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Safety issue: USC's Mays has skills to pull of an NFL first

Ben Liebenberg / NFL.com
USC's Taylor Mays could be the top overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft and the first safety ever drafted that high.


Scouts leaving USC's campus are shaking their heads in amazement after viewing safety Taylor Mays' sensational skills in person. Mays' game is so unique, even the most astute evaluators are awestruck by his immense talent.

Given the rarity of such a talent manning the position, many scouts are pondering a question: Can Mays become the first safety ever drafted with the top overall pick?

Greg Trott / Associated Press
The Redskins took hard-hitting safety LeRon Landry from LSU with the sixth overall pick in the 2007 draft.
Highest-drafted safeties since 1990:
Year Player Pos. Pick Team
1991 Eric Turner FS 2nd Browns
2005 Sean Taylor FS 5th Redskins
2007 LaRon Landry SS 6th Redskins
2006 Michael Huff SS 7th Raiders
2006 Donte Whitner SS 8th Bills
2002 Roy Williams FS 8th Cowboys
1991 Stanley Richard FS 9th Chargers

Mays, a four-year starter and two-time All-American, has earned rave reviews for his outstanding playmaking ability as a pass defender and as a teeth-rattling hitter. At 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, he brings the intimidating presence that most defensive coordinators crave in the middle of the field. His blazing speed (reportedly runs a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash) makes him a rare athlete at the position. Mays' combination of skills and measurables have been the buzz in scouting circles for the past few years.

Safeties with the ability to play effectively against the run and pass are rare commodities, and those who also bring exceptional size to the position earn regal status in the draft. While no safety has ever been plucked with the No. 1 overall pick, several "big" safeties have come off the board within the top 10 selections. Eric Turner (No. 2 by the Browns in 1991), Roy Williams (No. 8 by the Cowboys in 2002) and Sean Taylor (No. 5 by the Redskins in 2004) were all top-10 picks.

That exceptional trio amassed a number of Pro Bowl appearances during their respective careers. Bigger safeties often have a tougher time matching up in space and are routinely exploited when forced to cover receivers in one-on-one situations. Therefore, most are restricted to serving as "box-area" defenders in most schemes.

However, Mays' superior skill has even the most cynical of evaluators trumpeting his potential as an instant impact player as a pro and has defensive coordinators salivating at the possibilitiy of adding such a unique talent to the mix.

Whether that results in Mays emerging as the No. 1 overall pick is unknown, but he has definitely thrust himself into the conversation as a viable candidate.

Games this week on the radar of NFL scouts
Nebraska at Missouri, 9 p.m. ET Thursday
Scouts will focus on Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, two of the top defensive players in the 2010 draft class. Suh has shown dominant ability as an interior rusher. If Suh can continue to flash the game-changing ability he has displayed through the first half of the season, he may cement his status as the top defensive tackle prospect. Weatherspoon, on the other hand, will draw close scrutiny from scouts trying to determine where he ranks among a draft class loaded with outside linebackers. Weatherspoon has displayed momentum-shifting ability at times, and his versatility makes him highly coveted in the scouting community. Another standout performance could further boost his stock.

West Virginia at Syracuse, Noon ET Saturday
This Big East battle is on the radar of scouts interested in seeing Syracuse defensive tackle Arthur Jones display his skills against West Virginia's front line which features tackle Selvish Capers. While the highly rated prospects won't square off against each other, the battle in the trenches is sure to be the main attraction for scouts. Jones has emerged as a top tier prospect at the position, but must show that he can be a dominant player at the point of attack. Capers has impressed scouts with his athleticism, but is refining key elements of his game as he continues to make the transition from tight end to offensive tackle. Capers will continue to ascend up draft boards as an early-round prospect if he can display a better anchor against power.

Alabama at Ole Miss, 4:30 p.m. ET Saturday
Scouts are anxious to see Ole Miss offensive lineman John Jerry tussle with Alabama defensive tackle Terrence Cody and defensive end Brandon Deaderick. Scouts are also casting an eye towards the battle between Rebel receiver Shay Hodge and Crimson Tide cornerback Javier Arenas. The Alabama standout has earned high marks for his return skills, but scouts are curious to see if Arenas has the skills to be a legitimate cover corner as a pro. His ability to lock down Hodge could cement his status among the ranks of the elite. Scouts will also closely scrutinize Rebels receiver Dexter McCluster and quarterback Jevan Snead (2011 prospect) against the Crimson Tide's ferocious defense. Ole Miss defensive end Greg Hardy is undoubtedly the main attraction on the other side of the ball. Scouts want to see Hardy show off his diversified game after being slowed by a nagging injury.

Florida at LSU, 8 p.m. ET Saturday
In a clash of SEC titans, scouts are excited to see a number of highly touted prospects square off in a big-game atmosphere, starting with Gators quarterback Tim Tebow, who only passed for 115 yards with no touchdowns and an interception against Tennessee and former NFL defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. Scouts are curious to see how he fares in his big test against the Tigers. Tebow could be a game-time decision because of a concussion. LSU defensive end Rahim Alem and linebacker Perry Riley will also garner a lot of attention from scouts because of their penchant for big plays. All eyes will be on LSU running backs Charles Scott and Keiland Williams as both started to show signs of life against Georgia. Scott finally displayed the skills that earned him a high grade from scouts prior to the season. Scott will face a formidable front seven which features highly regarded prospects like linebacker Brandon Spikes and defensive end Jermaine Cunningham. Also, scouts will keep a tab on the intriguing special-teams battle between Florida returner Brandon James and LSU returner Trindon Holliday. James is widely considered one of the best returners in the 2010 draft class, while Holliday -- the 2009 NCAA 100-meter sprint champion -- is a threat to score whenever he touches the ball.

Michigan at Iowa, 8:05 p.m. ET Saturday
Scouts will closely watch Michigan defensive end Brandon Graham and Iowa tackle Kyle Calloway. Graham is lauded for his tremendous motor, and explosive rush skills. Although he has tallied only one sack this season, Graham has provided consistent pressure off the edge and is relentless in his pursuit of the quarterback. Calloway has earned high praise for his play at right tackle, but will be challenged by Graham's impressive rush skills. If he can hold up against one of the top rushers in the 2010 draft class, Calloway can continue to boost his stock as a potential early-round prospect. Iowa linebacker Pat Angerer is emerging as a dominating force in the middle. Angerer's penchant for delivering big plays has created a stir among scouts. With the Wolverines featuring dynamic running back Brandon Minor, scouts will get another chance to see if Angerer can be an impact player against the run.

 
Sleeper Watch
Eric Norwood, South Carolina, OLB

Eric Norwood

Norwood has generated a strong buzz in scouting circles after putting together dominant performances against North Carolina State and Ole Miss. The relentless edge rusher has shown outstanding quickness and burst pursuing the quarterback, and has flashed an uncanny ability to generate turnovers.

While many scouts had Norwood pegged as a potential third-round prospect heading into the season, his stellar play during the first half of the year has catapulted his value on several draft boards. Norwood could further boost his rising status in the coming weeks, facing Alabama, Arkansas and Florida.

The Sweet 16
Bucky Brooks' latest list of the top 16 senior NFL prospects for the 2010 draft class, in order of when they might get drafted:

1. Russell Okung, OT, Oklahoma St.
Okung is a dominating lineman with exceptional size and nimble feet. He continues to impress scouts with his superior skills as a run and pass blocker, and is undoubtedly a franchise-caliber left tackle prospect.

2. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Nebraska
Scouts continue to marvel at Suh's exceptional strength, power and athleticism. He is a dominant interior player with the skills to terrorize opponents as a run stuffer or pass rusher, and his unique skill set makes him the top defensive prospect in the draft.

3. Taylor Mays, FS, USC
Some scouts rate this hard-hitting safety as the top defensive player in the 2010 draft. An exceptional athlete with outstanding instincts and awareness, Mays is the prototypical enforcer defensive coordinators covet in the middle of the field.

4. Terrence Cody, DT, Alabama
The mammoth run stuffer is immovable at the point and gobbles up double teams with ease. Cody's ability to clog the middle is invaluable in the pro game, but concerns about his weight may cause his stock to drop prior to the draft. Nevertheless, few defensive tackles have the potential to impact a defense like Cody.

5. Colt McCoy, QB, Texas
McCoy has not put up impressive numbers this season but remains a highly regarded quarterback prospect due to his superior intangibles. McCoy shows good accuracy, awareness and anticipation as a pocket passer, and continues to surprise scouts with his athleticism on the perimeter. McCoy's overall package makes him the top choice among senior quarterbacks.
Complete list ...


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