Nineteen defenders selected in opening round
Perhaps more than any prospect selected in the first round of the NFL draft, Kamerion Wimbley reflects the notable trends that developed as the opening stanza played out over five-plus hours on Saturday afternoon.
Consider this: The top choice of the Cleveland Browns with the 13th slot in the round, Wimbley plays on the defensive side of the football. He is a versatile defender, a hybrid "edge" player who can align at end or linebacker in a 3-4 front. He is a so-called "back seven" defender, the term used to collectively describe the linebacker and secondary units. And he played at Florida State.
Those elements pretty much sum up the overriding components of an opening round that featured very few surprises and far less maneuvering than had been anticipated. Defense and diversity certainly defined the first round.
"Every team that came to see me had me do the linebacker drills in addition to all of the defensive line work," said Wimbley from his home in Wichita, Kansas, where he was the guest of honor at a draft day bash hosted by his parents. "And just about every team, in its own way, stressed to me the importance of being able to do a lot of things. Outside of our practices, I didn't play standing up (in a two-point stance) very much in college, but I guess I proved to the scouts that I can do it."
|“||Every team wants a safety now who, in addition to supporting against the run, has some range and can cover. It's just the way the game is played now.”|
|—S Michael Huff, selected by the Raiders|
Clearly, over the months-long evaluation process, it was the defensive candidates who most demonstrated to scouts that they represented the early quality in this year's pool. This had been pegged by several general managers as one of the thinnest collection of top-shelf offensive players in years and that perception quickly became reality.
The round began with a defensive end (Mario Williams of North Carolina State to the Houston Texans) and concluded with one as well (the New York Giants taking Boston College's Mathias Kiwanuka) and had 17 other defenders sandwiched in between that pair of bookends.
Three of the top five selections and four of the first half-dozen choices were offensive players, and then the course of the first round shifted dramatically, with a long stretch in which 14 of 18 picks were for defensive prospects. After the choices of Southern Cal tailback Reggie Bush (New Orleans), Texas quarterback Vince Young (Tennessee) and left offensive tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson (New York Jets) of Virginia with slot Nos. 2-4, it wasn't until the final quadrant of the stanza that teams exercised more than two consecutive picks on offensive players.
The final tally for the round showed 19 defensive players and 13 offensive prospects. The emphasis continued into the second round, where eight of the first dozen selections were on the defensive side.
"I think going into the draft, most people felt the early quality was on defense," allowed Buffalo Bills first-year head coach Dick Jauron, whose team used both its choices in the first round on defensive players, safety Donte Whitner and tackle John McCargo. "Really, it pretty much fell in line with that thinking. You've got to play defense in this league."
And you've got to play it, teams seem to have decided, with versatile defenders who can multi-task and can increase the potential for creativity from coaching staffs.
Of the six linebackers chosen, the most since a 1990 first round that included seven at the position, four can play two positions. The Green Bay Packers, for instance, aren't certain yet if fifth overall pick A.J. Hawk of Ohio State, the top defender on many clubs' draft boards, will play the weak-side spot or move to the middle and allow veteran Nick Barnett to move outside. But just having the luxury of flexibility is an advantage.
Likewise, of the seven defensive backs chosen, the most since 1998, four are players who can align at safety or cornerback. That kind of diverse skills-set helped to make players such as Jason Allen of Tennessee, the first pick of the Miami Dolphins at No. 16, doubly attractive to teams. It didn't hurt Allen, either, that he had been recruited by Nick Saban when the Dolphins coach headed the LSU program.
"That helps," agreed Allen, who missed much of last season with a serious hip injury, but who is a marvelous two-way secondary defender when healthy. "But what helps more, in general, is being able to show a team you aren't just a one-dimensional guy. And, I guess, being able to cover a little bit, right?
This was not a draft, at least in terms of top-ranked prospects, deep in defensive linemen. There were only three ends chosen and just three tackles as well. And so, if you can't find players to knock down the quarterback, you'd better identify prospects who can cover and knock down the ball. The 13 "back end" players selected in the first round, the total number of non-linemen, is the most in at least the last 16 years.
Notable was that, in the secondary, it was a "safety first" opening round. The initial defensive back to go off the board was Michael Huff of Texas, chosen by Oakland with the seventh pick. In arguably the most surprising early choice, Whitner went off the board next, to the Bills. Most teams felt Whitner was the best pure safety in the lottery (since some clubs feel Huff will eventually play cornerback), but few had the Buckeyes star rated as highly as did the Buffalo personnel department. Not until the St. Louis Rams grabbed Tye Hill of Clemson at pick No. 15 was a pure cover cornerback chosen
The three safeties taken in the first round represented the most since 1998. There were just three safeties chosen, total, in the first rounds of the past three drafts. Again, the overall diversity of the safety pool helped enhance the position's profile.
"Every team wants a safety now who, in addition to supporting against the run, has some range and can cover," said Huff. "It's just the way the game is played now."
The way the game is played in Tallahassee, Fla., by the Seminoles, apparently is still pretty alluring to the NFL, too. Four former FSU standouts -- Wimbley, linebacker Ernie Sims (Detroit), tackle Brodrick Bunkley (Philadelphia) and defensive back Antonio Cromartie (San Diego) -- went off the board among the first 19 picks. At one point in the round, all four were taken in a span of 11 selections.
"We work hard and we play hard," said Wimbley, "and today it all paid off."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .
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