You think safety first when you drive your car, but you don’t in the draft. One safety has been a top-five pick since 2000 — Sean Taylor, chosen fifth by the Washington Redskins in 2004. In the past three drafts, one safety has cracked the top 15 — LaRon Landry, chosen by the Redskins in 2007.
In a league in which a higher value is placed on quarterbacks, left tackles, cornerbacks and pass rushers, even premier safeties like Troy Polamalu (16th overall, 2003), Ed Reed (24th overall, 2002) and Brian Dawkins (61st overall, 1996) were not top-10 picks.
This year’s draft, however, is loaded with good safeties. Tennessee’s Eric Berry and Texas’ Earl Thomas could be top-10 picks. Southern Cal’s Taylor Mays is also expected to go in the first round.
Why is such high value being placed on these three? One, they are extremely talented.Two, the need to contain prolific pass-catching tight ends such as Antonio Gates and Dallas Clark, coupled with offensive formations that spread the field, has raised the value of versatile safeties who can cover, tackle and blitz.
"You’ve got to find guys that can cover — period — whether you classify them as corners or safeties,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. "That helps guys like Eric Berry and Earl Thomas as they try to become top-10, top-15 picks.”
Here’s a look at this year’s top safeties:
Eric Berry, Tennessee
What makes him special: Berry has a complete tool box — range, ball skills and the ability to turn interceptions into touchdowns with his running ability. In his first two college seasons, Berry intercepted 12 passes and returned three for TDs. Last season, opposing quarterbacks got the memo. Do not throw in Berry’s direction.
Berry’s defensive coordinator last season at Tennessee was Monte Kiffin — a long-time NFL defensive coordinator with the Buccaneers. Kiffin’s knowledge made Berry even more NFL-ready.
"He (Kiffin) told us exactly why he was calling plays,” Berry said at the Scouting Combine. "He didn’t just call plays and make us run it. He would say, `OK, it’s third and short, and this is why we’re calling this play against this team. This is what you can expect from them.’ You kind of got into the mind of a defensive coordinator.”
What did Kiffin tell Berry about his decision to enter the draft as a junior?
"Monte told me I’d be a fool to come back,” Berry said.
Where Berry might go: The best-case scenario for Berry is going to the Chiefs at No. 5 overall. The first four teams on the board — the Rams, Lions, Buccaneers and Redskins — have other priorities. However, if Berry falls past the Chiefs, it is hard to envision him slipping past the Browns at No. 7.
"As a rule, safeties aren’t often talked about going that high,” Rams general manager Billy Devaney said. "But this guy, I think in everybody’s mind, impacts the game. You try to get impact players, and Berry’s certainly one.”
Earl Thomas, Texas
What makes him special: With eight interceptions in 13 games last season, there are no doubts about Thomas’ playmaking ability. Thomas is another every-down safety who should fit in any system.
"I’m comfortable at corner, safety, nickel — it really doesn’t matter,” Thomas said. "I’m just a ballplayer ready to play.”
Where Thomas might go: The Jaguars (No. 10) have a need and will likely have the opportunity to draft Thomas. If they pass, the Dolphins (No. 12) could provide a landing spot. Though there is a possibility Thomas could fall farther down the board, his body of work and versatility should keep him in the top 20.
Taylor Mays, Southern Cal
What makes him special: He may be the best athlete in the draft — an unusual combination of size (230 pounds) and speed (4.43 in the 40-yard dash). Mays is also a ferocious hitter — the kind of safety who intimidates receivers running routes over the middle.
Where Mays might go: Mays would fit nicely on the Bengals (No. 21), Packers (No. 23) or Jets (No. 29). An impressive showing at the Combine boosted his draft stock. The biggest knock on Mays is that he does not have good ball skills, that he goes for the big hit instead of the interception.
Mays believes his blazing 40 time at the Combine proves he has the ability to cover ground in the secondary and to make more plays than he did in college.
"I’m going to have to be more aware of when the ball is in the air,” he said. "In the NFL, a turnover is a big deal. I know I can do it. It’s just adding that element to my game.”
This story appears in March 24’s edition of Sporting News Today. If you are not receiving Sporting News Today, the only daily digital sports newspaper, sign up today.
Senior writer Clifton Brown covers the NFL for Sporting News. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.