INDIANAPOLIS — The NFL is full of unique players, men whose overwhelming talent can make them the cornerstone of a franchise. But every so often, a team has so much success utilizing that player within a specific scheme, it elevates them to a sort of “flavor of the month” status.
That is where Seattle free safety Earl Thomas, and to a lesser extent, teammate and strong safety Kam Chancellor, suddenly find themselves after the Seahawks’ dominant 43-8 win over the high-powered Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl.
On Sunday, defensive backs who spoke to the media at the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium were peppered with questions about their ability to play center field, like Thomas does, and play in the box, like Chancellor does.
For teams like the Chiefs, who often rely on press-man and single-high coverage (like the Seahawks) and have a glaring need at free safety, a player’s ability to do either could make all the difference in the world.
“The game of football has changed over the last five years,” said Chiefs general manager John Dorsey. “The ability for safeties to cover means something now because they’re passing and spreading the ball out a little bit more.”
With last year’s starter at free safety, Kendrick Lewis, set to become a free agent, the Chiefs are expected to search for a new starter at that position. The in-house options are uncertain; their starter at strong safety, Eric Berry, was essentially a linebacker last season, and 2013 fifth-round pick Sanders Commings remains a bit of a mystery after missing most of his first season with injuries (though the Chiefs remain high on him).
“I think Sanders Commings is very talented, I think it’s unfortunate he got injured the first play of the first day of training camp, because you guys would have realized … matter of fact, I think a lot of you all were saying what an athletic, easy-moving guy he was,” Dorsey said. “I have great confidence in Sanders and his ability to play in the secondary.”
Nevertheless, with money expected to be tight this offseason, the draft might be their best option at filling the job.
“I could sit here and do the list of the requirements, but at the end of the day, (it’s) does the guy make plays,” Dorsey said. “That’s kind of what you’re looking for.”
Fortunately for the Chiefs, NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock says there are a few players in the draft who fit the bill, headlined by Louisville’s Calvin Pryor, who is measured in at 5 feet 11 and 207 pounds and Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (6-1, 208).
“If I had one of my 10 favorite players, just watching them on tape, Calvin Pryor is one of them,” Mayock said. “He’s like a bigger Bob Sanders; I think he’s better in the box.
“Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is better back off. He’s got more range and ball skills back there.”
Mayock also likes Lamarcus Joyner of Florida State (5-8, 184) and Jimmie Ward of Northern Illinois (5-11, 193).
“Joyner is a corner at Florida State that I think is a safety similar to (former LSU star) Tyrann Mathieu,” Mayock said. “Another one of my real favorites in this draft is Jimmie Ward from Northern Illinois, who is more of a free safety.”
Mayock said that after those four, the talent at the position drops off a bit and teams will take their pick of free safeties like Florida State’s Terrence Brooks (5-11, 197), North Carolina’s Tre Boston (6-0, 204) and Stanford’s Ed Reynolds (6-1, 207).
“He’s a true free safety,” Mayock said of Reynolds. “He might run a little bit better than people think. I was surprised he came out this year because he had six picks a year ago, came back and didn’t play as well this year, so he’s a guy that’s got a big question mark. But he’s got some ability.”
It’s impossible to tell how much interest the Chiefs have in any of these players, of course, though it’s worth noting that Clinton-Dix and Pryor said Sunday that they had formal interviews with the Chiefs, who can only schedule 60 of those during the combine.
And if the Chiefs do use their first-round pick (No. 23 overall) on either player, it’s a sign they believe Pryor or Clinton-Dix can at least approach the impact that Thomas has had with Seattle’s devastating defense, though players like him don’t grow on trees.
“There are plenty of guys that can play deep middle in the style that we play,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “Earl’s just the best one and it’s pretty hard to beat him out.”