Sizing up the NFL Combine's safety crop

Posted: February 25, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS - Despite all the talk you're hearing about an unprecedented abundance of talent in the upcoming NFL draft, if you look at assessments of the safeties - what Eagles fans seem to care most about these days - you'll find a steep dropoff after the first two names, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Calvin Pryor.

As in, most of them aren't considered potential NFL starters.

"I don't think the safety class is as deep as some of these other classes," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said yesterday evening as he summed up the NFL Scouting Combine. (The event continues through tomorrow, but reporters' access ended yesterday.)

Maybe that was what fueled Eagles general manager Howie Roseman's aside the other day about sometimes needing to take a "stopgap" approach to a certain position, recognizing that even the best teams aren't great everywhere.

Reports indicate that the top two safeties scheduled to become free agents on March 11, Buffalo's Jairus Byrd and Cleveland's T.J. Ward - both former Oregon stars - might very well stay with their current teams, perhaps through use of the franchise tag. (It should be noted that sometimes tagged players subsequently get traded, if they're really unhappy. Byrd might fit that profile, having already played 2013 under the tag.)

The Eagles could be looking at a second-tier guy in free agency, trying not to overpay somebody who isn't a star (Miami's Chris Clemons, Carolina's Mike Mitchell, New Orleans' Malcolm Jenkins).

Or they could cross their fingers and hope either Alabama's Clinton-Dix or Louisville's Pryor lasts until the Birds draft, 22nd overall in the first round. More than 2 months out from the draft, it's hard to say how reasonable that hope might be, or if the Eagles might just need to move up a few slots to get one of the top two.

One thing we do know: To fans who have suffered with poor safety play ever since Brian Dawkins left in 2009, "stopgap" is not a good word. While it's true that nobody has great players at every position, it's also true that the Seattle team that won the Super Bowl earlier this month had excellent safeties, Earl Thomas (collective sigh) and Kam Chancellor. Having somebody like Thomas patrolling the back end might have been the key to the Seahawks' dominant defense, along with the ability to bring pressure without blitzing.

Seattle coach Pete Carroll talked to reporters here the other day. He was asked how he built his defense.

"It really starts with an overall philosophy of how the game works, which is eliminating the big plays and playing great up front," Carroll said.

"Philosophically, we have a really sound mentality, and we build from that. We've been doing it for years - this isn't a 1- or 2-year deal. That guides the standards that we've set, so that we're still good up top. If you look at our defense and how well we play down the middle with Earl back there, for years it's been that way. That's kind of one of the building blocks of it, that you're really good up top and you don't let people score fast."

It's unclear that either Clinton-Dix or Pryor will be a Thomas-level talent. Clinton-Dix might be able to provide the Thomas-level deep coverage that frees up Seattle's corners (and Chancellor) to play so aggressively.

Clinton-Dix (6-1, 208) said yesterday he feels he can play both in the box and deep. "At the next level you've got to know both," he said.

He said he feels he might be faster than Pryor - the d-backs run tomorrow - but "I can't say I can hit like him."

Asked to assess Pryor, Clinton-Dix said: "CP's a great player. He plays fast. He's always around the ball. He can hit . . . He's a big hitter, a great guy."

The other Alabama starting safety, Vinnie Sunseri, was asked yesterday what it was like playing in the shadow of Clinton-Dix.

"I loved it," Sunseri said. "They didn't want to throw his way, so they threw it my way. That's how I was able to get a couple pick-sixes. He's a great player; being in his shadow, I guess, wasn't a big thing to me."

Pryor, meanwhile, said he thinks he's the best safety in the draft, but said he hasn't watched Clinton-Dix much.

Pryor, 5-11, 207, was asked how he became such a physical player.

"I love the game of football. I was brought up on toughness. To play the game of football, you have to be tough, and it's a thinking game," Pryor said. "My father really instilled it in me at a young age. I used to fall on the ground, I'd think I hurt myself, he'd just tell me to get back up, keep going."

Pryor said he feels he can "drop into the middle of the field, cover a lot of range, just break on the ball," in addition to playing in the box.

"I love watching the Steelers and the Seahawks, because they're so aggressive," he said. "They're greedy. They do it off toughness. That's the type system I want to be a part of."

Greedy?

"You don't really want to give up much . . . everybody has to be accountable for their position."

Mayock said Pryor is one of his 10 favorite players in the draft, but is "better in the box," while Clinton-Dix "is better back off - he's got more range, and ball skills back there."

Mayock likes 5-8 Florida State corner Lamarcus Joyner (probably more than "length" advocate Chip Kelly does), and Mayock thinks Joyner will be a safety in the pros. He also likes cover safety Jimmie Ward (5-11, 193) from Northern Illinois. Neither Joyner nor Ward is going to be drafted in the first round - but then again, the Eagles got Earl Wolff in the fifth round last year, and he looked like a potential starter before he suffered a knee injury at Green Bay in November.

There are some interesting guys who will go later in the draft who could develop, such as USC's 6-foot, 201-pound Dion Bailey, a converted linebacker, and Washington State's 6-1, 211-pound big hitter Deone Bucannon. If Bucannon runs well tomorrow, perceptions of him might change.


On Twitter: @LesBowen

Blog: ph.ly/Eagletarian

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