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Packers draft preview: Role of NFL safeties shifting

Apr. 20, 2012
 
Defensive back Mark Barron of Alabama looks on during the 2012 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 28 in Indianapolis. Joe Robbins/Getty
Defensive back Mark Barron of Alabama looks on during the 2012 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 28 in Indianapolis. Joe Robbins/Getty
Notre Dame defensive back Harrison Smith runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis on Feb. 28. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

Defensive backs

Overall: Not as deep at cornerback at the top of the draft as in recent years, with only three likely go in the first round, and not great depth either.
Best prospect: LSU’s Morris Claiborne doesn’t have the explosiveness of former teammate Patrick Peterson, who was the No. 5 pick overall last year, but he might be the better cover man.
Packers outlook: With the low odds of starter Nick Collins returning from his neck injury this season, the Packers will draft a safety, possibly in the first three rounds. They’re always in the market for cornerback prospects, especially with Charles Woodson nearing the end of the line at age 35.
Rising star: South Carolina’s Stephon Gilmore was a good prospect going into the offseason and this spring might have surpassed Alabama’s Dre Kirkpatrick as the No. 2 cornerback for some teams.
Falling star: Central Florida’s Josh Robinson shot up in estimation after an outstanding workout at the scouting combine but has been slipping back down boards after teams went back and watched his game play.
Sleeper: Arizona State’s Omar Bolden: Suffered a torn ACL during spring practice last year and didn’t play in any games in the fall, but based on his play as a junior he could get selected in the middle rounds.

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The Green Bay Packers probably have a pretty good idea of whether Nick Collins will be back as a starting safety this season, even if Collins and the team still have to consult with other doctors on his decision whether to return to football after undergoing cervical-fusion surgery on his neck last year.

Collins’ agent said this week those consultations won’t be finished until after next week’s draft. But coach Mike McCarthy has said multiple times this offseason he wouldn’t want Collins to return if the player were his son, so at the very least McCarthy and General Manager Ted Thompson will need some serious convincing to take back one of their best defensive playmakers.

That means the Packers will be looking for a safety in this draft to compete for a starting job with holdovers Charlie Peprah, who is 29, and M.D. Jennings, who made the roster as an undrafted rookie last season, to play alongside third-year pro Morgan Burnett. If they draft one in the first three rounds and Collins doesn’t return, that player probably will be the front-runner for the starting job; if drafted later, he still might be good enough to win the job by the end of camp or sometime during the regular season, but it’s far from a given.

Either way, in the increasingly pass-oriented NFL, there’s a growing emphasis on finding safeties who can cover at the expense of intimidation as a hitter. It helps if they can play some man-to-man against spread offenses when their coordinator blitzes, but they at least have to be able to cover territory in the deeper secondary with a combination of speed, pattern recognition and reading quarterbacks.

“We ask, ‘How’s the guy play in the deep part of the field?’” said one scout about evaluating safeties. “That means deep middle, deep half, deep quarter. How’s he play back there? This is a guy who if Aaron Rodgers is throwing the ball around, how comfortable are you? You probably have to check that box (to draft him).”

Safety is not a priority position in the NFL, so there usually aren’t many selected in the first round of the draft, and this year looks no different. In the last 10 years, only 14 safeties have been taken in the first round, an average of less than 1.5 per year. This year, there probably will be only one, Alabama’s Mark Barron, who figures to go in the middle third of the first round, well before the Packers select at No. 28 overall.

After Barron, Notre Dame’s Harrison Smith received the highest grades from several scouts, though there was nothing like a consensus. He doesn’t appear to have much chance of going in the first round but could begin drawing interest sometime in the middle of the second round and figures to be off the board by early in the third round at the latest.

He might not be available when the Packers pick at No. 59 in the second round, so if Thompson really likes him, he might have to trade up to get him. Smith has his fans in NFL scouting circles, though there are concerns about his man-to-man cover skills.

“You can go man out on the corners and (zone) with the safeties free in the middle of the field,” one scout said of Smith’s man-coverage shortcomings. “He fits every defense in the league. Size, toughness, competitive, good awareness, tackling skills.”

Smith has prototypical safety size at 6-foot-1 7/8 and 213 pounds. He’s not an elite athlete but isn’t bad — he ran the 40 in 4.58 seconds, which tied for 10th among 19 safeties who ran at the combine; had a 34-inch vertical jump; did 19 bench-press reps; and showed good short-area quickness in the short shuttle (4.12 seconds, second-fastest among safeties who worked out at the combine) and three-cone drill (6.63 seconds, fastest among safeties at the combine).

More important is how he played in games. Smith was a four-year starter at Notre Dame and in his career intercepted seven passes and knocked down 25. Several scouts said he rated high as a tackler, something McCarthy this offseason has identified as a major emphasis after his defense’s shortcomings in that area last year.

“(Smith) might be the second safety off the board behind Barron,” another scout said. “Great size, speed is good, 4.55-ish, good open-field tackler, sure tackle skills. Not the cover guy Barron is but very good awareness in zone, you can match him up over the top. I like everything he brings to the table, and he looks the part, no question.”

There are several other safeties who could get selected in the first three rounds.

LSU’s Brandon Taylor (5-11 1/8, 209) was a three-year starter and leader at a college football power that plays in the country’s best conference.

Oklahoma State’s Markelle Martin has an excellent size-speed combination — he’s 6-0¾ and 207 pounds and reportedly could run just under a 4.5-second 40 before undergoing meniscus surgery on his knee. Just this week at a pro day for scouts, he ran 4.60 seconds less than two months removed from arthroscopic surgery.

South Carolina’s Antonio Allen (6-1½) has good size and OK speed but had only four interceptions in two seasons as a starter.

And some scouts love Michigan State’s Trent Robinson because of his instincts and 4.49-second speed in the 40, though the Packers probably won’t draft him because at 5-9¾ he doesn’t meet their minimum height requirement for defensive backs of about 5-10½.

SAFETIES

Mark Barron, Alabama, 6-1, 213, Round 1

Was the leader of national champion Alabama’s defense last season, which ranked No. 1 in the country in fewest points and yards allowed. “A smart player, a steady player, I don’t think he’s a dynamic safety or a real difference maker,” one scout said. “But I think he’ll be sound, steady, responsible, that type of guy. … I don’t think he’s a great playmaker or a great athlete playing safety, but he’s a good, solid, sound player. I don’t think there’s a difference maker (in this draft) at safety, they just have some good football players at that position.” Had 38 career starts and finished with12 interceptions. Had surgery for a double hernia this offseason that forced him to sit out the combine and Alabama’s campus workout. In a workout for pro scouts in late March ran the 40 in 4.55 seconds. “Sign him up,” another scout said. “He’ll go somewhere in the middle of the first round. Size, 4.55 guy, can play man cover for a safety in the slot vs. if he had to in multiple receiver sets. Good open-field tackler, he’s just a solid all-around football player. Mark Barron’s a Pro Bowl guy, he’s a top guy. He’s the real deal. Not only because he’s the only safety in the first round but he’s a hell of a football player. I love everything about him.” Played for a top-notch defensive coach in Nick Saban, whose background is coaching defensive backs. “Good player,” a third scout said. “Everything I see is good on tape, and then you talk to the people around Alabama, they think this guy is going to be a good pro. Fine (in coverage) for a bigger safety. Plays multiple positions, will play like a sub linebacker and he seems to be able to stick with people fairly decent. Obviously a larger guy is going to have more of a challenge mirroring smaller (receivers), but he does well for his size. He gets to the ball, has good range, finds the ball.”

Harrison Smith, Notre Dame: 6-1 7/8, 213, Rounds 2-3

Four-year starter played some linebacker in college, has the size and range to play either free or strong safety. “Very good,” a scout said. “What’s not to like? He’s big, he’s athletic, smart, good play history, particularly his junior and senior year. What’s not to like? Doesn’t have any acute holes.” Finished his career with 307 tackles, seven interceptions, 25 passes knocked down, 18½ tackles for a loss and three forced fumbles. “If you’re going to play a lot of man, he’ll be at a disadvantage,” another scout said. “If he’s a free safety or deep, he can roam back there and get a jump on the ball. But he’s not a guy with great speed or coverage ability. He might be like (Seattle Pro Bowler) Cam Chancellor — Chancellor is probably more physical, but you wouldn’t play him in a lot of man situations. You like (Smith’s) range and you like the way he runs to the ball and you certainly like when you can bring him down in the box as the eighth man.” Ran the 40 in 4.58 seconds and had a 34-inch vertical at the scouting combine. “I think he’s a player,” a third scout said. “He’s always lined up in the right place, he’s directing traffic in the back, making sure people are getting where they need to be. He’s up at the line of scrimmage playing the tight ends from Michigan State, he’s covering, he’s physical, able to play in the box. I could see the Bears taking him and he’d be there eight to 10 years as a starter.”

Brandon Taylor, LSU, 5-11¼, 209, Rounds 2-3

Three-year starter at strong safety has good instincts and playmaking ability but lacks the athleticism and long speed of a top prospect. “He’s got the size, but he doesn’t have the height a lot of people look for,” a scout said. “More of a stockier build. He runs good. He could be a little more physical when it’s time to be physical. With the way (NFL Commissioner Roger) Goodell is changing the way these guys play, just get ’em down is probably the best thing, and he can do that. But there’s a separation from him and the guys (rated above him).” Finished his career with160 tackles, 11.5 tackles for a loss, 15 pass breakups and four interceptions. “I’ve seen good games and bad games, and I’ve watched all the LSU stuff,” a second scout said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he went in the second, just because there aren’t any (safeties).” Ran the 40 in 4.53 seconds and had a 33½-inch vertical at the combine. Scores high on leadership and intangibles. “Usually the guys that come out of that (SEC), it’s the closest thing to the NFL’s speed when you’re playing Auburn and Florida and Tennessee week in and week out,” a third scout said. “I think he’ll be fine.”

Markelle Martin, Oklahoma State, 6-0¾, 207, Rounds 2-3

Had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee after injuring it during offseason workouts and was unable to work out at the combine, then this week ran the 40 in 4.60 seconds less than two months removed from surgery. “He’s got everything,” a scout said. “Size-speed combination. I questioned his toughness at times, but then he showed flashes that he can dish it out.Not a cover, skill guy, but good zone awareness. They have to have that. If they can’t cover man strictly — it’s tough for a safety to cover man, but every now and then they get matched up in multiple-receiver sets, and they have to cover at least in the short area.” Had three interceptions and 32 pass breakups in three years as a starter. “Not sure about his physicality,” another scout said. “He can cover, but I don’t think he’s an enforcer crossing the middle, and I don’t know if he’s a really sure tackler in the open field, which you need at free safety, that’s your last line of defense.”

Trent Robinson, Michigan State, 5-9¾, 195, Rounds 3-4

Fast and tough, but short. “I like him regardless of size,” a scout said. “He’s a playmaker, I like him. I like everything he brings to the table.” Started for most of his final three seasons at Michigan State and finished his career with nine interceptions and 12 pass breakups. At the combine ran the 40 in 4.49 seconds and had a 35-inch vertical jump. Has cornerback-like coverage skill, but size is an issue. “I like that kid, I do,” a second scout said. “I think he has good instincts, he’s fluid in his hips, he’s not stiff. He could be a Brian Dawkins. I wouldn’t be surprised if he wound up going in Round 2. I know he’s projected (in rounds) 3 to 4, but this safety class is small (in quality).”

CORNERBACKS

Morris Claiborne, LSU, 5-11 1/8, 188, Round 1

Junior entry is a possible top-five pick. “Good cornerback size, outstanding ball skills, that kind of separates him,” a scout said. “Some corners will get in position and try to defend the receiver from catching the ball. Claiborne becomes a receiver when the ball’s in the air. He’s got receiver-type instincts, can go up and high-point the ball, good position. He’s one of those guys that has a real knack for making a play on the ball. Good size, good hips. Not a blazer, not as fast as I thought he’d be, a but a guy with good instincts.” A two-year starter who had 11 interceptions, including six last season. Compares favorably with former teammate Patrick Peterson, a cornerback who went to Arizona at No. 5 overall last season and was a difference maker as a punt returner. “(Some people at LSU) actually said that Claiborne is better (at cornerback) than Peterson,” a second scout said. “Obviously part of Peterson’s plus is the punt-return ability, Claiborne can’t do that. But talking strictly corner, they were under the impression Claiborne would be a better professional corner. I kind of see what they’re saying. Claiborne has a little more upside.” Ran the 40 in 4.50 seconds and had a 34½-inch vertical jump. Has a reading disability and scored only four on the Wonderlic intelligence test. “The bottom line is the guy can play, he’s a really good player, and his upside is high,” a third scout said. “You just have to figure out the best way for him to learn. A guy like that generally speaking is not a big (grease) board guy. Giving them a sheet of paper with the coverage on it and tips and alerts probably isn’t the best thing. But there are ways to teach them. You just have to find out what that is. That’s why you have coaches.”

Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama, 6-1 5/8, 186 (6-1¾, 194 at campus), Round 1

Junior entry with great size. “A natural cover guy,” a scout said. “He’s a guy who has good hands, good technique on press coverage, doesn’t have a lot of contact downfield at the top of the route, keeps his hands off. Only question there is the speed to cover man to man, to cover the guys that have elite speed. Just not sure on that one.” Two-year starter had 16 passes defended and three interceptions. “The thing about Kirkpatrick, I think he’s as good as he’s going to be, he’s a finished product, he’s technically very sound,” another scout said. “Claiborne’s just more athletic. I think Kirkpatrick is going to have a little problem with deep speed, where Claiborne is going to be better with that.Again, it’s always a projection.” Ran the 40 in 4.52 seconds and had a 35-inch vertical jump at the combine, good but not great numbers. Some teams worry he’s too much of a follower off the field. “I saw a guy who’s well coached, a disciplined corner, played (good) position but not a great athlete,” a third scout said. “He was rated pretty high because of the school he went to and the coaching he gets there, but I didn’t think he was an explosive athlete.”

Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina, 6-0½, 190, Round 1

Excellent combination of size and speed. “I liked him,” a scout said. “Athletic corner, makes a lot of plays. He freelances, he gambles, but I like the way he plays.He played a lot as a true freshman, the next year he started, and he’s a physical corner, you don’t have a lot of those. He can cover, he’s smart, I like the kid. I like his makeup, he’s got a little (crap) to him.” Three-year starter had 24 passes defended and eight interceptions, including four interceptions last season. Ran the 40 in 4.40 seconds, which was third best among cornerbacks at the combine, and had a 36-inch vertical jump. “I’m not a Gilmore fan,” another scout said. “He’s a height-weight-speed guy. His measurables are awesome. Size, speed, all the good stuff. Then you put on the film and he’s a very OK player. He tries to get out of the way of the run. I’m not sure how much he likes football, and I really don’t think he likes contact.Occasionally, maybe, he’ll throw (himself into a tackle), but not much. He doesn’t like it, promise you that. You look at him on paper and he’s, ‘Oh wow.’ But then you put on the film and it’s not that he’s a bad player, don’t get me wrong. But everybody’s talking about him maybe a late first-round pick, I’m like, great.”

Janoris Jenkins, North Alabama, 5-10, 193, Rounds 2-3

Outstanding cover skills but major off-the-field risk who was kicked off the team at Florida after being arrested twice for possession of marijuana in early 2011. Still might go as high as the second round because of a thin class at cornerback. “Purely as a player there’s a chance he’s the best (cornerback) of the bunch,” a scout said. “But when he leaves the building there’s even more (concern). Once he tests positive (for marijuana) it’s all she wrote. Kind of like Odell Thurman, the linebacker from Georgia (drafted in the second round in 2005). Loved the guy, you want to talk about a captivating interview? He was hilarious, and you loved him. But you’re like, there’s no way that guy’s not going to smoke, he’s going to smoke. Next thing you know he’s out of the league.I’m not wishing that on (Jenkins), but going off what you know of the past. If it happens it’s your own fault because you should have known better (than to draft him).” Has four children with three mothers. Was a starter for three years at Florida and after getting kicked off the team, decided to transfer and play immediately at the Division II level rather than enter the NFL’s supplemental draft last year. In three seasons at Florida had eight interceptions and 25 pass breakups, then last season was rarely thrown at and had four breakups and two interceptions. “A gifted athlete who has too much off-the-field stuff to take a risk on him,” another scout said. “I think he has to go in Round 2 and maybe has to slide to Round 3 because of that. I know everybody has him as the fourth-rated corner, but I wouldn’t touch the kid until maybe be the third, and that would be the late third.”

Josh Robinson, Central Florida, 5-10 1/8, 199, Rounds 2-3

Junior entry shot up draft boards this spring with the best combine workout of all the cornerbacks, but many scouts question whether his play warrants a grade that would get him selected on the first two days of the draft. “I’ll put it this way: Josh is responsible for losing more games than helping them win,” one scout said. “That’s one of the biggest mysteries this year, they’re talking about him being a first- or second-round pick. I’m like, is anybody watching the film? Are we strictly going off the combine? He gives up more plays than anybody I’ve seen so far (this year). He’s just not very good. Could he be something? I don’t know, I’ve been wrong before. But I sure as heck wouldn’t want to take him. I would stand on the table to say no.” That combine workout included the fastest 40 of all players (4.30 seconds) and a 38½-inch vertical. Was a three-year starter and had 10 interceptions and 21 passes defended in his career. “He’s a zone corner in my opinion,” another scout said. “I don’t see (the speed) when he plays. If you can’t play with it then you’re a zone corner. What I saw was a guy who wasn’t real physical at the line of scrimmage, they didn’t do a lot of press man with him, and I didn’t the speed on the tape.”

Alfonzo Dennard, Nebraska, 5-10, 204, Rounds 2-3

Short, stocky three-year starter whose greatest value is to teams that play extensive bump coverage. “He kind of looks like a running back with the big legs and short arms,” a scout said. “Just a thick legged guy whose whole game is getting those strong, powerful hands on the receiver from a press alignment. He’s a sharp kid and understands routes, that’s part of their coaching. But if you said, we’re going to play off-man, I think he’d struggle immensely.Little bit tight in the hips because he’s a thicker guy. His whole game is going to be about putting his big, strong, powerful hands on people.” Three-year starter had four interceptions and knocked down 21 passes in his career. Ran the 40 in 4.55 seconds and had a 37-inch vertical jump at the combine. Built more like a safety than a cornerback. “I didn’t think he was a bad player, but I’m not so sure,” another scout said. “I think he might struggle a little bit with the deep-speed stuff. I might want to make him a safety.”

Dwight Bentley, Louisiana-Lafayette, 5-10, 182, Rounds 2-3

Four-year starter from a small school who’s a little on the small side but has good speed and natural cover talent. Spent a redshirt season at a junior college, then transferred and had 20 pass breakups and seven interceptions in his career. Ran well in the 40 (4.43 seconds) at the combine but for some reason had a bad 31½-inch vertical jump. At his campus workout he upped that to a much-better 35½ inches. “He’s going to be a little bit of a project, but he’s somebody that could be a player down the road,” a scout said. “His acceleration, plant and drive, it’s awesome. He doesn’t’ shy away from anything. The combination of those two things, you could teach him other stuff, but you can’t teach speed and you can’t teach desire.”

Brandon Boykin, Georgia, 5-9½, 182, Rounds 3-4

Quick, aggressive cover man who will appeal to teams that don’t mind short cornerbacks. “I thought he was a really fierce competitor,” a scout said. “He’s little, but remember (former Denver cornerback) Darrent Williams? I’d compare him to him. That (Williams) was really good — the anticipation and the foot speed to change direction and burst to the ball. Boykin has really good reading ability, he always seems to be right there when the ball is thrown, and he’s disrupting passes, whether he’s hitting the receiver to disrupt it or getting his hands in to disrupt it.” Three-year starter had nine interceptions and 15 passes defended in his career. Also scored four touchdowns and averaged 24.2 yards on 110 kickoff returns, and had one touchdown and a 12.9-yard average on 14 punt returns. Cracked a bone in his lower leg when he was kicked during the Senior Bowl and hasn’t worked out for pro scouts yet, though as a junior ran the 40 in 4.45 seconds. “He plays hard,” a scout said. “It’s not that he’s a dog or anything, and he runs pretty good, his transition and everything. I just wouldn’t want him to be a starter. To me he’s a returner, fourth-corner guy. How bad you need a returner is the question.”

Casey Hayward, Vanderbilt, 5-11 3/8, 192, Rounds 3-4

Three-year starter tied the school record for career interceptions with 15, including seven last season. Showed quickness at the scouting combine with the best short shuttle (3.90 seconds) of cornerbacks. Ran the 40 in 4.57 seconds and a 34-inch vertical. “I went to his workout,” a scout said. “I could be wrong, but down the road he could be a starter in the NFL, a No. 2 corner depending on the right situation.I don’t think you’re going to want him someplace where you play a lot of man to man, and I think he’s going to struggle a little bit to stay on top, he’ll get beat by some of the faster receivers. But he’s a good player and his ball skills were better than I thought. I’d love for him to be a (third cornerback).”

Trumaine Johnson, Montana, 6-1 7/8, 204, Rounds 3-4

Four-year starter has great size and made 15 interceptions in his career. One scout likened him to former Packers cornerback Joey Thomas, another talented Montana player and third-round pick in 2004 who was a bust because of temperamental issues. “Early on the size jumps off the film,” a scout said, “a big corner and you first think, ‘Why is a guy that’s big and has talent, what’s he doing here and not at one of the bigger schools?’ He had a few off-the-field issues. But he is a big corner.” Was arrested after a game last fall in an alcohol-related incident. Ran the 40 in 4.61 seconds at the combine and had a 35½-inch vertical. “You could look at where he is as a corner, but I think he’s going to end up at safety, it’s just a matter of how physical he’s going to be,” a second scout said. “If you really like guys that can cover at your back end, you get true corners and then a couple big corners and those guys become your safeties. He kind of fits into that mold. Not great hips, not great speed, but he’s got good length and he can cover some ground.”
— Pete Dougherty

pdougher@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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