S Eric Berry. AP Photo
INDIANAPOLIS – Recent early-round draft investments in safeties Brandon Meriweather (first round, 2007) and Patrick Chung (second round, 2009) could keep the Patriots from dipping into the impressive pool of safeties available.
Beyond the Pro Bowler Meriweather and Chung, who saw limited action as a rookie, New England also has capable returning veterans in the underrated James Sanders and Brandon McGowan.
So the safety spot may not be near the top of New England's needs heading into the 2010 NFL Draft. But given the overall quality and depth in the safety group at the Combine, a mid- or late-round selection at the spot can't be counted out.
Tennessee's Eric Berry (5-11, 211) is not only considered the top safety, some, including the player himself, believe he could be the top overall prospect in the entire class. The junior started for three seasons for the Vols, hauling in 14 interceptions and leaving college football 7 yards shy of the all-time interception return yardage record.
That makes him sound like the college game's Ed Reed, a comparison Berry does little to shy away from.
"I think it's a fair comparison off potential. Obviously, Ed Reed has done a lot more in the NFL but I feel I can do some of the same things he has done," Berry said. "You can see I'm on pace to be Ed Reed or better."
Berry said he played a variety of roles, both in coverage and in the box, in Monte Kiffin'sdefense last fall. At times he was John Lynch, other he was Ronde Barberin the scheme Kiffin used so successfully in the NFL for years in Tampa Bay.
Berry wasn't afraid to sell himself to the media, just as he's tried to do with NFL teams considering him near the top of the first round.
"If you want a complete defensive back, a complete player as far as special teams -- I played on kick return, kickoff, punt, punt return, all of those things. I definitely played free safety, strong safety, nickel corner, left and right corner. The list goes on," Berry said with supreme confidence. "If you look at my resume, you see who I played against. I played against Percy Harvin. Picked off the No. 1 pick last year, Matthew Stafford. Keep going down the list. Knowshon Moreno. So many things you could keep saying. I really want to sell myself as a good character guy off the field. I was a sophomore captain voted on by my teammates and my coaches. I was also a junior captain under a whole new coaching staff. That tells you a little bit about my character."
But baring an unforeseen big trade to move up, Berry isn't a consideration for New England. It's probably the same story for USC's Taylor Mays (6-3, 230), the only other safety projected by NFLDraftScout.com to go in the first round, both players considered more free safety types because of their athletic ability and despite their impressive size.
Mays returned to the Trojans for his senior season, a move that seems to have hurt his draft stock as many thought a year ago he'd be a potential top-10 pick. He doesn't regret the return to school and his projection as a lower first-round selection.
"I came back to become a better football player, and I feel like I did that, come back to help some of the young guys on my team learn like older guys before helped me," Mays said quietly. "That was important to me. I feel like regardless of what our record is, or how I played the season, that's what I accomplished."
A big hitter, and a guy some think could play some form of hybrid linebacker in the NFL, Mays believes he's actually capable of becoming a more rounded player in the NFL.
"That was the style that I was coached to do. Go for the hit and get knocked down, blow the receiver up," Mays said, before acknowledging he'll have to pull back from that style moving forward. "I'm going to have to be more aware of when the ball is in the air. In the NFL, a turnover is a big deal. I don't think I can't do it. I know I can do it. It's just adding that element to my game. It's something that I'm aware of and something I'm looking forward to being able to add to my game."
The group of safeties generally slotted to go in the second through fourth rounds is a deep one. In that group in terms of more free-safety types is South Florida's Nate Allen (6-0, 207), Georgia Tech's Morgan Burnett (6-1, 210), Florida's Major Wright(5-11, 206) and Virginia Tech's Kam Chancellor (6-3, 232).
Allen and Burnett face a similar problem in that a lot of their success in the secondary came at least in part due to an impressive pass rush – Derrick Morgan at Tech and both George Selvie and Jason Pierre-Paulfor South Florida. Burnett says teams ask about that factor, and that the players just need to open about acknowledging it.
"That helps out a lot with Morgan getting pressure on quarterbacks," Burnett said. "When the D-line gets pressure, as DBs we call what the quarterback's throw Popcorn Balls. That makes it easy for you to catch. Derrick getting pressure makes a safety's job easy."
Burnett had 14 interceptions over his three seasons at Tech, but also put some pretty big hits on opponents. The underclassman knows that at the next level the benefits of the big plays have to be weighed against sure tackling.
"The safety, you're the last line of defense," said Burnett, prideful of his tackling as well as his big hits. "So sometimes instead of breaking down if you try to go for the big hit and miss the tackle, that's a touchdown. You don't want to let those 10 other guys down. So sometimes you need to know when to break down and make the sure tackle."
Among the so-called strong safeties slotted to go in the mid rounds is the top prospect at that spot, LSU's Chad Jones (6-2, 221). Understanding that many guys don't get into the defense right away, something Chung learned in New England last fall, Jones knows he may have to make his mark early on in other ways.
"Everybody's expectations are high when they first go into the NFL," Jones said. "I plan to compete, just like everybody else competes, and hopefully find a job on the defense, and do some special teams .I feel pretty good (with) my special teams capabilities."
Other mid-round strong safeties include Georgia's Reshad Jones (6-2, 214), Nebraska's Larry Asante (6-0, 212) and Chung's former Oregon teammate T.J. Ward (5-10, 211).
Bill Belichickpraised Chung's ability to do a lot of things and communicate in the Ducks defense when he drafted the safety last fall, and Ward thinks he brings similar value.
"At that time, we knew we were all pretty good players," Ward said, looking back on a secondary that included he, fellow Combine invitee Walter Thurmond, Chung and Bills rookie Pro Bowler Jairus Byrd. "I guess to see what they're doing in the NFL right now and the position me and Walt are in -- I wouldn't say it was expected or we knew how much talent we had, but we knew we were a good secondary and we could do some big things."
Asante believes he's a versatile safety, as many of the prospect do. That could play well in a place like New England where they line up more in left and right safety looks, than true strong and free roles.
"We just played left or right," Asante said. "In our defense, depending on who we played, coach moved me around. The K-State game I was more of a box safety, the Texas game, the Missouri game I was the guy who played the middle of the field because they threw the ball and spread it around and I've got range and I can get to the ball.
"If my main goal is to just be a box safety I can do it. If my main goal is to play middle of the field I'm comfortable with both. I can do both, it just depends on what a team needs me to do.''
Given that NFLDraftScout.com rates 30 safeties as having the potential to be drafted in the seven rounds of the draft, the Patriots could find value even waiting to target the spot late in the draft.
Easily the most intriguing latter-round candidate is Myrone Rolle, formerly of Florida State, who spent the last year as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in England. He got up at 6 each morning to continue working out for his eventual return to the football field, while also moonlighting across the pond as a wing on a rugby team. Given his academic success, the year off from football and his post-football aspirations to go to medical school and become a neurosurgeon, a big question Rolle faces from NFL teams is about his desire to play the game.
""I do need football," the very impressive Rolle said. "Football has been a part of my life since I've been 6 years old. I really do enjoy the sport. I missed it while I was over in England. I'm excited to be back here. I had a great chance to show my ability at the Senior Bowl. This Combine is the next step in the evaluation process that I've very excited about it as well.
"I do want it, I want it as much as anybody who's out here right now. I'm here to prove that by the way I can perform during the drills, running the 40-yard-dash, the bench press and doing everything. Competing, challenging myself and testing my mettle in front of all 32 NFL teams. This is a very important time for me in this stage of my life and I'm looking forward to stepping up to the challenge.''
Like most of the safeties, Rolle is confident he can do just about anything a pro coach could ask from him at the position.
"As a football player I would say I'm accountable, I'm intelligent, a very good tackler, athletic and someone who is aggressive too, who wants to come and meet the point of contact, who can be in the box, can be back in the deep third, I had a chance to do at the Senior Bowl."
Given everything Rolle's achieved in his life, both academically and athletically, who's to doubt him now? Some team could get maybe the most well-rounded, late-round pick in NFL draft history. That is if his stock doesn't rise between now and late April.
Other names to keep an eye on late in the draft would be Notre Dame's Kyle McCarthy (6-0, 203), Alabama's Justin Woodall (6-1, 218), a potential linebacker convert in Toledo's Barry Church (6-2, 217), Indiana's Nick Polk(5-11, 213), UConn's Robert Vaughn (6-0, 197) and UMass' Jeromy Miles (6-2, 215), just to name a few.
Any time a draft at safety includes a guy with top-5 pick potential who's compared to Ed Reed and a late-round Rhodes Scholar it has to be considered a good year at the position. That's certainly the case in 2010 with a safety group that both top heavy with impact playmakers and deeply filled with potential versatile backups and special teamers. Good safeties are generally good all-around football players so don't be shocked if New England, even with its recent draft history at the spot, taps into this group at some point on draft weekend.