Top DB prospects could switch positions in NFL

In the past seven years, as the 3-4 defense has moved back into vogue in the NFL, scouts have adopted the term "hybrid" to refer to draft prospects who are equal parts defensive end and linebacker and whose diverse skill set makes them a prime fit for the scheme.

Now, it seems, talent evaluators might have to apply the hybrid term to another position, as well, given the sudden volume of defensive backs able to play the safety and cornerback spots. Such players have risen in stature as defensive coordinators attempt to counter the spread offense, and the importance has been reflected in recent drafts.

That's likely to continue in this year's lottery.

"You always like flexibility, when you can get it, and some of those [multi-positional] defensive backs can definitely give you that," Carolina secondary coach Rod Perry said. "There are several of them this year."

Topping the list, of course, is Michael Huff of Texas, who appears capable of playing any position in the secondary. Huff started 47 games at strong safety for the Longhorns, and just three at cornerback, but some teams contend the latter will be his best position in the NFL and rate him the top cornerback prospect in the draft. Others insist that Huff has been a premier safety and that it would be a mistake to move him outside.

Jimmy Williams of Virginia Tech, who began the 2005 season as the nation's top-rated cornerback but actually started his college career at free safety and appears to have skills that skew in that direction, prompts the same kind of debate.

The discussion of the dual-position defensive back, and the attractiveness of such players, is fueled in part by the desire of most league defensive coordinators to be able to match up, with some heightened degree of facility, with the three- and four-wide receiver offenses for which they must scheme. Having a safety with cornerback-level coverage skills, a player who can move out and defend the slot receiver, means far less situational substitution, especially on early downs. It also helps in checking the new breed of tight end -- bigger, faster and more athletic -- that has emerged in the NFL.

Another factor is that cornerbacks with size, the 6-footers every team covets, are sparse in every draft. So safeties, who tend to be bigger, are evaluated increasingly frequently with an eye toward playing them at cornerback, provided they possess requisite cover ability. Case in point: Donte Whitner of Ohio State, maybe the best pure safety in the 2006 draft pool, isn't 6 feet tall but is very physical, can redirect receivers with his strength, has cover talent and runs in the low 4.4s. So two teams indicated to ESPN.com that, during their rookie orientation session, they would give Whitner some snaps at cornerback to determine whether he might be able to play outside, even part time.

Many coaches think it actually benefits a player to start out on the corner, where the assignments are less complicated and where a young defender's mind becomes less jumbled. Safety is a position that requires a cerebral bent, considerable discipline and plenty of responsibility.

Noted one veteran NFC scout: "If you've got one of those two-way defensive backs, and you're not sure quite what he is, you always start him out on the corner, so he can at least get his feet on the ground. But, yeah, we are seeing a lot more of those guys now. And teams are having success with them."

The team that might do the best job with the hybrid-type secondary players, not surprisingly, is the New England Patriots. They took Eugene Wilson, who had played cornerback almost his entire college career, and converted him to a standout free safety. Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs, who each played some at safety in college, are the Pats' starting cornerbacks. Injuries in the unit the past two years forced New England coaches to cut and paste in the secondary, and the flexibility of some of their young defensive backs allowed them to survive.

Last year's draft probably will serve as a pretty good indicator of what this year's lottery, and those in the future, will be like. Dual-position defensive backs such as Marlin Jackson (Indianapolis), Nick Collins (Green Bay), Bryant McFadden (Pittsburgh) and Ron Bartell (St. Louis) were popular in early rounds. All played well at various junctures of their rookie campaigns.

Their successes will help players in this year's draft such as Huff, Williams, Jason Allen (Tennessee), Cedric Griffin (Texas) and Danieal Manning (Abilene Christian) as hybrid defensive backs continue to be a factor in the league.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.