NFC North: Earl Thomas

MINNEAPOLIS -- Jerry Gray spent the 2010 season as the defensive backs coach for a Seattle Seahawks team that made the playoffs with a dubious honor, becoming the first team in NFL history to make the playoffs with a losing record after winning the NFC West at 7-9.

One of Gray's tasks that season was to develop the two safeties the Seahawks had taken in that year's draft -- Earl Thomas, whom the team drafted in the first round, and Kam Chancellor, the Seahawks' fifth-round pick. Four years later, the Seahawks are the world champions, thanks in no small part to Thomas and Chancellor, who might form the best safety duo in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeHarrison Smith
AP Photo/Joe RobbinsThe Vikings are counting on Harrison Smith to be an integral part of their new defense.
And Gray is now in Minnesota, working with a player who could put his name in the same sentence as the Seahawks' duo by the end of this season.

"I think you'll see him as one of the top safeties in the league," Gray said. "Him and Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, they were all drafted around the same time, and now they're going to be in there about the same time. That's a sentence you want to be in, if you're Harrison."

If a turf toe injury slowed Harrison Smith's progress toward becoming one of the game's best safeties last season, his role in the Vikings' new defense could accelerate it this year. The Vikings have big plans for Smith in Mike Zimmer's new scheme, which should give the 25-year-old a more active role than he had in the Vikings' old Cover-2 defense.

"We're going to get him more involved," Gray said. "He'll be blitzing some. He'll be covering some. He'll be in the middle of the field. The thing that we're trying to do right now is, figure out what he's best at, and then put him in that position. Can he be one of the better safeties in the league, doing what we're teaching him here?"

As many Vikings players are doing during the team's voluntary minicamp this week, Smith is trying to digest a new scheme as quickly as he can. That process has been helped, Smith said, by doing film work with a focus on correcting small technique issues, which Zimmer has been drilling in the Vikings' first practices as a team.

"On film sometimes you can see my toe coming up, which means I'm on my heel," Smith said. "So that just means I need to put more weight on my toes. Small things like that that will give you a fraction of a second out of your break and maybe get an interception instead of a [pass defended] or make a play I wouldn't have made."

Smith has the speed and instincts to cover receivers, which could be a bigger part of his role than it ever was in a Cover-2 defense. If he's able to play man coverage on an inside receiver, the Vikings can spend more time in their base defense and keep an extra linebacker on the field for run situations, instead of shifting to their nickel package and giving up some size in the middle of the field.

"Now, people say, 'What am I going to do? I can't run it, because they've got their big guys in. I can't throw it, because their safety can cover my No. 2,'" Gray said. "That's really what Seattle does a lot. They keep their base out there, Earl Thomas goes down to cover No. 2, and then they put Kam in the middle. You don't want to run against Kam, you can't throw it against Earl, and now you make the best of both worlds. Hopefully we can get our guys to understand that concept."

The Vikings still need to see how well Smith can handle a broader role, but he's already shown flashes of becoming a star in his first two years in the league, returning two of his three interceptions for touchdowns as a rookie and picking off a pair of passes in just eight games last season.

Now, if a new scheme turns him loose, Smith could find himself on a short list of the league's elite.

"He's not afraid to go up in run support. He understands what leverage is. He understands all those things," Gray said. "With the second day [of minicamp], he's trying to figure out, 'Where do I fit in? What do I do here?' When you get past responsibility, and let talent take over, I think he'll be one of the best."

DraftWatch: Safeties

January, 7, 2010
In Wednesday’s Team Wrap-ups, we mentioned the safety position as one of the top needs for both Minnesota and Chicago. Detroit could use some help there as well, so let’s examine the early rankings of safeties heading into the 2010 draft.

I moseyed on over to ESPN’s 2010 draft page and found a couple of interesting sources of information.

Scouts Inc. lists three safeties among its top 25 players, starting with Tennessee’s Eric Berry at No. 1 overall. Texas’ Earl Thomas is its 12th-best prospect and Southern California’s Taylor Mays is No. 18. Thomas, who will play Thursday night in the BCS Championship Game, is a junior who hasn’t yet declared for the draft.

(On his updated Big Board, ESPN’s Mel Kiper ranks Berry as his No. 3 prospect and Mays at No. 19.)

Would Detroit take Berry with the No. 2 overall pick? No one knows the answer to that question yet. But in general, safeties are more likely to be taken where the Lions got Louis Delmas last season -- at the top of the second round.

Unless they make a trade, the Bears, won’t pick until about 10 picks into the third round. So we’re going to take it deep in this edition of DraftWatch.

According to Kevin Weidl of Scouts Inc., the safety position could be one of the strongest positions in the this draft. Weidl suggests that Thomas would join Berry as a top-15 pick, if he declares, but is dubious of Mays as a potential elite player.

On Mays, Weidl wrote: “…[D]on't be mesmerized by his measurables. We have seen multiple coverage breakdowns from Mays in every game we have studied, including mistakes against Ohio State, California and Boston College that led directly to red zone trips and/or touchdowns for the offense.”

As it stands now, the second tier of safeties includes LSU junior Chad Jones and Clemson junior DeAndre McDaniel, both of whom Scouts Inc. rates as second-round prospects. Want a sleeper? Weidl notes that South Florida senior Nate Allen “is perhaps the most fluid safety in the nation in pass coverage.” Allen might be good enough to try playing cornerback, but in general college safeties aren’t good cornerback prospects in the NFL.

How about that? A draft sleeper in the first full week of January. Every day is a draft day, baby!