NFL Prospect Rankings: Defensive Backs

Safeties look to make draft history

April 16, 2007

By Rob Rang

Special to CSTV.com from The SportsXchange

 

The 2007 draft features a potentially historic class of defensive backs.

 

But it's not courtesy of the crop of cornerbacks, as this draft lacks the classic shutdown corner prospects. The real intrigue lies with the safeties.

 

Some believe free safeties LaRon Landry (LSU), Reggie Nelson (Florida) and Brandon Meriweather (Miami), along with strong safety Michael Griffin (Texas), could all be first-round selections. That would mark the first time in draft history more than three pure safeties have gone off the board in the first round.

 

An in-depth look at the top cornerbacks, free safeties and strong safeties:

 

CORNERBACKS:

 

1. Leon Hall, Michigan, 5-11, 193, SR:

 

A 37-game starter for the Wolverines, Hall was recognized with All-Big Ten accolades all four years of his career. He combines good size and speed, with excellent technique and work ethic. While he is occasionally beaten -- including in highly anticipated matchups against Ted Ginn Jr. (Ohio State) and Dwayne Jarrett (Southern California) in 2006 -- Hall's consistency over his entire body of work is his most impressive feat. He looked a bit tentative during the all-important week of practice at the Senior Bowl, but bounced back with Defensive Player of the Game honors in the game itself and followed that up with a 4.39-second 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine. Hall may never make the Pro Bowl, but he is a surefire starter capable of playing at a high level immediately.

 

2. Darrelle Revis, Pittsburgh, 6-0, 197, JR:

 

Pittsburgh has developed a reputation for producing talented cornerbacks who haven't yet developed as hoped in the NFL for one reason or another. Josh Lay, Shawntae Spencer, Torrie Cox and Hank Poteat were drafted over the past five years, with only Spencer emerging as a full-time starter. However, Revis is the most talented defender from Pitt since his uncle, defensive tackle Sean Gilbert, roamed the field for the Panthers in the early 90s. Since taking the field as a freshman in 2004, Revis started 34 of 35 career games, and leaves with sparkling career numbers: 25 passes broken up and eight interceptions. Hardly just a shutdown cornerback, Revis is among the draft's most physical and aggressive defensive backs when it comes to playing the run. The concern with Revis is playing speed. Though he ran the 40 in 4.38 seconds at his Pro Day, his timed speed doesn't translate to the field. He is at his best locked up in bump-and-run coverage, where his physicality, body control and instincts can make him a star at the next level.

 

3. Aaron Ross, Texas, 6-1, 192, SR:

 

Despite starting only 15 games in his collegiate career, Ross is considered by many to be a first-round prospect. Blessed with rare size and speed, Ross took advantage of his first season as the undisputed starter to win the Thorpe Award, given annually to the nation's top defensive back. It is easy to see why Ross earned the acclaim. He finished third on the team with 80 tackles and contributed to an eye-popping 11 turnovers (six interceptions, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries). Further investigation shows that Ross was in position to make so many plays because he was often targeted by opposing passers. He has exceptional quickness to go along with his size and speed, and can make teams sorry for targeting him. But Ross also gave up five touchdown receptions in 2006, an alarming number for such a highly regarded prospect. He also adds value with the ability to contribute as a return specialist (11.8-yard average per punt return, including three touchdowns).  

 

4. Chris Houston, Arkansas, 5-11, 185, JR:

 

Though Houston entered the 2006 season as an established starter, he wasn't necessarily viewed as standout NFL prospect. One spectacular junior season later, however, and Houston is now considered a possible first-round pick.

 

Houston's ability to limit Southern California All-American wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett to only five receptions for 35 yards in the opening game of the season set a precedent Houston matched repeatedly last season. Though successful against some of the draft's top receivers (including Jarrett, Dwayne Bowe (LSU) and Robert Meachem (Tennessee), critics point out the similarities between Houston and former Arkansas phenom and Packers first-round draft choice Ahmad Carroll.

 

Like Carroll, who has fizzled in the NFL after going to Green Bay in 2004, Houston is a pure man-to-man cover cornerback. His physicality at the line of scrimmage and pure speed may be better than that of any cornerback in the 2007 draft. On the downside, he struggled mightily when receivers were able to break free from his initial jam, is hesitant in run support and, despite 22 career pass breakups, he only had three interceptions.

 

5. Jonathan Wade, Tennessee, 5-10, 192, SR:

 

Wade is a former track star who made huge strides as a senior, ultimately being recognized as one of the most improved players at the position. A part-time starter in 2005, Wade earned Second Team All-SEC honors after starting all 13 games as a senior. The concern with Wade, as with all former track stars who become football players, is physicality. Wade improved his willingness to come up in run support, as evidenced by his career-high 52 tackles and six tackles for loss in 2006. He remains very much a project in this area and will be drafted in the first two rounds based on his upside, not his consistency.

 

6. Marcus McCauley, Fresno State, 6-1, 200, SR:

 

McCauley entered the 2006 season among the highest-rated defensive players in the draft. McCauley's former teammate, Richard Marshall, was selected by Carolina in the second round of the 2006 draft and enjoyed a strong rookie season with the Panthers.

If you ask anyone close to the Fresno State program, they would say McCauley was the better player in 2005. Unfortunately, he suffered a disappointing senior season and was inconsistent at the Senior Bowl. He seems to have lost the aggressiveness and confidence evident in his earlier play. He's a classic example of a boom-or-bust pick.

 

Other Potential Impact Cornerbacks:

   -- Eric Wright, UNLV, 5-11, 190, JR: A cover corner who stood out athletically on a talented Southern California team before off-field concerns pushed him to transfer.

   -- David Irons, Auburn, 5-10, 188, SR: Like his brother, Auburn running back Kenny Irons, David is a productive football player when healthy.

   -- Josh Wilson, Maryland, 5-9, 188, SR: Mighty mite who can run and hits like a truck.

   -- Tarell Brown, Texas, 5-11, 192, SR: Solid, but not spectacular on the field, and has to answer off-field questions.

   -- A.J. Davis, North Carolina State, 5-10, 192, SR: Possesses rare quickness and should be able to make an immediate impact as a slot defender.

   -- Daymeion Hughes, California, 5-10, 190, SR: Hughes was among the highest-rated cornerbacks in the country until running a 4.74 at the Scouting Combine.

 

 

FREE SAFETIES:

 

1. LaRon Landry, LSU, 6-2, 205, SR:

 

Considered by some veteran scouts to be the surest thing of all defensive prospects in the 2007 draft, Landry has Pro Bowl ability. Gaining individual accolades would be nothing new to Landry. A 48-game starter and first- or second-team all-conference selection each of his seasons with LSU, Landry has been a standout since first stepping on the field, an uncommon occurrence in the SEC.

 

Landry isn't a classic striker who consistently intimidates opponents over the middle (only two career forced fumbles). That's where the list of negatives ends. Outside of that, he's the complete package who is a force against the run, leading the team in tackles in 2003, 2004 and 2006, and is among the smoothest pass defenders in the country. His career numbers prove his standing among the greatest defensive backs in LSU history: 315 tackles, 22 pass breakups, 16 tackles for loss, 12 interceptions, eight sacks and two blocked kicks.

 

Redskins free safety Sean Taylor was the last player at that position drafted in the top 10, when he was picked by Washington with the fifth overall choice in 2004. Landry has a similar grade entering the '07 draft.

 

2. Reggie Nelson, Florida, 6-0, 193, JR:

 

Nelson entered his senior season in Gainesville ranked as a likely second-day prospect. The Coffeyville Junior College transfer had started four games and though solid, couldn't have been described as spectacular. Spectacular, however, is the perfect word for describing Nelson's play in 2006.

 

Arguably the most valuable player on a Florida defense that could have as many as nine defenders drafted this year, Nelson is now a viewed as a lock for the first round. He started all 14 games at free safety, registering 51 tackles (34 solos) with two stops for losses. He recovered a fumble, blocked two kicks and deflected five passes. He gained 70 yards with a touchdown on six interceptions. Scouts love his instincts, athleticism and penchant for the big play. Of concern is that Nelson lacks traditional size for the position and sometimes relies too much on his hitting ability, rather than securing tackles. Poor grades at Florida and a low Wonderlic test are a concern to some.

 

3. Brandon Meriweather, Miami, 5-11, 192, SR:

 

For many, the lasting memory of Meriweather's career at Miami will be his stomping opponents during the infamous brawl with Florida International. That, along with an incident during which Meriweather shot at an assailant before the 2006 season began, raises obvious character concerns. Teams can afford to use time rating Meriweather's character -- his actions on the field leave little room for debate.

 

In most years, Meriweather would rank as the elite free safety available. In fact, some teams are thought to rank Meriweather first at the position due to his versatility this year. His ability to make big plays, provide seamless coverage and even be used at cornerback, and provide big hits over the middle, make him a first-round caliber talent. Of his 31 career starts, Meriweather started 21 games at strong safety, six at free safety, two at right cornerback, one at left cornerback and one at nickel back for the Hurricanes. He left Miami as the career record holder for Hurricane defensive backs with 293 tackles, and had 20 career tackles for loss, 25 pass deflections, seven interceptions and four forced fumbles.

 

Other Potential Impact Free Safeties:

 

   -- Josh Gattis, Wake Forest, 6-1, 213, SR: Gattis started 2006 like gangbusters, but his play tailed off as the season went on.

   -- Tanard Jackson, Syracuse, 6-0, 192, SR: Jackson, a career cornerback, took a risk volunteering to play safety at Senior Bowl. It paid off -- he's now viewed among the draft's most versatile defensive backs.

   -- Dashon Goldson, Washington, 6-2, 202, SR: Considered athletic enough to try at cornerback, Goldson's best fit in NFL might be at free safety.

 

STRONG SAFETIES:

 

1. Michael Griffin, Texas, 6-0, 195, SR:

 

Capable of playing both safety positions well, Griffin continues Texas' recent tradition of producing top quality defensive backs. With talented safeties like Michael Huff and Cedric Griffin (no relation) ahead of him, Michael Griffin had to bide his time before becoming a starter for the Longhorns. Though he started 28 games, Griffin saw action in 50 games and leaves as one of the more productive defensive backs in Texas history. He ranks eighth in school history with 368 tackles, and produced 14 1/2 tackles for loss, forced nine fumbles, intercepted eight passes and recovered seven fumbles. A standout special-teams performer, Griffin's eight blocked kicks set a school record for career blocks and rank second in Championship Subdivision history. Recognized as a big hitter, Griffin is effective against the run and pass.

 

2. Eric Weddle, Utah, 5-11, 200, SR:

 

A versatile athlete, Weddle's collegiate success and underrated overall athleticism imply a long, successful NFL career could be ahead. In 48 games at Utah, Weddle started 45 times -- nine at right cornerback, 12 at left cornerback, six at nickel back and 18 at strong safety. His career statistics reflect his All-American production: 277 tackles, 22 1/2 tackles for loss, 18 interceptions, 10 sacks, nine forced fumbles, six fumble recoveries and four touchdown returns off turnovers (three interceptions, one fumble). Weddle's instincts and 4.4 speed make him among the better overall pass defenders in this class. He's also a very effective open-field tackler. The concern scouts have is that Weddle may be a jack-of-all trades, master-of-none type. His ability to hold up in coverage long term as a cornerback is questionable. Weddle also lacks the size and strength to fight through blocks when coming up to support the run. While he may never develop into a Pro Bowl player, Weddle should develop early in his career into one of the more versatile, dependable defensive backs in the league.

 

3. Aaron Rouse, Virginia Tech, 6-4, 225, SR:

 

Blessed with a spectacular combination of size and speed, Rouse is attractive to teams looking for a classic in-the-box presence. At his size, some teams are even looking at him as a candidate to move to outside linebacker. Rouse was a standout for much of his career with the Hokies playing the rover position. His explosive hitting ability and aggressiveness in run support made him a perfect fit for this role. The 24-game starter recorded 217 tackles, intercepted five passes and forced four fumbles.

 

Rouse struggles a bit when his back is turned to the action. While fast for a player his size, Rouse's 4.55 speed doesn't necessarily translate well into deep coverage. That belief was confirmed with an inconsistent performance during Senior Bowl practices.

 

Other Potential Impact Strong Safeties:

 

-- Michael Johnson, Arizona, 6-3, 211, SR: Lacks the hype, but has the physical tools to make an impact at either safety position. 

   -- Sabby Piscitelli, Oregon State, 6-3, 224, SR: Struggles with consistency, but teams love his size and speed (4.47).

   -- Eric Frampton, Washington State, 5-11, 205, SR: Lacks prototype measurables, but proved to be a playmaker in 2006.