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2014 NFL draft position rankings: Calvin Pryor, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix lead deep safety class

2014 NFL draft position rankings: Calvin Pryor leads deep safety class Calvin Pryor has the potential to be an amazing NFL safety. (Garry Jones/AP)

Remember when the safety position used to be an afterthought? When it was primarily composed of guys running downhill and tackling like rabid hyenas, leaving the true coverage to the cornerbacks? Well, those days are clearly gone, as the NFL moves to more diverse defenses than ever before to counter offenses that run everything from three-tight end sets to five-wide formations in the blink of an eye. The die cast by Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu a decade ago has been forwarded by amazing athletes like Earl Thomas, Eric Berry, Eric Weddle, and Jairus Byrd. And the six-year, $54 million contract given to Byrd by the New Orleans Saints in March (with $26.3 million guaranteed) indicates that no NFL team worth its draft picks undervalues the position anymore.

In the 2014 draft class, there are two safeties with the skills to be every bit as good as the names listed above, and a sub-group with unique and special attributes. It's a deep and under-the-radar bunch, especially in the projected middle rounds, where hybrid defenders will be available at a bargain price.

1. Calvin Pryor, Louisville: It's a tough pick, but I'll give Pryor the edge over Ha Ha Clinton-Dix because I believe that he's just a bit more responsive and explosive in coverage. Both defenders do everything at a plus level, but Pryor is fast enough in any direction to make an enormous impact in any NFL defense as a center fielder. And he can play everywhere from the box to the deep third, as he said at the scouting combine.

"My first two years at Louisville, I played mostly in the middle of the field. But after becoming a playmaker, causing fumbles, getting interceptions, coaches started moving me around having the ability to play all over the place."

The ability to play the slot, to blitz, to move forward and backward at will? Well, that's a very valuable thing in today's NFL, and Pryor has it. His stats are impressive enough (175 tackles, five picks, 11 passed defensed and seven forced fumbles in his last two seasons), but pop on the tape and see how many times opposing quarterbacks hesitate and throw away from his general area to get a real feel for his potential impact.

Draft projection: Top 15

2. Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, Alabama: Like most Alabama defensive backs throughout the Nick Saban era, Clinton-Dix is an accurate violent tackler, able to clamp down in run support and blitz effectively. But he has the extra chip in his game of true dimension in pass coverage -- he's got a good backpedal (which some Saban DBs have to pick up when they hit the NFL), and he shares Pryor's ability to cover well all over the field and against different kinds of receivers. There is a slight tendency to overrun some plays, but that's to be expected of a player who goes full-speed all the time. No play is totally safe as long as he's on the field. And like Pryor's, his game is far more than the sum total of his stats.

Draft projection: Top 15

3. Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois: There are different takes on the third-best overall safety in this draft class, but I'll take Ward, who really put himself on the national map with an outstanding week at the Senior Bowl. He shows tremendous range in space, can turn and transition with receivers consistently, and shows a lot of awareness on the field -- you'd expect a smaller-school guy to get beaten more than he does, especially on misdirection plays. The only thing that might keep him out of the first round is his size (5-feet-11, 193).

Draft projection: Late Round 1/Early Round 2

4. Terrence Brooks, Florida State: Like Ward, Brooks is a bit undersized for the NFL template at 5-feet-11, 198. But like Ward, he flashes great athleticism and range on the field -- he'll make spectacular plays at times by covering a lot of ground in a very short time. The former backup cornerback made a real impact for the national champs in 2013, grabbing two picks and making 56 total tackles, including eight tackles for loss. If he can dial down the over-aggressiveness and stay on assignment, he has a real shot to be an NFL standout at free safety, with a minor in slot or outside cornerback.

Draft projection: Round 2/Early Round 3

5. Brock Vereen, Minnesota: Vereen, the younger brother of New England Patriots running back Shane Vereen, has moved from corner to safety and back again during his collegiate years. And it may be that his NFL future is at the cornerback position. Out of all the safety prospects in this draft class, he may have the most impressive ability to stick and stay with receivers, no matter how complex the routes get. Vereen has tremendous agility and change-of-direction skills and isn't a pure thumper. If he stays at safety, he'd have to be a range guy, and depending on the scheme he's in, that might rob him of the potential to make plays in the intermediate areas. But as NFL defenses move to more nickel and dime formations, hybrid defenders become more valuable, and Vereen lines up very nicely in that category.

Draft projection: Round 2/Early Round 3

6. Deone Bucannon, Washington State: At 6-1, 211, Bucannon is an old-school strong safety in size and on tape -- he's at his best when he's near the line of scrimmage, looking to take someone's head off in run support or defending short passes. He's got intriguing potential in coverage, as evidenced by his six interceptions in 2013, but he'll have to learn better field discipline -- right now, he has an alarming tendency to scream right past plays because he's going so fast. And a raw backpedal will limit him in advanced coverage until he works that out, but as a developmental prospect who can play certain roles right away, he'll make some NFL team happy. With 114 tackles and three forced fumbles in 2013, he's clearly set up to be a stopper.

Draft projection: Round 3

7. Dion Bailey, USC: With five interceptions and six passes defensed in 2013, Bailey made his case as one of the better defensive backs in the Pac-12, and he shows up as a versatile, fluid player on tape. He will get a bit too aggressive at times, and he shows up a hair late in coverage occasionally, but as a coverage safety in any scheme, he's got a lot of potential.

Draft projection: Round 3

8. Craig Loston, LSU: Loston replaced 49ers 2013 first-rounder Eric Reid as the enforcer in the Tigers' defense last season, and he proved the wisdom of his decision to stay in school by increasing his interception total from two to three from 2012 to 2013, along with slight upticks in tackles and tackles for loss. He's not an elite cover guy, which will limit his prospects in the pros, but as a downhill tackler, he's got few peers at his position in this class.

Draft projection: Round 4

9. Ahmad Dixon, Baylor: Dixon is a raw prospect in some areas, to be sure, but there's a lot to like about a 6-foot, 212-pound safety who flies up to make plays in the run game and tackles very aggressively. Right now, he's more a pure strong safety, though -- he battles coverage recognition issues and he will get lost at times. He jumps routes more than he covers deep. That said, he's got the skill set to excel for an NFL team with clearly-defined free/strong safety roles.

Draft projection: Round 4

10. Dezmen Southward, Wisconsin: Southward played in a school-record 54 games in his collegiate career, which is a pretty amazing stat for a guy who started playing football as a high school senior. An injury kept him out of the combine drills, but he was able to overcome that at his pro day in early March, running a 4.38 40-yard dash at 6-0, 211. As you'd imagine, he's got a few things to learn (especially in coverage), but Southward is one of the more interesting athletes at any position in this class.

Draft projection: Round 4
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