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NPLB Day 1 Difference Makers: SAF

NPLB Day 1 Difference Makers: SAF

A Bird's eye view of April

There is no doubt that a great safety can make an amazing difference on the field. He can make an average group of defensive backs jobs easier. He can assist the linemen and linebackers in bringing pressure in the backfield and he can allow the corners to take the chances needed to create turnovers. Safeties like Dawkins, Ed Reed, and even our own Lynch make teams think twice before attempting the big play, and they can make teams pay that do decide to gamble on it.

This years draft class, overall when compared with recent classes, as well as when compared to historically productive classes, seems terribly weak at first glance. As the Draft Machine rolls on and these kids start getting measured in every imaginable way, the Safety class looks to see some of the widest separations of any position, between the haves and the have-nots. And at safety, it is usually pretty easy to tell what the dividing line is: speed kills.

In this installment of the 'NPLB Day 1 Difference Makers" we will look at both FS and SS, from the recent years of 2005, 2006, 2007 and of course, from 2008.

This is not an attempt to grade past draft classes. This is an attempt to reasonably assess the potential of certain prospects to have a decisive impact within their first two years. The following is a look at what some of 2008's top prospects have in common with recent first day prospects and picks at various positions. With any luck, perhaps Denver will be able to land one or more of these "Difference Makers."

A Look at the Best in Class

In this series, when we go to look at a particular position, we turn our analysis first to that select and small group from each class that is simply head and shoulders above their peers. Rarely, such a prospect won't exist. Usually, it is a single player, and often, that greatness is competed for by two or more players. 2006 is an excellent example of the latter, with no less than THREE stellar athletes competing to go first at Safety. Where will 2008 rate amongst recent history?

2005 FS Thomas Davis

2006 FS Jason Allen

2006 SS Michael Huff

2006 SS Donte Whitner

2007 FS Laron Landry

2007 FS Reggie Nelson

2008 FS Kenny Phillips


2005 looked over its draft class and gave a half-hearted shrug. Ideally, The Greats of a particular college position should rank in the top ten players in the nation, and be relatively interchangeable between those top ten spots based on team needs. In 2005 the far and away clear choice for #1 safety prospect in the nation was Georgia Bulldog, Thomas Davis. Some thought that ranking him athletically in the top twenty was a stretch, but not the Panthers who selected him 14th overall.

2006 looked to be a close race as the college season came underway, but Tennessee's Jason Allen was shifted to right corner at the start of his final year and suffered a subsequent hip dislocation which sidelined him for the remainder. Regardless, his demonstrated athletic potential and a strong combine shot him up draft boards where he ended up competing against strong safeties Michael Huff (UT) and Donte Whitner (OhioSt.). Huff and Whitner shared many similarities, both being hard hitters compared with Ronnie Lott, and the race in the end was close with Jason Davis getting the booby prize due to his injuries, going 16th to Miami. Huff and Whitner had to be contented to duel it out in the AFC with Huff going 7th to OAK and Whitner going 8th to Buffalo.

2007 saw two prospects that left scouts and GMs to gawk in amazement. Both gifted with speed, both with amazing instincts and big play capability, both with that rare blend of size and quickness. Reggie Nelson and LaRon Landry looked to be neck and neck on draft day, but only Landry lived up to the Brian Dawkins label that tagged each young man, being drafted 6th overall by Washington. Nelson succumbed to "team needs" as the 49ers and then the Broncos passed over him, both considered to be strong cases for selection. He fell to 21 where Denver's first round trade partner, Jacksonville, nabbed the slighted star.


Thomas Davis came in for the Panthers and took a spot in their LB corp. In his 3 years he has missed only two games, those coming in the season when he posted a career high 90 tackles. He is averaging two sacks and 1 INT per year and is as solid of a player as you could ask for. Though a FS at Georgia, the Panthers saw his play near the line of scrimmage and felt that his instincts and hard-nosed play around the football warranted a seat near the front. He hasn't disappointed.

In 2006, Jason Allen entered the NFL considered to be an injury risk, due to chronic shoulder problems and a dislocated hip. His first step was to nearly become the last holdout of the 2006 draft class to sign, though in the end that distinction belongs to the lauded Leinart. In two seasons with Miami, the results have been less than stellar, indicating that he may have been a reach in the middle of the first round. While he has successfully dodged the injury bug, inconsistent play and a lack of the athleticism he showed prior to injuring his hip have led to a slow adjustment to the NFL. After a poor showing in 2006 he rebounded for a very poor Dolphins team in 2007, posting 62 tackles and 3 INTs. He is part of a young group that looks to grow as a unit under Parcells. Allen's draftmates, the very athletic strong safeties Whitner and Huff also would be taken for a spin on teams searching desperately for a sense of identity. In oakland, Huff had an impact even before training camp began, with then coach Art Shell naming him a starter before he had even reported. Shell's confidence appeared well founded as Huff led the secondary with 78 tackles in an up and down season in the silver and black backfield. In far away Buffalo, Whitner would have a standout rookie season, missing only one game and tallying a whopping 106 tackles and an INT. His sophmore season also saw him miss a game, yet post nearly 90 tackles and another INT. Both Huff and Whitner are considered to be part of the nucleus that will move two near-great AFC defenses forward in the coming years

Laron Landry drawing comparisons to Brian Dawkins is a tough pill for some to swallow, but being taken at number 6 overall can do wonders for a young man's confidence levels as he went on to clear 95 tackles and 1.5 sacks for the Redskins in an emotional season. Looking back, many felt that the reason he seemed to separate from fellow draftmate Reggie Nelson despite sharing so many physical characteristics, was the creeping notion in scouting circles that Nelson may have been better suited to play corner. Thankfully the Jaguars didn't feel that way, and after STEALING him at #21 overall, and they inserted him in the newly vacated position left by Deon Grant. Nelson managed 16 games and was part of a heavy hitting, physical Jaguars defense that would eventually meet unbeaten NE in the playoffs, where a hobbled Nelson saw his team fall without his best efforts on the field. Of course, no one is faulting him for that after a rookie campaign that netted 62 tackles, a sack a forced fumble and 5 INTs!

Who is it Gonna Be?

There is no doubt that some great playmakers have entered the draft recently, and after the chips have fallen it is easy to look back and second guess the possible 2007 1st round reach of the Denver Broncos that saw Nelson slip to 21 while they traded up to get Moss, who eventually missed significant time with a serious injury.

But is Phillips the answer? Like Nelson and Landry, he has less than ideal size, though the size and quickness he does have is a rare combination. We'll see about his timed speed come the combine, but in the meantime, he is considered to have great football speed and has a knack for great reads. But while he led the team in INTs last season he only had 7 for his career, with four coming against the vaunted offenses of Duke and Florida International... You will hear that he is not as great nor as instinctual a safety as recent 'canes defenders, but bear in mind that they are talking about Ed Reed and Brandon Merriweather, and they had a knack for being big play contributors in any scenario at any time. Except for an INT returned for a TD in triple overtime vs. clemson in his freshamn campaign, the 'big play' has been absent from virtually the entirety of Phillips' catalog. Add to that an ankle injury (possibly a torn tendon, the severity wasn't disclosed) in his final game and you have a recipe for doubt. Like Jason Allen in 2006, Phillips may need to go to a team that doesn't need him to start right away. Anyone else may be reaching. He is the class of the 2008 safeties, for sure.

But it isn't looking like much of a class.

The Rest of the Group

In the next installment we will review the following 2008 prospects:

DB Simeon Castille

FS Marcus Griffin

FS Jonathon Hefney

SS Jamar Adams