If you are an NFL team in the market for a safety – cough, cough, Green Bay Packers – then this is the draft for you. There may not be a position deeper in the 2013 NFL Draft than safety.
"There's a strong safety class," Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery said. "In our minds, there are five or six starters in this class at safety and that's rare to me."
But, beware. The position isn't the easiest to evaluate, so while there are plenty of safeties worth considering – Texas' Kenny Vaccaro, LSU's Eric Reid, Florida's Matt Elam, Florida International's Johnathan Cyprien, Syracuse's Shamarko Thomas, just to name a few – evaluating them isn't exactly easy.
"I think it has become a little bit tougher to judge. And part of it is because of the way the game has evolved," said Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, who played the position with the Chicago Bears in the 1980s and whose team drafted a safety, Notre Dame's Harrison Smith, in the first round last year. "There was a time when you could draft a safety and say, ‘OK, we need a guy who can play close to the line of scrimmage and really be almost another LB. And another guy who can maybe play deep in the defense.'
"Well, in today's NFL, the way offenses spread you out, if you just have a guy who's one-dimensional, you can get exposed if he's a guy who can only help you in the run game but can't match up sometimes on running backs or tight ends. That can be problematic for your defense. So people are going, it seems, to more of the hybrid type safeties, to guys who have some cover skills and have some ability to play the football in deep defense but maybe not as aggressive in the run game. So it's changed.
"So when you're looking at safeties in the college draft, you're trying to find more cover ability guys than you are the guys who are the hard hitters."
In Seattle, general manager John Schneider, a former Packers executive, drafted both of the Seahawks' starting safeties in 2010: Earl Thomas, with the second of two first-round picks (No. 14 overall), and Kam Chancellor, with a fifth-round pick (No. 133 overall). Chancellor signed an extension with the Seahawks earlier this week.
"Really, it's kind of luck-of-the-draw for us. We drafted Kam in the fifth round, and we thought Earl could play corner or safety. And so I don't think we did anything special," Schneider explained. "But it's still the hardest position to evaluate, in my opinion, because those guys are playing so far off the ball. They can be multiple categories. It's a little bit easier at other positions. So you have to be very careful."
The cornerbacks are easier to evaluate, and in this draft, Alabama's Dee Milliner, Washington's Desmond Trufant and Houston's D.J. Hayden are the top corners in another area of great depth in this draft. The safeties aren't as clear cut, although Vaccarro appears to be the consensus top safety and should be drafted midway through the first round. After that, it's a matter of preference – and finding the right one.
"It's going to be interesting to see with some of the things that the offensive coaches did this year on the read option and things like that how are the defensive coaches going to adjust to that," Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said. "Safeties, because they're playing against move tight ends that are almost like big receivers coming out, do they have the ability to play man coverage against those type of athletes? I think the safety position, it's a good safety class this year as well. But it makes a difference on your back end, especially if that guy is going to be the quarterback of your defense from there."
BEST OF THE BEST
1. Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama (5-foot-11 7/8, 201 pounds, 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash): Played as a true freshman in 2010 and had 53 tackles, seven pass breakups and one interception. … Played in nickel and dime packages as a sophomore in 2011 and had 27 tackles, nine pass breakups and three INTs. … Unanimous first-team all-American as a junior last season, when he had 54 tackles, 20 pass breakups and two INTs. … Has very good size and speed, with great ball awareness and the ability to be physical in coverage and against the run.
BEST OF THE REST
2. Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington (5-11 5/8, 190, 4.43): Younger brother of Marcus Trufant. … Started nine games at cornerback as a true freshman in 2009 and had two interceptions and returned a fumble 17 yards for a touchdown against Notre Dame. … Started all 13 games in 2010 and had 48 tackles, four pass breakups and one INT. … Had 64 tackles, 14 pass breakups and two INTs in 2011. … Had 36 tackles, nine pass breakups and one INT last season as a senior captain. … Athletic, confident, competitive corner with NFL bloodlines but inconsistent performance.
3. Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas (6-0 1/2, 214, 4.62): Became a starter as a junior in 2011 and had 82 tackles, eight pass breakups and two interceptions, along with two sacks. … Led Longhorns in tackles with 104 last season as a senior, adding five pass breakups and two interceptions in 13 starts. … Athletic leaper who can match up in coverage and be effective as a centerfielder. … Has some character questions and maturity questions but still figures to be a first-round pick.
4. Eric Reid, S. LSU (6-1 1/4, 213, 4.51): Started three games as a true freshman in 2010 and had 32 tackles and two interceptions. … Had 76 tackles, three pass breakups and two INTs in 2011. … Had 91 tackles, seven pass breakups and two INTs in 13 starts last season, earning all-America honors as a junior. … Athletic, aggressive safety who covers a lot of ground and has phenomenal instincts.
5. Matt Elam, S, Florida (5-9 7/8, 208, 4.47): Played in 13 games as a true freshman in 2010 and had 22 tackles and one pass breakup. … Had 78 tackles, seven pass breakups, two interceptions and two sacks in 13 starts as a sophomore in 2011.. … Had 76 tackles, five pass breakups and four interceptions with two sacks and 11 tackles for loss last season as a junior. … Fast, tough, versatile safety who lacks ideal height but is impressive physically and can play both strong and free safety.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State; Jamar Taylor, CB, Boise State; D.J. Hayden, CB, Houston; Johnathan Cyprien, S, Florida International; Shamarko Thomas, S, Syracuse; J.J. Wilcox, S, Georgia Southern; Darius Slay, CB, Mississippi State; Johnathan Banks, CB, Mississippi State; D.J. Swearinger, S, South Carolina; Blidi Wreh-Wilson, CB, Connecticut; Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU.
"It was a regular day at practice. We were doing (first) team vs. scout team. They threw the ball my way. Me and the safety ran into each other. His knee hit me in my chest. I fell to the ground. It felt like I got the wind knocked out of me. When I was breathing, I just wasn't breathing right. Dr. Michael O'Shay (?) took me inside. He was asking me these questions and I was getting real cold. I'm looking around and I'm getting real sleepy. My left eye goes pitch black. I can't see out of it. I can see a little bit out of my left eye. I'm praying, ‘Lord, help me get out if this one.' They rushed me to the hospital and did a scan on my stomach and my chest. They saw a lot of blood in my abdomen. They thought it was my liver or my spleen. The doctor said he was going to have to cut me open. I said, ‘Okay, just don't mess my abs up.' So they cut through my sternum and saw the i(inferior vena cava), the main vein to your heart, was torn. He put some sutures, in stitched it back together, closed me back up and here I am today. I didn't think it was that serious before I woke up. I woke up and saw it on the news. Then I was looking at the scar and all these bandages and all these machines I'm hooked up to and I realized I was truly blessed. They told me what happened was 95 percent fatal. I'm truly blessed to be here right now." – Hayden, on nearly dying after rupturing his inferior vena cava in a practice collision in November.
Position analysis: Gone is 15-year NFL veteran – and likely Pro Football Hall of Famer – Charles Woodson, the defense's emotional leader who was released in a cost-cutting move on Feb. 15. Cornerback Tramon Williams, considered during the 2010 season to be one of the top 5 cover men in the league, still isn't the player he was before suffering nerve damage in his shoulder in the 2011 regular-season opener, and now cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt expects a four-way competition for the two starting cornerback jobs involving Williams, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Davon House. Tim has flown by and safety Morgan Burnett is now entering his fourth NFL season and a contract year, with coaches' Pro Bowl predictions for him yet to be realized. (He was the only defensive player to play all 1,259 snaps last season and ranked second on the team in tackles (137) while registering two sacks and two interceptions.Put it all together, and the secondary is one of the team's primary issues. Hayward was a second-round find out of Vanderbilt last year, and his arrow is pointing up. Shields, who missed six weeks with a sprained ankle, was great upon his return. House flashed in camp but had his season derailed by a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery. Williams was more like himself last year than he was in 2011, but he's still fighting his way back. The biggest question is at safety, where Burnett is in a contract year but the other spot is up in the air. Is it M.D. Jennings' spot to lose? Or is Jerron McMillian, a fourth-round pick from Maine last year, set to emerge? Both saw action while Woodson was sidelined with a broken collarbone, but neither truly distinguished himself. It remains a sad fact that this defense hasn't been the same since three-time Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins' career-ending neck injury in Week 2 of the 2011 season.
Draft strategy: The Packers certainly like to grow their own in the secondary. Burnett, Hayward, McMillian and House are all Ted Thompson draft picks, while Shields, Jennings and safety Sean Richardson are all original undrafted rookie free-agent signees. Williams and Jarrett Bush came into the league as undrafted guys with other teams and were signed or claimed on the cheap. It wouldn't be the least bit surprising to see Thompson nab a safety with his first pick – or see him trade back out of No. 26 and take a safety in the second round while accumulating an extra pick. The deep safety class certainly would lend itself to an addition there on Day 1 or Day 2 – last year's class, by contrast, was considered to be a weak one when Thompson took McMillian in the fourth round – but it would be rare for the Packers to use their first-round pick on the position. Only once in the last 20 years – when Ron Wolf traded into the first round to take Alabama's George Teague in 1993 – have the Packers taken a true safety in the first round. (1999 first-round pick Antuan Edwards started his career at cornerback, then moved to safety.) In eight drafts under Thompson, the Packers have drafted six safeties: Collins (second) and Marviel Underwood (fourth) in 2005; Tyrone Culver (sixth) in 2006; Aaron Rouse (third) in 2007; Burnett (third) in 2010; and McMillian (fourth) last year. But historically, the Packers have hit some second-round home runs at the position with Collins, Darren Sharper (1997) and LeRoy Butler (1990).
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on "Green & Gold Today" on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.
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