NFL: Drafting a safety high in first round not always safe
By Marla Ridenour
Akron Beacon Journal
Eric Berry's position coach in 2009 said the University of Tennessee safety's special leadership qualities can be recognized by spending only two minutes with him.
But if the Browns' search for a tone-setter on defense prompts them to tab Berry with the seventh overall pick on April 22, they will buck the NFL bias against selecting safeties in the top 10.
Only five have gone that high in the past decade and only one, the Washington Redskins' Sean Taylor, appeared to justify his team's leap of faith. Taken fifth in 2004, Taylor went to one Pro Bowl and was selected posthumously for another after he was killed during a November 2007 break-in at his Miami home.
Of the class of the 2000s, Roy Williams (Dallas Cowboys, eighth, 2002), Michael Huff (Oakland Raiders, seventh, 2006), Donte Whitner (Buffalo Bills, eighth, 2006) and LaRon Landry (Redskins, sixth, 2007) have been plagued by inconsistency.
Of four of the biggest-name safeties currently playing, none went higher than No. 16: the Pittsburgh Steelers' Troy Polamalu in 2003. Brian Dawkins, now with the Denver Broncos, was taken 61st by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1996, the Baltimore Ravens' Ed Reed was 24th in 2002 and the Indianapolis Colts' Bob Sanders was 44th in 2004.
Because of the nature of their hard-hitting position, Polamalu, Reed and Sanders have missed a combined 68 games because of injury since becoming full-time starters. Sanders, just 5-foot-8, has sat out 25 games in the past two years.
'Special young man'
But Willie Mack Garza, Tennessee's secondary coach last season who has since moved to USC, said Friday he believes Berry is worth the risk. Berry reportedly will visit the Browns on Thursday.
"He's a special young man," Garza said of Berry, a captain under two different coaches. "He's the complete package, great personality, great attitude, very coachable, extremely hard worker and he's blessed with a lot of God-given ability and talent. He really loves playing the game of football and he's dedicated and committed.
"He has a great aura about himself, the way he carries himself. People flock to him and follow his lead."
That sounds reminiscent of the last safety the Browns took in the first round, Eric Turner, selected second overall in 1991. A ferocious playmaker with a smile that lit up the locker room, Turner tied for the league lead in interceptions with nine in 1994. He went to two Pro Bowls, one after the franchise moved to Baltimore, before he died of abdominal cancer in 2000.
Getting Berry at No. 7 is not a certainty for the Browns. The Redskins are considering him at No. 4 and the Kansas City Chiefs at No. 5. Former Browns coach Romeo Crennel, now the Chiefs' defensive coordinator, ran Berry's pro-day workout, cut short when Berry sprained his left big toe.
Sports Illustrated's Peter King recently addressed the dilemma of Chiefs General Manager Scott Pioli, relaying a conversation that Pioli had with Atlanta Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff.
"I was talking to Scott Pioli about Berry, and I said, 'Scott, this guy's your pick,' " Dimitroff told King. "And he said, 'You know how I feel about safeties that early.' "
Berry, a junior who stands 5-11 and 211 pounds, won the Jim Thorpe Award last season as the nation's best defensive back and fell just 7 yards short of tying the NCAA record for career interception return yards. Berry totaled 14 interceptions, but only two as a junior because teams didn't throw his way.
Nolan Nawrocki, Pro Football Weekly's draft analyst, said last week that No. 7 could be "the basement" for Berry.
"The value relative to the money makes it difficult to invest (in a safety) highly unless you really know what you're getting," Nawrocki said on a conference call. "Teams do feel comfortable knowing what they're getting with Berry.
"I know there's going to be consideration at No. 5. That's part of the debate right now in Kansas City, whether he's big enough to stay healthy. I went to his pro day. . . . There's a running joke around the league that the Chiefs were trying to hide him and not let him work out for other teams with the injury sustained."
Not all share that view of Berry or such lofty status for safeties. The NFL Network's Mike Mayock has Earl Thomas of Texas rated higher than Berry. ESPN analyst Todd McShay believes teams drafting high should stick to four value positions: quarterback, offensive tackle, cornerback and pass rusher.
The Browns' choice could come down to Berry or Florida cornerback Joe Haden. But they seemed to fill a hole at cornerback Friday by trading for Eagles starter Sheldon Brown.
"Typically, all things being equal, if they had the same grade, you'd be looking at the cornerback," Nawrocki said of the cornerback or safety debate. "But in this year's draft, with Berry grading out a little bit higher than Haden, I think there's more value for the Browns.
"The free-safety position has really evolved. The last couple years, it's gone to more of a passing league. You want free safeties who have that range to cover the whole field and go sideline to sideline. Berry's got that, even though they used him more this year in the box. He's an interceptor back there. He makes a difference. I think teams are going to feel more comfortable with him in the top 10 than they will with Haden."
At the combine, there was buzz about Berry even before he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds, hit 43 inches in the vertical jump and bench-pressed 225 pounds 19 times, second-best among defensive backs.
Former Houston Texans and Redskins General Manager Charley Casserly, now with NFL Network and CBS Sports, said he'd heard such comments as "best overall player in the draft" about Berry.
Berry makes case
Having drawn comparisons to Reed, Berry came to the combine with his sales pitch on why he should be No. 1.
"I don't think something like a position should keep you from (being) up there," Berry said. "I feel like I'm the best player in the draft because I can do pretty much anything the coaches ask.
"I can play free or strong (safety) or nickel corner. I had three TDs in college. I also broke the SEC (career) record for return yards that hadn't been broken for (59 years). I almost broke the NCAA record for return yards. If you want to compare the big play-making ability, I did it all throughout my college career. I was a starter for three years. Never missed a game due to injury. Never missed a snap."
Even St. Louis Rams General Manager Billy Devaney, owner of the No. 1 pick, was impressed.
"As a rule, safeties aren't talked about going that high," 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."