Teams look for safeties after first round

Despite the emergence of young stars like Ed Reed, the safety position remains more of an afterthought in the draft.

Updated: April 16, 2005, 2:21 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Of the six safeties who appeared in the Pro Bowl nearly three months ago, half were former first-round draft choices. One of them, Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens, was the league's defensive player of the year for 2004. Four of the six have three seasons or less of NFL tenure.

Those are among the glad tidings for a position which has lately begun to produce young standouts such as Reed, Troy Polamalu of Pittsburgh, Arizona's Adrian Wilson, Dallas' Roy Williams, Michael Lewis of Philadelphia and New Englands's Eugene Wilson, among others. Now the sobering reality: Despite the recent emergence of star-caliber performers at the position, the NFL remains anything but a safety first league.

Position-by-position schedule
In preparation for the NFL draft (April 23-24, ESPN), Len Pasquarelli and John Clayton will roll out a position-by-position look at draft prospects, along with a breakdown for each position. Click here to see the complete schedule.
And the 2005 draft certainly isn't going to alter the landscape nor affect the longstanding perception that safety is an afterthought position.

Of the top 10 safety prospects, as assessed by ESPN.com, two might be better suited to playing strongside linebacker in the NFL. At least two others, possibly three, could be listed as cornerbacks by the time they report to their initial training camp. The highest-rated safety, Thomas Davis of Georgia, is projected as a linebacker by no fewer than five franchises. One NFC team views Antrel Rolle of Miami, yeah, the cornerback, as the premier free safety candidate in the draft pool.

There have been just six safeties selected in the opening rounds of the five drafts of this millennium and that quota isn't apt to change dramatically in this year's lottery.

"If you're going to take a safety in the first round," said the college scouting director of one AFC team, "you'd better be damn certain he's a special player. For the most part, if you look at the first-round safeties of the past four or five years, they've pretty much lived up to the billing. There isn't a big 'bust rate' there. Only Reed is a star, but most of the others are solid. But that's because those were 'can't miss' guys. There just aren't a lot of those kinds of safeties in any draft, and this one is no different."

Reed is, indeed, a rare talent, one of the few complete safeties, a guy who can play down "in the box" and help stop the run, but also is capable of ranging deep downfield to make an interception. Since 1970, he is one of only six safeties chosen in the first round to lead the league in interceptions. Unlike most safeties, he was an immediate-impact performer.

The model, in most cases, is a player who develops into a starting safety, perhaps a young player who contributes first on special teams and then in "nickel" cover packages before moving into the lineup.

Which is why, as usual, most teams won't begin to address their needs at safety until the second or third rounds. Historically, it is the middle and late rounds where many starting safeties are produced. That's where most of the action will be again next weekend.

Of the 64 starting safeties from the 2004 season, only nine were former first-round picks. Twenty-eight of the starters, nearly 45 percent, were tapped after the third round, second-day picks in the modern draft, and 13 of those were undrafted free agents.

It isn't as much a case of buyer beware when perusing the safety market in the draft as it is a matter of buyers being smart.

The highest-picked safety in the 2004 draft, Sean Taylor of Washington, was the fifth prospect chosen overall. After a tough training camp, and a slow start to the season, the former University of Miami standout posted a very nice debut campaign, with 89 tackles, four interceptions and 10 passes defensed.

But consider this: Seattle rookie safety Michael Boulware, a former college linebacker who was chosen in the second round and started just four games, had five interceptions and seven passes defensed. Cincinnati second-rounder Madieu Williams had 95 tackles and three pickoffs. New York Jets fifth-rounder Erik Coleman, chosen 138 spots behind Taylor and paid significantly less, posted exactly as many tackles and interceptions as the Redskins' first-round selection.

Even with the subtle evolution of the safety position over the past few years, with every team in the league seeking an interior secondary player with at least some semblance of cornerback-type coverage skills, the position hasn't morphed into a premium one. There remains a fairly consistent mindset among scouts that safeties can be unearthed after the first round.

The consensus this year is that there are only two viable first-round prospects, Davis and Oklahoma's Brodney Pool, among the safety candidates. And few players in the entire draft pool are as debated as Davis, who lined up almost as much at strongside linebacker for the Bulldogs as he did at safety. Scouts are clearly split about his best NFL position.

It is suddenly chic, given the increase in 3-4 fronts around the league, to be a "tweener" at an edge position. Some of the hottest defensive players in the draft are the hybrids who can play end and linebacker. In the case of Davis, though, his in-between abilities have created concerns and given a few teams pause as they try to divine whether the Georgia star is fish or foul.

"What you know," acknowledged New York Jets coach Herm Edwards, "is that the guy is a player. But there's a 'where' factor that is part of the evaluation with him."

At 6-feet-1 and 230 pounds, able to cover 40 yards is less than 4.60 seconds, Davis is a physical freak. He is also one of the biggest hitters in this draft, a player who arrives at the point of attack with aggression, hits with a natural, rising motion, and with the kind of explosiveness to de-cleat a ball carrier. All those qualities make Davis a superb candidate for a team that features one safety playing close to the line of scrimmage.

In coverage, though, Davis may be a liability. Certainly he doesn't demonstrate the same kinds of instincts playing 10 or 12 yards away from the line as he does close to the action. The same is true of Ernest Shazor of Michigan, another player who, at 6-feet-3 5/8 and 228 pounds, might be more effective as a linebacker.

There have been similar players, and similar concerns, about safeties in most of the recent drafts. Which is why the position has not generated an avid first-round market in the past, and probably won't in the present, either.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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