INDIANAPOLIS -- Who is the best safety in the 2014 NFL Draft?
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said there isn't a lot of depth at safety, but his top two prospects are Louisville's Calvin Pryor and Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. The safety position has evolved as versatile defensive backs who can help in run support, cover the deep middle and line up against slot cornerbacks are valuable and hard to find. In last year's draft, three safeties were taking in the first round with New Orleans' Kenny Vaccaro being the highest selected at No. 15 overall. Two went in the first round in 2012, but Clinton-Dix's former teammate Mark Barron was picked sixth overall by Tampa Bay.
"With the NFL being a passing league now, you need more DBs out there," said the 5-foot-11, 207-pound Pryor. "You have to do so much. You've got to come up and support the run or you have to drop back in safety. It's not like a corner where you just think pass all day. You have to think and adjust every game."
Clinton-Dix said he spent his freshman year at Alabama learning head coach Nick Saban's defense. The Crimson Tide's defense more closely resembles a pro-style defense with its multiple packages. The safety is responsible for making the calls in the backfield and has to know everything that's going on.
"You have to be accountable," said Clinton-Dix, whose first name is He'Sean (pronounced Ha-seen) but his grandmother gave him the nickname at 3 years old.
Both Pryor and Clinton-Dix have experience both as in-the-box safeties and deep in coverage. Pryor is more of the big thumper, who has knocked players out of games with his highlight-reel hits.
"In today's game, you have to watch how you tackle people," Pryor said. "You have to make sure you don't have any head-on-head collisions so I mainly just try to wrap up and use my shoulder pads.
"Safety is all about angles. Football is an angles game. You have to have the IQ where you know what's going on and formations and how people are going to motion and adjust to those things, so you have to be smart at safety."
Clinton-Dix watched a lot of Louisville games since they were on Thursday nights and acknowledged that he's not the hitter Pryor is, but offers more quickness and succeeded in the ever-so-tough SEC.
"CP is a great player. He plays fast. He's always around the ball. He can hit. He's a physical person," said Clinton-Dix. "I play fast. I play physical. I'm not afraid to line up against the slot. I can do it all."
SIZE, SIZE, SIZE THE BIG STORY AT CORNERBACK
To combat the Calvin Johnsons, the Dez Bryants and the increasing amount of tall pass-catching tight ends, the Eagles are one of many teams placing a higher premium on size at the cornerback position. Last year in free agency, the Eagles signed
“I think it has to be right now because if we’re going to have a conversation about the big body wide receivers, then you have to go, ‘Who’s covering them?’" Mayock said on Sunday. "It’s the same thing with the tight ends, the 6-foot-4, 250 (pounds) – who is covering him? Look at Seattle. That’s the prototype right now defensively; what are you looking for and how do you cover these big bodies?"
Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert measured 6-feet, 202 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine. He explained that it takes more than just size to win as a defensive back.
"You have to be able to use great technique. Because a guy like me, I have long legs, short torso. So it's kind of hard for me to get my hips down and turn around and all that," Gilbert said. "But the more you work at it, the better you get at it."
The plethora of spread offenses have led to teams piling up monster passing numbers in the college ranks against cornerbacks big and small. Cornerback Bradley Roby was a first-team All-Big Ten selection and second-team All-America as a junior in 2012. However, one performance last year against Wisconsin has appeared to define his career. Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis, who is also at the NFL Scouting Combine, had 10 catches for 207 yards and a touchdown against Roby and Ohio State.
"I had a lot of hype going into the season and that was our first big game of the season. When you’re as hyped as I was, you’re going to have that microscope on you and any mistake you make is going to be amplified. That was a little bit of the case right there," said Roby, who is 5-foot-11, 194 pounds. "A lot of people didn’t really look at the film of the game to see the battle we had. Even though I made some mistakes, I only gave up one touchdown. I had good stats and we won the game as well. It was bad from my standards, but I had a good game and I learned a lot from that game."
TCU's Jason Verrett, a second-team All-America selection in 2013, has to defend not against wide receivers, but his own measurements. How will Verrett, who was successful in college, do in the NFL at 5-foot-9, 189 pounds?
"I’ve been challenged with receivers that have been over 6-foot my whole college career," Verrett said. "I played against a lot of good receivers in college that were over 6-foot. I feel like I’m this height for a reason, but I can compete with the best."
Verrett is quick to point out that his size won't hurt in run defense, either.
"If you look at my film against Michigan State, I had about six solo tackles against (now Steelers running back) Le'Veon Bell," Verrett said. "Had a lot of corner blitzes, a lot of tackles for loss. I feel like I can blitz. I feel like I can do it all.
"Not everybody has ball skills, but I’m blessed to have that. With my frame, I’m able to transfer from A to B with fluid hips and quickness. That just allows me to make more plays."