Teams learning to trust rookie safeties
Safeties are entering the NFL ready to play, and teams are suddenly more willing to give them a chance, writes Len Pasquarelli.
BALTIMORE -- For a nanosecond here Sunday afternoon, even Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome -- the man most responsible for assembling the roster of the currently undefeated AFC North leader -- seemed a bit taken aback by the revelation.
There have been more rookie starters at safety through the first four weekends of the NFL season than at any other position.
Safeties first? Nah, the interior secondary spot hasn't skyrocketed that far up the league positional totem, as evidenced by average salaries, and factors such as relative draft spots and interest generated in the veteran free-agency market every spring. But the safety position definitely is gaining prestige, and part of its ascent in the eyes of coordinators is the emergence of several rookies who have earned starting jobs in their 2006 debut season.
Entering the Monday night Green Bay-Philadelphia game, a matchup in which there doesn't figure to be a rookie safety in the lineup for either team, 10 first-year safeties have started at least one regular-season game. That represents the most different rookie starters at any position, one more than the number of first-year linebackers who have started. The 29 aggregate starts by the 10 rookies is tied with linebacker for the most total starts.
Given that there were only 26 safeties chosen among the 255 prospects in this year's draft, having 10 starters at this early juncture of the season is pretty impressive.
Four safeties have started all their teams' games. Dawan Landry of the Ravens missed that distinction Sunday, but only because Baltimore opened the contest against San Diego with five defensive linemen on the field in an effort to slow Chargers tailback LaDainian Tomlinson on early downs. Landry still played a considerable complement of snaps, and he finished with five tackles, giving him 25 for the year.
The former Georgia Tech standout, chosen in the fifth round and with the 146th overall slot, has registered at least five tackles in each of the Ravens' four games. Although he hasn't generated any big plays yet in terms of sacks or interceptions, Landry has provided Baltimore with the kind of big (6 feet, 220 pounds), physical presence the Ravens were seeking to pair with ball-hawking free safety Ed Reed this season.
"It's a challenge every time out there, every practice and every game, believe me," said Landry after the Ravens defeated the Chargers 16-13. "But I think I'm holding my own, you know?"
And he isn't the only rookie safety who can make that claim.
In the Saints' victory over Atlanta in the Sept. 25 Monday night game, the New Orleans staff constructed much of its game plan, especially in run defense, around second-round draft choice Roman Harper, a heady player from Alabama who impressed people from the moment he arrived in his first minicamp. Buffalo has rebuilt its interior secondary around a pair of rookies, first-round pick Donte Whitner and fourth-rounder Ko Simpson. One of the few bright spots in the dismal start of the Oakland Raiders has been the steady play of first-round safety Michael Huff.
Despite an already suffocating defense, the Chicago coaches felt they could improve their speed in the secondary and the overall ball skills of the unit by inserting Danieal Manning into the lineup ahead of Chris Harris a couple of weeks ago. The Indianapolis Colts, whose injury-depleted secondary has been like a revolving door in the first month, have gotten terrific play from Antoine Bethea, a sixth-round pick from Howard University.
"If you're moving, he's going to hit you, believe me," said Indianapolis cornerback Nick Harper of Bethea. "He takes it, he dishes it out, and he absolutely gives no ground."
But what does suddenly give at safety, a position where, historically, teams were reluctant to use rookies as starters? The long-lived tradition has been that, because of the diverse responsibilities inherent to the position, safety was a spot at which coaches didn't necessarily trust rookies. Cornerbacks generally find their way into the lineup more quickly than safeties do. Most teams, at least until this season, generally have tried hybrid-type defensive backs at cornerback first, because the duties are so much more streamlined, then eventually moved a player inside to safety.
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There has been no such apprenticeship, however, for rookie safeties in 2006.
"Part of it, I think, is that the colleges are playing so many defenses now that are similar to what we're using in our game," Newsome said. "So when safeties come to us now, they're more familiar with the things we're doing. Plus, you're just getting smarter kids now at the position. Think about the diversity of offenses for which college safeties have to prepare these days. You might face a spread offense like Urban Meyer's [at Florida] one week and then, the next week, you might be playing an option-based team. We're getting [safeties] who are better-prepared, smart kids who have made the secondary [calls] for their college teams, and who have handled the mental side of things."
There also, Newsome and several other NFL personnel chiefs acknowledged, are more colleges playing the Cover 2 scheme that is predominant around the league now.
Said the Saints' Harper, a heady kid who might not have the best range around but who is adaptable and can play down in the box or backed off in "halves" coverages: "I don't think most rookies coming into the league understand the kind of [lack of respect] the position may have gotten. A lot of us are just good football players, and aren't worried about labels, or what happened before we got here. All we want is a chance to get on the field."
So far this season, the league has been an equal opportunity provider as far as the rookie safeties who have cracked their teams' starting lineups.
There are five rookie starters from the first and second rounds and five who were second-day picks, chosen after the third round.
Landry, who played in the very sophisticated scheme conjured up by inventive Georgia Tech coordinator Jon Tenuta, a guy who himself figures to be working in the NFL someday soon, agreed Sunday night that late-round stigmas disappear quickly once the hitting starts in training camp.
And, apparently, the old bias against playing rookie safeties is waning, as well.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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