For all the talk about rule changes put into place in recent years to protect offensive players and declaw NFL defenders, the college ranks have not stopped producing old-school thumpers at safety.
Take Louisville’s Calvin Pryor, for instance. Draft analysts are divided, somewhat, about whether the 5-foot-11, 207-pounder has enough range to regularly play free safety in the NFL. In fact, that’s why some — including NFL.com’s Mike Mayock and ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. — have Alabama’s Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix rated ahead of him as the top safety in the draft.
But one thing everyone agrees upon is this: You won’t find another enforcer in this draft like Pryor, who knocked out an opponent in three straight games last season.
“I had quite a few hits,” Pryor said at the combine.
No wonder Pryor, when asked who he likes in the NFL, named Seattle’s big-hitting strong safety Kam Chancellor, who helped key the Seahawks’ Super Bowl run with his physical play.
“Just seeing the things that he does on the field and how he can effect the game so much,” Pryor said.
NFL.com draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah is fan of the way Pryor, who had 75 tackles, five pass breakups and three interceptions as a junior in 2013, affected games in a similar way last season.
“Ha Ha Clinton-Dix may be a little more range over the top, but I just love Pryor,” Jeremiah said. “I love the physical way he plays the game, and I thought he was plenty capable of making plays at the high safety, as well. He’s got seven career interceptions, gets his hands on footballs, but I just like his ability to come down, force the run. He’s like playing with an extra linebacker.”
Jeremiah said physical players like Pryor provide an element to a defense that’s tough to find.
“I remember working with Rex Ryan in Baltimore. He used to always say that the one thing that changes a complexion more than anything else in a game was not a turnover, it was a big hit,” Jeremiah said. “A big hit got your teammates going, got the crowd into the game, and there’s value in that, and that’s what Pryor gives you.”
For a team like the Chiefs, who were tortured with a seemingly-unending number of crossing and rub routes last season, a box enforcer like Pryor would be welcome, though he insists he’s more than just a hitter.
“My first two years at Louisville, I played mostly in the middle of the field,” Pryor said. “But after becoming a playmaker, causing fumbles, getting interceptions, coaches started moving me around having the ability to play all over the place.”
Unfortunately for the Chiefs, who pick 23rd in the first round, there’s a number of teams who pick ahead of them who could also use a guy like Pryor, including Detroit (No. 10), St. Louis (No. 13), Chicago (No. 14), Dallas (No. 16) and Green Bay (No. 21).
“It’s a great need for (safeties),” Pryor said. “With the NFL being a passing league now, you need more DBs out there that can make plays on the ball.”
And, as Chancellor showed this season, there’s still a need for safeties who can punish backs and receivers, too, despite the recent and ever-looming threats of heavy fines for head-to-head hits.
“I believe you can (be a big hitter) if you just do the right things and hit with your shoulder pads and not your helmet,” Pryor said. “I’m just going to be myself and stay aggressive and play like my hair is on fire.”Top 10 prospects for the Chiefs
1. Calvin Pryor, 5-11, 207, Louisville
Three-year starter who declared for the draft after a junior season in which he had 75 tackles, five pass breakups and three interceptions in 2013. Is 21 years old. 31 3/8-inch arms. 9 1/8-inch hands. 4.58 40-yard dash. 18 bench reps. 35 1/2-inch vertical. 116-inch broad. 6.98 3-cone drill. 4.30 20-yard shuttle.
Has good bulk. Is an intimidator, a violent hitter who knocked out a handful of opponents last season. Overruns plays too much. Good athlete with enough range to play center field but is probably better served in the box, where he can be around the action. Flashes OK-to-good ball skills. Good instincts. Hasn't played much man coverage. Plays hard.
2. Deone Bucannon, 6-1, 211, Washington State
Four-year starter who had 114 tackles, one pass breakup and six interceptions in 2013. Is 21 years old. 32 3/8-inch arms. 9 3/4-inch hands. 4.49 40-yard dash. 19 bench reps. 36 1/2-inch vertical. 125-inch broad. 6.96 3-cone drill. 4.26 20-yard shuttle.
Workout warrior — combine performance backed up his excellent on-field production. Led Pac-12 in tackles (114) and also tied for the lead in interceptions (six) in 2013. Good ball skills. Big hitter who occasionally misses tackles. Is terribly fluid or field-fast in man coverage zone but range is OK. Awareness is only OK. Freelances too much.
3. Jimmie Ward, 5-11, 193, Northern Illinois
Three-year starter who had 95 tackles, 10 pass breakups and seven interceptions in 2013. Is 22 years old. 31-inch arms. 9 3/8-inch hands. 4.47 40-yard dash. Nine bench reps. 38-inch vertical. 125-inch broad. 6.89 3-cone drill. 4.24 20-yard shuttle.
Lacks size. Very productive playmaker — has 11 career interceptions and is solid in man and zone coverage. Willing and reliable hitter. Long-term durability is a concern due to his size and style of play, but has proven to be durable. Lacks upper-body strength. Some question his maturity.
4. Antone Exum, 6-0, 213, Virginia Tech
Four-year starter who had four tackles, one pass breakup and no interceptions in 2013. Is 23 years old. 31 5/8-inch arms. 9 5/8-inch hands. 4.59 40-yard dash. 17 bench reps. 35-inch vertical. 117-inch broad. 7.05 3-cone drill. 4.13 20-yard shuttle.
Big, muscular frame. Has plenty of experience at cornerback, offers some versatility. Good ball skills and recovery skills. Is physical in man coverage. Range is good at safety. Instincts and awareness at safety still developing. Willing and reliable hitter. Senior year was basically wiped up by knee and ankle injuries. Was better as a junior, when he had 48 tackles, 16 pass breakups and five interceptions at cornerback.
5. Craig Loston, 5-11, 217, LSU
Three-year starter who had 57 tackles, three pass breakups and three interceptions in 2013. Is 24 years old. 30 3/4-inch arms. 9 3/4-inch hands. 4.65 40-yard dash. 12 bench reps. 32 1/2-inch vertical. 119-inch broad. 7.15 3-cone drill. 4.35 20-yard shuttle.
Well-built for the position. Good awareness, reliable and willing tackler, though he does overrun plays. OK in man coverage, OK in zone. Can make pre-snap adjustments and is smart. Has been nicked up his entire career. Old for a rookie (24).
6. Dion Bailey, 6-0, 201, USC
Three-year starter who had 61 tackles, six pass breakups and five interceptions in 2013. Is 22 years old. 32-inch arms. 9 1/2-inch hands. 4.66 40-yard dash. 14 bench reps. 34-inch vertical. 113-inch broad 6.97 3-cone. 4.15 20-yard shuttle.
Has consistently flashed good ball skills. Is at home in the box — even started 14 games at linebacker in 2011 and 2012 and was incredibly productive. Aggressive and solid against the run. Showed his versatility by playing nickel in 2013 and was again effective. Good instincts vs. the run, OK against the pass. Didn’t play much deep safety. Could contribute on passing downs.
7. Isaiah Lewis, 5-10, 201, Michigan State
Three-year starter who had 58 tackles, eight pass breakups and two interceptions in 2013. Is 22 years old. 31 1/2-inch arms. 9 5/8-inch hands. 4.60 40-yard dash. 15 bench reps. 36 1/2-inch vertical. 112-inch broad. 7.05 3-cone drill. 4.47 20-yard shuttle.
Part of MSU’s vaunted “no fly zone” secondary along with cornerback Darqueze Dennard. Flies up to stop the run, really throws his body around. Reliable tackler who shows a great closing burst. Plays hard. Is not a great athlete and isn’t a centerfield candidate but has a strong vertical and some ball skills. Does not look comfotable in man coverage. Made secondary calls. OK instincts.
8. Nat Berhe, 5-10, 193, San Diego State
Three-year starter who had 94 tackles, five pass breakups and two interceptions in 2013. Is 22 years old. 30 5/8-inch arms. 8 1/2-inch hands. 4.71 40-yard dash. 15 bench reps. 35 1/2-inch vertical. 117-inch broad. 7.08 3-cone drill. 4.22 20-yard shuttle.
Very small frame but has been durable. Flies to the ball, shows good instincts against the run and pass. Timed speed isn’t good but has a closing burst when the ball is in the air. Reliable tackler. Makes plays on the ball. Will miss some tackles. Angles to the ball aren’t great. Very good intangibles, loves the game.
9. Mo Alexander, 6-1, 220, Utah State
Three-year starter who had 80 tackles, six pass breakups and one interception in 2013. 32 5/8-inch arms. 8 7/8-inch hands. 4.54 40-yard dash. Did not bench due to wrist surgery. 38-inch vertical. 123-inch broad. 7.05 3-cone drill. 4.51 20-yard shuttle.
Looks the part. Former linebacker has a knack for sifting through trash near the line of scrimmage. Can deliver the big hit. Shows a knack for blitzing — tries little pass-rush move to get home. Is often around the ball. Packs a punch on contact. Does not look natural in man coverage. Tested well in 40 but doesn’t have a closing burst. Must improve instincts and football knowledge.
10. Vinnie Sunseri, 5-11, 210, Alabama
Two-year starter who had 20 tackles, four pass breakups and two interceptions before he tore his ACL in October 2013. Is 20 years old. 30-inch arms. 10-inch hands. 4.56 40-yard dash. 18 bench reps. Still recovering from knee injury.
Consensus: Good frame. Very smart with great instincts and awareness. Good timed speed but only average range. Lacks closing burst but takes good angles. Has a knack for return interceptions for touchdowns (had two in 2013). Has special teams ability.