2014 NFL draft position preview: Safeties

Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, DaVaris Daniels

Alabama’s Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix intercepts a pass intended for Notre Dame’s DaVaris Daniels in the 2013 BCS title game. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

In the lead up to the May 8-10 NFL draft, The Insider is looking at Washington’s positions of need, spotlighting players who might fit what Jay Gruden and staff are looking for. On Mondays and Thursdays, Mike Jones reports on players at the positions the Redskins need most, and provides top 10s. On Wednesdays and Fridays, Mark Bullock checks in with screengrab-based examinations of players who could be available early, mid-draft and late.

Mike has looked at tackles, cornerbacks and wide receivers so far. Here’s his take on safeties:

The Redskins hoped they had addressed this pressing need area in 2013, when they used a fourth-round pick on Fresno State’s Phillip Thomas and a sixth-round pick on Georgia’s Bacarri Rambo – both all-American safeties who ranked among the NCAA leaders in interceptions during their final two seasons in college.

But a full year has passed, and the safety position has just as much long-term uncertainty hovering over it as it did in 2013.

Thomas had a promising offseason and training camp as a rookie. But in the preseason opener, he suffered a Lisfranc injury that required surgery and robbed him of the entire regular season. Meanwhile, Rambo impressed coaches in the meeting rooms with his intelligence. But once he got out on the field, he struggled mightily with tackling.

Thomas has received full clearance, and this week hit the field with his teammates during the first minicamp of the year. But the Redskins still don’t know what they have in him. Whether or not Rambo learned how to tackle over the offseason also remains a mystery.

The uncertainty prompted Washington to re-sign Brandon Meriweather to a one-year deal, and it then signed free agent Ryan Clark to a one-year deal as well. In theory, the veterans will at least buy the Redskins another year while Thomas tries to make up for lost time and Rambo aims to sharpen his skills.

But people familiar with the team’s deliberations say that they will consider adding at least one more safety in next week’s draft. It all depends on which prospects remain on the board when Washington gets on the clock in the second and third rounds, with the 34th or 66th overall picks.

This year’s draft class features a good depth at the safety position, but analysts see few instant difference-makers. There are, however, a number of project players with promising skill sets and second- and third-round grades.

Because of this, finding “that guy” could present a bit of a challenge as the demand for safeties continues to rise across the league.

“With more and more tight ends emerging as kind of the athletic threats, and teams flexing them out and creating mismatches, and then with bigger wide receivers, and with teams just spreading the field and using more multiple receiver threats and throwing the ball more than ever, you add all those things up, and it creates a demand for defensive backs,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay predicts. “And, at safety, it creates a demand for a guy, who is athletic and fast enough to cover, but who is still big enough that he can go up and compete and contest throws against bigger receivers and taller tight ends. We have seen an increase. In 2011, there was one safety in the first two rounds. [In 2012], there was three, last year there was five. … It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out, but I think we’ll see more safeties go than probably in your average year in the first few rounds. It’s not a great class necessarily, but I do think there will be enough of a demand that you’re going to see some guys come off the board maybe even earlier than they would’ve before.”

Alabama’s Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix is regarded as the top safety in the draft, and Louisville’s Calvin Pryor also figures to go in the first round. From there, the draft class features a cluster of players with promise, but some questions as well. That’s why they project as second- to fourth-round picks. Northern Illinois’s Jimmie Ward ranks among the most versatile safeties out there. A former cornerback, he has the ability to play center field, or line up opposite slot receivers and cover them one-on-one. His main problem is a lack of size, as he’s only 5 feet 11 and 193 pounds.

“He’s got great ball skills: he had 11 interceptions in his career,” McShay explains. “And then also, he’s kind of a mad man. He’ll come up and hit you for a smaller safety.”

● Related: Bullock’s look at three safeties who might fit | All Insider posts on Redskins’ safeties

The opinions are mixed on Ward, however. Some projects list him as a late-first-rounder, which means, he’d be out of reach for Washington. But a number of them list him as a second-rounder.

Washington State’s Deone Bucannon is the prototypical strong safety with good size (6-1, 211) and big-hit capability. He recorded six interceptions in 2013, but critics still don’t rave about his downfield coverage skills. Most see him as a player with big upside, but in need of time to develop.

Florida State’s Terrence Brooks is another player that could go in the second or third round. He has good range and speed, and like Ward, converted from corner to safety. But also like Ward, he lacks size, at 5-11, 198.

Another name to keep an eye on: Brock Vereen out of Minnesota. He too has a cornerback background, and just might be the best cover safety in the draft. But average size (6-foot, 199) and spotty tackling skills have caused most forecasters to give him a third-round grade. McShay calls him “probably the most underrated player in the draft,” and believes he could develop into a quality player eventually.

Summing up the top end of the talent class, McShay adds, “There are a lot of intriguing middle-round defensive backs with some good versatility that could also help out on special teams, too.”

Jones’s top 10 safeties:

Rank Player (click names for background) School Height Weight Proj. Round
1 Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix Alabama 6-1 208 1
2 Calvin Pryor Louisville 5-11 207 1
3 Jimmie Ward Northern Illinois 5-11 193 1-2
4 Deone Bucannon Washington State 6-1 211 2-3
5 Terrence Brooks Florida State 5-11 198 3
6 Dion Bailey Southern California 6-0 201 3-4
7 Tre Boston North Carolina 6-0 204 4-5
8 Dezmen Southward Wisconsin 6-0 211 4-5
9 Craig Loston Louisiana State 6-1 211 4-5
10 Ahmad Dixon Baylor 6-0 212 5

Mike Jones attended the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine, and has been tracking draft prospect visits for The Post. Have a question about the draft or anything else concerning the Redskins? Send an e-mail to mike.jones@washpost.com with the subject line “Mailbag question,” and it might be answered on Tuesday in The Mailbag.

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