Cowboys great Darren Woodson.

The three teams with the most pressing need for a quality strong safety are Green Bay, Philadelphia and Washington, with all three keeping close tabs on Bucannon and Northern IllinoisJimmie Ward. Arizona, Chicago, Indianapolis, Minnesota, New England and San Diego are looking for upgrades at this position through the draft, as well. From whispers out on scout circles, Bucannon is a strong target for New England in the second round, but the Patriots might not gamble that a team ahead of them takes the Cougar and could use their late first-rounder, instead.

In a defensive scheme that most teams prefer, organizations can "get away with" utilizing undersized defensive backs at free safety, but to truly have a sheriff roaming the deep areas of the zone, size definitely matters at the strong safety position. Even though Ward played as a strong safety for Northern Illinois, his frail-looking frame and horrible performance in the weight room at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine likely will see him shift to the less demanding free safety slot in the professional ranks.

Even if Ward could play like Hercules, our staff has recognized who the elite prospect at the strong safety position actually is – the hard-hitting, fire-eating 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.

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 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 at his pro day, 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 Bucannon. 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 college's 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, running them back for 170 yards.

Due to Bucannon's maturity and experience, along with starting at a very early age, his ability shines through in his read and diagnostic skills. He 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.

Bucannon 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 he does hit with authority. He breaks on the ball well and gets a good jump from the hash.

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.

Bucannon 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 also 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 in this draft.

Ward is a little light in the pants at 193 pounds and with his obvious speed (4.47 in the 40-yard dash) and obvious lack of power (nine reps in the 225-pound bench press) he might be more suited for the free safety position. Even with size and power issues, it seems like nothing will stop Ward on his road to the National Football League – not after being slighted by the Southeastern Conference colleges that did not recruit him coming out of high school; not the recruiting services that gave him just a two-star rating; and not by a right foot stress fracture that prevented him from getting medical clearance to participate in agility tests at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine.

With an injured right foot preventing him from going through drills at the Combine, Ward claimed he was healthy enough to perform for the 30 teams that dispatched scouts and coaches to NIU's pro day. He put on a show that left all going home happy, even the player, who is sometimes his own worst critic. His 40-yard time (4.47) and three-cone clocking (6.89) would have ranked second behind Florida State‘s Terrence Brooks among the Combine's safeties. His vertical jump would have tied Mo Alexander of Utah State and Brooks for the top spot among those safeties.

Ward has the speed and quickness for good man coverage skills in the short-to-intermediate areas, but must learn to conserve his aggressiveness when mirroring receivers on deep routes. It is rare to see him play man-to-man, but he has good hand placement and coverage skills taking on backs and tight ends. With his timed speed, he is capable of generating a good burst and speed needed to run vertical, but when he fails to keep an eye on his man and good position in the deep part of the field, he will get a bit reckless in taking proper angles to close.

Ward excels when he keeps the action in front of him, particularly when playing underneath. He shows good route awareness in the zone and has the vision to scan the field, but must maintain position in order to be consistent (will sometimes attack the man rather than the ball). He has the ability to read the quarterback and the speed to be in the right place at the right time. His vision is evident by his ability to anticipate routes and there is no question he has the hand punch to knock any receiver off his pattern progression.

Earlier in our draft report writing, I mentioned Minnesota's Brock Vereen as a player I felt was a star on the rise, one that was a consummate team player whose constant position changes proved his team-first work ethic. The family would love to see him selected by New England, where his brother, Shane, is the Patriots' starting tailback.

Brock suffered a knee injury during 2013 fall camp, but was fully recovered by the season opener, going on to have a banner final season to earn all-Big Ten Conference first-team recognition. In 13 starting assignments at free safety, he delivered 59 tackles (41 solos), picking off one pass and deflecting six others. That performance would earn the Gopher an invitation to play in the 2014 East-West Shrine Game.

That invitation followed another – an opportunity to show off his athleticism at the Scouting Combine, where it would be an understatement to say that he opened quite a few eyes with his excellent performance. In the weight room, he performed 25 repetitions in the 225-pound bench press, the best for any safety or cornerback at the event, along with ranking seventh for all safeties to attend a Combine in the last 10 years.

In the speed drills, Vereen clocked 4.47 seconds in the 40-yard dash, the second-fastest time for a safety. He then turned in a 4.07 run in the 20-yard shuttle, which also placed second among the Combine safeties, the same place where he finished in the three-cone drill (6.90 seconds).

Vereen's versatility helped him earn 36 starting assignments in the 47 games he appeared in – four at left cornerback; 14 at right cornerback; seven at strong safety and 11 at free safety.

Another strong safety my scouts loved was Wisconsin‘s Dezmon Southward, who never suited up for football until his senior year in high school. The Badgers safety was "red-flagged" due to a medical issue at the Scouting Combine, though. The issue, reportedly a fracture to the C-5 vertebrae in his back, was later challenged by Dr. Bob Watkins, the same physician who had performed surgery and worked with Peyton Manning. After a second opinion, it was determined he possibly had a slight hernia in his C-4. Southward called the incident "one of the most frustrating experiences of my life, but on the bright side, I don't have a broken neck."

Southward needed a strong Pro Day in March to get back on the draft radar and came through with flying colors. With stopwatches clicking, the safety raced down the track during the 40-yard dash, recording an official time of 4.38 seconds. Among the Combine safeties, the closest any came to matching that figure was 4.42 seconds by Florida State's Terrance Brooks. The only defensive back among the close to 60 in Indianapolis that beat Southward's time was Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert, who checked in a 4.35.

Further research, looking at the Combine performances for safeties during the last 10 years, only Arizona State‘s Josh Barrett (4.35 in 2008) and Louisiana State's LaRon Landry (4.37 in 2007) ran better. Southward delivered a 42-inch vertical jump, as the best the 2014 Combine safeties could produce was a 38-inch leap by Brooks and Utah State's Mo Alexander. The best for any 2014 defensive back was 41.5-inches by Nebraska cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste. The only safety in the last 10 combines with a better leap was Eric Berry (43 inches in 2010).

Southward recorded a 10'04" broad jump, which would have ranked behind 2014 Combine safeties Ken Ladler of Vanderbilt (10'07) and Deone Bucannon-Washington State (10'05'). His time of 6.50 seconds in the three-cone drill would have ranked second for all safeties in Indianapolis, yielding only to Brigham Young's Daniel Sorensen (6.47).

The Badger does a good job of keeping action in front of him and shows good chase speed when he has to come out of his area to make a play on the opposite side of the field. He shows the anticipation skills to excel covering activity underneath, and is especially effective covering curls and flats. He does not allow much cushion to the receiver, even though he displays above average range off the hash.

Southward needs to be more alert to No. 2 type receivers in the deep zone, but did improve in that area as a senior. Still, he might be a better fit as an inside-the-box type, as he is much better working vs. plays in front of him than in the deepest part of the secondary.

The rest of the strong safety class features several mid- to late-round types, led by San Diego State‘s tackling machine, Nate Berhe. In the fifth-/sixth-round area, he will probably be joined by Baylor‘s Ahmad Dixon, oft-injured Craig Loston of Louisiana State, Combine sensation Sorense and vastly underrated Michigan State leader Isaiah Lewis.

The later rounds might find injured Alabama junior Vinnie Sunseri possibly get a "look-see" from the Rams. Oregon‘s Brian Jackson and Arizona State's Alden Darby are other possible late picks, while Jerry Gates of Bowling Green, L.J. McCray of Catawba, Washington's Sean Parker and Hakeem Smith of Louisville will battle for a roster spot, but all should be priority free agents.


CREAM OF THE CROP: Deone Bucannon (Washington State)

BEST OF THE REST: Jimmie Ward (Northern Illinois)

MOST UNDERRATED: Brock Vereen (Minnesota)

MOST OVERRATED: Vinnie Sunseri (Alabama)

SUPER SLEEPER: Dezmon Southward (Wisconsin)

BUCANNON, Deone  (OB) 6:01211 4.4919 36 1/210'05" 4.266.96 73-Feb
WARD, Jimmie (FS) 5:11193 4.479 3810'05" 4.246.89 6.82
VEREEN, Brock (FS/CB) 6:00199 4.4725 3409'09" 4.076.9 6.24-Mar
SOUTHWARD, Dezmen(CB) 6:00211 4.3817 4210'04" 4.376.5 5.95-Apr
DIXON, Ahmad   6:00212 4.4814 3409'03" 4.397.28 5.46
BERHE, Nat   5:11193 4.5517 3509'10" 4.227.08 5.37-Jun
LOSTON, Craig   6:01217 4.6512 32 1/209'11" 4.357.15 5.25
SORENSEN, Daniel   6:01205 4.5413 3210'02" 3.956.47 5.16
LEWIS, Isaiah   5:10211 4.615 36 1/210'02" 4.286.87 57-Jun
ALEXANDER, Maurice   6:01220 4.5416 3810'03" 4.517.05 57
%#SUNSERI, Vinnie   5:11210 4.5918       4.97
JACKSON, Brian   5:10199 4.614 30 1/210'00" 4.166.8 4.97-FA
GATES, Jerry   5:11203 4.5527 3509'03" 4.167.05 4.8PFA
ÚRBY, Alden   5:10194 4.65NL 34 1/210'01" 4.326.97 4.87-FA
MCCRAY, L.J.   6:00210 4.5224 3610"04" 4.076.77 4.7PFA
COOK, Darwin   5:11203 4.4914 35 1/209'09" 4.327.32 4.7FA
PARKER, Sean (FS) 5:10190 4.7917 3008'10" 4.447.21 4.7FA
SMITH, Hakeem   6:00194 4.7817 3709'06" 4.476.99 4.7PFA
RILEY, Kameron 6:01199 4.5321 3610'03" 4.237.04 4.6FA
SWAIM, Mycal 6:03214 4.4915 3910'11" 4.266.97 4.6FA
BARNETT, C.J.   6:00204 4.6322 37 1/210'04" 4.166.86 4.6FA
GORDON, Thomas   5:10213 4.522 40 1/210'05" 4.136.68 4.6FA
GARY, Shamiel   6:00205 4.522 35 1/210'03" 4.357.44 4.6FA
FURR, Deron (OB) 6:03232 4.7118 32 1/209'06" 4.627.29 4.6FA
COUPLIN III, Jerome   6:01213 4.5518 41 1/211'02" 4.416.94 4.5FA
WILLIS, Malcolm   5:11215 4.7318 2909'05" 4.356.89 4.5FA
MCDONALD, Dewey   6:00220 4.4323 34 1/209'08" 4.336.99 4.5FA
HENRY, Rob (QB) 6:02197 4.56        4.5CMP
%SIMON, John 6:01197 4.63        4.5CMP
WORTHY, Greg   6:01215 4.49        4.5CMP
WAGGONER, Garrett 6:00224 4.62        4.4CMP
JENKINS, JaQuez   6:01182 4.73        4.4CMP
MILLER, Tanner   6:01207 4.68        4.4CMP
PHILLIPS, Adrian   5:10205 4.57        4.4CMP
HEBAN, Greg 5:11207 4.63        4.4CMP
SPENCER, Richard 6:01219 4.62        4.4CMP
RODGERS II, Kacy 6:01216 4.52        4.3CMP
WATSON, Anthony 6:00202 4.46        4.3CMP
WHARTON, Dustin 5:10209 4.69        4.3CMP
CHENAULT, Arryn 6:00217 4.73        4.3CMP
WHITE, Bert 5:11207 4.73        4.3CMP
HENDRICKS, Jason 5:11182 4.82        4.3CMP
EVANS, Zed   5:10198 4.43        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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