In every NFL Draft over the last few years, there's been a single position that yields few top prospects: Safety. While there's usually a few quarterbacks, tackles and corner backs who garner all the attention, it's been quite a while since a draft with two safeties like Ha Ha Clinton Dix and Calvin Pryor were being mention as top 15 picks? I think the market at this position is currently being driven by the Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks' defensive success. Earl Thomas and Cam Chancellor have set the buyer's bar pretty high.
In 2013, New Orleans made Kenny Vaccaro their choice at #15 in the first round, followed by Eric Reid (#18, 49ers) and Matt Elam at #32 by Baltimore . 2012 saw Tampa Bay take Mark Barron at #7 overall, with Minnesota picking Harrison Smith at #29. In fact, since 2003 only 16 safeties have been taken in the first round of the NFL Draft... That's out of around 320 first round pick, with a couple choices being forfeited for various reasons. Even more interesting to me is the very low "bust" rate for safeties taken in the first round. Virtually all taken in the last 10 years are key, if not prominent members of their team's defenses.
I thought I'd take a look at a safety who could be on the outside of the first round, looking in the window in a Copperfield-esk way: Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois. The highest rated at his position - strong safety - he's getting less draft love than his free safety counterparts. Why? Well, pass coverage being held at a premium makes a free safety just a tad more valuable at the moment. Run defense just isn't as sexy, right? Well, having a Cam Chancellor around to rattle the bones of a tight end isn't a bad thing to have, am I right? Earl Thomas has better deep pass coverage skills than the "Rock-em, Sock-em" Chancellor.
For those who aren't quite sure of the difference between a "Strong" and "Free" safety, here's a quick Wiki-tutorial:
The strong safety tends to be somewhat larger and stronger than the free safety. However, the word strong is used because he is assigned to cover the "strong side" of the offense, the side on which the big, powerful tight end lines up on offensive plays. The strong safety tends to play closer to the line and assist in stopping the run. He may also be responsible for covering a player, such as a running back, fullback or H-back, who comes out of the backfield to receive a pass. A strong safety's duties are a hybrid of those belonging to a linebacker in a 46 or 3–4 defense and those of the other defensive backs, in that he both covers the pass and stops the run.
The free safety tends to watch the play unfold and follow the ball. The free safety is typically assigned to the quarterback in man coverage, but as the quarterback usually remains in the pocket, the free safety is "free" to double cover another player. On pass plays, the free safety is expected to assist the cornerback on his side and to close the distance to the receiver by the time the ball reaches him. Offenses tend to use the play-action pass specifically to make the free safety expect a run play, which would draw him closer to the line of scrimmage, and reduce his effectiveness as a pass defender.
Furthermore, quarterbacks often use a technique to "look off" a free safety, by purposely looking to the other side of the field during a pass play, with the intention to lure the free safety away from the intended target receiver on the other side of the field. This phenomenon often tests how effective a free safety's wit and athleticism are at defending long pass plays. If the offense puts a receiver in the slot, then the free safety may be called upon to cover that receiver. Free safeties occasionally blitz as well. When this happens, the pressure on the quarterback is often very severe since a blitz by a defensive back is not usually anticipated. Free safeties, because of their speed and deep coverage, are often prone to catching interceptions.
OK, you got it? A strong safety is strong, and a free safety has to have athleticism and... Wit? I get it - free safeties are fun at parties, while their stronger brethren run around hitting people. Long looked at the centerfield-ers and a last line of defense, both positions have evolved in the present day NFL. Tight ends are more athletic; with wide receiver type speed and pass catching abilities. They specialize in attacking the seam up the middle of the field, which helps keep safeties from cheating over to help corner backs. Speedy slot receivers buzz around them too. Great past strong safeties like Ronnie Lott would still flourish today, but would Minnesota's Paul Krause or the St. Louis Cardinals' Larry Wilson at free safety in this pass-happy, lightning-fast NFL?
In analyzing Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward, I get the sense he really doesn't fit either position mold entirely. Good, but not great speed. Nice ball instincts, but not great. Tackles well, and sells his body for big hits; yet he gets his bell rung quite a bit too. So where would he truly fit in at the NFL level, regardless of whether he's a strong or free safety? In this NFL Draft, the number of teams searching for help a safety is HUGE! Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Calvin Pryor are in a class by themselves as pure, talented free safeties. But there's going to be teams who look for players like Jimmie Ward that can be a hybrid of both positions. I just don't see Ward as anything other than a strong safety, so the chance he's incorrectly drafted is rather high.
The St. Louis Rams need help at free safety. They took USC's T.J. McDonald in the 3rd round of the 2013 draft to fill the need at strong safety, and outside of his unfortunate injury early in the season, he performed well. McDonald and Ward are very similar in how they play the game of football, though the NIU safety looks a bit more physical. I pulled some video footage of a strong safety who won't be in the conversation of top three round players, but could fill the position as a free safety. Have a look at it, and then consider whether Jimmie Ward could fill a true free safety's shoes? Dion Bailey plays the position as a deep pass route defender, with smooth transition across the field. I think he could shift into a good free safety. In Ward's case, he's more of a missile that goes one way, and one way alone.
This is just my opinion, but I think Jimmie Ward is being over-hyped in a safety poor market. He strikes me as a sure bet as a special teams player, and depth at safety. But if you look closely at how he tackles, you'll get the sneaking suspicion he won't be playing long; or at the very least is destined for a lot of time spent on Injured Reserve lists. His style of play at the college level is fine, but in the NFL I think he'll be chewed up. If he's ever isolated against a big receiver - like Brandon Marshal or Calvin Johnson - quarterbacks will begin to drool. I'm not saying he couldn't contribute in run support, which is obviously his strong point. It's the limited skill set I see in Ward that makes me think he'll be over-draft. He's a 3rd round player at best, and a Day 3 guy at worst, but I predict he'll be snagged by a team in the middle to bottom of the 2nd round. He'd be a good safety depth player, but since the Rams already have a few developmental safeties on the roster, it would be a waste for them to take him with so many other draft day needs.