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Safeties Remain a Draft Afterthought


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By Len Pasquarelli



Editor's note: In preparation for the NFL draft, Len Pasquarelli rolls out his position-by-position look at draft prospects, along with rankings for each position. Today it's defensive backs. Click here for his defensive back rankings.

Hardly a group that adheres strictly to convention, particularly when it comes to the annual draft, NFL personnel directors and general managers annually choose to ignore one of the most time-honored cautionary axioms when selecting defensive backs.

The old saying safety first, it appears, doesn't exist for these guys.

Roy Williams, left, was named the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year last season.

History indicates the safety position is among the last ones that typically merit consideration from "war room" decision-makers, and the 2002 draft doesn't figure to differ.

A pair of top-shelf safety prospects, Roy Williams of Oklahoma and Miami star Edward Reed, will be selected in the first round. Barring an upset, Williams will go off the board in the top 10, perhaps the first five. But after that, even in a year when the position is deeper than it has been in some time, safeties will get short shrift on the respect meter.

Williams rates among the top athletes and overall players in the draft. He can be a dominating defender, always a factor versus the run and an improving presence in pass coverage. He has prototype safety numbers, and most teams feel he will be a multiple Pro Bowl performer. Reed is a classic ballhawk, a center fielder who intercepted 21 passes for the Hurricanes, directed the secondary adjustments and has enough coverage skill to play cornerback in a pinch.

After those two go off the board, though, it's difficult to predict exactly when the next safety prospect will hear his name called. Most likely it won't come until seven or eight choices into the second round. If that is the case, it won't be the first time that safeties were basically ignored, with the emphasis in the secondary having shifted years ago to cornerback.

"There isn't a draft that goes by where you aren't looking for a cover guy, because you can never have enough of them, and it's become a premium position," San Francisco consultant Bill Walsh said recently. "Personally, I think safety is an underrated position, especially the way the game is played now, but the trend is to try to find them later in the draft. For whatever reason, we all seem to have devalued the safety position a bit."

Over the past 21 years, there have been 91 defensive backs selected in the first round, and 65 were cornerbacks. Just twice in the past 10 drafts, the 1998 and 2001 lotteries, has there been more than one safety chosen in the first round. The first-round safeties last year were Derrick Gibson (Oakland) and Adam Archuleta (St. Louis).

During that same period, there was an average of 3.25 cornerbacks who went off the board in the first round each year.

As long as NFL teams stay locked into that mindset, and clubs are still able to identify solid safety candidates in the second and third rounds, the current situation isn't likely to change. Arguably the most productive rookie defensive backs in the league just two years ago were Mike Brown of the Chicago Bears and Kansas City's Greg Wesley.

Both are safeties. Brown was chosen in the second round, Wesley in the third.

One prominent defensive coordinator cited both those players as primary examples of how safety prospects are characteristically pigeonholed as beyond the scope of the first round.

“ Personally, I think safety is an underrated position, especially the way the game is played now, but the trend is to try to find them later in the draft. For whatever reason, we all seem to have devalued the safety position a bit. ”

— Bill Walsh, 49ers consultant and former coach

There is not, he said, a conscious prejudice against safety candidates, but rather a premium placed on athletes. The athletes tend to be cornerbacks, the "thinkers" and diagnosticians in the defensive backfield more often safeties.

"It's still a league," said Detroit general manager Matt Millen, "that glorifies the great athlete."

Even with the enhanced role of safeties in new-age defensive schemes -- most must be versatile enough to shift "into the box" to support the run on one play and then move into the slot to cover a wide receiver the next snap -- the profile of the position hasn't much improved.

Outside of a few exceptions, the reality is safeties lag behind on the pay scale and the respect meter as well.

Of the 10 highest-paid safeties in the league in 2001, only one, Rod Woodson of Baltimore, was a first-round selection. He began his career as a cornerback and moved to safety to prolong his NFL tenure.

Among the top safeties of the past few years, San Diego's Rodney Harrison was a fifth-round choice, LeRoy Butler of Green Bay and New England's Lawyer Milloy second-round picks, and John Lynch of Tampa Bay a third-rounder.

Not since the heyday of Kenny Easley and Ronnie Lott has there been a first-round safety who made multiple Pro Bowl appearances. The norm is more a player such as Robert Griffith of the Minnesota Vikings, an undrafted free agent who made himself a player through hard work but who originally fell through the cracks.

There figures to be a shopping spree on safeties in the second round Saturday, just as there usually is, with five or six likely to go off the board in that stanza.

Lamont Thompson of Washington State, Jon McGraw of Kansas State, Stanford's Clevan Williams, Brian Williams of North Carolina State and Pittsburgh's Ramon Walker all are candidates for the second round.

A few members of that group are actually rated higher than some of the cornerback prospects on a few teams' draft boards. But the position that they will play in the NFL dictates they will be undervalued.

"It's hard when you see the cornerbacks getting all the glory and scouts kind of view you more as (an afterthought)," said Williams of Stanford, a safety with superior size and eye-opening linear speed. "Guys who play the (safety) position feel like we're getting the short end, you know? But what are you going to do?"

The Stanford star, and others of his ilk, are prime examples of why scouts back off some safeties.

Often used at a "rover" spot in their college schemes, they more often play as pseudo-linebackers than at safety. It is difficult to gauge their coverage skills, and few teams want to gamble on projecting those abilities. Watching video of some of them, assessing their range is difficult because of the scheme.

"What you want is a smart, aware guy who can make some plays but doesn't have to be the best athlete around," one general manager said. "You don't have to get those guys in the first round."

Tampa Bay's Lynch acknowledged recently that, given the new and expanded responsibilities of the safety position, the spot might actually gain new respect. "But it's going to be a slow process," he said.

And, outside of Ed Reed and Roy Williams, it's not likely to occur in the 2002 draft.

Len Pasquarelli is an ESPN.com senior writer.

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Yomar and I have been the two most vocal backers of Reed in the second round, should he fall. Now, would I take Reed over one of the defensive ends that may fall to the second round (like Brown or potentially Johnson)? I don't really know. I think I'd prefer this team to concentrate on the defensive line in the first two rounds.

However, the more I think of it, the more I think Trotter may be a signal to us all that Lewis has had his, now Spurrier gets his. The draft may prove the time Spurrier gets some fresh blood especially if we get Trotter for Lewis. But, if you get a tackle and an end in this draft who are capable of being moderately solid starters in this league -- like a Wynn or Lang type -- then you'll have a defense that is among the league's best for the next five years at least.

Still, it makes you think, doesn't it? If Lewis gets Trotter, doesn't Spurrier have to wield a hammer on draft day and get something to play with too?

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I think safety is a position which could be easily upgraded in the 2nd round (no 3rd sadly). Look at what Mike Brown has done for Chicago.

I dont think Reed will drop to us in the 2nd round. But I would LOVE to get Lamont Thompson, who still might not be there at our pick.

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When the Seahawks had Kenny Easley on the field, it was like having an extra linebacker AND an extra cornerback. When healthy, he could simply take over a game. A guy like that is worth a couple of first rounders.

But who is the next Kenny Easley? Hard to say. In the meantime, you draft cornerbacks first, because, while you can occasionally turn a mediocre corner into a safety, you just cannot turn a mediocre safety into a corner.

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This is an unusually deep class of safeties, and there should be some quality candidates available on day two. You can count on at least one of the guys that Lenny mentioned dropping to the fourth round, most likely the other two Williams on his list - Brian and Clevan (or Tank, as he prefers). Some other names to look out for are Pig Prather (Mississippi State), Chris Young (Ga. Tech) and yet another Williams - Chad from Southern Miss. Any of them would be a good pickup somewhere in rounds 4, 5 or 6.

Hey Orange, doesn't Syracuse have a safety, Harris, that's coming out? I've seen his name on a couple of lists, but I don't have much information on him.

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The news in Dallas is that Roy Williams is being seriously considered by the Cowboys at the #6 spot. With the dismissal of FS George Teague, the Boys have a need. But #6 is much too high to take a FS.

The ideal pick for the Cowboys is Texas CB Quintin Jammer, but it's likely he'll be snagged before the Cowboys pick.

If the team decides to stay at #6, I'd prefer Miami CB Philip Buchanon or NC DT Ryan Sims over Roy Williams.

But I can imagine a scenario where Daniel Snyder and Jerry Jones partner up and pull a trade.

The #6 pick for the Skin's 1st and 2nd rounders. This can happen only if Joey Harrington is still on the board. The Skins would have their franchise QB and the Cowboys will have multiple picks to fill their needs.


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