The rise of the high-level safety in the NFL was at its height around the mid-2000s with the excellent play of Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu and Baltimore's Ed Reed. Two first-ballot Hall of Famers who were huge parts of the two best defensive teams of the decade.
Finding replacements for either of them is essentially impossible. But the rise of four and five receivers in spread passing offenses has forced the safety position to be the most stretched defensive position on the field. Teams covet man coverage safeties who can support the run.
It takes a special kind of player to be that kind of Polamalu/Reed mix; while no one can reasonably expect any safety to exhibit the combined game of those two, a player like Alabama's Landon Collins can give a team shades of both. His film shows good run support as well as the ability to cover over the top. That makes him a three-down defensive back who's effective in short-yardage situations, mid-range downs and third and long. Collins makes himself a high-level pick because of his versatility. Alabama continues to put safeties in the pros (from Mark Barron to Ha Ha Clinton Dix) because they find good athletes who can defend over the top while providing run support.
Keep in mind, this statement is being made in regards to their ability as prospects, and the fact Barron hasn't turned into the All Pro player many thought he would be does not mean Collins, who may end up being drafted around the top 10 level Barron was, will not work out as expected.That said, Collins is a better prospect than Barron was.
What we know of him is he's a well-rounded safety with the size (6-foot-0, 220 pounds) and athletic ability to find his way on the field early in his pro career. Alabama used him in a variety of ways, a deep center-field safety, covering in the slot and perhaps most impressively, up at the line of scrimmage. What makes him so dangerous is he really had free reign of his assignment. If there wasn't a receiving threat on his side, he would get to the line and challenge the run. Florida didn't bother to put a hat on him on this play, and watch him explode around the edge to run the ball carrier down. Collins will move back deep on third and long situations, and owns his space like a territorial hawk. He's sitting on the interception, not dropping back deep, but staying underneath. The quarterback likely reads a deep drop from Collins on this throw, so he loads up on a shorter floating pass. Collins sees it the whole way. The short passing game is best affected by good athletes who make themselves fast through play recognition. Mississippi State is looking to get a short pass to essentially equal a wide running play. There are good blocks down field, but the play is too wide and no attention is paid to the fact Collins knew quickly after the snap where the play was going. Collins is front-leaning at the 32 yard line, and approaches the receiver within himself - he isn't going to overrun the play or allow the running back to make a move on him. Great discipline and awareness.The safety position is one of incredible fluctuation in terms of pre-draft analysis. It isn't considered a marquee position, therefore, it's one that seems to fall victim to the late charges of offensive tackles that test well at the Combine, quarterbacks with great pro days (with or without shoulder pads) and other non-game production characteristics of the highest drafted position. It would seem teams know what they are getting with Collins. While other Alabama defensive backs haven't fared well as pros, Collins seems like a solid all-around player, and while it's not incredibly likely he falls to the Steelers at 22, it's fair to point out lots of initial projections had Clinton-Dix being a mid-teens pick too.