2014 Vikings draft preview: Safeties

Former Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has good size and excellent coverage skills and is considered a lock to be drafted in the first round.

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FOX Sports North’s Brian Hall provides complete coverage of the Vikings and the 2014 NFL Draft in his 14-part preview. Today is the 11th day of his Vikings draft previews. You can find the entire series here.

TODAY’S POSITION: SAFETIES

Importance (1-to-10 scale): 6

On the roster

Where would Minnesota be at safety without Harrison Smith? Well, we partially found out last year when Smith missed eight games with a toe injury and it wasn’t pretty. Without the hard-hitting, play-making Smith, the Vikings’ back end struggled again. Smith has the chance to develop into one of the best safeties in the league. Minnesota seemed to understand the need and potential when it made the move in 2012 to jump back in the first round and select Smith out of Notre Dame. He has rewarded the Vikings with five interceptions, two returned for touchdowns, 14 pass deflections and 162 tackles in 24 NFL games.

Next to Smith for much of the past two seasons has been Jamarca Sanford, who returns in 2014. Sanford is a big hitter and specializes in run support, but he’s also come up with big plays, tallying two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery last season. Sanford struggles in coverage without the range to cover the deep part of the field and has had several interceptions slip through his hands the last few seasons.

Minnesota added Kurt Coleman in free agency. Coleman, a former starter for Philadelphia, has a chance to contribute on special teams and possibly earn a starting spot if he beats out Sanford and a host of others. The Vikings will likely open up the starting spot next to Smith for a full-blown competition between Mistral Raymond, Andrew Sendejo and Robert Blanton.

Complete Vikings 2014 draft coverage

Curiously, Blanton — who played with Smith at Notre Dame — was running with the first-team defense in the portion of minicamp open to reporters last week. Raymond has what is likely his last chance with Minnesota, and Andrew Sendejo, a quality special teams player who started 10 games at safety last year, was given a contract extension midway through last season. Brandan Bishop, undrafted out of North Carolina State, is also on the roster.

Last five safeties drafted

Philosophy at the position

Smith gives Minnesota’s secondary a key safety to build on. How new coach Mike Zimmer sees the rest of the safeties will be interesting. There are a lot of bodies, but mostly players who have fit more as backups and good special teams players in their career. Does Sanford return with the edge as the starter with a new coaching staff? Is Robert Blanton ready to take the next step in his development in his third NFL season?

Sanford and Sendejo would still offer value to the Vikings if they’re not starting, as both are quality special teamers and have experience as starters at safety. Minnesota could very well look to the draft to add a potential starter next to Smith. Seattle showed how using two speedy, unique safeties can wreak havoc on offenses, and the blueprint is usually to copy the Super Bowl champions. Smith is one half of a strong safety duo. Zimmer and the Vikings could look to replicate the Seahawks’ success by pairing another elite talent next to Smith.

Day 1 name to remember (Round 1)

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, junior, Alabama (6-foot-1, 208 pounds): Clinton-Dix is just the type of player who could help a team try to follow the same design at safety as Seattle. He has good size and is a willing hitter, but his coverage range and playmaking ability really stand out. He is in a competition with Louisville’s Calvin Pryor to be the first safety selected in the draft, and three could possibly go in the first round. Pryor is known more for his big hitting. Clinton-Dix is the rangy safety more in the mold of the Seahawks’ Earl Thomas — though not nearly as fast or with as much range as Thomas.

Clinton-Dix received good coaching while playing for Nick Saban at Alabama and has good instincts and recognition, diagnosing plays quickly and reacting. He had seven interceptions the past two seasons and eight pass breakups. He’s fast enough to match up in coverage, but doesn’t have elite speed. He’s also a good tackler, but could get stronger.

Said Clinton-Dix: "I’m one of the best safeties in the draft because I played in Saban’s system. I feel like I’m prepared for the next level. I’m a fast learner. I play fast. I study a lot of film. I study the opponent a lot, and that’s about it. I fly around."

Day 2 name to remember (Rounds 2-3)

Deone Bucannon, senior, Washington State (6-1, 211): More in the true mold of a strong safety, where Clinton-Dix fits more as a free safety. A Clinton-Dix and Smith pairing would likely mean a move for Smith. The addition of Bucannon could leave Smith at his usual free safety spot, and Bucannon could fill more of the Kam Chancellor role in Seattle.

Bucannon’s measurables jump off the chart. He has good size and he wowed at the NFL Scouting Combine with his testing. He had some of the best numbers among all safeties in the 40-yard dash (4.49 seconds), bench press (19 repetitions), vertical leap (36.5 inches), broad jump (125 inches) and 3-cone drill (6.96 seconds). Each effort was in the top three among safeties in each drill.

Related

Bucannon finished with the fourth-most tackles in school history with 384 tackles. He’s also a big hitter to go with his sure tackling. A four-year starter who likes contact, he came up strong in run support and made 222 tackles against the run and 89 tackles in the red zone and 30 tackles in goal-line stands. He added 15 career interceptions, 14 pass breakups, three forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries. While he’s a punishing tackler, Bucannon does have limitations in the passing game and he must learn to not gamble as much in run support and become better at reading the pass.

Day 3 name to remember (Rounds 4-7)

Brock Vereen, senior, Minnesota (6-0, 199): Vereen could be one of the late climbers who surprises on draft day. He was seen as a project for NFL teams and likely ticketed to priority free-agent status when the draft evaluation period began after the season. Vereen now has a really good shot at being drafted after impressing teams in the offseason.

Vereen wanted to make his mark at the combine in February and did just that, showing off the athleticism that he used in playing cornerback and safety at Minnesota. Vereen can be counted on to contribute on special teams in the NFL from Day 1 and has the athletic ability to develop into a starting safety.

The brother of New England Patriots running back Shane Vereen, Brock had the second-fastest time among safeties in the 40-yard dash at the combine, finishing in 4.47 seconds. He led all defensive backs with 25 repetitions in the bench press. He was second among all safeties in the 3-cone drill and the 20-yard shuttle.

Vereen is smart and well-spoken with a good work ethic and he has good awareness and recognition in the passing game. He’s strong but might struggle to match up with NFL tight ends as a safety. His game translates more to safety than cornerback in the NFL, though he has experience at both spots.

Said Vereen: "I’ve been very fortunate as far as always (having) an older brother at the level I was trying to get to. When I was in high school, he was already in college. And now the situation here (at the combine), just to have that insight and to understand the ins and outs of certain things that some people might not find out until they’re actually in the NFL, that’s definitely an advantage I think."

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