(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2013 NFL Draft, set for April 25-27.)
The game, as it's played now on the professional level, has changed, and so they have had to adapt. What they used to be is no longer good enough. As a result, the concept of the in-the-box safety has been replaced by the more contemporary job description of coverage safety.
With the rules and the way those rules are officiated in the NFL, it has become increasingly incumbent upon defenses to deal with athletes in space. Where safeties once could be effective as purely physical defenders – call them linebackers with less mass – there now is much more of a premium placed on safeties who can line up and cover – call them cornerbacks with more mass.
The NFL's best safeties are the ones who can make plays on the football when it's in the air, and the NFL's great safeties are the ones who also can make plays by attacking the offensive backfield. Whether there are any of those kinds of safeties available from this particular pool of talent is to be determined, but what's a certainty is that teams will be looking for them starting on the first day of the draft.
Texas' Kenny Vaccaro commonly is identified in most mock drafts as the first safety to be picked, but there certainly are some teams that would favor LSU's Eric Reid.
Vaccaro (6-foot, 214-pounds) played some on defense and special teams as a freshman, and then as a sophomore in 2010 he won the Longhorns' Most Valuable Special Teams Player award while also starting six games at safety. Vaccaro was a first-team All-Big 12 safety in 2011 after putting up 82 tackles, including 6.5 for loss, plus two interceptions and eight passes defensed, and he returned for 2012 with the stated goals of winning the Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back while helping the Longhorns to the BCS Championship Game. Neither of those happened, and even though Texas' defense went through some rough patches last season, Vaccaro emerged as one of the top players at his position.
In his final college season, Vaccaro posted 104 tackles, including four for loss, plus two interceptions and two forced fumbles. How high he gets drafted figures to come down to how comfortable a team is with his ball skills. In the pass-happy Big 12, he finished with four interceptions in 32 games, and his role in Texas' defensive backfield never really blossomed into that of a playmaker on the football.
Reid (6-1, 213) is the son of Eric Reid, a three-time All-America sprinter at LSU, and by the end of his high school career he was one of the most highly-pursued recruits in Louisiana. He played in 13 games as a freshman, with three starts, during which he posted 32 tackles and two interceptions, those coming against Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill and Arkansas' Ryan Mallett, both of whom are on NFL rosters.
As a sophomore in 2011, Reid tied Tyrann Mathieu for the team lead with 76 tackles, and he also contributed two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery. One of his two interceptions came at the Tigers' 1-yard line to preserve what at the time was a 6-6 tie in what became LSU's regular season win in overtime vs. Alabama.
Maybe that season set the bar ridiculously high, but Reid didn't come across as the same flashy player in 2012. A team captain, his 91 tackles, seven passes defensed, and two interceptions earned him consensus All-America honors, but the season also exposed some areas of Reid's game that will need work. He is a physical and aggressive player, but sometimes that translates to the kind of out-of-control behavior that either draws penalties or exposes the defense to a potential big play.
Among some other interesting prospects at safety are Florida's Matt Elam, Fresno State's Phillip Thomas, and Georgia's Baccari Rambo.
Thomas (6-1, 208) is something of a Darren Perry type in that he isn't the fastest guy but he always seems to be around the football. He had two interceptions as a freshman, and then he led the team with three interceptions during his sophomore season of 2010. Thomas missed all of 2011 with a broken leg he sustained three days before the opener, but he bounced back in a big way in 2012 with eight interceptions, five passes defensed, four sacks, and four forced fumbles. He was voted a team captain, and he left Fresno State with three touchdowns on interception returns.
Elam (6-0, 208) played on special teams and as an extra defensive back during his freshman season of 2010. As a sophomore, he was a starter at safety and finished with two interceptions, seven passes defensed, 11 tackles for loss, two sacks, and two forced fumbles. In 2012 he led the team with four interceptions, and added another 11 tackles for loss, and two sacks. He has been arrested twice for minor incidents involving alcohol.
Rambo (6-1, 211) was redshirted in 2008. He played in 11 games in 2009 and finished with five passes defensed and two interceptions, one of which he returned 28 yards for a touchdown vs. Tennessee. He became a full-time starter in 2011, and Rambo exploded with eight interceptions and eight passes defensed. One negative was that he was suspended for the first game of 2011 because of an unspecified rules violation. Rambo then failed an offseason drug test and was suspended for the first four games in 2012, during which he contributed three interceptions and two passes defensed.
THE 2012 NFL DRAFT, S STATISTICS
Number drafted: 18
Picks by round: 1 in the first; 1 in the second; 2 in the third; 3 in the fourth; 2 in the fifth; 6 in the sixth; 2 in the seventh
Highest pick: Mark Barron, Alabama, Round 1, 7th overall, by Tampa Bay
Biggest impact: Notre Dame's Harrison Smith was selected by the Minnesota Vikings with the 29th overall pick last year, and he started all 16 regular season games during which he finished with 103 tackles and three interceptions.