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In February, when many NFL scouting departments were putting the final polish on their draft reports, an NFC coach had an eyebrow raising question for his general manager. With the franchise beginning to hammer out its draft board, a consensus was building: There was a very good chance that a safety was going to be at the No. 1 slot on the board.
"Has that ever happened before?" the coach asked his general manager.
The GM shook his head: "Never."
This particular ranking, the coach would later note, gave no weight to team-centric concepts such as need, value or salary slot. It was just a preliminary snapshot of who the franchise believed were the best, rock-solid, can't miss NFL players in this upcoming draft. And University of Tennessee safety Eric Berry … well, he fit all of those titles. In fact, he might have been the only player who matched that description back in February. And almost two months later, not much has changed.
"One [player] who I have thought for a while was as close to [flawless] as possible, that's Berry," the coach said. "He's as perfect a player as there is in this draft. And I like [Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong] Suh a lot. I think he's pretty special, too. But I just can't see Berry not having a great, great NFL career."
Of course, such admiration guarantees Berry nothing once the draft begins on April 22. He won't be the first player to hear his name called in New York. Or the second or third. Indeed, thanks in large part to the salary slotting system that NFL rookies fit into, Berry likely won't hear his name called until fourth or fifth at the earliest in this draft. And he may go even a few slots later.
Thanks in part to a Cold War era hangover in the league's value system, safeties still enter the league's annual draft as red-headed stepchildren, right alongside centers and guards. And Berry is no different, subject to the archaic thought that safeties are little more than roving outfielders whose chief mission is to keep a lid on the deep abyss of a football field – the last line of defense in a worst-case scenario.
Never mind that when used correctly, elite level safeties have proven to be some of the NFL's most dynamic playmakers. All Pro staples such as the Baltimore Ravens' Ed Reed(notes), the Pittsburgh Steelers' Troy Polamalu(notes), and – when healthy – the Indianapolis Colts' Bob Sanders(notes), have all proven to be game-changers. Those three players helped revolutionize the way teams use their safeties, taking the mentality of the big, heavy hitters and combining them with the versatile gazelles who fare well in coverage.
To put their importance in perspective, consider that from the inception of the NFL's defensive player of the year award, safeties captured the honor twice from 1971 through 2003. But in the last six years, Reed and Sanders captured it twice more, showing that full service safeties – the guys who hit, cover, support the run and create turnovers – can dominate.
Now enter Berry, who departs a stellar three-year career at Tennessee having forced 16 turnovers (14 interceptions and two fumbles), scored three defensive touchdowns and averaged more than 80 tackles a year as a top-notch run supporter. He also got three sacks in 2008, the one year Tennessee attempted to get him more involved in blitz packages, and was an X-factor who was repeatedly asked to match up with SEC stars Percy Harvin(notes), Earl Bennett(notes) and Early Doucet(notes).
That versatility, along with his playing style and athleticism have drawn rave reviews from NFL scouts, who have struggled to find something wrong with his game. And even when they do, they often qualify the faint reservations as extreme nitpicking. Add that to the fact that his background has zero red flags, and you have a prospect who – in the right hands – is considered almost a fool-proof superstar at his position. The next Ed Reed, most executives say. That is, when they're not suggesting that Berry might actually be better than Reed.
"This guy has got better cover skills, better hips and fluidity [than Reed]," said one NFC general manager. "… You're talking about a guy who is fast, a very good to excellent athlete, he's got ball skills, he's got tackling skills, he plays with urgency, he's got a nice mind for the game, he brings leadership, and he'll woo people when he interviews with them with his combination of confidence and ability on the field. You can put him in certain situations that are really creative. He's got the toughness to play strong safety, but he can be an interchangeable safety, too."
"He's the complete package."
A complete package who will likely get passed over at least four times in this month's draft, partially because his salary slot at the top of the draft is expected to make him the highest paid safety in the NFL. Should he go to the Kansas City Chiefs at No. 5 overall – and the Chiefs are believed to be smitten with him – he'll be looking at a range of $26-$28 million in guaranteed money. That's more than any safety has ever received in league history, and dwarfs the $15 million guarantee that prized free-agent safety Antrel Rolle(notes) got from the New York Giants in March.
But that's a price the 5-foot-11, 203-pound Berry might be worth, said a second NFC general manager, who said he believes the Tennessee product "absolutely" enters the league at a higher playing level than Reed, Polamalu, Sanders or former Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor(notes), who was selected fifth overall in 2004. Taylor's slot is the highest a safety has been drafted since the Cleveland Browns tabbed UCLA product Eric Turner No. 2 overall in the 1991 draft.
"Berry's a difference maker," the second NFC GM said. "He impacts the game in the run and the pass. Usually it's one side or the other. You've either got the athletic kind of guy that isn't a very good tackler and is a liability in the run game, or you've got kind of an undersized linebacker that can impact the run game but then is a liability in coverage. This guy is an impact guy in all phases. He gets his hand on the ball. He's great in the run game. He's a great tackler. He's a hitter. He's really smart – just so instinctive."
And that's not just hyperbole. Every team that has come in contact with him has given glowing assessments. He wowed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with his mastery of the Tampa 2 defense. This after Berry had only one season at Tennessee to pick up the scheme under former defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, and yet walked away with an understanding that rivaled Bucs coach Raheem Morris – who spent six years teaching and employing the scheme before taking over Tampa in 2009. Part of that comes from being the tip of the spear on both sides of the ball, starting four years at both quarterback and safety in high school, then starting all three years in the defensive backfield at Tennessee.
"He's got some charisma in a room – a lot of 'leader' qualities," said one AFC personnel man. "That's part of having such a good family background, two parents in his life, really supportive people around him. He's everything you want from every standpoint. And he's assertive without being prodded to be that way. You can feel that football means a lot to him. Both learning it and playing it."
As Berry put it, "I like to know what the defensive tackles are doing. I know what the defensive ends are doing. I know what the linebackers are doing. When I draw it up on the board, I show that I know every single player's responsibilities.
"I love being the guy coaches can come to and say 'This week we need you to match up with this guy in the slot,' or 'Next week we need you blitzing through the B-gap because they're weak', or they want me dropping back in the zone or up in the box. Whatever the coordinator comes to me with that particular week, I want to be the guy who can do all of that."
And for his part, he's not bitter about the realities of his position. He doesn't bemoan that Tennessee could have moved him to the more lucrative position of cornerback during his career. He doesn't fret about sitting in New York's green room and watching other players exit before him because their positions are more "financially justified." But that doesn't mean he won't be taking note, either.
"You know, whether I slip or not, I'm accomplishing a dream," Berry said. "But at the same time, if I get passed up, I'm definitely going to be in the green room with a notepad or putting a note in my phone of all the teams that passed on me. I'll keep that in the back of my mind – the guys who didn't think I was worthy enough. I want to show them that I was worthy."