In the long lead-in to the 2012 draft, many national media pundits assigned Alabama safety Mark Barron to the Cowboys in their mock drafts. I never agreed with this, and never really felt that the Cowboys were sold on him either - largely because I didn't think he represented good value. This was particularly clear when examining Barron from a wider aperture, taking previous and future drafts into consideration. What such a view suggests is that Barron was like the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind: the consensus best player at his position in an otherwise moribund safety class.
Had Barron come out in, say 2010, when shiny toys like Eric Berry and Earl Thomas were available, he would almost certainly have lasted until the 20th pick - or further. Check out the grades Pro Football Weekly's Nolan Nawrocki had assigned to each player: Berry 6.60; Thomas 6.40; Barron 6.20. In fact, in 2010, Barron would have been fighting with USC's Taylor Mays (6.15) to be the third safety off Nawrocki's board. Certainly Nawrocki is not the be-all and end-all of draft prognosticators; however, other scouting types shared his assessment of Barron as a one-dimensional playmaker.
The other argument made for eschewing the Barron selection is that the 2013 class will be rich in safeties. In a post back in May, I looked at the early returns for prospective 2013 draftees. Russ Lande, of The Sporting News and GM Jr., and CBS Sports' Rob Rang both offered early peeks at the top 100 players in the upcoming draft. One of the most evident positions of strength is safety, were Lande sees nine prospects going in the first three rounds. Compare this to recent drafts, in which the first one hundred picks have seen five (2012), four (2011), eight (2010) and seven (2009) safeties chosen.
If Lande's assessment proves out over the course of the 2012 NCAA football season, 2012 could be a historic year for safeties, exceeding even the superb 2010 class. So, which names should we look out for as we tune in on Saturdays this Fall? Grab your notebook and make the jump...
Eric Reid, LSU: 6-2, 208 (FS)
A free safety at LSU, Reid has the potential, skill-set and size to play either safety position, boasting the capability to come up and play the run or be a free roamer in centerfield. Reminds people of former LSU All-American and the sixth pick in the 2007 draft LaRon Landry. Like Landry, Reid can lay the wood; here he is doing precisely that against Vandy.
Moreover, he's an intelligent player who takes good angles to the football, using uses his size and instincts to put himself in a position to make plays. Reid's smarts suggest he might be an "RKG." Reid has a good GPA and is on the watch list for the Lott Impact Trophy, which is awarded to college footballs Defensive Player of the Year who best exemplifies integrity, maturity, performance, academics, community and tenacity.
Indeed, his tenacity was evident in last year's "battle of the century" against Alabama, when he went up to battle Alabama tight end Michael Williams for a ball inside the Tigers' 10 yard line. Although Williams has position and the ball, Reid wrestled it away from him, preserving a 6-6 tie in a game LSU went on to win 9-6.
T.J. McDonald, USC: 6'2", 205 (FS)
McDonald boasts NFL bloodlines. His father, Tim, was also a safety at USC, leading the Trojans to a Rose Bowl victory before a pro career with the Cardinals and 49ers. T.J.'s family pedigree shows up on the field and in the film room; he's a great athlete with a very high football IQ.
McDonald doesn't have the short-area quickness to run with slot receivers; that's not his game. However, at 6'2", with a frame that could add at another 10 pounds of mass, he is fast and physical enough to stay with tight ends and bigger wideouts over the middle and down the seam, which fulfills an important role in today's NFL.
As a deep safety, McDonald covers a lot of ground, and reads the quarterback's eyes and reacts quickly to sideline throws. His fluid hips and long frame will help him break up a great number of pass plays in his area. McDonald isn't great against the run, but plays intelligently with instincts in his assignment. He is a willing tackler who aggressively attacks screens and short routes.
Robert Lester, Alabama: 6'2", 210 (FS)
In 2011, Lester started all 12 games at strong safety for the eventual BCS Champions, and then, much to head coach Nick Saban's delight, opted to return for his senior season. Lester is a very smart, hardworking player who is always around the ball (as evidenced by the fact that he's involved in a lot of turnovers). Furthermore, he has demonstrated the propensity to make plays with the football after an interception or fumble.
In Alabama's scheme, Lester was used interchangeably; at times he was a box safety, at others he dropped into a deep zone or lined up on a slot WR (where he has been successful, showing good coverage skills). At the NFL level, he figures to be a free safety, largely because he excels as a centerfielder, and has tallied 10 interceptions in his career at ‘Bama, most of them when lined up in deep zone and reacting to the developing play.
SS Ray-Ray Armstrong (6'4", 216) and FS Vaughn Telemaque (6'2", 211) Miami, FL.
Once again, "The U" boasts two terrific safety prospects. The better of the two is Armstrong, a big, aggressive athlete with excellent size and speed, as well as the range and instincts to cover both sidelines. He's an extremely physical player who flies around the field punishing opposing ballcarriers. With his rare size, Armstrong is capable of matching up with tight ends but can use his 4.4 speed to run with slot receivers.
Telemaque not only makes the all-name team, but also demonstrates NFL caliber athleticism. In 2011, he started all 12 games, finishing fourth on the team in tackles with 59 (36 solo, 23 assists). Some scouts believe that Telemaque is a better prospect than Armstrong, due to his ability to be equally effective against the run and in coverage. Indeed, he's a rangy player and a strong tackler.
That said, both players come with multiple red flags. In 2011, Armstrong was suspended for four games for dealings with convicted felon and former UM booster Nevin Shapiro; Telemaque was part of the scandal but wasn't suspended. On Monday, rumors circulated that Armstrong had been dismissed from the team after he tweeted that he had had interaction with a booster via Twitter. And, reports out of spring practice suggest that Telemaque has been demoted to second team, passed on the depth chart by Kacy Rodgers.
The Best of the Rest:
Kenny Vaccaro, Texas: 6'1", 215 (FS)
Although he has the size to play strong safety, Vaccaro's NFL position will likely be at FS. At UT, Vaccaro has primarily been given coverage assignments rather than being asked to line up in the box and defend the run. Vaccaro has good range, and covers a lot of ground, boasting the quickness to cover the deep part of the field. The Longhorns' defensive staff often lined him up in the slot, where he covered an inside receiver. From this position, Texas has asked him to execute both man and zone coverages, and to blitz (he had five QB pressures in 2011)
Vaccaro's fluidity as well as his instincts allow him to shadow quicker receivers while his size makes him a difficult matchup for bigger receivers as well. At the same time, he is aggressive in pursuit, has good size to defend the run and is a nice form tackler, wrapping up ballcarriers rather than simply hitting them or diving at their legs. On the other hand, he gets impatient at times, and will get out of his backpedal a little too quick, and he needs to improve his hands; Vaccaro dropped a several potential interceptions last season.
Bacarri Rambo, Georgia: 6'0", 218 (FS)
In 2011, Rambo was named All-SEC First Team and First Team All-American while starting all 13 games for the Bulldogs, recording 55 tackles, eight PBUs and a team-best eight INTs - which was enough to rank first in the SEC and second in the NCAA in interceptions (0.62) per game. He's got terrific size and an impressive skillset, and is reportedly a hard worker and he pushes everyone on the team to work hard and to get better each day.
Before you label him an RKG, however, note that Rambo will miss the first four games of the coming football season after testing positive for marijuana use after waking up hungry and eating some pot-laced brownies while on vacation. Why four games? Because he had already violated the team's drug and alcohol policy.
Hakeem Smith, Louisville: 6-1, 185 (SS)
Based on his impactful play over the first two starting seasons of his career, one could make the argument that Smith deserved to lead this list. After redshirting in 2009, Smith led the Cardinals with 88 tackles, including six tackles for loss, earning Big East Defensive "Rookie of the Year" honors. In 2011, Smith emerged as a playmaker in the secondary, demonstrating the ability to come up and make sure-handed tackles and developing his coverage skills, with 9 PBUs, his second career interception and four forced fumbles, resulting in his earning First Team All Big East accolades in 2011.
These players figure to be drafted anywhere from the first (Reid, McDonald) to the third-fourth (Telemaque) rounds. The larger takeaway here is that there will be plenty of premium prospects available at a position where the Cowboys desperately need to add quality. Bill Parcells always used to say that personnel requires a meeting of need and opportunity; next April, we should see a welcome synchronicity between these two.
Next up: a look at the 2013 draft's available pass rushing prospects.