In his prime, Ed Reed was the ultimate difference-maker at safety.
He was instinctive. He was versatile. Most of all, he was a consistent turnover producer, a player with a knack for knowing where the quarterback planned to go with the ball and then making a play once he got there.
The Baltimore Ravens want that type of player again.
Is there a Reed or Earl Thomas in this year’s draft? Probably not. But the Ravens hope to find an athletic, playmaking safety to pair with last year’s first-round pick Matt Elam, and the team feels there are players in the draft class that fit what they are looking for.
“I’d say as a whole, the class is pretty solid,” director of college scouting Joe Hortiz said. “You’ll get some guys at the end of the first and second round – and then there will be some guys who come off in the third, fourth and fifth – who will help teams.”
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix from Alabama seems to be the consensus top option.
Some around the league feel he would present better value closer to the bottom of the first round, but some pundits have projected him to be as high as the No. 10 pick.
The Ravens pick 17th.
“Who is a top-15 guy among the safeties? I think it’s Clinton-Dix,” former NFL safety and current Bleacher Report NFL analyst Matt Bowen said during a phone interview. “It doesn’t mean that he won’t drop in the draft. It’s so hard to predict this draft class. But could Baltimore have a chance at him? Sure, they might be able to. And if they do, I think that would be an excellent selection.”
Clinton-Dix only had two interceptions last season. He also ran the 40-yard dash in just 4.58 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine, a relatively average time for a safety.
However, he did have five interceptions in 2012, and he was one of the top performers among safeties at the combine in the 20-yard shuttle, a drill designed to test quickness and acceleration.
He also has decent size at 6-foot-1, 208 pounds.
“I want the ball-hawk,” NFL Network draft analyst Charles Davis said during a conference call. “I want the guy with range. I want the center field guys, the Willie Mays guy. Not to say Clinton-Dix doesn’t tackle. He does. Not to say he can’t cover man. [He] hasn’t had to do much of that at Alabama. But I like his range. I like his sideline-to-sideline play.”
However, Bowen is also high on Jimmie Ward from Northern Illinois. So are the Ravens.
Would Baltimore take Ward at No. 17? Probably not. But he could be the pick in the second round if he is still available and the Ravens do not take a safety in the first round.
Ward lacks ideal size. He measured in at 5-11, 193 pounds at the combine. But he may be the most Reed- or Thomas-like player in this year’s draft.
He had 95 tackles and seven interceptions last season. He was also among the standouts at the Senior Bowl in January. He was voted the top defensive back for the week of practice.
“Here’s the thing about Jimmie Ward, he’s always around the football,” Bowen said. “And the thing about Jimmie Ward is his versatility. Different from the other [top] safeties, Jimmie Ward can play underneath. He can come down in your sub-package. You can move him all over the field.”
Ward also has experience playing cornerback.
“Defenses are pissed off because of all these spread formations because it makes them work harder,” Bowen said. “But to counter that, they’re going to try to give the offense a bunch of different looks. …
“And I think you can do a lot with Jimmie from a game plan standpoint because you can move him all over and do a lot of different things with him.”
Pundits are also high on Louisville safety Calvin Pryor, an aggressive, physical, violent player who could be selected during the first half of the first round.
However, Pryor does not necessarily fit the criteria of that athletic, playmaking free safety the Ravens are looking for.
Terrence Brooks from Florida State could be an option in the third round, though.
Hortiz, an Auburn grad, was watching closely as Brooks and Florida State beat Auburn in the BCS national championship game in January.
Brooks had six tackles during the game, including one for a loss.
“Very productive against Auburn in the national championship game,” Hortiz said. “Breaks my heart, but he seemed like he was everywhere [running back] Tre Mason was.”
Brooks was selected second-team All-ACC last season.