Bill Belichick’s first draft pick as an NFL head coach was a safety. It was 1991. We thought he was nuts.
The top cornerbacks were on the board and, besides, nobody in football’s modern era had ever taken a safety as high as No. 2 overall. A safety!
Well, not only did the late Eric Turner outplay the corners picked below him, Belichick also showed that he knew way back when which direction NFL offenses were heading with their multiple receivers spread out and their big, pass-catching tight ends creating mismatches for little corners and bulky linebackers.
Fast forward a couple of decades and, well, it’s good to be an NFL safety.
Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu are wrapping up Hall of Fame-caliber careers. Seattle won a Super Bowl by crushing Peyton Manning with a dominant secondary featuring the league’s best safety tandem in Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. And a month after the Saints gave Jairus Byrd a safety-record $26.3 million guaranteed at the start of free agency, Thomas topped that this week with an extension containing $27.8 million guaranteed.
“You need safeties that can cover slot receivers and also play the deep middle of the field as well as down in the box,” said Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, the top safety available in next week’s draft. “You need more versatile [interchangeable] safeties in this league right now.”
Safety hasn’t overtaken cornerback in terms of overall value, but it is pulling closer. Clinton-Dix and Louisville’s Calvin Pryor, the top free safeties, should be selected somewhere among the second 10 picks, while Jimmie Ward, the highest strong safety on the board from Northern Illinois, could sneak into the bottom of the first round.
“You have to do so much [at safety],” Pryor said. “It’s not like a corner where you just think pass all day most of the time. You have to think and adjust during the game.”
Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
Probably as close to a shutdown corner as there is in this draft. A 6-foot, 202-pound playmaker who led the Big 12 with seven interceptions last fall. Also had six kick return touchdowns in his college career. Bears probably hoping he’s still around at No. 14.
Darqueze Dennard, CB Michigan State
At 5-11, 190, he’s not quite as big as Gilbert. But he’s still a sturdy corner whose multiple skills helped lead the Spartans to a surprising spot ahead of Ohio State in the Big Ten. Beat out Gilbert and others to win Thorpe Award as nation’s best DB.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama
Has shown the ability to play both free and strong safety. Has the size (6-1, 208), instincts and enough speed to make plays against the deep ball and come up in run coverage. Clearly the best safety available.
Brock Vereen, SS, Minnesota
A 6-foot, 199-pounder who some believe could sneak into the third round. Known as a smart, instinctual player. Older brother, Shane, a running back, was a second-round pick of the Patriots in 2011. Father was a receiver and ninth-round pick of the Buccaneers in 1979.