April 24, 2007

Safety soon to be a Bird?

The Eagles definitely need another safety. Right now the roster consists of six time pro bowler Brian Dawkins, special teams captain Quintin Mikell, and Sean Considine. Considine replaced Michael Lewis mid-season last year, due to poor play by Lewis. I am sure that the Birds will draft a safety in this draft, but the question is who?

Will they place a higher value in this position, like many other NFL teams have? Will they wait, and try to get a value pick in a later round? We'll soon find out.

Here is a story on the safety position in the NFL today, and the top safeties in this upcoming draft.


Safeties first: More teams place premium on position

By Tom Pedulla, USA TODAY

In a sense, Rod Woodson laments the day he was born. "It would have been great if my mom and dad would have held out 12 more years to have me," the former NFL star defensive back says.

He might be partly joking. The value of being a safety, one of the positions he excelled at from 1987-2003, is soaring because of the rise of the "Cover 2" defense to counter pass-happy offenses: the two corner backs pressing the action at the line of scrimmage, leaving each of two safeties to cover half of the field deep.

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The early rounds of recent drafts show the importance of finding safeties with the quickness and speed to cover a great deal of ground on pass routes and the toughness and tackling ability to stuff the run.

Thirty-one safeties were taken in Rounds 1-3 from 1990-96. The total jumps to 60 for that many years in the new millennium. NFLDraftScout.com projects nine safeties to go in the first three rounds this weekend.

"We have never had more than three safeties drafted in the first round. This year we could very likely have four," says Gil Brandt, former Dallas Cowboys executive and current NFL.com senior analyst.

Louisiana State's LaRon Landry is projected as a top-10 pick, followed in the first and second rounds (not necessarily in order) by Michael Griffin of Texas, Brandon Meriweather of Miami (Fla.) and Reggie Nelson, a defensive mainstay for national champ Florida.

NFL draft analyst and former defensive back Mike Mayock says there is a priority on finding safeties because teams are pushing for those players to do more.

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"They are asking you to cover large chunks of the field … so (you need) great range. They are also asking you to be tough enough and a good enough tackler to assert yourself" at the line, Mayock says. "And they are saying, 'By the way, there will be certain sets where we are asking you to cover a receiver (in the slot) with no help.'

"When you start putting those skills together, that's a special athlete. We are starting to see a recognition, from a draft perspective, that if you can go get one of those guys, you've got to get them."

The 6-2, 202-pound Landry looks to be one of those must-have talents. His physical abilities and grasp of the game were good enough that he started at LSU as a freshman and led the Tigers in tackles in three of four seasons. His 12 interceptions are tied for third all-time in school history.

"I'm very physical out there. I'm a great tackler (at the line). I'm great at taking on the pulling guard," he says. "I was smart back there (in the deep set). I was like a quarterback of the defense."

Scot McCloughan, vice president of player personnel for the San Francisco 49ers, seconds Landry's self-endorsement.

"He's one of the top 10 football players in this draft," says McCloughan, who, with the 11th pick, doesn't expect Landry to be available for the 49ers. He went the free agency route and signed former Pro Bowl safety Michael Lewis.

"Especially picking early, you don't pick for need," he says. "You pick the best football player."
Few in number
Only nine safeties have made the Pro Football Hall of Fame. When Brandt was director of player personnel for the Cowboys from 1960-89, the philosophy was to play it safe in selecting safeties.

"We didn't draft safeties," he says, "and the reason … is because we felt if he couldn't make it as a safety, there was no place to go with him. If you missed on him, you kind of struck out. If you took a corner and missed … you had a second position at safety. It was kind of tried throughout the" NFL.

That has changed. McCloughan sees Lewis, a second-round draft pick, as an every-down player with real versatility in passing situations.

"We really like what he brings" in package situations, when coaches load up the defensive backfield, McCloughan says of the 6-1, 222-pound Lewis. "He has enough size to be a good run player, and he can cover a back out of the backfield. We like everything about him."

Lewis was one of 11 safeties to go in the first three rounds in 2002. That high was matched last April, when Michael Huff (seventh, to the Oakland Raiders) and Donte Whitner (eighth, to the Buffalo Bills) cracked the top 10.

Neither the selection of Huff nor that of Whitner was particularly popular with hometown fans, who tend to prize offensive skill positions. Yet Buffalo general manager Marv Levy regards Whitner as a cornerstone in the Bills' rebuilding.

"He had a fine rookie season," Levy says of Whitner, second on the team in tackles. "He tuned in (to coaching). He was on top of it. There is still a big upside to him."

Buffalo solidified its last line of defense by drafting safety Ko Simpson in the fourth round. He also made great strides (fifth in tackles) and joins Whitner as a promising tandem who can grow together.

"The two greatest things that occurred on our team would be the bonanza we hit at safety and the progress of J.P. Losman at quarterback," Levy says.
Rising profile

Twenty years ago Woodson was taken 10th overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was the first to make the Pro Bowl as a safety, cornerback and kick returner and was named to the NFL's 75th anniversary team.

His draft prominence was the exception. "Safety was just a piece of the puzzle, nothing really important," he says of the thinking then. " 'You can always get a safety later in the draft or get a free agent who has kind of been a travel-around guy in the NFL.' "

The performance of the last two Super Bowl champions emphasizes the increased value of a safety fearless enough to stop the run yet fast enough to cover when faced with multiple-receiver patterns.

Troy Polamalu, his hair cascading down the back of his black-and-gold jersey as he raced around to make plays, became one of the indelible images associated with the Steelers when they won it all to close the 2005 season.

Bob "The Eraser" Sanders, all 5-8, 206 pounds, helped make the difference when the Indianapolis Colts, relying on the "Cover 2" defense coach Tony Dungy popularized, won Super Bowl XLI in February. The Colts allowed a league-worst 173 average rushing yards in the regular season, but Sanders plugged those holes upon his return from knee surgery.

The 2004 second-rounder had 15 solo tackles in the three playoff wins that propelled the Colts to the title game, according to the team. His first-quarter forced fumble and fourth-quarter interception helped beat the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI.

"He was the best tackler on the team, so they needed him in that mix," Woodson says. "He made a lot of plays, and he got everybody excited."

The search for the next "Eraser" is on.


Free safeties and strong safeties and where they are projected to be selected Saturday in the first three rounds of the NFL draft, according to analysis by NFLDraftScout.com in conjunction with USA TODAY:

Round Pick Player School
1st 8 FS Laron Landry LSU
1st 20 FS Reggie Nelson Florida
2nd 34 FS Brandon Meriweather Miami(Fla)
2nd 37 SS Michael Griffin Texas
3rd 68 SS Aaron Rouse Virginia Tech
3rd 70 SS John Wendling Utah
3rd 73 FS Josh Gattis Wake Forrest
3rd 76 FS Tanard Jackson Syracuse
3rd 80 SS Michael Johnson Arizona

I know the Eagles have generally gone by the theory that safety is not a priority position in the draft. I think we may see a change in that thinking this year. Reggie Nelson, and Brandon Meriweather are great prospects, and if either one were to be there at 26, I don't think you could go wrong with snagging them there. Safeties do seem to have a much bigger importance around the NFL, and I think the need to replace Brian Dawkins will have the Eagles thinking of going safety early. We will find out very soon. I remember people thinking Donte Whitner was a stretch for the Bills at 8 last year, but he had a fantastic rookie season.

I think they have a lot of those guys ranked low. I see Meriweather, and Michael Griffin as possible first round picks. Interesting that they have Tanard Jackson projecting to safety, and not corner. I have heard a lot about him, and from everything I am hearing, he will most likely be drafted to play corner. They also probably should have mentioned John Wendling Wyoming, and Sabby Piscatelli of Oregon State.

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