GREEN BAY, Wis. - Ted Thompson insists that the safety position isn't any more important today. Perhaps it's just important in a different way.
"You need good safety play to be a good defense, but you did 10 years ago or 20 years ago or whatever," the Green Bay Packers general manager said last week during his annual pre-draft chat with reporters. "I don't know. I think it's good to have that. It certainly gives you, as a defensive coordinator, more flexibility if you have more versatile-type guys. [But] at the end of the day, you just try to take the best player."
Thompson also said he doesn't believe that there are certain positions that you simply don't draft in the first round, and that if a safety is the right player to take when the Packers go on the clock at No. 21 in the first round Thursday night, he wouldn't be afraid to take one.
That said, 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. (Their 1999 first-round pick, Antuan Edwards, started his career at cornerback, then moved to safety.)
In nine drafts under Thompson, the Packers have drafted six safeties: Nick Collins (second round, 2005), Marviel Underwood (fourth round, 2005); Tyrone Culver (sixth round, 2006); Aaron Rouse (third round, 2007); Morgan Burnett (third round, 2010); and Jerron McMillian (fourth round, 2012). The jury is still out on Burnett; Rouse and McMillian were total disasters; and Collins, a three-time Pro Bowl pick whom coach Mike McCarthy said was headed for a Pro Football Hall of Fame-caliber career, saw his career end prematurely in 2011 because of a neck injury.
Which brings the Packers – and other teams, including their NFC North rival, the Chicago Bears – to the 2014 NFL Draft, which they enter in dire need safety help after not taking a safety last season and not signing one in unrestricted free agency this spring.
Because of the way the NFL has evolved into a more wide-open, passing-oriented game, even if Thompson is right about safety being just as important as it was before, having a safety who can play deep centerfield and provide better coverage help to his cornerbacks is vital.
The Super Bowl-champion Seattle Seahawks have the best safety combination in the league – Kam Chancellor, who is at his best coming up into the box to provide run support and hit, and Earl Thomas, whose range allows the Seahawks to play single-high safety coverages as their primary defense – and not coincidentally had the league's top defense.
"The game of football has changed over the last five years," said Kansas City Chiefs general manager John Dorsey, who was the Packers' director of college scouting in 2005, when they drafted Collins out of Bethune-Cookman. "The ability for safeties to cover means something now because they're passing and spreading the ball out a little bit more. Nick Collins was a very good player. I think (Chiefs Pro Bowl safety) Eric Berry is a very fine football player. And I think the safety position is like all of them – they're vitally important in today's football."
That's certainly been the San Francisco 49ers' philosophy. Last year, the 49ers traded up to take LSU safety Eric Reid. After starting two top-tier safeties in 2012 when they reached the Super Bowl – Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner – and seeing Goldson leave as a free agent in March 2013, the 49ers replaced him with Reid. Then, when Whitner left to join Cleveland as a free agent this offseason, the 49ers went out and signed Indianapolis free-agent Antoine Bethea – a player the Packers were interested in – to replace him.
"It's good to be good in the middle," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh explained. "Just like in baseball, you need to be good up the middle – catcher, pitcher, shortstop, second base, center fielder. In the same way, you want to be built that way on defense inside – nose tackle, your two linebackers, your safeties.
"It's the core of your unit, both offensively, defensively, closest to the ball. Same on offense – center, quarterback, running back."
Last year, three safeties went in the first round – Texas' Kenny Vaccaro (No. 15 to New Orleans), LSU's Reid (No. 16 to San Francisco) and Florida's Matt Elam (No. 32 to Baltimore). Another, Florida International's Jonathan Cyprien, went to Jacksonville with the first pick of the second round, No. 33 overall.
This year, two safeties – Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville's Calvin Pryor – are expected to go in the first round, while Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward and Washington State's Deone Bucannon are also highly regarded safeties.
According to Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who has long believed in having safeties who can cover a large swath of the field, the position will continue to evolve toward an emphasis on coverage.
"I've been that way philosophically for a while. It's to my upbringing in the NFL, where we've had safeties that could do that," Lewis said during his pre-draft news conference Tuesday. "The trend will continue that way because the trend in college football is that way. These guys are becoming more of big corners with the style of coverage, the style of offense and the things that people are playing. The game is evolving that way a little bit more."
Along with the Seahawks and 49ers, the Saints are another example of a team that sees importance in the safety position; 11 months after drafting Vaccaro, they signed the biggest-name free agent on the unrestricted market, ex-Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd, to a six-year, $54 million contract ($26.3 million guaranteed).
"What do we hear every year about the draft? ‘Oh, you can get safeties anywhere,' " NFL Films' Greg Cosell said on The Herd on ESPN Radio. "Well, isn't it interesting that the best defense in the league has the best safety duo in the league? That, to me, is the most overlooked [aspect of Seattle's defense]. Thomas as a deep middle defender has the most range of any safety in the league and he also plays downhill in the run game with a lot more tenacity and toughness than a lot of people might think. And Chancellor is so much better than people might think, given his size, at playing man-to-man coverage."
And with that coverage aspect becoming much more vital, scouting safeties in the draft had changed with the position.
"[There's] a lot more coverage responsibility," said Bears GM Phil Emery, whose team is in the market for a starting-caliber safety, too. "Players that play safety, ideally, they are interchangeable. You have to have physical toughness and the ability to get backs on the ground. That part of it hasn't changed, but people are sacrificing a little bit in the size area in terms of getting players that can be more active and successful in coverage."
BEST OF THE BEST
1. Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State (6-foot-0 1/8, 202 pounds, 4.35 seconds in the 40-yard dash): Bounced back from ho-hum junior year with 42 tackles, 14 pass breakups and seven interceptions as a senior last season. … Had 59 tackles, 15 pass breakups and five INTs as a sophomore in 2011 but had a down year in 2012, when he had 63 tackles but just nine pass breakups and no interceptions in 13 starts. … Explosive playmaker who had six kickoff returns for touchdowns and two interception returns for touchdowns during his career, one short of the NCAA record. … Has incredible speed for his size and very adept at catching the football. … Excellent coverage skills and natural talent.
BEST OF THE REST
2. Calvin Pryor, S. Louisville (5-11 1/4, 207, 4.62): Started all 12 games as a third-year junior last season had had 75 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 10 pass breakups and three interceptions. … Had 100 tackles, nine pass breakups and two INTs as a sophomore min 2012. … Became a starter as a true freshman in 2011, starting seven games and intercepting a pair of passes. ... Confident, athletic player with ability to come up in run support and play deep in centerfield. … Hard hitter who was not asked to do much in man coverage but should be an immediate starter at safety in the NFL.
3. Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State (5-10 7/8, 199, 4.42): Started all 14 games last season as a senior and had 62 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 14 pass breakups and four interceptions. … Three year starter who had 10 career interceptions and 30 pass breakups. ... Muscular, athletic player who reacts and anticipates plays well and has strong leadership skills. … Well-built physique but has had some durability issues.
4. Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama (6-1 3/8, 208, 4.62): Played in 11 games (nine starts) as a third-year junior last season and had 52 tackles, six pass breakups and two interceptions. … Played in 14 games as a sophomore in 2012 and had 37 tackles, nine pass breakups and a career-best five INTs. … Was not a starter as a true freshman, but did see action in 13 games. … Full name is Ha'Sean. … Solid tackler with good size and the ability to cover in the slot. … Did not make as many plays on the ball as scouts would prefer. … Was not a big playmaker but does have talent and instincts to start as a rookie.
5. Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech (5-11 3/4, 190, 4.43): Three-year starter at TCU after spending 2010 at Santa Rosa (Calif.) Junior College. … Had 39 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 16 pass breakups and two interceptions in 11 games as a senior last season. … Had 63 tackles, 22 pass breakups and six INTs as a junior in 2012. ... Instinctive, tough team leader who must improve strength (12 reps of 225 pounds at the scouting combine) and must improve in man coverage but a solid player who can contribute right away.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State; Jason Verrett, CB, TCU; Rashaad Reynolds, CB, Oregon State; Keith McGill, CB, Utah; Bashaud Breeland, CB, Clemson; Antone Exum, CB, Virginia Tech; Deone Bucannon, S, Washington State; Jimmie Ward, S, Northern Illinois; Brock Vereen, S, Minnesota; Dezmen Southward, S, Wisconsin; Terrence Brooks, S, Florida State.
"I'm very competitive, especially with my brothers. That's helped me to where I am now. We always want to be better than the next guy, each other, no matter how fast we are, the plays we make. We've had a couple races. Whenever we're home, we'll get it." – Fuller, on the sibling rivalry with his three brothers, all of whom who've played at Virginia Tech: Vincent, who played seven seasons in the NFL with Tennessee and Detroit; Corey, who is with the Lions now; and youngest brother Kendall, who started 12 games at cornerback as a true freshman last season alongside his brother.
Position analysis: It's hard to exaggerate just how disappointing the Packers' safety situation has been. M.D. Jennings started 17 games at the position last year, and yet the Packers thought so little of him that they didn't even bother with the lowest restricted free-agent qualifying offer ($1.4 million) and watched him join the Chicago Bears instead. Their 2012 fourth-round pick, Jerron McMillian, was such a disappointment that the team cut him at midseason, admitting that they squandered that pick 18 months after exercising it. And starter Morgan Burnett, whom the team rewarded with a four-year, $24.75 million extension last July, was not the field-tilting player he's expected to be and has yet to make the leap from starter to difference-maker. The Packers ended up playing five players at the position last year – Burnett, Jennings, McMillian, Sean Richardson and Chris Banjo – and not a single one managed even one interception, making the Packers the only team in the 32-team NFL not to get at least one interception from its safeties. Packers coach Mike McCarthy said at the NFL Meetings in March that he will give second-year defensive back Micah Hyde, a fifth-round pick who played primarily as the nickel back as a rookie, a chance to play safety – even though he didn't take a single snap there in practice or in a game last season.
Meanwhile, at corner, the Packers did bring back Sam Shields (four years, $39 million) but have veteran cornerback Tramon Williams heading into the last year of his deal. So, too, is Davon House, who has flashed ability but has yet to earn consistent playing time. Third-year cornerback Casey Hayward, who missed all but three games last year with a hamstring injury that dated back to his pre-training camp workouts on his own, should be healthy and ready to regain his form as a rookie, when he finished third in the NFL defensive rookie of the year voting.
Draft strategy: The Packers went into last year's draft – one that was the deepest it'd been at safety in eons – with a clear need at the position. By the end of the draft, they hadn't taken one, and now a year later, it remains a need. It will be interesting to see if the Packers have Clinton-Dix or Pryor on the board when they go on the clock – there's a chance at least one will still be there for them – and if they go with the safety position or opt for another area of need. Cornerback, meanwhile, is something of a sneaky need position. Although they are deep for now – with Shields, Williams, Hayward, Hyde and House as their top five – Williams' expiring contract means a corner would make plenty of sense on Day 1 if one falls to them. At the very least, expect a corer corner to be taken with one of their nine selections.
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.