INDIANAPOLIS – The last time the Patriots took the field, for the AFC title game in the very RCA Dome were the Combine is being held, veteran cornerback conversion Artrell Hawkins, second-year developing contributor James Sanders and even little used waiver-wire addition Rashad Baker saw time at safety in the team's most important game of the season.
While those backups were eventually coming up short covering the high-powered Colts, regular starting strong safety Rodney Harrison was working back from his third major injury in less than two seasons and opening day starting free safety Eugene Wilson had already spent more than a month on injured reserve with a hamstring/groin injury.
Wilson, whose play has fallen off over the last two seasons after a spectacular playmaking start to his career in New England, will once again be back in 2007 looking to rebound from a pair of suspect seasons. The 34-year-old Harrison has also said definitively that he'll be a part of the Patriots secondary next fall. But coming off the major injuries that have hit his aging body, it might be tough for the team to count on the defensive captain to play a full season moving forward and be the dominant, hard-hitting leader in the back end of Bill Belichick's defense.
With that in mind, and with New England holding two first-round picks and four of the top 100 picks in April's draft, the team could look to delve into a talented group of safeties projected to go on the first day of selections. According to NFLDraftScout.com the combination of strong and free safety spots could see as many as 30 players go on draft weekend, including as many as a dozen on the first day.
NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock says many teams are looking for the strong/free safety hybrid-type players at the top of the draft, led by LSU's LaRon Landry (6-2, 205) whose playmaking ways could make him a top-10 selection and instant impact NFL rookie.
"LaRon Landry the safety from LSU is, I think, just a phenomenal football player," Mayock said. "I think there is a little bit of a trend right now with teams hoping to keep their safeties anonymous. Not a strong safety. Not a free safety. But a guy that can do both – play in the box, cover a deep half, play a deep middle and even cover a slot. You saw [Oakland's Michael] Huff and [Buffalo's Donte] Whitner go seven and eight last year, so it wouldn't surprise me to see LaRon Landry as a top-10 pick."
Landry says he tries to emulate Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott on the field and studies plenty of tape of his football idol. Landry played left and right safety at times at LSU, can cover in the nickel (although he prefers laying the lumber saying, "I love contact.") and hopes to have an immediate impact in the NFL as his brother Dawan did last fall as a rookie with the Ravens.
"I'm a complete safety," Landry said Sunday at the Combine. "I'm very fast, physical, I communicate well. I'm able to read offenses. I can play the middle of the field, man to man. I have great technique. I can play down in the box, fit the runs, take on pulling guards. I just have a passion for the game. I give 110 percent effort and I make the players around me work to try to match my intensity."
While Landry's rising stock will likely pull him off the board long before the Patriots are on the clock, there are a number of other safeties that might be plausible picks at either 24, 28 or in the second round. In terms of players listed as free safeties expected to go somewhere from the middle of the first round to the early part of the third the group includes Florida's Reggie Nelson (6-0, 195), Miami's Brandon Meriweather (5-11, 192) and Wake Forest's Josh Gattis (6-1, 206).
Nelson is a speedy playmaker who flies around the ball and brings bigger hits than his size might suggest. Nelson was called "The Eraser" by fellow Gators draft prospect Reggie Lewis for always cleaning up plays that got by the cornerback position in the Florida secondary.
Nelson lost his mother to cancer just prior to Florida's national championship dismantling of Ohio State, something the Gators' MVP has used to motivate him through the pre-draft process. Some teams have talked to Nelson about playing cornerback as well as free safety at the next level and he feels more than ready for the challenge that the NFL represents.
"Pro game? It'll be bigger, faster receivers," Nelson said simply of the adjustments he'll face. "I'll just have to adapt to the speed like I did going to Division I."
Meriweather is a Hurricane on the rise, maybe boosting himself into the late part of the first round. Though the smallest of the top free safety prospects, Meriweather is still seen as a playmaker at the next level. He has the cover skills of a cornerback, a position he's played well at times. But he also carries characters concerns based on off-field issues including an incident with a gun and his actions during Miami brawl with Florida International last season. If he can clear those concerns up his on-field talents could make him a valuable first-round selection.
If the Patriots don't go for one of the early free safety prospects, the group of players expected to go later in the draft is mixed. Guys like Wyoming's John Wendling (6-1, 222), Notre Dame's Chinedum Ndukwe (6-2, 218), Iowa's Marcus Paschal (6-0, 205) and Hawaii's Leonard Peters (6-1, 205) could all be late-round possibilities with high upsides in terms of, at the very least, special teams contributions.
Peters might be the most intriguing late rounder of the group with his size, decent speed and maniacal, hard-hitting ways that he displayed for the Rainbow Warriors. That style of play led to some injuries in college, but as a later pick Peters could bring dynamic value, especially on special teams.
The crop of strong safeties at the Combine includes a handful of top-end prospects before a drop off to a group of mid and late round possibilities. At this point Texas' Michael Griffin (5-11, 202) is considered to be the only first-round talent in the group. Griffin has the coverage skills to man up with opposing receivers, but also brings the physicality needed at strong safety. Griffin led the Longhorns in tackles in each of the last two seasons and isn't too worried about what position teams might put him at when he starts lining up on Sundays.
"I'm just one of those guys, you need me to play this position, I'll do the best I can. I'm not real picky," Griffin said. "I'll play strong or free or corner. If they want me to play linebacker, I'm gonna go out and do the best I can and try to help my team win a game. In this day and age in NFL, you need safeties who are able to cover. If they need me to be a nickel or dime back, I'll do it. I'm just trying to get my foot in the door and prove what I can do."
Behind Griffin sits a group of strong safeties slotted to go in the second and third rounds. The bunch includes Virginia Tech's Aaron Rouse (6-4, 226), Utah's Eric Weddle (5-11, 205), Oregon State's Sabby Piscitelli (6-3, 224) and Washington State's Eric Frampton (5-11, 205).
Rouse is a physical specimen who started his college career as a linebacker, played plenty of special teams for the Hokies including work as a gunner and blocking kicks and actually could end up being a better professional than he was in college thanks to his impressive set of versatile skills.
"My ability to play linebacker and play safety is something that teams are looking for, a guy who can play in a lot of systems," Rouse said. "In the NFL it comes down to making plays and I'm just looking forward to going to the next level to do that."
Rouse says his style of play is patterned after a few very successful NFL stars, including one current Patriot.
"I'd like to say I have the passion of Ray Lewis, the heart of [Tedy] Bruschi, and the ball skills of Ed Reed," Rouse added. "You put those together, you got me."
The undersized Weddle has even more versatility, having played all special teams (including full-time holder and occasional punter), all defensive back positions and even his share of offense in his time at Utah. The two-time defending Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year was even manned up with this draft's potential top pick Calvin Johnson in the 2005 Emerald Bowl, holding him to just two catches for 19 yards.
This past season Weddle was fourth on the team in tackles, had seven interceptions (two returned for touchdowns), two fumble recoveries (one for a touchdown), rushed for five scores on offense and even threw a touchdown. Described by some scouting reports as a better football player than an athlete, Weddle thinks there is a spot for him in the NFL – regardless of where he ends up getting taken on draft weekend. Weddle said he's already talked to the Patriots "a bunch." His attitude and versatility would seem to be something Belichick might enjoy putting to use in New England.
"I'm just a guy who loves football and will do anything and everything for the team," Weddle said. "I'll go out there and play all special teams like I've done in my career. Offense, defense -- whatever a team needs. I'll do it and do it to the best of my ability."
The bottom of the strong safety crop would seem to be an even greater crap shoot. Guys like Stanford's Brandon Harrison (6-2, 215), Maine's Daren Stone (6-3, 220), LSU's Jesse Daniels (5-11, 205), North Dakota State's Craig Dahl (6-1, 212) and Elon's Chad Nkang (6-0, 218) could all hear their names called late on draft weekend or not at all.
In the end, the playmakers seem to be there heading toward draft weekend if the Patriots are looking to add an injection of youthful playmaking talent to a safety spot that's grown somewhat stagnant in New England over the last few years. But if the team is looking for a true impact player to add to the middle of the secondary, it'll probably have to target the safety position with one of its two first-round picks or at the very least in the second round.