Positional Analysis: Safeties

The Vikings have a lot of safeties on the roster, but not one that has become a consistent playmaker. This draft has a few very gifted athletes at the position, but at least two of them are expected to be selected well before the Vikings' first-round pick. John Holler breaks down his top 10 safeties with statistics, measurables, analysis and more.

VIKINGS SAFETIES — Madieu Williams, Tyrell Johnson, Jamarca Sanford, Husain Abdullah, Eric Frampton, Colt Anderson.

VIKINGS NEEDS — It is something of a loaded question when it comes to the needs for the Vikings at the safety position. The team signed Williams two years ago to a significant contract and, while he has been decent, he hasn't been a playmaker. The same goes for Johnson. Sanford looked good in limited action and both Abdullah and Frampton earned roster spots thanks to their special-teams ability. If the Vikings do make a move early here, somebody will have to go and, if it's a first-rounder on somebody like USC's Taylor Mays, one of last year's starters may have to vacate the starting lineup. There continues to be rumors that the Vikings see themselves as being a playmaking safety away from being a top-rated defense and upgrading the position in the first round remains a possibility, but not one that seems as critical as other positions.

THE CLASS OF 2010 — The class is led by Eric Berry of Tennessee, whom many believe is the best safety to come out in the draft since Troy Polamalu and is on pace with any of the greats that have played the game at this point in his career. Safeties rarely go in the top 10, but Berry will. There is other talent at the position and there could be one or two more safeties that will potentially go in the first round (Mays or Earl Thomas of Texas). The talent drops off pretty fast, but there will be a half dozen safeties that will be off the board early in the third round, making it a pretty solid draft class.

THE CREAM OF THE CROP

Eric Berry, Tennessee, 5-11¾, 211 — Third-year junior…Started 37 of 39 career games, amassing 245 tackles, 17 passes defensed, 14 interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries…Became the first true freshman to start a season opener for Vols coach Phillip Fulmer in his 17 years as head coach…Was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year as a sophomore and Thorpe Award (best defensive back) finalist…In 2009, he won the Thorpe Award…Played most of the 2008 season with a torn left labrum and needed shoulder surgery following the season…A three-year captain, almost unheard of in college football…Has the speed and agility to play cornerback or safety…Has very long arms (33½ inches)…Makes a ton of plays – finished three-year college career just nine yards short of the all-time NCAA record for interception return yards (494)…Is a smart player who has good pass/run recognition skills…Is a big hitter who knocks people out of games…Performs at his best with the brightest spotlight…Makes plays…Is a little thin in his lower body, which scares some teams because of the propensity for knee and ankle injuries…Throws himself like a lawn dart at players and his style lends itself to potential injuries…Doesn't have a great backpedal and will lose some ground when asked to flip his hips and go deep…Didn't show the best footwork at the Combine drills…Ran a 4.43 40 at the Combine (better than all cornerbacks that ran) with 19 reps of 225 pounds, a huge 43-inch vertical jump and a 10-10 broad jump. PROJECTION: As far as the qualities teams look for in a safety, Berry may be the most well-rounded college safety to come out in the last decade. Even the best of safeties don't typically go in the top 10, but a case can be made that Berry is the best athlete in the draft and won't make it past Cleveland at No. 7.

THE NEXT LEVEL

Earl Thomas, Texas, 5-10¼, 208 — Third-year sophomore who renounced his final two seasons of eligibility…Started all 27 games he played, making 149 tackles, 33 passes defensed, 10 interceptions and five forced fumbles…Was a Thorpe Award finalist in 2009…Has excellent range and will make plays at the sidelines…Extremely competitive and goes after the ball like he is the receiver…Has very fluid hip movements and ranges with cornerback speed…Is smooth in his transition and can stay with slot receivers and tight ends…Has excellent closing speed…Good upper-body strength…Consistent production numbers…Can play either safety position or nickel corner, giving him as much versatility as anyone but Berry…Is skinny by NFL standards and doesn't have the kind of frame that can add 20 pounds without losing speed…Isn't as physical a tackler as he can be and needs to work on squaring up and breaking down in space…Isn't a physically imposing tackler…Is still young and has some seasoning to do to make the jump to the big boys…Ran a 4.48 40 at the Combine with 21 reps of 225 pounds and a 9-5 broad jump. PROJECTION: He added about 10 pounds between the end of the season and the Combine and still performed well. He has huge upside and, as a result, likely will go somewhere in the second half of the first round.

Taylor Mays, USC, 6-3¼, 230 — Fourth-year senior…Four-year starter who started all but one of his 51 collegiate games…Had 276 tackles, 21 passes defensed and five interceptions in his career…Was a high school track star who won two state titles in both the 100 and 200 meters…A Parade All-American and Gatorade Player of the Year in Washington as a high school senior…Had arthroscopic ankle surgery following the 2007 season…Is the son of former Cardinal and Viking Stafford Mays, who played for Jerry Burns in 1987-88…Is huge and looks like a linebacker when in uniform…Is quick to break on passes in front of him…Is a huge hitter who acts as if he has a bounty on receivers in his area…Has good closing burst and timing in laying out receivers…Is very active in run support and makes a lot of plays near the line of scrimmage…Doesn't have great read-and-react ability and will show up late at times…Not a true ballhawk, making just five picks in 51 games…Gets out of position and will get burned if he picks a bad angle…In the run game and when defensing tight ends, he isn't as physical and will go for leg tackles, which don't always pay off…Does not play to his amazing timed speed…Ran a sparkling 4.37 40 at the Combine with 24 reps of 225 pounds, a 41-inch vertical jump and a 10-5 broad jump. PROJECTION: Few players made a bigger Combine impression than Mays, which may well push him into the first round. He's a somewhat popular choice for the Vikings at No. 30, but his lack of playmaking ability is troubling since the Vikings already have a couple of starters that fit that description.

Nate Allen, South Florida, 6-0½, 207 — Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter who started all 38 games he played in that span…In his final three seasons, he had 224 tackles, 12 passes defensed, nine interceptions, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries…A team captain…Has very strong, muscular physique with good upper-body strength…Has elite speed for a safety and makes plays to the sidelines…Has good awareness and recognition skills…Is aggressive in fighting for the ball in the air…Has good makeup speed if he has a misstep…Durable four-year starter who never missed time due to injury in his three years as a starter…Is willing and able to provide good run support and makes plays near the line…Does not have good functional playing strength with the kind of body he has…Will have trouble staying with shifty slot receivers one-on-one…Didn't have consistent production numbers…Didn't consistently face top competition…Didn't run or jump at the Combine because of a left quadriceps injury, but did 16 reps of 225 pounds. PROJECTION: A solid athlete with a lot of upside who was a team leader in college. May need time to catch up to the pro game, but has starter potential, which will take him off the board somewhere in the second round.

Major Wright, Florida, 5-11½, 206 — Third-year junior…Became a starter midway through his freshman season and started 33 of 41 career games…In three seasons, had 165 tackles, 10 passes defensed, eight interceptions and four forced fumbles…Played through a broken thumb as a freshman…Has excellent speed and closing burst…Plays with a mean streak and is a big hitter…Has good awareness to jump routes and effectively break on passes in front of him…Has sideline-to-sideline range and will make plays in run support all over the field…Durability is unquestioned…Is an average athlete who will struggle to stay with receivers in coverage…Doesn't have great upper-body strength (see below) and looks more like a nickel corner than a safety…Tackle production dropped every season…Isn't quick to recognize run plays and drive forward to fill a gap in run support…Ran a 4.47 40 at the Combine with 14 reps, a 37½-inch vertical jump and a 9-11 broad jump. PROJECTION: A lot of players come out early because they feel they are ready. Wright came out because he was challenged by teammate Will Hill and likely would have lost his starting job. He has the potential to be a contributor and eventual starter, but his lack of upper-body strength will likely drop him into the third round or beyond.

THE BEST OF THE REST

Morgan Burnett, Georgia Tech, 6-1½, 209 — Third-year junior…Two-year starter in GT's Rover position who had 178 tackles, 12 passes broken up, 11 interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in that span…Has excellent size and good closing speed…A playmaker who battles for the ball in the air and wrestles it away from receivers…A big hitter who will deliver the knockout blow to receivers in the passing game and fill holes in run support…Special teams ace…Played as a cornerback in 2007 and held up well, giving him versatility scouts like…Has good awareness to get in passing lanes and blow up plays…Inconsistent from game to game…Is often late to react in run support…Will get sucked in on play-action and get out of position…Is not an intimidator and gets hooked too often when blockers get to his body…Needs to use his hands better to protect his legs from blockers…Didn't run or jump at the Combine, but did 16 reps of 225 pounds. PROJECTION: Made a lot of plays in college, but his lack of elite speed (in the 4.55 range) and the range to shut down plays on the sidelines will likely drop him into the third round.

T.J. Ward, Oregon, 5-10½, 211 — Fifth-year senior…Two-year starter who made starts in 20 of 21 games in his final two seasons…In that span, he had 169 tackles with 12 passes broken up, two interceptions and five forced fumbles…Didn't start playing football until his senior year of high school and his season ended after three games with a torn left patellar tendon…Was a walk-on with the Ducks and redshirted in 2005…After being in line to start at cornerback in 2007, suffered a torn left ACL, which he tried to return from before the end of the season and aggravated the injury – requiring a second surgery…Started his final two seasons at free safety and, after having blood drained from he knee twice a month during the 2008 season, missed five games in 2009 with an ankle injury…Has very good upper-body strength and looks the part…Is very strong in run defense and is always around the ball making big hits…Brings versatility with experience at both safety and cornerback…Has good hands and can make plays in traffic…Closes fast…Is a hard worker who was a weight-room and locker-room leader…Durability will be a huge red flag for teams…Is very raw since he only has one full season of playing football in his life…Doesn't have ideal range and will get lost in man coverage with slot receivers down the seam…Misses too many tackles in the open field…Isn't a ballhawk – had just three interceptions in 37 career games…Ran a dismal 4.67 40 at the Combine with 19 reps of 225 pounds, a 34-inch vertical jump and a 10-1 broad jump. PROJECTION: He passes the eyeball test, but his long injury history and lack of tangible experience will likely drop him into the final day of the draft. That said, he can make an immediate impact on special teams and could develop into a starting-caliber safety…if he can ever stay healthy.

Chad Jones, LSU, 6-2¼, 221 — Third-year junior…Didn't become a full-time starter until last year when he had 66 tackles, five passes broken up and three interceptions…Drafted in the 13th round of the MLB amateur draft by the Houston Astros and, while he never signed with Houston, he did play for LSU's national championship team and some scouts think he prefers to play baseball over football…Won a championship with the football team as well, setting a freshman record with 23 special teams tackles…Had three different defensive coordinators in his last three seasons…Has excellent size and speed…Has the movement skills and anticipation to get to the sideline to provide help over the top on deep passes…Is a big hitter who will come up quickly in run support…Times blitzes well and picks his shots nicely…Adds a lot as a special teams player as both a gunner and a return man…Doesn't have good upper-body strength at all (see below)…Doesn't always play with good balance and will take himself out of too many plays with wasted motion and missteps…Isn't a face-up tackler and will often go low to avoid head-on contact…Passion for the game isn't that high…Ran a 4.65 40 at the Combine with nine reps, a 36-inch vertical jump and a 9-7 broad jump. PROJECTION: He didn't have a strong showing at the Combine, which will hurt his stock. He will make an immediate contribution on special teams and, with some patient coaching, could develop into a solid safety. But his lack of playing experience and lack of commitment to being a top college football player will get him labeled as a boom/bust prospect and likely drop him into the fourth round.

Darrell Stuckey, Kansas, 5-11½, 205 — Fifth-year senior…Three-year starter who had 263 tackles, 15 passes defensed and eight interceptions in that span…Had his freshman season limited after breaking his right ankle…A team captain and special-teams ace that was named KU's Special Teams Player of the Year in 2008…Top on-field leader who was a team captain and locker-room leader…Started 17 games his first two seasons at free safety and his final 25 games at strong safety, giving him a wealth of experience and versatility…Plays faster than his timed speed…Has a relentless motor and chases plays to the whistle…Outstanding tackle numbers his last two years (191)…Can line up in the slot against third wide receivers in the short passing game…Doesn't have good makeup speed if he makes a mistake…Doesn't have great functional playing strength and needs to improve his upper-body work and using his hands…Takes time to get up to top speed…Is more of a finesse tackler who comes in low and will miss tackles…The longer he has to stay with a receiver, the more troublesome it becomes for him…Doesn't have a nasty streak…Ran an impressive 4.49 40 at the Combine with 17 reps, a 39½-inch vertical jump and a 10-0 broad jump. PROJECTION: Looked better as a junior than a senior and didn't make a big impression at the East-West Shrine Game. He has a solid skill set, but his liabilities in technique and deep coverage will drop him into the fourth or fifth round.

Reshad Jones, Georgia, 6-1¼, 214 — Fourth-year junior…Two-year starter who had 149 tackles, 10 passes defensed and nine interceptions in that span…Excellent upper-body strength…Decent speed and good closing speed to get to the ball quickly…Is a very big hitter who gains speed as he approaches contact…Will fight through blockers to get to the ball…Reads and reacts quickly to passes in his area…An excellent leaper who goes for interceptions on jump balls, not to simply bat them away…Isn't always strong in run support…Misses way too many tackles and doesn't take good angles…Doesn't have a good backpedal and allows receivers to eat up his cushion too fast…Doesn't have great natural safety instincts…Doesn't have the quick-burst speed to make up for mistakes he makes…Ran a 4.58 40 at the Combine with an impressive 24 reps of 225 pounds, a 39½-inch vertical jump and a 9-10 broad jump. PROJECTION: An athletically gifted player who makes far too many technical errors because he is aggressive and always looking to make the big play. He has the skills to get drafted much higher than we have him rated, but his downsides are as pronounced as any safety in this class, making him a risky pick before the fourth round.

OTHERS TO WATCH
Larry Asante, Nebraska, 6-0, 212
Kam Chancellor, Virginia Tech, 6-3¼, 231
Barry Church, Toledo, 6-1½, 222
Kurt Coleman, Ohio State, 5-10¼, 192
Kendrick Lewis, Mississippi, 5-11¾, 198
Darian Stewart, South Carolina, 5-11, 213



John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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