Football / Sports

NFL-ready safeties rare commodities in this draft

PHILADELPHIA -- Howie Roseman dropped an anvil on anyone who thought the Philadelphia Eagles would draft a safety in this week's draft.

"In terms of the safety class," the general manager said, "I don't think it's a good group overall. I think you're talking about a drop-off certainly when you get into Saturday."

It's possible Roseman was throwing some good-natured misdirection at reporters and the rest of the NFL when he spoke on Thursday. If one of the Eagles' top-rated safeties drops into their laps, they would be hard-pressed to pass.

But Roseman hasn't been the only talent evaluator to give this draft's safety group a low grade. Mike Mayock, NFL Network's draft guru, recently agreed that there weren't as many pro-ready safeties this year.

There are two -- Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville's Calvin Pryor -- whom many scouts project as first-day starters. Both are expected to be selected before the Eagles pick at No. 22 in Thursday night's first round, though.

"I think Clinton-Dix will definitely be off the board," Mayock said last week. "Pryor may or may not. I'm not sure Pryor fits what they do."

The 6-foot-1, 208-pound Clinton-Dix is more of a centerfield safety, while the 5-11, 207-pound Pryor made his bones in college playing closer to or in the box. He's a banger and the Eagles haven't had one of those lately, but defensive coordinator Bill Davis' scheme requires interchangeable safeties.

One NFL scout had Pryor rated ahead of Clinton-Dix as the only first-round safety. "He's just a guy to me," the scout said of Clinton-Dix. "A solid starter, but not a real ball hawk or physical presence."

"He's a Day 1 starter," another NFL scout said. "He won't become (the Seahawks') Earl Thomas, but he's savvy. Reminds me of (Giants safety) Antrelle Rolle."

The Eagles want their safeties to be whip-smart and great communicators in terms of setting the secondary, and Clinton-Dix has that skill set. If he dropped out of the top 20, the Eagles would likely have to consider him.

But do they see a need at safety as much as others? The Eagles have been adamant about sticking to their best-available-player philosophy, but they may have the position at the bottom of the various tiers on their draft board.

They signed free agent Malcolm Jenkins to be the back-end quarterback, re-signed Nate Allen, and have Earl Wolff returning from a knee injury after he started six games as a rookie.

Roseman indicated that Jenkins had one starting spot locked down, while Allen and Wolff would vie for the other spot.

"We're excited about their ability to take a jump," Roseman said of Allen and Wolff. "We talk about athletic tools and what's in their body, and Nate is 6-2, he's 215. He's finally in the same system for the second year, and you've got to be able to play fast.

"You've got to not be able to think. It's very hard on a safety going through all those system changes, especially a young player who didn't really grow up playing the position -- (Allen) was a quarterback in high school."

It seems like a lifetime since the Eagles drafted Allen in the second round of the 2010 draft, let alone when he was in high school. He improved as last season progressed, but at this point in his career he is what he is -- an average safety, at best.

Wolff has an upside and flashed at times last season, but he struggled adapting to NFL zone concepts. It's way too early to give up on the Eagles' 2013 fifth-round draft pick, though.

"Earl as a rookie, I thought did a really good job before he got hurt," Roseman said. "Again, you're talking about a guy who's 215 pounds, who runs a 4.4 (40-yard dash). Unbelievable work ethic, off the charts."

The Eagles may be more inclined to take a safety in the second round -- they select 54th overall -- or perhaps a college cornerback they project as a safety in the latter rounds.

Jimmie Ward of Northern Illinois has a lot of fans and, some say, could sneak into the first round. But he's a smallish 5-11, 193 pounds. Lamarcus Joyner is even smaller (5-8, 184) and played corner at Florida State, but he's versatile and plays bigger than his size.

"From my perspective, (the Eagles) are looking for a guy that can play strong or free safety, has to have both those skill sets," Mayock said. "Jimmie Ward could do that (and) Lamarcus Joyner from Florida State -- both of whom are going to go in the second round."

Mayock said that he thought Washington State's Deone Bucannon, who could go in the second or third rounds, was a one-dimensional box safety. Roseman's assessment of the class seemed to indicate the Eagles wouldn't take a late-round flyer.

But after Joyner, there are a handful of other safety-cornerback hybrids that could intrigue coach Chip Kelly and company. Wyoming's Marqueston Huff, Minnesota's Brock Vereen, N.C. State's Dontae Johnson, Florida's Jaylen Watkins, Virginia Tech's Antone Exum and Wisconsin's Dez Southward would appear to fit the criteria.

"Those guys would be appealing to the Eagles," Mayock said.

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