MIKE DETILLIER'S FOOTBALL WORLD Saints not only team looking for safety help Mike Detillier Sports Correspondent Published: Sunday, February 15, 2009 at 8:00 a.m. Last Modified: Saturday, February 14, 2009 at 10:49 p.m. The one consistent part of watching the New Orleans Saints play over the last few seasons is that they have been continually beaten on deep passing plays. Part of the problem is that they have not gotten a consistent pass rush from two of the highest-priced players on the team, Will Smith and Charles Grant, but they have also never been able to find a play maker on defense at the safety position. Good cornerbacks are a rare find in the NFL today, all Saints fans can agree on that, but other than finding a franchise-type quarterback, finding a difference-maker at the free safety position would rank a close second. Years ago the safety positions were considered by many to be the weakest link of a defense. In many cases NFL teams converted undersized linebackers or cornerbacks that were considered too slow to the safety spots. Rarely did you find teams use a first-round pick on a pure safety unless you came across a Joey Browner (Minnesota Vikings), Dennis Smith and Steve Atwater (Denver Broncos) or a Kenny Easley (Seattle Seahawks) type performer, but the football world has changed and NFL teams all want that dominant deep defender and run stopper. Since 2002 NFL teams have used 12 first-round selections on safeties — Ed Reed (Baltimore Ravens), Roy Williams (Dallas Cowboys), Troy Polamalu (Pittsburgh Steelers), Sean Taylor (Washington Redskins), Antrel Rolle (Arizona Cardinals), who was drafted as a cornerback, but switched to free safety, Michael Huff (Oakland Raiders), Donte’ Whitner (Buffalo Bills), LaRon Landry (Washington Redskins), Michael Griffin (Tennessee Titans), Reggie Nelson (Jacksonville Jaguars), Brandon Meriweather (New England Patriots) and Kenny Phillips (New York Giants). Additionally, 22 safeties have been selected in the second round in that same time frame and the Saints have used two second-round selections on safeties — Josh Bullocks and Roman Harper — but the team still has a huge hole to fill when trying to satisfy their need for a safety play maker. While Harper may still be salvageable under new Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the team may find the pickings fairly slim when it comes to top safety selections in the 2009 NFL draft. Unless you consider Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins a safety prospect, there is no safety who is graded out as a first-round selection. And that is the major part of the problem, because at least half of the teams in the NFL are looking to upgrade their two safety positions and there just are not enough quality college players to fill those spots. Last summer I had an opportunity to spend time with former Destrehan High and current Baltimore Ravens All-Pro free safety Ed Reed at his yearly football camp. The perennial Pro-Bowler is someone I think is the best safety to play in the NFL over the past 20 years. Reed gave his thoughts on what makes a good safety prospect and the responsibilities given to that very important spot on the field. “I love playing the position because you are given so many responsibilities from play to play,” Reed said. “One play you are man to man with a receiver, just like a cornerback, the next play you might be up on the line of scrimmage playing the run like a linebacker in run support and the following play you are blitzing from the edge like a defensive end. You add that up and also throw in that at other times you are playing centerfield, or half the field, and reading the quarterback. Now you can see why it is such a unique spot. It’s really become more of a “hybrid” position today than back years ago when your responsibilities were more like the last shield of pass defense or in run support.” Reed says that extensive film work and a God-given knack for being around the football are the keys to excellent safety play. “I spend a lot of time in the film room trying to find an advantage. After a while I see something I can use during a game. Sometimes it is recognition of a play by the way the wide receiver or tight end lines up or by the way he leans in, or it’s just a mannerism I see from the quarterback that tips me off. Some players hide it better than others, but the film sessions are very important. The one thing I know from being in this league since 2002 is that every great player — Ray Lewis spends as much time as any quarterback in film study — really works at being as prepared as they can be when they take the field. “Secondly I would say that every good safety has a knack for being around the football. Call it instinct or mentally having an idea what is going on, but you have to have that trait for being around the football. If it’s in coverage or in run support, it is all about being around the football and making a play. Just like every other position, you have guys with the size, speed and athleticism to excel, but they sometimes are a little slow to react. The great safeties in this league like Brian Dawkins, Bob Sanders, Adrian Wilson, Troy Polamalu and the older veterans like Rodney Harrison and Corey Chavous have that knack of reacting a second quicker than most, and they understand the whole picture of playing defense. Call it instinct or better knowledge of the game, but it is vital.” Reed didn’t include his name in that list, but he hit the nail on the head on what makes him so special, also. His talent is superb, but it is also his innate instincts and his extensive study habits that separate his skills from many of the rest. What is also interesting is that when you watched the NFC and AFC championship games this past season, Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu, Adrian Wilson and Brian Dawkins — four of the very best players at their positions — had their teams in a position to get into the Super Bowl. Former Tampa Bay Buccaneer and Denver Broncos All-Pro safety John Lynch says that the safety spot today is really like playing quarterback. “The one thing that really helped me in my time in the NFL is that I played quarterback in high school,” Lynch said. “It helped me relate to what is breaking down out on the field much better. Everyone talked about my physical play and I enjoyed that part of the game, but it is such a mental challenge also. It is not only getting yourself in a position to make a play but also getting others to be in the right spot.” Lynch says that having that “alert” feature is the most important factor in playing the safety positions. “I think being physical is important, and it does send a message that it is going to be a long day if you head in this area as a runner or a receiver, but the most important trait for a safety to have is having that alert button go off when the ball is in your area,” Lynch said. “Some guys I see today react to a play away from them just like they do when the ball is in their coverage areas. They just don’t have a feel for what is happening around them. They mistime a leap or just don’t turn around fast enough or at all. My feelings on the field were that if I had a chance to intercept the ball I was all out for it. If I couldn’t get to the ball I was going to make you pay the price for entering my area of the field. The good ones have that alert button go off to make plays. Watch an NFL game and see just how many times players are in a position to make a play on the ball in coverage and don’t even react like the play is around them at all or they are so late to get to their position spot they just grab their man and get flagged.” Hey, John, I have seen those types of plays and plenty of them happened when the Saints defense has been on the field. PLAYERS TO WATCH AT COMBINE With the NFL Combine right around the corner here are six guys to watch as the yearly workouts and physicals take place. Robert Ayers Defensive End (Tennessee) Ayers turned in a superb senior season for the disappointing Volunteers, posting career highs in tackles (49) and tackles for losses (15 ½). The super quick end is a very disruptive presence, and if he works out anything close to how he played at the Senior Bowl when he was the Defensive MVP, he will have shot himself into the first round of the 2009 draft. Jarron Gilbert Defensive End (San Jose State) Jarron is the son of former New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Daren Gilbert, and like Ayers, turned in a superb senior season. Gilbert, a 6-5, 285-pound defensive end, was the Western Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year and he totaled 22 tackles for a loss. Gilbert has the size the pros covet and he can really get off the edge for a big man. Louis Delmas Free Safety (Western Michigan) Delmas is no longer a sleeper, and right now he is challenging Oregon’s Patrick Chung for being the first safety selected in the 2009 draft. Delmas is only 5-11 and 195 pounds, but he is good in run support and if he runs well he could vault himself into the very top part of the second round. Emanuel Cook Strong Safety (South Carolina ) Cook was overshadowed at South Carolina due to Steve Spurrier’s pass happy offense, but there is no mistaking his talent. The 5-9, 198-pound strong safety lacks great size, but he is a real dynamo in run support and one of the hardest hitters in the SEC. NFL teams will want to check out how well he runs and works out in agility drills. He looks like a middle-class version of Indianapolis Colts safety Bob Sanders. Steve Smith Cornerback/Safety (Utah) Like Cook, Smith is a junior who left school early, but the scouts are intrigued by his 6-2 ¾ and 210-pound frame. He has been clocked in the 40-yard dash in (4.40). Smith is a large cornerback prospect who is known for his talkative nature and his cockiness on the field. Over the past two seasons most teams haven’t really challenged him, and he has recorded 15 pass break-ups and 9 interceptions. His one-on-one interviews and how well he comes across could push him into a late first- or early second-round choice. Lardarius Webb Cornerback/Free Safety (Nicholls State) After watching Webb play the last two seasons I can’t say enough about his talent. He is a play maker at the highest level and a superb return man. He will work out at cornerback at the Combine, and due to the fact that he is only around 182 pounds means he has to really burn up the track to convince teams to use a middle-round pick on him. Size issues and some off the field concerns will have teams spend a lot of time with him, but when you watch him play free safety and return kicks he is something special. A good workout in Indianapolis could really vault his draft stock upward. NFL Analyst Mike Detillier is based in Raceland.