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There's numbers at safety, the redefined position

(This is the last of seven stories on previewing the NFL Draft).

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The rise of the safety in the NFL draft is a trend that is expected to continue this year.

The NFL went 10 years without drafting a safety in the top 10 picks -- from 1992 through 2001. In the five years since, four safeties have gone in the top 10, and three have been taken in the top 10 in the past two years. Donte Whitner of the Bills was one of those, drafted eighth overall last season.

Louisiana State free safety LaRon Landry is likely to join the top 10 club this year.

There probably will be one or two other safeties drafted in the first round this year. Florida's Reggie Nelson, Utah's Eric Weddle, Texas' Michael Griffin and Miami's Brandon Merriweather all are safeties with first-round or strong second-round grades. It has been more than 25 years since four safeties have been drafted in the first round in a single draft.

Versatility is the reason for the safety rise. Whitner is part of the new breed of "cover safeties," players who can stay with receivers or be used in the run front.

"Our game is an open game," said Kansas City coach Herman Edwards. "They're going to spread you out. If you have a safety who can play in the box, who can tackle but can also cover a third receiver or a tight end, you don't have to go into your nickel package. A lot of times you go into your nickel package, that guy is a littler guy, and they'll run the ball on you. With the safety nowadays, he's more athletic, he can cover, they're good blitzers, too."

"It helps you disguise coverages, too, when you have a safety who can come down and do those things," Edwards said.

"I think the league has redefined the position," Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher said. "Offensive schemes are redefining the position. The Colts are a great example of what happens when you lose a key player. When Bob [Sanders] came back [from injury late last season], their defense changed. I think as scouting staffs and coaching staffs, we're putting a little more emphasis on the position and fortunately, this year, we'll have a chance, because there'll be safeties throughout the draft."

Safety is a fairly strong position this year. There is good depth at the cornerback position.

Landry is a free safety with good size and cornerback speed. He ran a time of 4.35 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine. Nelson ran a 4.48 in the 40 and was a playmaker for the national champion Gators. Weddle also has a 4.48 time, and some teams think he could play cornerback or safety.

The top cornerback is Michigan's Leon Hall, who may be a top-10 pick. He's not in the Champ Bailey class. He had a rough day against Ohio State speedster Ted Ginn Jr. But Hall is big enough to handle tall NFL receivers, he's tough against the run and he has good speed.

After Hall, cornerbacks who could go in the second half of the first round include Darnelle Revis of Pittsburgh, Chris Houston of Arkansas, Aaron Ross of Texas and Eric Wright of Nevada-Las Vegas. Houston had the fastest 40 time of any cornerback at the combine -- 4.32 seconds.

After that group, the next tier of cornerbacks includes Tennessee's Jonathan Wade, Florida State's Marcus McCauley, Maryland's Josh Wilson, Auburn's David Irons and Texas' Tarell Brown. Wade ran the best 40 time of that bunch (4.36).

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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