Demand for versatile safeties continues to grow

INDIANAPOLIS -- The brief video snippet, available on several Web sites, is nothing shy of mind-blowing.

In a grainy bit of celluloid that graphically documents his remarkable athleticism, and which became the stuff of instant lore here at the annual NFL scouting combine, Wyoming safety John Wendling takes just three steps from a standing start, and then successfully clears a hurdle that is 66 inches high.

With room to spare.

Hey, we're not talking Fosbury Flop here, folks. Wendling didn't roll over the obstacle high-jump style. He didn't run halfway down the track before launching himself. The feat did not involve smoke, mirrors or a trampoline. Instead, it was just Wendling, one of the intriguing safety prospects in the 2007 draft pool, propelling himself over a seemingly insurmountable object and into the consciousness of NFL scouts.

"Yeah, I guess it was a pretty good jump," Wendling acknowledged over the weekend, understating the obvious.

In a sense, it was a figurative quantum leap forward not just for Wendling, but for safeties in general, as a position that had been relegated to afterthought status in recent years continues to re-emerge now as a critical spot on most defenses.

There were three safeties chosen in the first round of the 2006 draft, with Michael Huff of Oakland and Buffalo's Donte Whitner included in the top 10 players off the board, and that represented the most in the opening stanza since 1998. Over the last 10 drafts, there have been just 18 first-round safeties, and only four were top-10 selections. But the position has realized a reversal of fortune in the past two or three years, as defensive schemes mandate a new player profile at safety, and the 2007 draft should extend the momentum.

There are at least two safety prospects, LSU's LaRon Landry and Reggie Nelson of Florida, certain to be chosen in the top half of the first round. Michael Griffin of Texas and Brandon Meriweather of Miami (Fla.) could also be selected in the opening stanza. And behind them is an impressive contingent of interior secondary defenders who will be first-day choices.

Why the newfound ardor for the safety position? Well, it has more to do with a heightened demand than with supply. Every draft features a lot of safety prospects. But the evolution of the game in the past couple of seasons, and the need for versatile, two-way safeties who defend equally well against the run and the pass, has pushed safeties back up the draft board.

"You can't play defense, at least the way you have to these days, without good safeties," said Kansas City coach Herm Edwards. "With the different things that offenses are doing now with the tight end, you better have a safety who can cover, you know? It's become a big-time position, in terms of need, again now."

The significance of the safety position was certainly reflected in the Indianapolis Colts' run to the Super Bowl XLI title. It was hardly a coincidence that the profound improvement in the team's overall defense, but particularly in its turnaround versus the run, corresponded with the return of safety Bob Sanders to the lineup after an injury-marred regular season.

The presence of Sanders, a human torpedo who can play in the box and add an eighth body versus the run, but who also possesses solid range in pass coverage, permitted the Colts to diverge from their trademark Cover 2 schemes. Arguably the biggest myth during Super Bowl week was that the two combatants were classic Cover 2 teams, even though the Chicago Bears reverted to the scheme for the title game.

Football is a game of reactions and adjustments and, in the current era, offensive designs are dictating that defenses must counter with versatile, active safeties. There is an undeniable premium now on safeties who can shut down the run, but also get involved in coverage, and this year's draft figures to demonstrate that again.

"If you're going to [defend] against tight ends lined up in the slot, backs in motion, and do it from your base defense, you better have good safeties," allowed Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome. "It's almost impossible to play these days without at least one safety who has cornerback[-level] coverage skills."

Newsome and the Ravens possess such a player, of course, in the splendid Ed Reed, a natural ball hawk with a well-documented big-play mentality. And the Ravens last year added a second playmaking safety in Dawan Landry, the older brother of the LSU star who is so well-regarded in this draft, a fifth-round pick who won a starting job in training camp and who collected five interceptions in his rookie campaign.

"He's been a big influence on me," said LaRon Landry of his brother. "He's kind of pushed me to be better. Seeing what he did as a rookie, the way he carried himself on and off of the field, that's been a big deal. I'm anxious to do the same kinds of things."

Scouts rate LaRon Landry much higher than they did his brother a year ago, and he clearly has superior, all-around physical skills.
At 6-foot, 213 pounds, and with projected speed in the mid-4.5s, Landry could be one of the top two or three defenders, at any position, to go off the board on draft day. The player to whom he most likens himself, with apologies to his brother, is Ronnie Lott, and he is an explosive hitter in the mold of the Hall of Fame safety.

"I play," Landry said, "like a wild bull."

Still, there were scouts here over the weekend who felt Landry might be a little stiffer than originally perceived, and who favor Nelson as the superior prospect. The former Gators star is more compact than Landry, at just a shade under 6 feet, but moves well to the ball and hits with great authority. In 2006, Nelson dramatically improved his pass defense, as evidenced by five interceptions.

"I just think I understand the game really well," Nelson said. "I feel like my recognition skills have gotten better. And I think the way the game is being played now really fits well with the things that I can do well."

There are a lot of safeties in this year's draft class who can say the same thing.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.