NFL safeties have had to evolve


(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2014 NFL Draft, set for May 8-10.)

Quarterback is the most difficult position to master. Left tackle requires a special blend of size, nimble feet, and quick/strong hands. Lining up at cornerback in the NFL is no day at the beach, either. But as the professional game evolves and offenses diversify, safety is evolving into a position requiring special and myriad skills as well.

Filling holes and making tackles in the run game. Covering wide receivers. Covering tight ends. Covering wide receivers who are built like tight ends. Being able to track those players and then either bring the hammer to avoid being run over, or be nimble enough to break down and get a slippery wide receiver on the ground.

Check out photos of potential draft prospects. (Photos by AP)

There are a lot of teams looking for these kinds of players, but there never seem to be a lot of them available. And teams able to pair a couple of them in the same secondary – the Seattle Seahawks – can find themselves being showered with confetti after the last game of the season.

The group of safeties available in this draft is topped by Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Deone Bucannon, and Calvin Pryor (pictured above), with the specific order varying from team-to-team. Those three players generally are the ones tabbed as having a chance to get picked before the end of the second round.

After closing Alabama's 2012 season with a flourish, much was expected from the 6-foot-1, 208-pound Clinton-Dix in 2013, and he wasn't able to improve upon his statistics, anyway. After tying for the lead in the SEC with five interceptions in 2012 – including one in both the SEC Championship Game and then the BCS National Championship Game – Clinton-Dix's 2013 production dropped to two interceptions, with only four passes defensed. It's possible to find fault with his 4.58 speed, or the fact he's not a thumper, or whatever, but Clinton-Dix also is being seen as a potential starter as a rookie.

During his time at Washington State, Bucannon was a three-time team captain, and he left as the school's all-time leader in tackles with 384 and interceptions with 15. Bucannon cracked the lineup as a freshman in 2010, and his interception totals over his four seasons were: two, four, four, five. At 6-1, 211, with 4.49 speed, Bucannon has all of the necessary measurables, and if he can overcome what coverage limitations he has with aggressiveness and intensity he can become a productive player in the NFL.

After contributing five passes defensed and two interceptions as a freshman in 2011, Pryor, 5-11, 207, matched those totals as a full-time starter in 2012, and then he completed his career with five more passes defensed and three more interceptions in 2013. Pryor is a big hitter who plays with a swagger, and at one point he had a three-game streak going where he knocked an opposing player out of the game. He has been compared to Rodney Harrison.

Number drafted: 23
Picks by round: 3 in the first; 2 in the second; 4 in the third; 3 in the fourth; 4 in the fifth; 4 in the sixth; 3 in the seventh
Highest pick: Kenny Vaccaro, Texas, Round 1, 15th overall, by the New Orleans Saints
Biggest impact: Vaccaro started 14 games for the Saints in 2013 during which he had 79 tackles, one sack, eight passes defensed, one interception and one forced fumble.

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