Landry appears poised to be next great safety

In the past 20 years, there has never been an NFL draft in which safeties outnumbered cornerbacks selected in the first round, and not since 1991 has there been a year when as many safeties as cornerbacks were selected in the opening stanza.

In the same two-decade stretch, first-round cornerbacks outnumbered safeties more than 2-to-1, 69-28. Only six times in that period has the first defensive back off the board been a safety and not a cornerback. There were nine drafts in the past 20 years in which only one safety was selected in the first round and three in which none were taken.

Ten franchises in the past 20 years invested zero first-round choices each on the much overlooked safety position. Eighteen franchises have gone at least 10 years without tabbing a safety in the first round. The Philadelphia Eagles, at least in the modern-era draft, have never taken a safety in the first round.

So, safety first, huh? Well, historically, that hasn't been the case in the draft.

But the times are changing at safety, a spot that has re-emerged in recent years as a critical one for defensive coordinators leaguewide, and a position that definitely will continue its unmistakable resurgence of the past few years in this weekend's draft.

"You see defenses like the one in Pittsburgh, where everything that they do is keyed around [strong safety Troy] Polamalu, where he's the centerpiece, and you know the position really is an important one now," said Florida standout Reggie Nelson, one of the top safety prospects in the 2007 draft. "And look how important [Bob] Sanders was for the Colts in the playoffs, when he was healthy. There was a time, I guess, when the position was kind of disrespected, you know? But now, the way it seems, there are a lot of athletic safeties out there and people see how [crucial] it is to have one. Safeties are out of the shadows now."

Prospects such as Nelson, Brandon Meriweather (Miami) and Michael Griffin (Texas) have all helped nudge the safety position toward center stage in the 2007 draft talent pool. But the spotlight will shine the brightest on LaRon Landry of LSU, who some scouts feel is the best defensive player period in this year's draft.

Barring an upset of monumental proportions, Landry will be the first defensive back chosen Saturday, ahead of a group of fast but somewhat flawed cornerbacks, and should become only the ninth safety to be selected in the top 10 in the past 20 years.

He is the kind of safety personnel directors and coaches might conjure up as a computer-generated image, but he's in real life and multidimensional, a prototype defender whose latent skills reflect the new job description for the safety position.

"To get a guy who's 200 pounds and can cover ... it's tough to find those guys," allowed Philadelphia general manager Tom Heckert.

In Landry, consider one found.

He started in 48 of 52 appearances at LSU and recorded 315 tackles, including 16 tackles for losses, eight sacks, 12 interceptions, 28 passes defensed and 2 forced fumbles. He also had a blocked field goal and a blocked punt. At the combine, Landry measured 6-feet-¾ and 213 pounds, ideal size for the position. He was clocked in the 40-yard sprint at a blazing 4.35 seconds, a better time than turned in by all but four of the 42 wide receivers and all but two of the 28 cornerbacks during the Indianapolis workouts.

Landry had a 37½-inch vertical jump and a 10-foot, 3-inch long jump at the combine and improved those numbers to 38 inches and 10-6, respectively, at his pro day workout.

"He's like a Swiss Army knife," said Washington Redskins defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. "He can do a ton of things for you. And the more he does, the more you're going to find for him to do. He can be a special player."

"I've played free safety and strong safety, played like a linebacker, walked out and played the wide receiver in the slot, like a third [cornerback]. I've been down 'in the box,' backed off in coverage, been in man and zone. And I did it in a big-time conference, at a big-time school and with national championships on the line. No bragging or anything, but there isn't a lot I haven't been asked to do."
-- LaRon Landry

Landry's status mirrors the newfound respect for the safety position. If the projections hold to form, he will be the third safety in four years to be the initial defensive back off the draft board, joining Sean Taylor of Washington (No. 5 pick overall in 2004) and Michael Huff of Oakland (No. 7 in 2006) in that elite group. Since 2001, Dallas' Roy Williams (2002) and Donte Whitner of Buffalo (2006), both snatched up with the eighth overall selections in their respective draft years, are the other top-10 safeties.

That's a pretty heady subset in which Landry finds himself. Then again, Landry is seeking even loftier company, it seems. Lofty like Hall of Fame status.

The safety he most admires and has attempted to emulate is Ronnie Lott, one of the greatest interior secondary defenders of all time, and a player whose career Landry has arduously scrutinized on the video and DVD collection he has assembled. Plus, he has gotten a lot of advice from older brother Dawan Landry, a fifth-round choice of the Baltimore Ravens in 2006 who earned a starting job as a rookie.

Dawan Landry, a former Georgia Tech standout, notched 69 tackles, 3 sacks, 5 interceptions and 6 passes defensed in his debut season and established a new league record for most money earned, $366,017, in the NFL's performance based pay program.

Such versatility, obviously, is in the bloodlines. But the overall football skills demonstrated by LaRon Landry go way beyond just DNA.

"I've played free safety and strong safety, played like a linebacker, walked out and played the wide receiver in the slot, like a third [cornerback]," said Landry, a two-time All-SEC selection and one of the nation's most hotly recruited players coming out of high school. "I've been down 'in the box,' backed off in coverage, been in man and zone. And I did it in a big-time conference, at a big-time school and with national championships on the line. No bragging or anything, but there isn't a lot I haven't been asked to do."

Which is good because, given the recent evolution of the safety position and the way it has been reconfigured, Landry and the other safety prospects in this year's draft are going to be asked to expand the job description further.

The preponderance of Tampa 2-style defenses in the league has made it easier, Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome suggested, for young players such as Dawan Landry to contribute quickly at the NFL level. But the fact is that, ever so slowly, coordinators are diverging from the pure Tampa 2 looks, in part because of the enhanced coverage skills many young safeties bring to the league now.

Every team covets an enforcer at the safety position, a guy who provides aggressiveness and run support skills, but locating a safety with cover abilities is absolutely golden. Such a guy allows coordinators to play more coverages without having to use situational substitutions. It's almost a must anymore to have a safety with at least a hint of cornerback characteristics. In this year's draft, Landry clearly embodies those skills more than any other prospect.

The other top safeties are big hitters, but none comes close to Landry in coverage, and some of the others display too much stiffness. Still, it is a solid year for safeties, with excellent prospects such as Eric Weddle (Utah), Sabby Piscitelli (Oregon State), Aaron Rouse (Virginia Tech), John Wendling (Wyoming), Josh Gattis (Wake Forest) and Gerald Alexander (Boise State) buttressing a strong top group at the position.

There are also a few cornerback prospects, such as Tanard Jackson of Syracuse and Fresno State's Marcus McCauley, that some teams project as better safeties at the NFL level. But there is, most scouts agree, only one Landry.

"Safety is definitely a position that's changed a lot the last few years, and keeps changing," Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher said. "Landry is a guy who can keep pushing the envelope."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.