MOBILE, Ala. - There's a gaggle of good-sized safeties here practicing for Saturday's Senior Bowl. You have to squint really hard to see any of them as a future star, though; most project as midrounders.
That's partly because the top two safety prospects in this spring's NFL draft, Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville's Calvin Pryor, are underclassmen and aren't in Mobile. And it's partly because the demands of the safety position in the NFL of 2014 are extreme, much more about coverage instincts and quickly sorting through what you're looking at than wrestling ballcarriers to the turf. It has become a very difficult position to project, with college defenses often not translating well into what a player is going to have to do at the next level.
You don't have to be an elite prospect to be a useful player, expecially to a team such as the Eagles, who drafted Earl Wolff in the fifth round last year (after a solid Senior Bowl week) and found he definitely upgraded their safety corps before a late-season knee injury.
"The Catch-22 with the safety position is - you see it here - there's a lot of big corners. Those guys used to be safeties. Now those guys are going to play corner," Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said this week. "I don't know if it's because it's more of a high-profile position or more money at it . . . you look at those guys, can you convert 'em? What can you do with those guys?"
Roseman knows better than anyone what a problem this position has been for the Birds since Brian Dawkins left in 2009. He is sensitive to fan frustration.
"There's no safety tree. There's no tree outside the NovaCare office where I can just pick one off that's like, 6-3, 215 and 4.4, unfortunately. At the end of the day, you just try to find guys that fit your parameters and you try to stay consistent with that," Roseman said.
"When you have a player who's basically the face of your franchise in Brian Dawkins, the kind of things he brought to the table, you've been around someone like that, you want to find someone else that's even in that ballpark. I know those are big shoes to fill, but it's understandable the concern for that position, because of what our fans have seen [there] before."
Of course, for fans, this whole "safety tree" rap would go down easier if the Eagles hadn't passed on the man who might be the best safety in the "modern" Roger Goodell-concussion-conscious NFL - Seattle's Earl Thomas, a leader of the "Legion of Boom" secondary that will take the field against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. Stop me if you've heard this before, but the Birds traded up in the 2010 draft, from 24th to 13th, sending a couple of third-round picks to the Broncos, to draft defensive end Brandon Graham, who has shown flashes of promise but has never been a consistent starter. Graham does not fit Chip Kelly's size parameters for outside linebackers and probably isn't an Eagle long term.
Thomas was the 14th selection in that draft, by the Seahawks. He had been mentioned much more often than Graham in Eagles predraft speculation.
It's hard to get too much out of Roseman on what happened in those 2010 and '11 drafts, when Andy Reid still had final say and Joe Banner was the Eagles' president.
"It feels like a lifetime ago," Roseman said, resisting the urge to sigh audibly when the topic was raised yet again. "It's understandable [that people don't let it go]. The only thing we can do from the drafts we've had in the past is learn from them. I think when we went into the draft, the thinking was, was Brandon and Nate [Allen, the second-round safety the Eagles took] a better pairing than we could have gotten at a different position in those first and second rounds? It's understandable there are questions."
Anthony Gargano from 94WIP - who hosts Roseman's radio show, by the way - recently posited that the Eagles' playoff run this year would not have ended in the wild-card round had they drafted Thomas in 2010. It's impossible to know, of course, but it's a compelling theory. Safety is the biggest hole on the Eagles' roster.
Free agency, which last year brought the Eagles Patrick Chung, might offer up a Jairus Byrd or a T.J. Ward, but we won't know that until March. Right now, we have Senior Bowl week, and a crop of good-sized prospects that might or might not contain another Earl Wolff.
Florida State's Terrence Brooks (5-11, 200) said he feels he has a high ceiling because he has only played the position for two seasons, having converted from corner.
"Having a feel for the game, being physical and quick and instinctive, I feel those are my biggest attributes," Brooks said.
Said Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward (5-11, 192): "I take pride in coverage. I take more pride in tackling; I wish we could tackle [in practice]. I love big hits . . . If I sit back there at the far safety, it gets kind of boring. I like my nose on the ball."
Ward said he thinks he can add muscle mass, having recently been introduced to a nutritionist who has changed his eating habits dramatically. "I didn't know what vegetables were," he said. "The only vegetable I ate was corn."
LSU's Craig Loston (6-2, 209) said: "I feel like I can get from Point A to Point B faster than anyone."
Loston played in a sophisticated college scheme and said he thinks he won't have a huge transition. He said the Eagles asked him "the usual stuff" about his personality and background.
Washington State's Deone Bucannon (6-1, 215), like Loston and many prospects, endured having his wrist and knee joints measured by Eagles staffers, who didn't tell the players why they were taking the measurements. Apparently, there is some way to figure out how much weight a player can comfortably carry by gauging the size of those joints.
Bucannon said he has always been a safety, never considered anything else, even if corner is where the big NFL money is (although, as offenses evolve and the middle of the field becomes a key battleground, that might become less true).
"You're always running to the ball. You're not just on one man the whole time," Bucannon said, when asked what he likes about the position. "You can be in the box. You can be in the middle of the field. You can be covering a receiver, just like a corner."
Bucannon said he's here to show people "I'm not just a big guy that likes to hit people, that I can actually cover."
A great safety, Bucannon said, "is somebody with great instincts, and a love for the game. Somebody who would do anything for the team . . . Somebody that's aggressive, and has a high football IQ."