Ha Ha, seriously?

Posted: May 08, 2014

BEFORE BRIAN Dawkins came along, most NFL safeties were one-trick ponies with Mack truck hitting ability and Mack truck speed to match.

They were mini-linebackers who could send you into never-never land with a hit and hold their own in zone coverage. But cover a wide receiver in space?

Uh, no.

Dawkins changed that. The 1996 second-rounder out of Clemson wasn't a one-trick pony. He was the complete package.

He was a bone-rattling safety with cornerback speed who could cover any receiver on the field, inside or outside, and became one of the key components in Jim Johnson's ultra-successful blitz packages.

The Eagles took Dawkins with the last pick in the second round in '96, the 61st overall selection. He was their second pick in that round. Seven selections earlier, they took tight end Jason Dunn.

Dawkins was the fifth safety taken in that draft, behind Jerome Woods (Chiefs), Lawyer Milloy (Patriots), Je'Rod Cherry (Saints) and Reggie Tongue (Chiefs).

"I wasn't the biggest guy coming out, which is why I think I slid as far as I did," said Dawkins, who would earn nine Pro Bowl invitations in a 16-year career, 13 of those years with the Eagles, and is the only player in NFL history at any position with 25-plus interceptions (37), sacks (26) and forced fumbles (36).

"I was 5-11 3/4 and probably like only 190 pounds back then. I couldn't really gain any weight because of my metabolism. People considered me smallish. But I loved to hit and also had the God-given ability to cover.

"I had the speed to be able to run with guys. Ran a 4.41 at my Pro Day when I came out. That allowed me to do a lot of things. I was a free-lance safety. I wasn't a free safety and I wasn't a strong safety. I was blessed to be able to do it all."

Finding do-it-all safeties like Dawkins isn't easy. Just look at the two top-rated safeties in this year's draft - Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Calvin Pryor.

Clinton-Dix is considered the better pass-defender - a safety with excellent range and outstanding ball skills who can play the deep middle, and has the speed and quickness to drop down and play man-to-man. He's not a bad tackler, but he's not going to put the fear of God into anybody he hits, either.

Pryor is another matter. He's a physical, intimidating player who can deliver the big hit. But the level of his cover skills has yet to be determined, because he was used mostly as a box safety at Louisville and seldom played man coverage.

The same goes for most of the safeties in this safety-shallow draft. Some can cover. Some can hit. Few are the complete package.

The rule changes protecting receivers and ballcarriers, the emphasis on the passing game and the growth of spread offenses have changed the nature of the safety position and lessened the importance of being able to deliver those kill shots that the league glorified for so many years before the first concussion lawsuits were filed. First and foremost, safeties now must be able to defend the pass.

The player-safety rule changes are a big reason why tight ends have become such an important part of the passing game. They can dominate the middle of the field with their NBA power-forward size without fear of being decapitated or getting a helmet to the ribs by the next generation of Dawks.

"Early in my career, if you were a bigger [offensive] guy, you were a bigger target to hit," Dawkins said. "That was a lot of fun. Today, they're a bigger target, but you can't really hit them. You can only hit them in certain ways.

"So you have to have [safeties] who can cover those guys. Because if you don't, you're going to get killed by those seam routes and '7' [corner] cuts. They're going to be open all day. Teams are splitting the tight end out wide by himself and you have to cover him with a safety. You have to be able to cover out in space."

The Eagles may or may not select a safety in this week's draft. My guess is not. If they do take one, it will be a guy who can cover. If he also hits like Mike Tyson, that's good too, but certainly not mandatory.

But Dawkins still feels you need a safety with the ability to, as he puts it, erase mistakes.

"You need a guy that can sit in the middle of the field from time to time - and [Seattle's] Earl Thomas is the best at this in my opinion - of erasing mistakes," he said. "Reading the quarterback, reading the formation, having the closing ability to close on the ballcarrier and erase mistakes.

"Because the guys up front will make mistakes. Missed gaps. Missed assignments. So you have to be a guy who can tackle in the open field. But you also have to be a guy who can, within the rules, set the tone as far as the defense, and deliver that big hit when the big hit is called for."

None of the Eagles' top three safeties - Malcolm Jenkins, Nate Allen and second-year man Earl Wolff - really are tone-setters or mistake-erasers. The Eagles signed Jenkins, a converted corner, because he has the versatility to cover slot receivers and tight ends, not because he's going to blow up a ballcarrier on third-and-1. Allen also is much better against the pass than the run.

"Some guys just don't like that part of the game," Dawkins said. "They don't like contact. They're not ready tacklers. They go in and tackle, but they're more drag-down, pull-down tacklers instead of delivering punishing blows.

"The thing is, the guy that can deliver the punishing blow, he might not be the most fleet of foot as far as quickness, to stick with the better slot receivers. It's a tough dynamic to find a guy that is willing to do everything. Because you have to do everything to really be a complete safety, in my opinion."

Dawkins left the Eagles after the 2008 season, signing with Denver after receiving what he felt was an insufficient offer from a team that he helped get to the NFC Championship Game five times and make its first Super Bowl appearance in nearly a quarter century.

To say they've had a little trouble replacing him would be an understatement. But Eagles general manager Howie Roseman is cautiously optimistic that Jenkins, Allen and Wolff will get the job done on the back end.

"When we look at our safety group, Malcolm's ability to fit into this defense and be the quarterback back there for the defense, and then Earl and Nate, we're excited about their ability to take a jump," Roseman said.

"We talk about athletic tools and what's in their body. Nate's 6-2. He's 215. He's finally in the same system for 2 years in a row.

"And then Earl, I thought he did a really good job as a rookie until he got hurt. You're talking about a guy who's 215 pounds. He runs a 4.4. He has an unbelievable work ethic. We're excited about those guys."

Even if none of them hit with the Wolverine ferocity he used to display , Dawkins agrees that Jenkins, Allen and Wolff are good enough to win with.

"I look at Nate [and] he has the size and the range," he said. "When he decides to close on the football, he can close. He has great footwork, quick feet in the drills and in the games. I see those things. When he makes a decision, he can just go.

"But sometimes, after he sees what he sees, he thinks about it. [He says] 'Do I really see what I see?' When you're doing that, you're thinking too much. And when you do that, you're going to be a step behind, a step late.

"You don't have to be a guy that's knocking helmets off. I know Philadelphia loves that. But Philadelphia will still love you if you get the guy down. Understand what you see formationwise. Understand where your biggest threat is as far as the pass, as far as the run. And when the play breaks through, just get the dude down. Allow your team to line up for another snap."

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|