Calvin Pryor has all the tools to be a top-tier defender. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
With the 2014 NFL draft fast approaching, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to start getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that, as well. And to that end, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke have assembled their own definitive Big Board, consisting of the players they feel deserve to be selected in the first two rounds.
The SI 64 -- which recently covered prospects 19-17 and can be found in its entirety here -- uses tape study to define the best prospects in this class and why they’re slotted as such. Now, our top 16 players in the 2014 class each will be highlighted in individual posts, and we'll get that rolling with the best pure safety in the 2014 draft -- and quite possibly the best pass defender overall.
MORE: 2014 NFL Mock Draft | Top QBs | Top RBs | Top WRs | SI64: Our definitive Big Board
Bio: It's a good time to be Louisville free safety Calvin Pryor, because he's coming into the NFL in an era where safety play is more important than ever, and the best at the position are getting paydays heretofore unimagined. Pryor enters this arena as an elite draft prospect with every possible tool to make his name with the Earl Thomases and Jairus Byrds of the world -- there really isn't anything he can't do at a high level, and that versatility shows as an impact factor on his tape.
"You have to do so much," he said of the safety position at the scouting combine. "You have to come up and support the run or you have to drop back and cover. It's just not like a corner where you just think pass all day most of the time. You have to think and adjust during the game."
It's clear that he does that. In his 2011 season, Pryor managed 43 tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack, two picks, seven passes defensed and two forced fumbles. He upped the ante in his last two collegiate seasons with a total of 175 tackles, eight tackles for loss, five sacks, five picks and seven more forced fumbles. Pryor plays like a guided missile on the field, and that's something he's had in mind since he was a kid.
"I love the game of football, and I was brought [up] on toughness," he said. "To play the game of football, you have to be tough, and it's a thinking game. My father really instilled it in me at a young age. When I used to fall on the ground and I think I hurt myself, he would just tell me to get back and just keep going and it caught up with me later in life."
Now, he's the one doling out the punishment, but there's so much more than that to his game.
Strengths: Pryor has tremendous field speed, and he's able to use it to great effect in all areas of his game. There are times when you simply wonder how he got from here to there so quickly. When he breaks out of coverage to run support, he flies to the ball and is a willing and violent tackler. Sifts through trash pretty well and doesn't give up on plays -- even if he misses the tackle the first time around, he's a good bet to help pick it up later. Understands angles and leverage as a tackler. When he is asked to cover half-field, he does so with ease -- his sideline-to-sideline speed is as good as anyone's in this draft class at any position. Will move seamlessly from the line to linebacker depth to the back half, which allows him to keep his eyes on his assignments and avoid over-correcting. For such a fast player, Pryor doesn't often get fooled.
In coverage, Pryor can mirror everything from short angle routes to comebacks to deep vertical concepts, and he has an excellent sense of when to break for the ball. Plays slot receivers very well because of his tenaciousness and agility, and he can break outside to cornerback positioning in a pinch. Has the vertical length and timing to stick with receivers bigger than him, even on jump balls. Sneaks in and breaks on routes as you would expect a better cornerback to do. Legitimate center-field defender on deep posts and other vertical concepts. Comes off the line like a scalded dog on blitzes and can bring a lot of pressure when put in that position. Gives full effort on every play -- you just don't see drop-offs on his tape.
Weaknesses: There are times when Pryor's size works against him -- he will get blocked out of plays, and as aggressive as he is, he may want to peel back a bit and understand that he'll make even more plays if he avoids contact at times as opposed to putting himself in disadvantageous situations. And he'll have to watch his physical style of tackling when he hits the NFL, because officials are conditioned to overreact at the best of times.
Conclusion: "I'm just going to be myself and stay aggressive and play like my hair is on fire."
That's what Pryor said when asked how he'd go about things in the NFL, and it's hard to imagine him doing anything else. He has few obvious flaws, and the little things that show up are eminently correctable. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of his play is that he strikes a perfect and rare balance between new-school coverage artist and old-school kamikaze.
The comparison to Earl Thomas is not to the Thomas who might be the best defensive player in the NFL right now, but to the Thomas who came out of Texas in 2010 with all the athletic potential in the world. Thomas combined that with a ridiculous work ethic and unusual level of focus to become a truly special player, and if he really wants it, Calvin Pryor could one day hit that mark as well.
NFL player comparison: Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks (1st round, 2010, Texas)