As schemes change in the NFL, certain positions rise and fall in importance. Over the last few years, the NFL has become more of a dynamic and downfield passing league, with more shotgun sets and multi-receiver looks than ever before. When you're facing a team like the Patriots, Saints, Colts, or Chargers, and you're trying to corral passing options all over the place, your safeties play a crucial role. The idea these days is to keep everything in front of you on defense and try to eliminate the big play.
Two safeties stand apart in the 2010 NFL draft class: Eric Berry and Earl Thomas. Berry may be the most well-developed player at any position this year, while Thomas is a series of slightly raw tools just looking to bust loose. How do they fit in the NFL? Let's see what the tape says:
Eric Berry, Tennessee
Earl Thomas, Texas
Pros: Berry is a speed-reader before the snap and at his first move; his ability to diagnose the action may be his best NFL asset. Has a gift for picking interceptions when closing in on a play. Brings cornerback speed to the field in a functional sense; he isn't just track-fast. Doesn't bite on play fakes and other sleight-of-hand – he stays assignment-correct. Tackles with force when closing in on a receiver in a short route or a running back in the backfield. Because of his excellent technique, he's able to go kamikaze and not worry about blowing a tackle. Excellent open-field tackler as well; he understands the priority of limiting the deep yardage as the last line of defense. Berry's burst in coverage also serves him well in safety blitzes, as he absolutely flies to the quarterback in those situations. When playing the closer half of the defensive field on a play, he shuts down screens and quarterback bailouts in a big hurry. No problem redirecting in space. Berry is renowned as a leader on the field; his intelligence might serve him even better in the NFL.
Pros: Thomas has the ball instincts, speed and agility to be an NFL cornerback, and some teams might try to switch him depending on scheme. Excellent deep backpedal and turn into center coverage. Will close on receivers in a hurry and has a great sense of position on intermediate-to-deep routes. Good jump and burst to the ball when playing underneath routes or closer to the line. Doesn't simply key on his first read through the play; has a real eye for the ball and an ability to change direction and coverage very quickly. Excellent straight-line speed to rush the passer in a blitz, but will be negated if he has to deal with too many blockers. Will bait quarterbacks and jump routes with the best of them. Is just as effective in a pass defense playing at linebacker depth as he is playing deep thirds.
Cons: He just barely breaks the 6-0 barrier most teams prefer with their safeties, though a quick look at any game tape should alleviate any fears about his size. Other than that, it's tough to find flaws in his game. Berry and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh are the two players in this draft whom you really have to look at hard to find a list of debits.
Cons: Not a great tackler, with plenty of evidence on film to support that assertion. Will occasionally bite on backfield misdirection. Not yet fluid in man coverage, which is probably just a teaching point as opposed to a physical flaw, because he has the speed to get wherever he wants to go. Doesn't get off blocks very well and has trouble in run support despite a willingness to sacrifice his body.
Conclusion: Berry is the second-best defensive player in the 2010 draft (perhaps the second best player overall), and he seems like the kind of player who will be even more effective in the pros. As the offenses he faces become faster and more complex, Berry's awesome field instincts and spectacular closing speed and power will serve him well. The team that drafts him will enjoy a versatile defender who can do it all at a high level – from laying the wood to backs 20 pounds heavier than he is, to playing center field with aplomb against four-wide sets, he's got the potential to be a perennial Pro Bowler from Day 1. Absolutely scheme-transcendent; he'll be a star wherever he goes.
Conclusion: Thomas will probably be best at his best with a team that has definite free and strong safety designations, or in schemes in which safeties are asked to play more coverage. He is not an all-purpose safety in the traditional sense; he isn't physical like Troy Polamalu(notes), Ronnie Lott, or Ed Reed(notes). He is more a pass-coverage safety in the mold of a Darren Sharper(notes) or Jairus Byrd(notes). But as we have detailed, these kinds of safeties are more important to the pro game than they've ever been, a fact that could find Thomas as a surprise top-15 pick on draft day.
Pro comparison: Ed Reed, Baltimore Ravens
Pro comparison: Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills
Doug Farrar is a regular contributor to Yahoo! Sports' Shutdown Corner