Once upon a time, the bone-crushing safety was in high demand. Teams hunted for a Ronnie Lott, a Steve Atwater, a Rodney Harrison, a menacing presence to light up any receiver who dared to cross the middle of the field.
That's not the case anymore in Roger Goodell's changing NFL. Smart playmakers, not human missiles are valued at safety. And once the Buffalo Bills lost Aaron Williams to a neck injury in 2015, plays on the ball were in short supply. Buffalo's entire safety group had four interceptions in 16 games. Coach Rex Ryan hopes to get Williams back — the vet won't know if he can play until contact begins in training camp — and the Bills also signed Robert Blanton to hedge their bets.
Yet next week in the draft, you can bet Buffalo's playmaker antennae will be up.
At a position where very few rookies can play Day 1, whose college ball-hawking transfers? Northern Iowa's Deiondre' Hall is one potential hidden gem. The 6-foot-2, 199-pounder routinely flipped momentum in the Missouri Valley Conference with 82 tackles (5.5 for loss), three forced fumbles and six interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns. He played everything from cornerback to outside linebacker to safety in college, using his eye-popping 34 3/8-inch arms to make plays on the ball.
Whenever Northern Iowa did play higher competition, and Hall matched up one on one vs. top talent, he usually held his own.
“For me, it comes down to film study," Hall said. "If you’re not in the film room, you won’t know what’s going on when you get out there on the field. That’s huge. So just breaking down film and reading receivers’ tendencies. That ended up being huge for me — knowing throughout the week of practice what I’ll be getting. Whether a receiver’s real fast or likes to get physical, does he like to get touched, stuff like that. Just reading little things like that can pretty much set you apart. And then it’s about high-pointing that ball.
"Our coach would always preach to go get that ball. Turnovers win games. So just getting that ball out, whether it’s interceptions, pass break-ups or forcing a fumble, anything to get that ball back is huge.”
Hall has the pedigree. Panting after a workout this day over the phone, he explains.
Born in Columbia, S.C., he was raised in Kansas City by his mother, Rosie, who once led the Central Missouri woman's basketball team to three straight Division II Final Fours before then coaching at Indiana, Purdue and South Carolina. His father grew up playing basketball. And his younger brother? Justin Hall, 18, is heading to Texas Tech's track and field team. Justin is ranked fourth nationally in triple jump, breaking all of his older brother's school jumping records. Deiondre' Hall once starred in track and basketball himself.
And this off-season, he's been training at STARS in Anaheim, Calif., with former NFL cornerback Jason David, who won a Super Bowl and led his team in interceptions three times.
“The thing I think that sets me apart from everybody else, if I know I have to make a correction, I’m willing and open to do it," Hall said. "If there’s a mistake on the field and I can see it, then I want to know. Having that drive to come back each day is huge. ... Whether that’s staying low in and out of my breaks, keeping my eyes on the receiver, stuff like that. I think my competitiveness and drive is something that sets me apart.
"A lot of people say that but when it comes down to it, some people fall off."
His experience covering receivers man to man will help — that's basically become a prerequisite for NFL safeties today.
On the down side, he is longer and lankier than most defensive backs. Such thinner frames are uncommon deep in the secondary. Will that help or hurt Hall? Scouts must decide.
Because there is a right-place, right-time flair to Hall's game. He seeks contact behind the line of scrimmage, too. One play vs. Portland State, he goes from 12-15 yards behind the line to taking down the quarterback on a read option play for a loss in a blur. Much like Boise State edge rusher Kamalei Correa, Ryan would love Hall's energy.
Whoever the Bills add to the secondary, plays on the ball are a must.
“For one, you’ve got to have good eyes," Hall said. "And you’ve got to know who you’re playing with and that comes along with practice. That’s what can set your secondary apart from everybody else. So for me, it was about being on the same page as my corners and other safety. And talking. If you don’t talk, you’ll get beat. That also plays a part into having a little swagger when you’re out there as well.”
It's been a rough for Hall's family of late. His aunt and uncle both died recently. And way back, his younger brother actually had a twin who died eight months after birth due to heart complications.
He's out to play for his family, too. One snap at a time.
"When you make a couple plays, you can’t get complacent with that," Hall said. "You have to keep getting better every day, no matter what. You have to keep grinding. That’s huge, huge. You have to. To me, the grind is to see my film. A lot of people may say that but that’s what it really comes down to.”
Here are the top 10 safeties in the draft...
1. Vonn Bell, Ohio State (5 foot 11, 199 pounds): A force on Buckeyes' star-laden title team in 2014 with 92 tackles (two for loss), six interceptions and six pass break-ups; instinctive, smart, finds the ball (23 PBU's last two seasons combined).
2. Karl Joseph, West Virginia (5-10, 205): Not afraid to ever throw his body in harm's way, attacked ball-carriers and receivers with deft timing before tearing ACL in non-contact drill after five interceptions in four games his senior year.
3. Keanu Neal, Florida (6-0, 211): Explodes through his man with most violence at this position, but can that style last in the NFL? Totaled 96 tackles (3.5 for loss) with two sacks last fall.
4. Darian Thompson, Boise State (6-2, 208): All-American the last two seasons with 19 career interceptions can also hit but he was burnt deep in coverage multiple times. Takes chances. Allowed 10 touchdowns last three years, per NFL.com.
5. Jeremy Cash, Duke (6-0, 212): May be the best safety in the box, racking up seasons of 9.5, 10.5 and 18 tackles for loss. In fact, 33 of his 98 tackles last season went for two yards or less.
6. Miles Killebrew, Southern Utah (6-2, 217): A roaming sledgehammer in deep center, Killebrew is an old-school intimidator who may be best suited as a hybrid linebacker.
7. KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame (5-11, 192): Academically suspended in 2014, Russell had 60 tackles (3.5 for loss) and two interceptions in 11 starts last year; athletic corner teams may view as safety.
8. Deiondre' Hall, Northern Iowa (6-2, 199): Freakish length will intrigue teams, as will Hall's magnetic pull to the ball. Is the competition level a concern?
9. Justin Simmons, Boston College (6-2, 202): Fits playmaker mold. Simmons (five picks at free safety last year) can dissect route concepts; stood out in the East-West Shrine Game.
10. T.J. Green, Clemson (6-2, 209): Ran a 4.34 in the 40, Green is a wide receiver-turned-free safety who finished with 95 tackles (5.5 for loss) and two forced fumbles on Tigers defense that nearly went undefeated.