INDIANAPOLIS – In 2012 Bill Belichick and the Patriots made a surprising second-round selection of Tavon Wilson. Last year New England took Duron Harmon in the third round.
Yet, the starting job next to captain and second-team All-Pro Devin McCourty remains a question mark this offseason.
Wilson played nearly no defense last fall in his second season and seems slotted as primarily a special teamer at this point.
Harmon saw rotational action as a rookie and drew high praise from Belichick for his communication skills and headiness. How the organization views the Rutgers product, as well as values veteran Steve Gregory (who started 11 of the 14 games he played last fall), will go a long way toward how much focus is put on the safety position in May's 2014 NFL Draft.
If Belichick and Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio choose to target safety for the third straight season, there are certainly plenty of interesting prospects to pick from in one of the deepest drafts anyone can remember. According to NFLDraftScout.com somewhere in the range of two dozen safeties maintain draftable grades this spring, about half of those who are considered strong safeties.
With McCourty entrenched at free safety, and expected to earn a contract extension in the near future, New England's focus at the position would likely be in search of more of a strong safety type. That was clearly the intention when the team signed veteran Adrian Wilson last year in free agency, but the former Cardinals star landed on IR before the season and could very well be cut before ever playing for New England considering he apparently tore his Achilles sometime after landing on IR last fall.
Still, finding a physical, tone-setting safety who's not necessarily a liability in coverage should remain a priority. Gregory has done an admirable job at times in his two seasons as a Patriot, but the former cornerback doesn't really have the build or the style to be a true strong safety.
While there is certainly a blurry line between strong and free safeties in today's NFL game, the expected top strong safety in this year's class of prospects at the Scouting Combine this week is Washington State's Deone Bucannon (6-1, 211).
Bucannon is projected to be a second- or third-round pick by NFLDraftScout.com, while other prospects who could go in the middle rounds include Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward (5-10, 191), Baylor's Ahmad Dixon (5-11, 205) and LSU's Craig Loston (6-0, 214).
Bucannon -- like many of the strong safeties or bigger safeties in the draft -- talked quite a bit about watching Seattle enforcer Kam Chancellor play and how that's brought about the desire with many teams to have that type of player. Bucannon earned All-American honors with the Cougars with 78 solo tackles and six interceptions, giving him 15 picks for his career.
"We're a dying breed," Bucannon said of big safeties, "but players like Kam Chancellor are giving us a chance."
He said that Chancellor, "plays the game with heart, passion and tenacity. That's how I want to play."
And given his 15 career interceptions, Bucannon wants people to understand he can be a force in coverage as well as in the box.
"A lot of people don't see that," he said of his picks. "I'm out here to prove I can be the player they want me to be.
"I don't think there is anyone better than me."
Much later in the draft in terms of that dying breed of true strong safeties is San Diego State's Nat Berhe (5-10, 194), an undersized guy almost regardless of which position he played, but certainly as a strong safety. He led the Aztecs with 97 tackles last fall, but there simply aren't a lot of safeties in the NFL playing at under 5-10, which is really what Berhe is.
"In 51 games of my career I never turned down anything. My height has never been an issue, my size has never been an issue," Berhe says, answering the common question of size. "I don't think it will be an issue at the next level either."
Berhe, who considers himself "more of a hitter," brought up his high motor as his greatest attribute, but also emphasized how much he's willing to be a student of the game.
"I think what needs to be done is studying the playbook," Berhe said of transitioning to the next level. "A lot of guys get caught up in the physical aspect of it, but football is mental, it's a mental game."
While there aren't any strong safeties expected to come off the board in the first round there are a couple free safety types who might land there, led by a pair of underclassmen in Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (6-1, 208) and Louisville's Calvin Pryor (6-2, 208).
Clinton-Dix is an aggressive, long athlete in the back end who can cover a lot of ground and has been compared by some to another Seahawks Pro Bowler, Earl Thomas, though not nearly as polished at this point. He also obviously comes out of an impressive system under Nick Saban, although some have begun the question how Tide players have transitioned to the pro game and whether they max out their talents in college.
Clinton-Dix played more deep safety two years ago and then spent a bit more time in the box this past fall. That saw him notched 51 tackles and two picks in 2013, a bit fewer big plays than the team-high five interceptions he had a year earlier. But he thinks the differing roles will benefit him moving forward.
"I think I can play both the deep field and in the box," Clinton-Dix said. "At the next level you have to play both.
"I think you need more versatile safeties in the league now," he added, clearly thinking he fills that bill.
Pryor is a very physical player who teamed with Hakeem Smith, a strong safety prospect this spring, to form one of the best safety tandems in the country last fall. He tallied 69 tackles, three picks and two forced fumbles to earn all-conference recognition. He's a considered a well-rounded prospect and has been described by some as having a "sledgehammer" playing style.
"I'm very confident in my game," said Pryor, another guy who says he's become a big Chancellor fan of late. "My film speaks for itself."
He also thinks that he and the other safeties are joining the NFL at the right time when the need for the position to be a key part of the defense is immense.
"It's a great need for the NFL," Pryor says, talking about wanting to bring an aggressive, greedy playmaking style to whichever team drafts him. "With the NFL being a passing league you need more DBs out there to play the ball."
Stanford underclassman Ed Reynolds (6-2, 206) is a potential second rounder who though listed as a free safety has the size/speed to be considered for a more hybrid/strong role in the NFL, while Florida State's Terrence Brooks (5-11, 198) and USC's Dion Bailey (6-0, 200) are mid-round options.
Brooks is a former cornerback who thinks that is a major advantage to him as modern day safety.
"Just being able to stay on the field with my coverage skills," Brooks says of his overall strengths. "I'm physical, too. Just being versatile."
Brooks knows that the safety position, like so many in this draft is deep and talented. He's doing his best to stand out.
"Very deep. There some good players in this class," he said. "But I'm here to compete. I feel like I'm as good or better than any of them."
And he's certainly not willing to concede that his less-than-ideal height is an issue.
"It's how big you play. I feel like I play big," Brooks said.
Bailey is an interesting prospect as he played linebacker for two years at USC before bumping back to safety. Because of that he's clearly comfortable near the line of scrimmage, reading plays at the line and taking on bigger blockers at times. He had five interceptions as a junior last fall to go along with 62 tackles. He actually led the Trojans in 2011 with 81 tackles as a linebacker.
He also covered a lot in the slot and against tight ends for Southern Cal, so feels like he can do pretty much anything that a defensive coordinator could ask of him. And compares himself to a pretty impressive fellow former Trojan.
"My game resembles Troy Polamalu's," Bailey said of the Steelers star who also played both linebacker and safety at USC.
His biggest goal this week is to open some eyes with his speed, although he wouldn't put a number on the record.
"People aren't expecting me to run too fast," he admitted. "I'm expecting to surprise some people."
At the very least, Bailey could be a special teams coach's dream.
One really intriguing late-round free safety is Western Kentucky underclassman Jonathan Dowling (6-2, 190). Dowling began his career at Florida but was kicked off the team by Urban Meyer for, among other things, skipping practices. He landed on his feet as an impressive, productive force at Western Kentucky where he had three interceptions and six forced fumbles last fall, after having six interceptions in 2012.
Dowling compares himself to Ed Reed, although revealed that assuming he runs the fast 40 time that he's hoping for this week in Indy that teams have told him he could end up at cornerback at the next level in the big mold that's been established by the likes of Richard Sherman.
"Coverage is my main strength," Dowling says of college work that included primarily man duties. "If I'm covering somebody they are not going to throw to that side of the field. They are going to go the other way."
Confidence is clearly not an issue for Dowling.
"I want to be all-around the best safety to play the game," he says, although he admits he needs to improve his tackling.
Tackling, coverage, intelligence, leadership – there are a lot of aspects that go into being a safety in the NFL. It's a tough position to play that seemingly gets tougher each year as opposing offenses take things to the next level.
That's why so many prospects at this week's Combine are focusing on their versatility as they try to sell themselves to the media, and more importantly to NFL teams.
The Patriots certainly could look to add even more talented, versatile options to the middle of the secondary again this spring, potentially targeting a safety for the third-straight year in an effort to shore up the spot next to McCourty.