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Eagles may think safety first

On Saturday, the Birds could use a first-round pick to bolster their "D."

It has been a long time since the Eagles took a linebacker in the first round of the NFL draft, but not nearly as long as it has been since they used a first-round selection on a safety.

The last linebacker to join the Eagles as a first-round pick was Jerry Robinson in 1979. The next safety to join the Eagles as a first-round pick will be the first.

That's right. The Eagles have never used a first-round pick to select a safety, but that could change Saturday when the team is scheduled to make the 26th overall pick of the first round. There are a few reasons why the Eagles could finally opt for a safety with their first pick, including the evolution of the position in recent years.

"I think right now, everybody believes you have to have a safety that can cover . . . and those guys don't exist," Eagles general manager Tom Heckert said last week. "The guys that can cover are 185 pounds and play corner, but they can't stop the run. To get a guy that's 200 pounds and can cover, it's tough to find those guys."

Michael Lewis, the only safety ever taken on the first day of the draft during coach Andy Reid's tenure, is now a member of the San Francisco 49ers primarily because the Eagles decided he was too much of a liability when he was asked to cover a wide receiver.

His departure is another reason the Eagles could go after a safety in the first round. At the moment, the team has three safeties with NFL experience on the roster - Brian Dawkins, Sean Considine and Quintin Mikell.

Dawkins' advanced age also makes the list of reasons a first-round safety selection would make sense. At 33, the five-time Pro Bowler is coming off one of his best seasons, but when his latest contract extension expires after the 2008 season, he'll be 35 and the Eagles wouldn't mind if he was around to tutor his future replacement.

As for the position itself, Dawkins' play during his time in Philadelphia and contributions by safeties on the last three Super Bowl champions are all a testament to how important the position has become if a team wants to have a dominating defense.

When Dawkins was in his prime a few years ago, that's when the Eagles' defense was at its best and his intimidating presence was a big reason why. The last three Super Bowl champions - New England, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis - all have had star safeties.

Rodney Harrison was the leader for the Patriots, Troy Polamulu had a huge impact for the Steelers, and the Colts might not have won the Super Bowl if Bob Sanders had not returned from an injury in time to become part of their playoff run. As recently as the 2004 season, Baltimore strong safety Ed Reed was named the NFL's defensive MVP.

Recent drafts are a good indicator of how important the safety position has become. From 1990 through 1999, 10 safeties were selected in the first round. Since 2000, nine safeties have been taken in the first round and that number should rise by at least three and possibly four in this draft.

"It's pretty deep at safeties and most of them will be at the end of the first [round]," Heckert said.

According to the Eagles' general manager, some of the players who were cornerbacks in college may make the transition to safety in the NFL.

"There are a lot of guys who are playing corner that we project as safeties," Heckert said. "That's an added bonus if a guy has corner skills and can play safety. I think we have five guys projected like that."

Heckert wouldn't name the five guys. Some of the bigger cornerbacks who might fit the mold Heckert is talking about are Fresno State's Marcus McCauley (6-foot-1, 203 pounds), Syracuse's Tanard Jackson (6-0, 200), and Texas' Aaron Ross (6-0, 197). The four safeties who played the position in college and could go in the first round are LSU's LaRon Landry - he's a definite top 10 pick - Florida's Reggie Nelson, Texas' Michael Griffin and Miami's Brandon Meriweather.

Nelson, Griffin and Meriweather all have a chance to be on the board if the Eagles remain at No.26. Heckert sounded interested in Meriweather even though the Miami safety was a central figure in an ugly brawl last season when the Hurricanes played Florida International.

Meriweather said during the scouting combine in Indianapolis that he thought his part in that brawl could affect where he is drafted.

"Yes, I think it hurts," Meriweather said. "I was a leader and I should have known better. I should have done a little more to prevent it from happening. To be honest, I kind of lost my mind a little bit with the emotions of the game. I just fell into a trap."

Meriweather did play some cornerback in college, which could be why the Eagles are interested.

"I played a lot of man coverage," he said. "I was the nickel, dime and actually played corner. That gives me a little edge on a couple of other safeties. It gives me some versatility."

Will it give the Eagles a reason to make him a first-round pick? That answer will come Saturday.