2014 NFL Combine Tale Of The Tape: Safeties

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Many mock drafts have the Cowboys picking a safety this year, but that doesn't mean the Cowboys will draft one. We look back at how safeties performed at the Combine to figure out whether there's anybody we really like in this year's draft class.

The Cowboys drafted safety Matt Johnson with their fourth-round pick in 2012, and added another safety in J.J. Wilcox with their third-round pick in 2013. Along the way, they re-signed 2010 UDFA Barry Church to a four-year contract extension, brought in Jakar Hamilton as a priority UDFA last year and added UDFA Jeff Heath to the roster as well. Some observers argue that this group of young safeties means the Cowboys will not draft a safety this year, instead preferring to develop their young talent. Other observers argue the exact opposite: this group of young safeties means the Cowboys absolutely must draft safety this year, as there is simply not enough talent in that group.

We'll have to wait until May to perhaps get some resolution to that particular dispute, but in the meantime we can comb through the safety prospects in this year's draft class and their Combine performance to figure out if there are any interesting prospects available for the Cowboys in this draft class.

Unlike the previous posts on Combine performance for DT and DE, we won't use Gil Brandt's target measurements for safeties. Instead, we'll use something called Peer Average. This is a concept that was developed by the guys at Ourlads.com, who did some research a while back on the physical attributes that result in NFL success. That study has since been updated by Tony Villiotti of the National Football Post. The table below lists the average Combine performance of safeties since 1999 who ended up starting at least three years in the NFL, and includes J.J. Wilcox' Combine results and Matt Johnson's pro day measurements for reference

Drill Significance Peer Average Matt Johnson J.J. Wilcox
40-yard dash Speed over distance 4.55 4.54 4.55
225-pound bench press reps Upper body strength 17 18 17
Vertical jump Explosiveness, leg strength 36 38.5 35
Broad jump (inches)
Explosiveness, leg strength 10'0" 10'1" 10'4"
20-yard shuttle Flexibility, burst, balance 4.15 4.07 4.09
3-cone drill Agility, change of direction 7.03 6.84 7.02

Note how Johnson "greened" all six drills, and Wilcox missed one by just an inch. If nothing else, this shows that the Cowboys appear to have a template as far as the athletic markers of their safeties go. Is there a prospect in this year's draft that fits that template?

Before we go there let's dig a little deeper into Ourlads' original research. The interesting thing about their research was that it established the concept of Exceeded Peer Average (EPA) and quantified which drills correlate with NFL success. Villiotti explains which two drills are most predictive of getting a starting safety spot on an NFL team:

  • 68% of 3-year starters ran the 3-cone drill in 7.03 seconds or faster compared to 52% of all Combine participants
  • 62% of 3-year starters ran the 40 in 4.55 seconds or faster versus 41% of all Combine participants.

If you want a starting caliber safety, your chances of finding one increase significantly if your guy can run a 3-cone drill below 7.03, and you'd want somebody who also ran below 4.55 in the 40. The predictive value of the other drills is about the same as that of a coin flip: they don't correlate with future NFL success for safeties.

In the following table, we'll look at how the 2013 class of safeties performed at the combine, and focus on the two drills that promise a high success rate and look at which prospects exceed peer average (EPA'd) in both drills. For completeness's sake, all drills are included in the table.

Safety 2014 Combine results (click column header to sort)

Rank Player POS Height Weight 40 yds (4.55)
3 Cone (7.03)
EPA'd Reps (17)
Vert (36)
Broad (10'0")
20 S (4.15)
Targets Met
19 Clinton-Dix, Ha'sean FS 6'1" 208 4.58 7.16 0 11 33 9'11" 4.16 0
28 Pryor, Calvin FS 5'11" 207 4.58 0 18 34.5 9'8" 1
62 Reynolds, Ed FS 6'1" 207 4.57 0 15 32.5 9'9" 0
62 Ward, Jimmie SS 5'11" 189 0 9 0
82 Bucannon, Deone SS 6'1" 211 4.49 6.96 2 19 36.5 10'5" 4.26 5
103 Brooks, Terrence FS 5'11" 198 4.42 7.35 1 10 38 9'11" 2
106 Loston, Craig SS 5'11" 217 4.65 7.15 0 12 32.5 9'11" 4.35 0
126 Bailey, Dion FS 6'0" 201 4.66 6.97 1 34 9'5" 4.15 2
130 Dixon, Ahmad SS 6'0" 212 4.64 7.55 0 14 32 9'3" 4.5 0
149 Ladler, Kenneth FS 6'0" 207 4.70 0 24 36.5 10'7" 3
164 Sunseri, Vinnie SS 5'11" 210 0 18 1
173 Lewis, Isaiah SS 5'10" 211 4.60 7.05 0 15 36.5 10'2" 4.47 2
180 Huff, Marqueston FS 5'11" 196 4.49 7.26 1 15 35.5 9'10" 4.19 1
249 Boston, Tre FS 6'0" 204 4.59 7.04 0 18 35 9'8" 4.31 1
284 Dowling, Jonathan FS 6'3" 190 4.52 7.04 1 8 33.5 9'10" 4.24 1
295 Berhe, Natneal SS 5'10" 193 4.71 7.08 0 15 35.5 0
307 Vereen, Brock SS 6'0" 199 4.47 6.9 2 25 34 9'9" 4.07 4
336 Sorensen, Daniel SS 6'1" 205 4.67 6.47 1 13 32 9'6" 3.95 1
341 Southward, Dezmen SS 6'0" 211 0 0
450 Alexander, Maurice SS 6'1" 220 4.54 7.05 1 38 10'3" 4.51 3

There are only two safeties in this year's class who EPA'd both the 40-yard dash and the 3-cone drill, Deone Buccanon out of Washington State and Brock Vereen out of Minnesota. Some of the better know names like Calvin Pryor or Jimmie Ward did not participate in one or both of the drills, so there's a chance they could still put up good numbers at their respective Pro Days. But overall, it's slim pickings for safeties this year.

Deone Bucannon is the only safety who was solid across the board. His 4.49 ranked third at the position, his 19 reps ranked third, his 36 ½ inch vertical was third, his 10-feet, 5-inch broad jump ranks second his 6.96-second three-cone drill ranked third and his 4.26-second 20-yard shuttle ranked eighth. But Bucannon projects as a strong safety, and they have enough strong safety types on the roster; if they do have a need at safety, it's probably at free safety.

Many of the players in the table above fell just short of the target measurables, but will find their way to safety-needy teams like Washington, Philadelphia or Denver anyway. But a few years down the road, when we review the 2013 safety class, odds are that it'll be some of the lesser-known players, like Richard Sherman was in 2011, who find success in the NFL. Count on their Combine numbers, their measurables, being at the top end of the scale.

I know there's no correlation to future success, but we'll look at it anyway: the column on the far right shows how many of the six drills each prospect EPA'd. Bucannon leads the field with five hits, followed by Brock Vereen with four, with Kenny Ladler and Mo Alexander out of Utah State topping out the top performers with three hits each. Going strictly by their performance in the Combine drills, this is a terrible safety class. Last year, five players (Eric Reid, D.J. Swearinger and Keelan Johnson) EPA'd in five drills, six other players EPA'd four drills. You do not want to be a team that has to draft a safety this year.

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For quite some time now, we've used a simple formula called the Production Ratio to assess the college production of defensive linemen. But while the Production Ratio looks like a good early indicator for the success of a college DE or DT at the NFL level, the ratio is primarily designed as a measure of disruptiveness for defensive linemen. As such, it is not particularly suited to identify safeties.

So instead of rehashing the Production Ratio, we'll try out a new metric, which we'll call "Productivity Score." The metric is actually pretty straightforward, as it looks at the available safety stats and weights them with a point system as follows:

Productivity Score points system
Stat Points
Tackle 1
Tackle For Loss 3
QB Hurries 3
Pass Breakup 3
Sack 6
Forced Fumble
6
Interception 9

There is a significant amount of double-counting within college stats. For example, a sack officially also counts as a tackle for loss as well as a regular tackle. At the same time, an interception does not count as a pass defensed. In the tables further down, I'll list the full college stats of each player, but I'll eliminate the double counting in the Productivity Score metric. I haven't included fumble recoveries here, as those are about as random a stat as there is. Also not included are defensive scores, as they are largely dependent on field position and have a large degree of randomness as well.

Finally, once we've tallied all the points for a given player, we'll divide the total by the number of college games played. To avoid having to adjust for the learning curve most college players go through over their career, we'll only look at the Productivity Score for the last two college seasons.

Before we look at this year's draft class, a couple of very general observations about the Productivity Score: This number is just one way of looking at the data we have for each prospect. It is not the be-all and end-all of statistical analysis. In fact, I'd be the first to argue that it isn't even a stat at all, but merely a stat comprehension tool. This metric groups a bunch of numbers that may or may not correlate with each other, and infers causality where there may not even be a correlation. But having said all that, we'll use it anyway, cognizant of its flaws, because the metric does one thing very well: it provides a different perspective by which to evaluate the draft prospects - and in my book, anything that gets us off the beaten path is a good thing.

Safety Production Score (click column header to sort)

Rank Player Proj. Rd Games Tkl TFL QBH PBU Sack FF INT Prod. Score
19 Clinton-Dix, Ha'sean 1 25.0 88 4.0 0.0 8.0 0.0 1.0 6.0 7.2
28 Pryor, Calvin 1-2 25.0 174 8.0 4.0 9.0 1.0 6.0 5.0 12.5
62 Ward, Jimmie 2 27.0 199 3.5 1.0 21.0 1.0 2.0 10.0 14.0
62 Reynolds, Ed 2 28.0 133 1.0 1.0 9.0 0.0 0.0 7.0 8.1
82 Bucannon, Deone 2-3 25.0 220 7.0 0.0 5.0 1.0 4.0 10.0 14.6
103 Brooks, Terrence 3-4 27.0 107 9.0 0.0 9.0 1.0 3.0 4.0 7.7
106 Loston, Craig 3-4 22.0 112 7.0 0.0 4.0 1.0 0.0 6.0 8.9
126 Bailey, Dion 4 27.0 142 14.5 0.0 11.0 1.5 2.0 9.0 11.2
130 Dixon, Ahmad 4 26.0 183 7.5 2.0 9.0 1.0 1.0 3.0 10.3
149 Ladler, Kenneth 4-5 25.0 181 4.5 0.0 5.0 1.0 6.0 7.0 12.3
164 Sunseri, Vinnie 5 21.0 74 7.0 3.0 7.0 1.5 0.0 4.0 7.5
173 Lewis, Isaiah 5-6 26.0 138 2.5 2.0 14.0 0.0 0.0 4.0 8.7
180 Huff, Marqueston 5-6 24.0 185 4.5 0.0 13.0 0.0 3.0 2.0 11.2
249 Boston, Tre 7 25.0 180 5.5 0.0 14.0 0.0 0.0 9.0 12.6
284 Dowling, Jonathan 7-FA 24.0 135 3.5 1.0 14.0 0.0 8.0 9.0 13.2
295 Berhe, Natneal 7-FA 26.0 193 7.5 0.0 11.0 0.0 0.0 2.0 10.0
307 Vereen, Brock 7-FA 26.0 123 4.0 0.0 15.0 0.5 1.0 3.0 8.1
336 Sorensen, Daniel 7-FA 26.0 133 6.0 0.0 16.0 0.0 3.0 5.0 9.8
341 Southward, Dezmen 7-FA 27.0 109 11.5 1.0 9.0 0.0 2.0 2.0 7.1
450 Alexander, Maurice - - 25.0 124 16.0 3.0 6.0 6.5 1.0 1.0 8.7

The data is taken from cfbstats.com, the rank and projected rounds are taken from the CBSSports big board.

To get a better feel for the numbers generated here, let's take a look at the top five safeties drafted last year and their college productivity scores: Kenny Vacarro (11.7), Eric Reid (9.7), Matt Elam (12.3), Jonathan Cyprien (11.4) and D.J. Swearinger (10.6) suggest a good value to look for in this metric would probably be something beyond 11 points.

As you review the numbers above you'll notice that there'll be a safety in almost every round with a track record of production in college. Some of them make their big plays more against the run, others make them more against the pass. Very few of them stood out with their measurements in the Combine drills, though it shouldn't be much of a surprise to see Deonne Bucannon top both the list for the measurables and for college productivity.

Based on these lists, there's really not much to get excited about. Clinton-Dix missed every single athletic marker at the Combine and has a college production that suggests his draft ranking may have more to do with his college pedigree than his actual production. Calvin Pryor didn't impress with his athletic markers either, but he at least boasts some solid college production.

In the middle rounds, Deone Bucannon and Kenny Ladler may be interesting options for the Cowboys, if the draft falls right. At the same time, the Cowboys may decide they've already got equivalent players on their roster and choose not to go after a safety at all in this draft.

When you look at these numbers, also keep in mind that a safety's production is highly dependent and the scheme run, the snaps played and many more factors that are not reflected in these numbers. Also, the value of a prospect doesn't lie in how fast he can run a 40-yard dash, or how much value on the draft chart you're giving up by taking him where you're taking him; the value of a prospect lies in the production he'll deliver on the field for you.

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