At safety, it's a two-deep NFL draft class

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
Posted: February 25, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS - Louisville played two Thursday night games this season. Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix watched on television, focusing on Cardinals safety Calvin Pryor. Clinton-Dix developed a respect for Pryor's ability, and the two met for the first time Sunday afternoon at the NFL combine.

They will be linked often during the next three months, and maybe long thereafter. Although opinions differ about which one is better, Pryor and Clinton-Dix are the top two safety prospects in May's NFL draft.

The Eagles' biggest need is at safety - you've heard that before - and they draft at No. 22. Clinton-Dix (6-foot-1, 208 pounds) or Pryor (5-11, 207) could become the franchise's first first-round pick at the position since 1969.

There's also a real possibility that both could be off the board, since the position has become more valuable and demand has increased. The Eagles are expected to pursue a safety in free agency and could add another in the draft, though this year's group of prospects has some uncertainty beyond the top two.

"I don't think the safety class is as deep as some of these other classes," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. "If I had my 10 favorite players from watching them on tape, Calvin Pryor's one of them. He's like a bigger Bob Sanders. He's better in the box. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is better [away from the line]. He's got more range and ball skills back there."

Mayock said there is a group of four safeties before there is a drop-off in talent, adding Florida State's Lamarcus Joyner, a 5-8 cornerback who could project as a safety, and Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward, who is 5-11 and 193 pounds. The safeties will undergo on-field testing Tuesday at the combine.

Pryor is the type of hard-hitting safety who would energize the Lincoln Financial Field crowd. He knocked opponents out of three games this season and had nine forced fumbles in three seasons.

"I can't say I can hit like him, because he's a big hitter," Clinton-Dix said with a smile.

But Pryor would like to be known as more than a big hitter. The NFL is a passing league, and coverage skills are essential for safeties. Pryor has the ability to play deep, too.

"I feel like I'm a very versatile player," said Pryor, who will turn 22 in July. "I can drop in the middle of the field and cover a lot of range."

Clinton-Dix has proved that he is a "complete player" and played in the back end more than Pryor. He believes that his experience playing in coach Nick Saban's pro-like system and learning under Saban gives him a leg up in the NFL.

"I play fast, I'm very physical, I'm not afraid to line up against the slot," Clinton-Dix said. "I can do it all."

As much as the versatility matters, it's Clinton-Dix's range that can separate him. Similar to Earl Thomas in Seattle, Clinton-Dix can play in the deep half of the field and chase down receivers, and also play man coverage in the slot. He had a two-game suspension and a knee injury during his senior season, yet still finished first-team all-Southeastern Conference and does not turn 22 until December.

If the Eagles miss out on the top two safeties, they will have to trust their scouting. Joyner's lack of size could be a concern, although Tyrann Mathieu thrived as a rookie despite his small stature. Seminoles teammate Terrence Brooks is an option.

Three players the Eagles' Chip Kelly coached against when he was at Oregon also will draw attention in that next tier of safeties. Washington State's Deone Bucannon has a long frame at 6-1 and 211 pounds, and he finished 2013 as a first-team all-American. Bucannon was not recruited by Oregon, but he had two interceptions against the Ducks in 2012 when Kelly was still the coach.

Southern California's Dion Bailey is a 6-0, 201-pound converted linebacker. A close friend of Eagles quarterback Matt Barkley, Bailey will play safety in the NFL, but he needs to test well Tuesday to boost his stock.

Stanford's Ed Reynolds is another early entry. The 6-1, 207-pound son of a former NFL player by the same name followed a six-interception campaign in 2012 with a down year in 2013.

"He's a true free safety who might run a little better than people think," Mayock said.

For the safeties other than the top two, Tuesday's testing will be valuable. The Eagles will have a close eye on the prospects. They have been searching for safety help since 2008 and watched a team with two all-pro safeties win the Super Bowl.

"You need safeties that can cover the slot receivers, play deep in the field, and also get in the box," Clinton-Dix said. "You're seeing more versatile safeties in this league now."


zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm

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