NFL DRAFT: Ravens Seek Safety

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From now until May, Russell Street Report will have all grounds covered regarding potential draft prospects and fits for the Baltimore Ravens.

To kick things off, there’s no better way than to take the exact words from Ozzie Newsome’s mouth when addressing the needs of the team. Unsurprisingly, on Wednesday, Newsome noted that the Ravens need a more athletic playmaker at the safety position.

That wasn’t exactly breaking news, as the Ravens – after whiffing on the Michael Huff signing- were forced to start two strong safeties in Matt Elam and James Ihedigbo.

Elam was forced primarily into the free safety role, and that appears to be a 2013-only job. With Ihedigbo set to become an unrestricted free agent, the odds are slim he returns to Baltimore.

The Ravens need to find a pure free safety who can roam the back end while letting Elam assume his more comfortable role in 2014.

How can the Ravens do that? Ideally, adding a veteran to play next to Elam would likely be best for the offense, as starting a rookie and second-year player next season is a risky yet potentially positive move.

But if the Ravens opt to turn to the draft to use a high pick on a safety for a second-straight year, who could be an option?

One prospect who stands out is Louisville’s Calvin Pryor.

Right now, he could be a target for the Ravens in the second round, but given his heavy-hitting mentality and ball hawking ability, it wouldn’t be farfetched to think he could sneak into the top 32 picks.

It’s unlikely that the Ravens would feel the need to spend back-to-back first-round picks on safeties, but realistically, if he is on the board when the Ravens are on the clock midway through the second round, Pryor is a name to remember.

Please note: it’s still January, and draft projections are only extremely rough estimates at this time. Whether Pryor goes in the first, second or third round, this is just to profile him as a potential target for the Ravens, regardless of where he will be drafted.

Where he wins:

The first thing that jumps out about Pryor is his head-hunting mentality, particularly in run defense.

His closing speed running forward is one of his best assets, and sometimes he almost plays too fast, which leads to him taking poor angles.

But when he keys in on a play and can stay with the play, the results can give the defense plenty of momentum.

Exhibit A:

He also excels when given the chance to be a playmaking back-end safety.

Louisville primarily used Pryor moving forward, because the Cardinals either faced run-based teams or teams with poor quarterback play all season.

But they also weren’t afraid to leave him stranded on the back end.

Along with that, he also held duties similar to a linebacker in run defense.

When needed Pryor was asked to assume the pure free safety role and he successfully delivered in 2013.

One example was against UCF, where Pryor was able to come up with an improbable interception in the end zone.

Didn’t see anything like that in Baltimore last season, did you?

Where he needs improvement:

While Louisville wasn’t afraid to use Pryor in run defense, that aspect of the game is where he still needs the bulk of his improvement.

As noted, when he plays faster than he needs to, he can miss on some tackling opportunities.

Here, UCF running back Storm Johnson has an obvious run desire toward the outside.

Here, Pryor can take the inside lane that he is already committed to, or take the sideline route, where Johnson is headed.

If Pryor takes the inside lane, it will be costly if he can’t come up with the tackle, since there’s no safety on the outside.

Pryor takes the inside line, whiffs on Johnson, and finds himself playing catch up as the ball carrier picks up the first down.

His lack of patience in run defense likely stems from his constant urge to lay a ball carrier out. That isn’t a bad thing for him per se, as he is aggressive as it gets for a safety. But his poor angles and commitments in run defense were noticeable throughout his Louisville career.

Another concern is his lack of experience in coverage. While he made the most of his opportunities when given the chance in coverage, he spent a lot of time playing forward instead of occupying the back end. It’s hard to tell how well he’ll play without a larger sample size.

This is why many NFL teams will likely peg him as a strong safety, as he could be a pretty good one if he can improve in run defense.

Fit in Baltimore:

With Elam already penciled in as the long-term starting strong safety in Baltimore, the Ravens will only be in the market for a free safety. Pryor can play both positions, but as noted, strong safety may be a desire for many NFL teams.

He flashed the back-end coverage ability needed to be a playmaking NFL safety while at Louisville, but his opportunities were sparse.

Most of his work was done moving forward in run defense, where results were mixed, but he is a lengthy (listed at 6’2) player whose closing speed is enough to allow him to force turnovers for a defense. Part of the reason why the Ravens struggled in close games all year was because the defense failed to force turnovers on a consistent basis.

Elam and Ihedigbo combined for four interceptions, and all four were more of a product of poor throws than plays by the safeties.

Baltimore needs a safety who can create turnovers on normal plays, not just as products of poor quarterback play. Pryor can be that guy, and combining him with Elam would give the Ravens a formidable long-term duo.

Pryor would likely struggle early on if he were to adjust to a full time coverage role, but could be worth the risk.

Given his heavy-hitting mentality and coverage ability, his playing style is similar to Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Dashon Goldson.

Like Goldson, Pryor will probably be a frequently fined player in the NFL, but can also be an enforcer.

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Images and video courtesy of Draft Breakdown

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