Around St. Louis, the name “Craig Dahl” evokes images of terror, missed tackles and blown assignments.
“Dahl” has practically become interchangeable with a number of four letter expletives in and around the Edward Jones Dome and television sets showing Rams games on Sundays.
In fact, Pro Football Focus had Dahl rated as the 78th out of 88 safeties and fourth worst starting safety in the NFL last season among players who took at least 1,000 snaps.
Needless to say, it’s time for an upgrade across from Quintin Mikell, who was rated as the fifth best overall safety by PFF and lauded for his skills in the run game.
Luckily, the upcoming 2013 draft is chock full of talented safeties that Les Snead could snap up with one of the first round picks or in the second round, giving the Rams the first capable center fielder since O.J. Atogwe’s best season in 2007.
Mikell played primarily as a free safety under Steve Spagnuolo, but moved up into the box this year as the multifaceted pass-rush / pass coverage role that Roman Harper played in Gregg Williams' New Orleans defense.
This change in roles pushed Dahl to the free safety position. If this was youth softball, he would be the fat kid being pushed out to right field, where he could do no harm. But in the NFL, there is nowhere to hide.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the top safety prospects in the 2013 draft the Rams could select:
1. Free Safety Kenny Vaccaro – Texas (Senior)
6’1” 218 pounds (Projected mid-to-late first round grade)
Vaccaro is widely regarded as the best free safety prospect in the nation, finishing his career at Texas with over 250 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and five interceptions. Vaccaro’s major strength is the angle he takes to the ball carrier and his ability to make solo tackles in the open field. One of Dahl’s biggest weaknesses as a starter has been missed tackles and poor angles to the football, so Vaccaro would provide an immediate upgrade. The Texas senior is also very instinctual and comes from a long line of Texas playmakers at safety, including 2010 Seahawks first-rounder Earl Thomas.
If the Rams want Vaccaro, they may have to spend the 22nd overall pick on him, but a defensive backfield of Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins, Mikell and Vaccaro would be worth the price. Overall, the Texas safety shows the most promise in a deep 2013 class and could be an instant impact NFL player.
2 Free Safety Eric Reid – LSU (Junior)
6’2” 212 pounds (Projected late first round, early second round grade)
Reid is considered the biggest enforcer in the draft, spending three seasons at LSU leveling receivers foolish enough to get within five yards of him. He’s regarded as a heat seeking missile, taking advantage of the talent around him on the LSU defense to take chances and make big hits. He also has great instincts and the athletic ability to make up for being slightly out of position.
However, Reid is also sometimes overly aggressive, looking to make an impact play rather than a smart tackle. It could take him a while to adjust to the speed of professional receivers and to learn to control his emotions under strict NFL safety rules. But, with the talent LSU has churned out at defensive back over the last few seasons (LaRon Landry, Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne), the Rams need to take a long look at Reid.
3. Strong Safety Matt Elam – Florida (Junior)
5’10” 190 pounds (Projected late first round grade)
Drafting Elam would likely ask Mikell to move back to free safety, as Elam is the unquestioned top strong safety prospect in the draft. The Florida underclassman is sort of a hybrid of Reid and Vaccaro, often using his physicality to punish opposing receivers, but is also regarded as instinctual and more than capable in single coverage.
However, Elam strikes me as more of a 3-4 safety than a center fielder in a 4-3 defense, with stack-the-box skills that would overlap most of Mikell’s. Although very talented, Elam doesn’t look like he’s a great fit for the Rams’ defensive scheme and would be my third choice for the late first rounder behind Vaccaro and Reid.
4. Strong Safety Phillip Thomas – Fresno State (Senior)
6’1” 205 pounds (Projected second round grade)
Thomas had a severe leg injury that kept him out of action for all of 2011, but came back this season to dominate the Mountain West Conference and have his name mentioned among the best defensive backs in the country.
The senior had eight interceptions in 2012 along with five forced fumbles and three defensive touchdowns, bringing his collegiate total to a ridiculous 20 turnovers. From the tape I watched on him, Thomas seems to be more of a total package than both Elam and Reid, showing fluidity, closing speed, ball skills and tackling ability.
However, Thomas’ success came mostly against inferior opponents and his injury history is something to be concerned with, especially for a player that the Rams defense would rely on to cover a lot of ground throughout each game.
Still, his penchant for turnovers can’t be ignored and the Les Snead regime has shown it isn’t afraid to take chances on small school prospects with high ceilings.
T-5: Free Safety Tony Jefferson – Oklahoma (Junior)
5’11” 212 pounds (Projected late second, early third round grades)
Jefferson was a defensive leader for Oklahoma this season, starting from his freshman year as a Sooner and racking up a total of 258 tackles, eight interceptions and 18 tackles for loss. Although undersized for a free safety, Jefferson was a sure tackler and has good coverage ability. The question is if he can continue to add bulk and hold up for an entire punishing NFL season.
T-5: Free Safety Baccari Rambo – Georgia (Senior)
6’0” 200 pounds (Projected late second, early third round grades)
Rambo has good size and can act as both an enforcer in the run game and smooth cover man in the passing game. He had eight interceptions along with 52 tackles in 2011. However, he was a magnet for trouble at Georgia and was implicated in two separate drug-related incidents, resulting in five total game suspensions.
Runner-ups: USC Free Safety T.J. McDonald and South Carolina Free Safety D.J. Swearinger
In my opinion, the Rams should be in the market for taking Vaccaro in the first round or Thomas in the second round. Vaccaro’s skills jump out and separate him as the most complete safety in 2013, while Thomas has the potential to be a fluid playmaker at the next level with a little bit of coaching from the defensive staff. Elam and Reid are better suited as run defenders and would overlap too much with Mikell’s skills. Similarly, Jefferson and Rambo both have flaws that will push them down draft boards.
Overall, St. Louis must use one of the top four picks on a safety to replace Dahl and Darian Stewart whose development stalled in 2012. As evidenced above, the 2013 draft is chock full of safety talent and the Rams are primed to take an impact player, one that will put the Dahl era to bed for good.