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Versatile DBs drawing considerable interest

this is a discussion within the Saints Community Forum; http://sports.espn.go.com/nfldraft/columnist?id=1536173 Wednesday, April 9, 2003 By Len Pasquarelli ESPN.com -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Given the position's perennial lack of representation in the first round of the draft, where there haven't been more than three interior secondary prospects selected in the initial stanza since ...

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Old 04-09-2003, 12:59 PM   #1
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Versatile DBs drawing considerable interest


Wednesday, April 9, 2003

By Len Pasquarelli


Given the position's perennial lack of representation in the first round of the draft, where there haven't been more than three interior secondary prospects selected in the initial stanza since the legendary 1983 bounty, perhaps the axiom should be altered to something like "safety last."

In the 33 drafts that have taken place since the 1970 merger, there have been just 40 safeties chosen in the first round of the lottery, and only 17 in the last 18 years. In seven of the past 18 drafts, not a single safety went off the board in the first round, and only twice were more than two selected.

The trend isn't apt to change this year, either, when safety Troy Polamalu of Southern California seems the only first-round certainty at the position.

But even as the safety spot continues to rank as a low priority for most clubs, there is the suggestion of an evolution that could change its stature, at least in a sense. With league offenses having become notably imbalanced, and skewed so significantly toward the passing game, most franchises are now in dire need of the combination safety/cornerback defender.

And the 2003 draft features several prospects who fit the job description of the new-age hybrid defensive back.

"You always hear that old saying about, 'the more you can do,' and how it helps you make a roster," said Bethune-Cookman defensive back Rashean Mathis. "From what I gathered at the combine, everyone is looking for the safety who can play some corner, and the corner who can play safety. And I tell them, 'Hey, I'm your man.' I know I can do both, because I've already played both (positions), and played them pretty well."

Of course, the fixation in the league will always be on trying to locate the so-called "shut-down" cornerback, and the first two defensive backs off the board on April 26 will be players of that ilk.

Terence Newman of Kansas State is arguably the safest pick in the '03 draft, a player of wonderful skill and competitiveness, and a guy who should start immediately and become a multiple Pro Bowl performer. He will then be followed by Washington State cornerback Marcus Trufant, who teams feel is just a cut below Newman.

More than in recent years, though, personnel directors will be focusing in -- especially in the second round and beyond -- on defensive backs who have played both safety and cornerback and whose resumes include a healthy dose of flexibility.

That demonstrated versatility has helped boost the popularity of Mathis, an incredible ball hawk, and a defender who in four college seasons registered an amazing 31 interceptions and 42 passes defensed. Possessed of safety size (6-feet-0¾, 202 pounds), and cornerback speed (a 4.43 time in the 40-yard dash at the combine), Mathis certainly defines the convergence of skills key to the evolving dual-role position.

The emphasis on having such a player, who can be either a third corner or a safety capable of moving out and covering a slot receiver, began just a few years ago. Its importance, however, was graphically demonstrated by the performance of Tampa Bay free safety Dexter Jackson in the title victory three months ago.

Unlike Mathis, who has substantial experience at cornerback, Jackson could never move outside and cover. But the five-year veteran, who earned Super Bowl most valuable player honors with two interceptions and signed last month with Arizona as an unrestricted free agent, is certainly capable of covering wideouts deep up the hashes and even taking on the opposition's No. 3 receiver.

The result, in the wake of Tampa's championship, and Jackson's key role in it: In a notoriously copycat league, every team now wants its own Jackson, a reasonable facsimile, or maybe someone who can do it even better than him.

"When you talk to the league's defensive coordinators now," said Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, "they tell you that you've got to have at least one safety with coverage skills to survive now because of the way the game is played. Or you need a corner with safety skills, a guy who can go inside and play between the hashes, and give you some toughness."

This is not regarded as a quality draft, at least in terms of the high-round standouts at cornerback or safety, but it does include a number of pretty intriguing hybrid-type defensive backs.

Prospects like Mathis, Julian Battle (Tennessee), Nnamdi Asomugha (California), Colin Branch (Stanford), Donald Strickland (Colorado) and Charles Tillman (Louisiana-Lafayette), among others, are all players who have been evaluated as both cornerbacks and safeties.

Not so long ago, in a league that stressed specialization and where every player had to fit into a neat compartment, such indecision over where a player would line up might have been seen as a weakness. But these are not your classic 'tweeners, guys who were neither fish nor fowl, and merely hoping to stumble into a position.

All of the above players are quality defensive backs and, essentially, most of them have had their draft stock upgraded because of their versatility and the myriad possibilities they present for defensive coordinators.

"I think half the teams I talk to have me as a corner and half see me as being a safety," said Battle, a superb physical specimen who exudes potential. "To me, that's a plus, I'd say. I feel like I've got the physical nature of a safety and the cover skills of a cornerback. That's got to be a plus, right?"

Five or six years ago, scouts would have looked at Battle's size and his aggressiveness and labeled him a cornerback, reserving the prerogative to then move him inside to safety if he proved a less-than-effective coverage defender. That was always the rule of thumb with such a player, because it was rare to find a cornerback with size, and because it was mentally easier for a young prospect to assimilate the nuances of the outside position.

For many franchises, that philosophy hasn't been altered very much, since every club covets a 6-foot-1 corner. But increasingly, the mindset is to find coverage players for every secondary position, and to get them on the field. It is, notably, just such a swing that has made it difficult for some veteran free agents, like Lee Flowers of Pittsburgh and Sammy Knight of the New Orleans Saints, to find gainful employment.

Defensive designs don't allow as much anymore for the traditional "in the box" safety, the guy who could stuff the run but, on third down, became a liability in pass coverage. That has helped precipitate the move toward the dual-purpose defensive back and elevated the prospects in this draft who have demonstrated the ability to hit and cover.

Perhaps no prospect so precisely fits the reconfigured mold than Mathis, a solid tackler but, more important, a player who had a mind-boggling 14 interceptions in 2002 and returned three of them for touchdowns. Skeptics are fond of pointing out that Mathis played at the Division I-AA level but, as one NFC personnel director countered, 14 interceptions is a lot of steals even if Bethune-Cookman had played against high school teams.

"I've heard all the (criticisms), believe me, and I can't help I broke my leg in high school and a lot of big schools backed away from me," Mathis said. "I played where I played, and I did what I did, and I think I proved a lot to people. The team that drafts me, they're going to get a guy who is around the ball, who will make a play on the ball and who will hit hard."

Which is exactly what most teams want now as they reassess how to fill out their secondaries to meet the needs in an evolving game and best counter the passing games of opponents.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com
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Old 04-09-2003, 03:15 PM   #2
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Versatile DBs drawing considerable interest

No doubt Mathis and Polamalu will be the best of the bunch. I wish we had a need at SS because Polamalu is a monster!

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Old 04-09-2003, 05:20 PM   #3
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Versatile DBs drawing considerable interest

Let\'s not start wishing that we had MORE holes to fill on defense. I think that there are more than enough right now!
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Old 04-10-2003, 07:09 PM   #4
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Versatile DBs drawing considerable interest

if no trades, if available the saints will take a hard look at this kid, they do like him. smitty
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