A number of GMs and head coaches I spoke with at the NFL Scouting Combine told me they are looking for multitalented defensive backs that can handle all the adjustments to personnel groups and formations. Translation: find safeties that play like corners but aren't fragile and will not break down when the contact comes at them. St. Louis Rams GM Billy Devaney said it best: "You need a guy that can handle a slot receiver and come up and stop the run or blitz."
I think what we used to call a safety really isn't a safety anymore.
With that in mind, I went looking for the kind of safeties everyone is looking for and got a chance to sit down with four of the best in the draft. And believe me, they are special.
Eric Berry, a do-it-all safety from the University of Tennessee is rated as a top-10 draft candidate. I worked with Monte Kiffin, who coached him last year in Knoxville. Because of that, Berry and I were able to get into the X's and O's. Berry told me he studied Polamalu and Bob Sanders to learn how to "sugar" his looks (disguise the coverages). He played a lot more in the box this year than the year before and he feels very confident he can get deep when lined up shallow, get down in the box when lined up deep, and pressure when asked to go. One GM said Berry can do it all and should not be considered a safety but rather a complete defensive back.
Next stop, Earl Thomas from the University of Texas -- another complete defensive back. Here's a guy that plays the piano and saxophone off the field, and on the field drives quarterbacks crazy trying to figure out where he lines up and what his responsibility really is on a given play. Some would argue he's ahead of Berry on draft boards. I asked Thomas if he was the best defensive back in the draft, but he was way too humble to answer that question. Instead, he went on to talk about how he prepares for football and opponents, and when the coaches at the combine hear him talk they all are going to want him on their team. He told me how his family lost its home in a hurricane and why it's time to help out by going to the NFL.
When I asked him about press coverage techniques, his response was, "My dad played arena football and I've been pressing guys since elementary school." Thomas can line up anywhere in the secondary and play well. I circled back to the piano at the end of our conversation and asked him how he got started with playing. "Our family was at church one Sunday and the choir was singing and no one was on the piano," he explained. "So my dad said, 'Go up there and play along.'" With no training at all, Thomas went up and tried to play. Earl Thomas can do it all!
Third stop, Chad Jones from LSU. Jones is a big safety. In fact, he played last season at 232 pounds. He's down to 221 and plans on staying down at that weight. Here's another guy that can line up anywhere in the secondary and is very bright. His mother is an engineer and his dad is a high school principal. He also played baseball at LSU and loved the outfield, where he could cover ground and make the big throw. When the coaches clocked one of his throws from centerfield to home plate at 94 miles an hour, they asked him to try pitching because the team was short on arms. He got his fastball up into the mid-90s, but his love of football has put baseball into retirement.
Jones was quick to point out he's played solid man coverage as well as zone coverage, and suggested I check out the Mississippi State and Penn State games. He has played on every special team and has played middle linebacker in the dime defense as well as the weakside linebacker in the nickel. He was honest that he needs work on his open-field tackling, but he didn't consider it a negative. I agreed after watching some game tape where he missed a tackle but came right back with a knockout punch. This 6-foot-3, 221-pound guy could get a lot of playing time next year and probably will go in the second round.
Final stop of the day was with a guy planning to become a neurosurgeon when his football career is over. Myron Rolle may be the most unique player in the draft. He has already spent a post-graduate year at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship in a class of 14 of the brightest students in the world. He trained with the Oxford rugby team last year to stay in shape and when I asked him if he played in any rugby games, he said, "I never got into a proper match."
Well, he's home now and the team that draft this future doctor is getting a real gem. He pointed out the line of questioning he gets from NFL teams is slightly different than other players. Some say he's stiff and has too many options outside of football to stay motivated. I say they're wrong; Rolle was fine at the Senior Bowl and will be a factor in the NFL. I remember when the great basketball player, Bill Bradley, came back to the United States from his Rhodes scholarship and people wondered if he could play for the New York Knicks. All he did was lead them to a championship. A smart coach is going to draft this real smart football player and be happy he did for years to come.
Some other quick notes from the day include a conversation with Cleveland Browns coach Eric Mangini and New Orleans Saints GM Mickey Loomis. I have known Mangini for 12 years and I can tell you he is excited about building the Browns with Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert. As he pointed out, blending the Holmgren style derived from the Packers and Seahawks (both teams Holmgren took to the Super Bowl) and Heckert's brilliant Eagles organization that also got to a Super Bowl makes the upcoming draft -- with 11 picks -- a great opportunity to build this once-proud franchise. Mangini is a very bright guy who will not build a wall but rather a bridge with his new partners.
Loomis is such a fine architect of the Saints and he made it clear they will continue to build through the draft with less emphasis on free agency. He plans to get his restricted free agents, such as Pierre Thomas and Jahri Evans, signed to long-term deals. "We don't want guys walking around unhappy on tenders," he said. "We want guys very happy to be here and getting the right deals done is our priority."