A tale of two safeties
A look into the Jets’ decision to draft Louisville’s Calvin Pryor over Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
By Ari August
RADIO CITY MUSIC HALL , NY – The Crimson Tide faithful thought their eyes were playing tricks on them Thursday night, as their first-team All-SEC safety was passed over by the Jets in the first round of the draft. The New York Jets drafted Pryor with the 18th pick in the first round, while Clinton-Dix was left on the board to be pilfered by Green Bay three picks later. Most of the football world (Mel Kiper and Todd McShay included) thought that Ha Ha was this year’s best safety, so what gives? It’s hard to understand what exactly went on during the decision making process for the Jets. One thing is for certain; both of these safeties will instantly upgrade any NFL defense, but for who’s actually the best? That’s a question that’s proving tricky to answer. Ha Ha and Pryor’s best attributes stacked up similarly against the competition at this years combine. However, their playing styles are universes apart, as these two are like the ying and yang of the safety position.
Pryor is the more aggressive of the two as he played with reckless abandon on a Louisville Cardinal defense that was notorious for bone jarring hits. His and his teammates style of play at Louisville was that of brutal aggression, as they instilled fear in opponents on a regular basis similar to the legendary stylistics of the overconfident Miami Hurricane teams of previous decades. This is something that Florida has trademarked as the homegrown product Pryor brings with him to the NFL a Sean Taylor like swagger that was popularized by the U.
Ha Ha plays with his head-up and constantly on a swivel, which is in direct opposition to Pryor who loves nothing more than a good opportunity to put his head down and hit you with everything he’s got. The two contrasting styles are what really make these two players so hard to compare. No wonder there are so many mixed opinions about which is better suited for the NFL.
Even though Clinton-Dix has that same Miami swagger (he was also born and raised in Florida), he doesn’t quite have the same type of powerful tackling ability that Pryor does. This forces Ha Ha to go after the ball on defense instead of the tackle. He often lets a linebacker or bigger teammate make the hit while he tries to pry at the ball in hopes of forcing a turnover. This can work out beautifully at times, and horribly at others, as it allows ball carries to chew up valuable unearned yardage. The biggest difference between Pryor and Dix is that Dix shies away from contact when he takes on a running back in the open field. His biggest problem in his tackling technique is that he’ll often ether hit and not wrap or wrap and not hit when trying to bring down a ball carrier.
He often gets blocked too easily and has had some of his worst games against the better SEC schools. He picks bad angles of pursuit at times and like Pryor he continually falls victim to the read option. He’s at times overly aggressive when jumping routes of slower pass catchers like tend ends. The problem with him going in the first round is that nothing on his tape really wowed me. He makes solid decisions on a more consistent basis than Pryor, however he doesn’t have nearly the amount of jaw dropping plays on his game tape. Clinton-Dix can make some big hits at times, but the ones that come in the middle of the field against bigger players are few and far between. Instead, most are against ball carriers that are already going out of bounds or near the sideline. His hands are pretty exceptional for someone on the defensive side of the ball but sometimes he drops balls thrown directly to him, which can lead you to scratch your head.
Even though Clinton Dix isn’t the run thumper that you get with Pryor there are still tasks that he does better. Man to man coverage is one of those. As mentioned before, Ha Ha constantly has his head up and on a swivel to help him better track the ball when it’s being thrown. That, his slightly superior ball skills and his smooth and effortless transitions out of breaks in coverage give him the leg up over Pryor in defending against the pass.
In the end, Pryor was too unique and versatile for the Jet’s to pass on; he’s that human wrecking-ball safety that can compare to the all-mighty Cam Chancelor. He can ball hawk or blow up an oncoming running back or wide receiver in the open field. He plays with the type of attitude you want in a defensive player, as he’s one of those safeties that comes with bad intentions, and when he’s running at you, it’s always at full speed. The words stop, slow down, and breaks were never in Calvin Pryor’s football vocabulary. He plays so fast that it actually results in one of his fundamental weaknesses as a defender. Pryor consistently over pursues to the ball which results him to ether A: lose track of the ball on a read-option, B: take a bad angle of pursuit on a ball carrier or C: take too many steps up on play action which allows receivers to beat him over the top. Another problem with the aggressive playing style Pryor has adopted is that it doesn’t exactly lend itself to long-term durability.
The rewards far outweigh the risk when it comes to Pryor as an overall player as he has great hands, a nose for the ball, and rarely gives you anything less than 100%. Coordinators also benefit because they can line him up in the box (as an extra linebacker or at the nine technique) just like Chancelor of the Seattle Seahawks (there were a lot of similarities in the Seahawks and Louisville defense as both disguise and hit you with odd formations). Pryor also comes after the quarterback with terrorizing speed when he goes untouched off the edge. What impresses the most, though, is his ability to stop the run and understand blocking schemes; he does things that interior defensive lineman are asked to do, things and you don’t expect from a safety. The video below shows Pryor coming of the edge and taking out the fullback while he is still in the backfield. This creates a roadblock and closes up the hole.
This seems to be what the Jets and their front office figured out what the rest didn’t. In this day and age of the NFL you need players who can rotate in and out of a variety of different defensive schemes. His versatility, overall prowess as a run stopping safety, and his hard-knock style of play is why he’s a perfect fit in Rex Ryan and Dennis Thurman’s defense. Based on the facts, it looks like Calvin Pryor was really the best safety in this years draft. The Jets smartly sidestepped the majority opinion on this one and came a way with one heck of a player.