Crashing NFL draft party

Safeties, tight ends, interior linemen no longer first-round strangers

April 25, 2007|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun reporter

Safeties used to provide run support. Tight ends used to block. Guards and centers used to sit out the first three hours of the big show, waiting for their second-round cues.

Times and opinions have changed in the NFL draft the past 10 years, though.

When Saturday's annual lottery unfolds, there could be a record four safeties drafted in the first round, ostensibly to cover some of those athletic tight ends who are finding their way down field more and more.

In a year in which several teams are shopping for left tackles, there is a surplus of promising interior offensive linemen. At least one of them figures to get the call in the first 32 picks.

Clearly, first-round signing bonuses aren't the only thing on the rise.

Ozzie Newsome, general manager and draft master for the Ravens, said the emphasis on cover safeties - as opposed to safeties to slide into the box to play the run - is a reflection of the college game.

"When you watch as much college tape as we have to watch - and the different offenses that play from week to week - there are very few teams that line up with two backs, two tight ends and two wide receivers.

"They go four-wides and they spread the ball all over the field, so therefore the safeties now are afforded more of an opportunity to be athletes."

The trend shows up dramatically on draft day.

Eleven safeties have been drafted in the first round over the past six drafts. In the previous seven drafts, just three safeties went in the first round.

Last April, two safeties - Michael Huff and Donte Whitner - went seventh and eighth in the first round, well ahead of the first cornerback (Tye Hill, 15th). Huff and Whitner started for the Oakland Raiders and Buffalo Bills.

Among the safeties who've arrived in the first round since 2001 are Ed Reed of the Ravens, Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sean Taylor of the Washington Redskins and Roy Williams of the Dallas Cowboys. Only Taylor has yet to reach the Pro Bowl.

With that as backdrop, LSU's LaRon Landry, brother of the Ravens' Dawan Landry, tops this year's safety class. He could go in the top 10 picks.

Other first-round prospects include Brandon Meriweather of Miami, Reggie Nelson of Florida and Michael Griffin of Texas. According to NFL Network's draft expert, Mike Mayock, they are capable of playing either free or strong safety in the NFL.

"All four of those guys can interchangeably play both positions," Mayock said during a conference call. "That's why there's some real value to them."

Tight end is not a position of value in this draft, although the arrival of two juniors, Greg Olsen Jr. of Miami and Zach Miller of Arizona State, at least makes it respectable. Olsen has a shot at the first round, and many mock drafts have him going to the New York Jets.

Asked about the feasibility of that happening, Mayock said: "What they should be concerned with is the fact that he doesn't block anybody. ... You need to use him creatively and create mismatches with his speed and athletic ability."

Speed and athleticism have changed the face of today's tight end. There were no tight ends taken in the first round of eight drafts between 1982 and 1999. But in the seven drafts since then, a total of 12 tight ends have been first-rounders.

Two - Maryland's Vernon Davis and Miami's Kellen Winslow - went as early as the sixth pick. Other notable first-round selections were Jeremy Shockey (14th to the New York Giants), Todd Heap (31st to the Ravens) and Dallas Clark (24th to the Indianapolis Colts).

"If you have a Kellen Winslow-type kid, he gets picked in the top 10 because ... that causes matchup problems," Mayock said. "Can he be a Shockey, Heap, that kind of player? More and more, the NFL has gone to the receiving-type tight ends."

Another position that has enjoyed an upgrade in status is the interior line. Where once a team was loathe to pick a guard or center in the first round, eight have been drafted there in the past six years.

The best of the bunch was guard Steve Hutchinson, taken 17th by the Seattle Seahawks in 2001. The New York Jets drafted two centers (Nick Mangold, Chris Spencer) in the first round each of the past two years. The New England Patriots took guard Logan Mankins with the 32nd pick in 2005.

This year, the interior lineman with the best chance to crack the first-round elite is USC center Ryan Kalil. Mayock believes Kalil can be a special player.

"I've given Ryan Kalil a first-round grade, which is atypical for a center," Mayock said. "I think he's the best technician among all the offensive linemen in the draft. I think he will be particularly coveted by the zone-scheme offenses."

Ten years ago, Mike Ditka, as coach of the New Orleans Saints, took a guard, Chris Naeole, with the 10th pick in the first round. Still available at that point were running back Warrick Dunn, tight end Tony Gonzalez and offensive tackle Tarik Glenn, a three-time Pro Bowl player with the Colts.

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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