April 24, 2012

Hurricanes produce numbers at safety

When Antrel Rolle made the switch from cornerback to safety a few years ago, he didn't have to go far for advice on his new assignment.

All he had to do was utilize some college connections.

SAFETY U. 2012
Our choice: Miami.
Who they've sent: Brandon Meriweather (Washington Redskins), Kenny Phillips (New York Giants), Ed Reed (Baltimore Ravens), Antrel Rolle (New York Giants)
Who's next: Ray Ray Armstrong is rated by the Web site nfldraftscout.com as the No. 1 strong safety prospect in the 2013 draft class. The same site lists Vaughn Telemaque as the No. 5 free safety in the 2013 class.
Why we picked them: Reed is one of the greatest safeties in history, while Meriweather and Rolle are two-time Pro Bowl picks. Rolle and Phillips were the starting safeties for the Super Bowl champion New York Giants last season.
Other finalists: Georgia (Miami's Reshad Jones, Tampa Bay's Sean Jones, free agent Paul Oliver), Georgia Tech (Green Bay's Morgan Burnett, free agent James Butler, Jacksonville's Dawan Landry), Iowa (Baltimore's Sean Considine, Carolina's Charles Godfrey, free agent Bob Sanders, New York Giants' Tyler Sash, Detroit's Amari Spievey), LSU (Pittsburgh's Ryan Clark, New York Giants' Chad Jones, New York Jets' LaRon Landry, Dallas' Danny McCray, Chicago's Craig Steltz), Ohio State (Pittsburgh's Will Allen, Philadelphia's Kurt Coleman, Indianapolis' Jermale Hines, New Orleans' Malcolm Jenkins, Miami's Anderson Russell, Kansas City's Donald Washington, San Francisco's Donte Whitner), Tennessee (Cincinnati's Jason Allen*, Kansas City's Eric Berry, free agent Deon Grant), Texas (Tennessee's Michael Griffin, Oakland's Michael Huff, Seattle's Earl Thomas).
Candidate you might not have considered: Two safeties from Kent State combined for 138 tackles last season. Abram Elam, who actually began his career at Notre Dame before ending up at Kent State, started 16 games and made 68 tackles for the Dallas Cowboys last year. Elam, now a free agent, has averaged 76.8 tackles over his last four seasons. Usama Young started eight games and made 70 tackles for the Cleveland Browns last year after spending four seasons in a backup role with the New Orleans Saints.
* - Although Allen is expected to play cornerback in 2012, he has alternated between that position and safety for most of his NFL career.
After all, Rolle went to the University of Miami, a school that produces outstanding safeties the way Harvard produces exceptional doctors.

"Whenever I need something, I can always pick up the phone and call one of those guys," Rolle said.

One of those guys happens to be Ed Reed, an eight-time All-Pro with the Baltimore Ravens. Rolle was a true freshman cornerback and Reed was an All-America safety during Miami's 2001 national championship season.

Reed has since developed into one of the greatest safeties in NFL history.

"When I was making that transition, I picked his brain a little bit," Rolle said. "I found out what makes him such a dynamic safety in this league."

Another one of those guys is Kenny Phillips. Rolle and Phillips were never teammates at Miami, though they're both from Dade County. Phillips enrolled at Miami in 2005, the year after Rolle ended his college career as a consensus All-America cornerback.

But they are teammates now. Rolle and Phillips were starting safeties last season for the New York Giants' Super Bowl championship team.

"Sometimes when you have that chemistry, nothing needs to be said," said Rolle, a two-time Pro Bowl pick. "You can just go out there and play ball. He knows how I play. I know how he plays. We know what we're thinking.''

Rolle also indirectly sought the help of one other former Miami safety.

Sean Taylor played alongside Rolle at Miami from 2001-03 and went on to earn two Pro Bowl invitations with the Washington Redskins, but he died in the fall of 2007 after getting shot at his Miami home. Rolle made the position switch a year after Taylor's death, but he didn't hesitate to watch film of his former teammate in action.

"I'd watch his game and try to pattern things after his game, how he'd bait quarterbacks and just be an overall dynamic safety against both the run and the passing game," Rolle said. "I think the University of Miami has produced a tremendous amount of safeties in this league."

There's no doubt about that.

The list of active NFL safeties from Miami includes Reed, Phillips, Rolle and Brandon Meriweather of the Washington Redskins. Meriweather was selected to two Pro Bowls in 2009 and 2010 while playing for the New England Patriots.

That group was solid enough to make Miami our choice as the best producer of NFL safeties.

How has Miami continued to send quality safeties to the league year after year even while going through multiple coaching changes? Well, earlier in this project we noted that Colin McCarthy of the Tennessee Titans credited longtime Miami strength coach Andreu Swasey for playing a major role in helping so many Miami linebackers reach the NFL. And Rolle also was quick to note that Swasey's grueling workouts helped prepare Miami's defensive backs for the next level.


The Position U. series is our attempt to determine which schools provide the most NFL talent at each position. We will analyze a different position just about every day up until the April 26 start of the NFL Draft. For the purpose of this series, we only took into consideration players who were still active as of last season.
April 13: Quarterbacks
April 14: Running backs
April 17: Offensive tackles
April 18: Guards/Centers
April 19: Pass rushers
April 21: Linebackers
April 23: Cornerbacks
April 24: Safeties
April 25: Kickers and punters
"When I think about the things I used to do back then, I had to be out of my mind," Rolle said. "I can't believe that I went through those workouts and actually completed those workouts and could actually say I'd done it. They were so mentally tough and physically draining. Not only does it test your physical toughness, but it tests your mental toughness as much as anything."

Because all the players had to go through that grind, it turned into a bonding exercise. Each player knew he could lean on his teammate while dealing with this adversity.

And now they continue to lean on one another, whether they're lining up together in the same NFL secondary or calling one another to discuss how to deal with a new assignment.

"That's how we built that brotherhood," Rolle said. "Ed Reed was a senior when I was a freshman. I had so much respect for him. It made me go out and be a better player. I didn't want to let him down."

While Miami was the clear pick as Safety U., a couple of other programs also merited consideration.

If we had handed out a Secondary U. rather than dividing the cornerbacks and safeties into separate categories, LSU would have given Miami quite a competition.

We noted in Monday's story that Morris Claiborne likely will assure that LSU has a cornerback selected among the top five overall picks for the second straight draft. LSU's safeties in the NFL include 2011 Pro Bowl selection Ryan Clark (Pittsburgh Steelers), Chad Jones (New York Giants), LaRon Landry (New York Jets), Danny McCray (Dallas Cowboys) and Craig Steltz (Chicago Bears.). Jones hasn't played a down of pro football yet as he recovers from a 2010 car wreck that nearly cost him his left leg, but he remains on the Giants roster and hopes to make a successful comeback.

Ohio State and Iowa also have strong safety contingents. Ohio State's group is led by Malcolm Jenkins (New Orleans Saints) and Donte Whitner (San Francisco 49ers). Iowa's list features free agent Bob Sanders, a two-time All-Pro pick during his years with the Indianapolis Colts.

Steve Megargee is the national college columnist for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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