Simply stated, to be a first-round candidate at safety a player must be versatile. He must be able to cover the deep middle of the field in the passing game, slide up to the linebacker level and play the run, line up man-to-man against backs like Tiki Barber or a receiver like Jerry Porter, have a knack for sacking the QB when his blitz is called, and be smart enough to make all the adjustments.
Suffice to say, not many guys can do it all.
Ironically, safeties are not usually high first-round draft picks, but the top one or two candidates settle for the latter half of the first round.
What can be said about top draft picks at the safety position is that they will play a lot of football very early in their careers. The top safeties picked in the past two years are Ed Reed (Baltimore), Roy Williams (Dallas), Adam Archuleta (St. Louis) and Derrick Gibson (Oakland) -- they averaged participating in 77 percent of the defensive plays for their teams this past season. As a rule, only offensive linemen play as much as a team's starting safeties. So, if a team decides to take a safety in the first round, they know he's going to be on the field right away. Safeties don't get the learning curve a QB would get -- they line up, play and offensive coordinators know all too well how to expose any weaknesses.
The two probable candidates to become first-rounders in this draft are Troy Polamalu from USC and Mike Doss from Ohio State. I have watched Doss play on tape a few times and I know Polamalu personally. Doss comes to play, and Polamalu has rare character to go along with rare athletic ability. Both players are on the short side at 5-foot-10, but both are considered better run-support players than they are pass defenders.
Doss was the early leader back in January when the evaluations began. Polamalu missed the Orange Bowl, the Senior Bowl and the Combine with a hamstring injury, and thus lost some ground to Doss. Polamalu was healthy for his private workout and dazzled teams with a 431/2-inch vertical leap, a 4.3 40-yard dash and 25 reps on the bench. His numbers were better than Doss' and has moved ahead on a number of draft boards.
Most people with some insight into the draft believe Pittsburgh should be the first team to take a safety at No. 27 in the first round. There was a common belief just two weeks ago that they would have their choice of the above mentioned players because the Saints took care of their safety issues by trading for Tebucky Jones. Other teams that should want to come out of the first day with a safety include the Chargers, Bills, Texans and Colts. And don't be surprised if the Raiders try and jump up past the Steelers to take Polamalu who has to remind Al Davis of Jack Tatum, and the fact that Rod Woodson can't play forever.
Things get interesting after the first two safeties are selected. For a long period of time, the popular third safety on most boards was Ken Hamlin (Arkansas). He has better size than the two front runners and his 380 tackles as a college player makes a statement about his production. He has slipped on a few boards because of some off-the-field issues. More and more teams walk away from players with "baggage" because owners just don't want to give their money to guys who are risky. But it only takes one team to want him and he'll be gone. Look for the mid-second round for Hamlin.
A conversion corner like Andre Woolfolk from Oklahoma could slide into that spot if he's still on the board, which is unlikely. Julian Battle (Tennessee) has the size, coverage skills and production, but some feel he needs to work harder. Not all the teams I spoke with see that negative, and consequently, he has passed Hamlin on a few draft boards. A defensive coordinator I respect has a strong conviction about Terrence Holt (North Carolina State). He told me, "His 40 time isn't great but he more than makes up for it with his playing speed, which he gets from good judgment of all situations." He added, "How can you not love a guy who has blocked eight field goals and four punts in his college career? Lots of players with a faster clock speed could never do that on the field." Both Battle and Holt could find their pro home in the second round or early third round.
When you hear that a guy is a terrific strong-safety type or a great deep-middle free-safety type, it calls more to his limitations than his strengths. Remember, versatility is the name of the game in the 21st Century. The fourth and fifth rounds are typical spots for one-dimensional safeties who need work on their perceived weaknesses. Deep-middle players include Antwoine Sanders (Utah) and Willie Pile (Virginia Tech).
The aggressive linebacker types are always easier to find and this year is no exception. One secondary coach put them in this order for me: Gerome Sapp (Notre Dame), Donnie Nickey (Ohio State) and Todd Johnson (Florida). A second coach had Johnson on top and Sapp third. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Every year there is an undrafted safety who comes into the league and makes an impact. It happened for us at the Jets with Victor Green. All he did was have over 100 tackles a year for most of his career. I remember his college coach begging us to take the 5-9 Green. This year I've come across my free-agent dark horse -- Vince Alexander from Penn. Just ask Chicago Bears head coach Dick Jauron if an Ivy League guy can line up and play in this league -- he did.
Finally, when it comes to safeties, the name of the position tells you how important they are. They're the last line of defense. Many coaches like old-time veterans back there. Who can blame coaches with all they have to do? The Patriots had great success with a three-safety defensive package last year and we will see some more of that this year as teams study the creative Bill Belichick. For 2003, there's a short list of complete players, and as position breakdowns go, not as many teams seem to be in the market for a great one, although you can always upgrade more than you think you should.