Richner: 2014 Top Safeties

Last Updated: 1/18/2015 8:58 PM ET
The recent play by the defensive secondary of the Seattle Seahawks, led by their All-Pro safety tandem of Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, has shown the rest of the NFL just how impactful having two elite playmakers lined up in the safety positions can be. With the explosion of the passing game in the last few years, most teams want safeties who have the speed and quickness to cover ground, similar to a center fielder in baseball. A talented safety is a player who can read and respond accordingly, a cerebral player who has put in the time and effort in the film room to be successful on Sundays. In addition to being the last line of defense, a safety should have the ability to come into the box and be a factor in run support. An elite safety can quickly elevate a good defense into a great one.

This year's crop of safeties might not have the next elite playmaker like an Earl Thomas or an Eric Berry, but it is a solid group with quality depth at both the free and strong safety position.

One statistic that I incorporate in my evaluations is Impact Points. This is a formula I created that calculates a safety's point value based on total tackles, tackles-for-loss, sacks, forced fumbles, blocked kicks and their team's overall pass defense.

1) Jimmie Ward (Northern Illinois): Ward is the quintessential ball-hawking safety that most NFL teams are looking for. He has the speed and quickness to play the center field position and take away the deep ball. He shows good hands and doesn't drop many of the balls that he is able to get his hands on. Before becoming one of the top safeties in the country he was a special teams standout. In his freshman season he blocked three punts.

A top notch athlete, he plays a physical, hard-nose style of football and won't shy away from contact. He is excellent in run support, able to shoot the gap when needed, takes good angles to the ball carrier and is an excellent tackler.

While he didn't play against top quality competition, he would occasionally stare down quarterbacks instead of tracking his man downfield. An aggressive player, he had a couple of personal foul penalties against him last season that could have been avoided if he played the ball instead of his man.

A seasoned veteran with 54 career games played, Ward accumulated 252.5 tackles, six TFL, two sacks, 25 PB, four FF and 11 interceptions.

For his career he had 93 career impact plays, an average of 1.72 impact plays a game, second highest amongst all draft eligible safeties. While he isn't at the level of an Earl Thomas or Eric Berry, Ward is a solid, fundamentally sound player who can quickly turn a game around in just one play, similar to current Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith.

2) Deone Bucannon (Washington State): A solidly built playmaker in the back end, this former Washington State Cougar is a hard-hitting safety with advanced cover skills and the ability to lead a defensive unit in the NFL. A former first-team All-American, Bucannon has the skill set to play down in the box or in deep center field. An acknowledged hard hitter, he had no known injuries in college. As a four-year starter, he led a woeful Washington State defense that that ranked 114 in the country in yards per game allowed at 269.6 YPG last year.

Most likely a strong safety in the NFL, he excels in run support. He isn't afraid to take on blockers, is quick to shed any obstacle in front of him and is not afraid to lower his shoulder and separate the ball from the ball carrier.

At 6'1” and 211 pounds, he has the size and speed to match up with most tight ends in the NFL. He showed dramatic improvement in his coverage skills last season, recording six interceptions in 2013.

In 49 career games, he had 325 tackles, 13 TFL, one sack, 14 PB, six FF, 15 INT and one blocked kick. His 325 career tackles is the highest total amongst all draft-eligible safeties. He had the highest career total of impact plays with 94, averaging 1.92 impact plays a game, third highest amongst all draft-eligible safeties.

3) Calvin Pryor (Louisville): Although he is a bit tad smaller than the “ideal” safety at only 5'11”, Pryor has current Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas to thank for proving that size doesn't always matter at the safety position. One of the stronger safeties in this year's draft class, Pryor came in second with 24 reps on the bench press at the NFL Combine. A solid tackler, he only missed three tackles last season. While he plays like a strong safety, long-term he is better suited for the free safety position.

Pryor has excellent ability to diagnose plays and always seems to be around the football regardless of the play. With his physical style, he has the tremendous ability to poke the ball away just as it reaches the receiver's hands. He is best when he keeps plays in front of him, as he will focus on the quarterback's eyes and location and is quick to jump a route. In a number of incidents last season he almost baited a quarterback into making a throw; then he quickly jumped on and was able to make a defensive stop.

A three-year starter, he had 175.5 tackles, 11 TFL, two sacks, 14 PB, eight FF and seven interceptions in 38 career games. Pryor's eight forced fumbles is the highest amongst this year's draft-eligible safeties.

For his career he had 72 career impact plays, an average of 1.89 impact plays per game. A bit of a home run hitter from the safety position, he is always looking to make the big play, when in some cases the big play isn't always the right play. If he can slow down and play within a system and is not relied upon to carry a defense, then he could develop into a quality starting safety in the NFL.

4) Ed Reynolds (Stanford): A future free safety, this redshirt junior decided to make the early jump to the NFL. One of the vocal leaders of a senior-laden defensive unit, Reynolds has worked himself back from a devastating ACL injury in 2011. At 6'1” and 207 pounds, he possesses the long arms and build that most teams are coveting in a starting free safety.

Showcasing a high football IQ and almost unreasonably quick to diagnose plays, he seems to be around the football on every snap. A leader on defense, he is moving his teammates around, quickly making pre-snap adjustments and communicating signals to all members of his unit.

A definite force as a run defender, Reynolds is a quality open-field tackler, having only three missed tackles last season. His hardnosed style of play got him kicked out of a game in 2013 for targeting. In addition to his recklessness on the field, he did play behind a defensive unit that will send at least five other players to the NFL in this year's draft.

As a first-team all-conference player last season, opponents knew to steer clear of his direction. While he might need a season to develop and learn a system, he should contribute right away as a special teams standout.

In just 28 career games he had 108.5 tackles, one TFL, one sack, seven INT and three interception returns for touchdowns. He had a total of 40 career impact plays, an average of 1.43 impact plays per game.

Reynolds compares both statistically and scouting-wise to current New England Patriot Devin McCourty.

5) Kenny Ladler (Vanderbilt): A skilled athlete, Ladler is the type of safety that doesn't excel in one area, but he is a consistent, quality, productive player in all areas of his game. He understands his position, takes his role seriously and is diligent not to let anyone get behind him, as he knows he is the last line on defense. While he doesn't have the speed to run sideline to sideline, he uses his technique and film study to put him in the right position pre-snap to make a play if needed.

One of the stronger and more physical safeties in this year's class, he had five forced fumbles last season. Vanderbilt finished the season ranked 23 in the country in pass defense, and Ladler is a big reason why Vanderbilt has been one of the top-ranked pass defenses over the past three seasons.

A contributor on the punt and punt returns units, he will be capable of stepping in and being a quality member of an NFL special teams unit from day one.

His lack of overall speed and quickness are his biggest red flags. He can be slow to get in and out of his breaks. While a decent tackler, he will dive at a player's legs versus wrapping up the ball carrier; he had seven missed tackles last season.

As a consistent starter throughout most of his career, he has experience matching up against some of the best players in college football. In 50 career games he had 246 tackles, 11 TFL, one sack, 10 PB, seven FF and nine interceptions. He had a career total of 70 impact plays, an average of 1.40 impact plays per game.

Both statistically and in terms of scouting, he compares favorably to former Minnesota Vikings safety Cedric Griffin.

Best of the Rest

6) Tre Boston (North Carolina): Career impact plays: 79: Impact plays per game average: 1.65

7) Ty Zimmerman (Kansas State): Career impact plays: 67: Impact plays per game average: 1.40

8) Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Alabama): Career impact plays: 35: Impact plays per game average: 1.17

9) Jemea Thomas (Georgia Tech): Career impact plays: 75.5: Impact plays per game average: 1.42

10) Dion Bailey (USC): Career impact plays: 75: Impact plays per game average: 1.97