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Having already previously looked at the 2014 NFL Draft options for the Arizona Cardinals at both offensive line and outside linebacker, it’s time we should assess another big-time position of ‘need’, or perceived ‘need’ on the Cardinals roster – the safety position.
During the 2012 season, the Cardinals were blessed with two very good safeties that season – Kerry Rhodes and Adrian Wilson, arguably the two most influential cogs in a secondary which ranked 2nd in Football Outsiders’ 2012 team defense rankings against the pass. Rhodes and Wilson combined for five (of a league second-most of 22) interceptions that season, and became veteran leaders for a young group of defensive backs who honed their skills by watching these two play. Providing a great combo of field range, ability to cover, blitzing and playing the run, Rhodes and Wilson were the glue that held the team together at times.
Wilson throughout the year was slowly being phased out of the starting line-up in favour of Rashad Johnson, who went on to sign a long-term deal and the eventual successor to Wilson. Wilson’s play was deteriorating as the year went on, and it became evident by seasons end that he would not be on the team for the 2013 season. Rhodes on the other hand was playing at a high-level, but due the tightening salary cap for the team, Rhodes was asked to restructure his deal to a more cap-friendly number, which he declined, and was subsequently released. To this day, it’s a mystery to many why Kerry Rhodes has not been signed by another team.
So the Cardinals, having lost both starting safeties, as well as corners Greg Toler and William Gay, were left with just one player from the top five defensive backs on the roster the season before – Patrick Peterson. A rebuild was needed. 2012 third round pick Jamell Fleming never made an impact, and was cut early in the season. Newly appointed General Manager Steve Keim recruited former Jets safety Yeremiah Bell, who started at SS the majority of the season, and drafted versatile defensive back Tyrann Mathieu in the third round of the draft to add some ball-hawking ability to the group. The team also added UDFA Tony Jefferson to the mix, who saw a lot of the field as the year progressed.
They never really figured out their best tandem on the back-end, constantly chopping and changing throughout. Tyrann Mathieu is tipped to make the move to slot corner where he is suited, and likely seeing less time at safety. Bell is a UFA and is not expected to be brought back, leaving only Johnson and Jefferson as the safeties on the roster. The 2014 NFL Draft does not present itself with many top-tier safety prospects, but there are a select few the team could consider drafting in the early rounds.
Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix, Alabama
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The consensus top safety in this draft class, is Alabama’s Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix. Clinton-Dix is seen more as a free safety, which is not really the safety position the Cardinals need to attack, with Johnson (and perhaps Mathieu) taking up that role, but in the modern-day NFL, you need all your safeties to have the range to get around the field and make plays.
The ‘Bama prospect has a rare combination of size and athleticism, and has fluidity is his movement, able to rotate his hips well and can accelerate towards the ball. He does a great job of tracking the quarterback’s movements and breaking on the ball. He has great ball skills and shows a natural ability to run with the ball once in possession. He anticipates the run well and is an active player in attacking the line of scrimmage – much like Yeremiah Bell did this past season. The one drawback with Clinton-Dix is his tackling, often going for the hit rather than bringing an opponent down. There are questions whether he can play strong safety and cover effectively, especially against tight ends, where the Cards had a major issue this past season.
Calvin Pryor, Louisville
A player that has been rising rapidly up NFL draft boards in recent weeks is Louisville’s Calvin Pryor, who I actually drafted for the Cardinals in the recent Fansided mock draft. Pryor has been likened to Buccaneers safety Dashon Goldson in terms of his hitting, which may be the hardest in the entire draft class. Again, much like with Clinton-Dix, Pryor is seen more as an NFL free safety, and is yet to prove himself as an efficient man coverage player, however, this miraculous interception of UCF’s Blake Bortles gives us a glimpse of what he is capable of.
Bleacher Report‘s lead NFL Draft writer Matt Miller feels like Pryor could make an impact as a Day 1 starter. Pryor’s energy invigorates the defense, with the heart and determination to make an impact on every play. He’s a very good tackler with fantastic form and does not make mistakes, and he can come up in the box and make an impact as a run stuffer. With limited experience as a coverage player, it’s unknown whether he can make the leap in this facet, but his physique and natural ball skills indicates he can develop well.
Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State
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Another player who projects to be a Top 50 pick in the draft is Florida State’s Lamarcus Joyner. Much like Tyrann Mathieu, Joyner has played both cornerback and safety, and sometimes a hybrid of the two, giving him great scheme versatility which always goes down a plus with coaches. Whether the team is looking for another player in the mould of Mathieu is one thing, but the team are certainly looking for players with the talent level of a player like Joyner for sure.
Joyner is not the biggest guy in the room, but he makes up for his diminutive size with a fantastic motor and will throw himself about to make an impact. He has brilliant closing speed and acceleration, quickness and agility to roam the field, and is a solid contributor in blitz packages. Because he plays at such a high-octane speed, his tackling suffers for it in the open field, but he does a brilliant job of diagnosing plays in the backfield and playing the run, however, his size does raise issues as whether he can shed blocks and get to the ball carrier.
That’s just a quick look at what the organization could do come draft day, but if you have anything you would like to add, don’t be afraid to voice your opinion in the comments section, or you could always hit me up on twitter, @moliverNFL.