NFL Draft 2012 positional breakdowns: Safety

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NFL Draft 2012 positional breakdowns: Safety

Each weekday, from now until the week of the draft, we'll take a position-by-position look at the Patriots' draft needs and which players they may be looking at. Today: Safeties

POSITION OVERVIEW
The safety class in the 2012 NFL Draft is very shallow. And, as recent history suggests, it's just not a priority position for teams, especially at the top of the draft. In 2010, Eric Berry and Earl Thomas were the fifth and 14th selections respectively (Chiefs, Seahawks). Other than that, very few over the past few seasons. The Patriots have drafted two safeties early in the past five drafts - Patrick Chung in the second round in 2009 and Brandon Meriweather in the first round in 2007. Alabama's Mark Barron is the only player with a shot to be taken in the first round this year at the safety position. Behind him is Notre Dame's Harrison Smith, a well-regarded free safety, and South Carolina's Antonio Allen.

PATRIOTS PREDICAMENTSafety is a position of need for the Patriots. Chung is a very good player and - if he can stay healthy - is a borderline Pro Bowler. But the safety position alongside him was a revolving door in 2011 and nobody who went through it was a show-stopper. Josh Barrett - a big, 6-2, 226-pounder - wound up on IR. Sergio Brown didn't get it done in his absence. And James Ihedigbo - an in-season pickup - did the best job back there. Chung is interchangeable in the free and strong safety roles and the Patriots like versatility back there; they also want a big special teams role filled by their safeties. Barron may be off the board before the Patriots pick at 27. But he's a guy who has the requisite pedigree to attract New England - two-time team captain in a big-time program who is smart, works hard and can come with a recommendation from Bill Belichick buddy Nick Saban.
TOP OF THE CLASS
Mark Barron, 6-1, 213, Alabama
A solid hitter who is excellent in run support but also can make athletic plays in pass defense downfield. An excellent leader (two-time captain) who is more of an in-the-box safety than a coverage guy. Had a double-hernia surgery after the season.
Harrison Smith, 6-2, 213, Notre Dame
A free safety with excellent quickness and instinctiveness. A four-year starter who commands respect and is an on-field leader. Has versatility between the safety positions and is solid in special teams coverage.
Antonio Allen, 6-2, 210, South CarolinaHad 88 tackles and three picks last year for the Gamecocks. Makes plays, forcing 10 turnovers his last two seasons. Solid tackler. Good worker and leader but not at the same level as Smith or Barron in terms of polish.

Jordan Bernstine, 5-10, 212, Iowa
Under-the-radar prospect the Patriots have been snooping around. He didn't go to the NFL Combine, but at Iowa's Pro Day he ran a 4.4 40 and had a 41-inch vertical. As a senior, he had 89 tackles and has terrific special teams ability in coverage and as a returner.
Brandon Taylor, 5-10, 210, LSU
Started 14 games at strong safety in his fourth and final season at LSU. Needs to become more fundamentally sound as a tackler but is highly respected as a leader and was one of Les Miles' favorite players at LSU.
BEST PATRIOTS FITS
Barron as a late first-rounder. He won't last until the Patriots' pick at 48.

Smith in the second round.

Bernstine anytime after the fourth round.

Brady-Ryan marks rare case of NFL's top two quarterbacks meeting in Super Bowl

Brady-Ryan marks rare case of NFL's top two quarterbacks meeting in Super Bowl

For all the flack that Matt Ryan got heading into this season, he’s been a damn good quarterback. Is his career on the same level as Tom Brady’s? Of course not, but this regular season saw him stand as Brady’s peer, making him an MVP favorite.

One of Ryan’s biggest challengers for that hardware is the same man who stands in the way of him winning his first Super Bowl. Though he missed the first four games of the season due to suspension, Brady finished second in the league in passing yards per game and threw just two picks in 12 games while tossing 28 touchdowns.  

So Super Bowl LI will pin the quarterback with the best numbers overall (Ryan finished two touchdowns behind Aaron Rodgers for the league lead but threw for 516 more yards and had a higher completion percentage) against the quarterback with the best touchdown/interception ratio ever for a single season. 

In other words, this is a Super Bowl that puts what one could argue are the season’s two best quarterbacks each other. That’s pretty rare. 

Going back the last 25 years, there are four candidates for such meetings: Manning vs. Brees in Super Bowl XLIV, Favre and Elway in Super Bowl XXXII (this one is a stretch), Favre and Bledsoe in Super Bowl XXXI and Kelly and Rypien in Super Bowl XXVI.. 

Why haven’t the two best quarterbacks squared off in the Super Bowl more often? Because Brady and Peyton Manning played their entire careers in the same conference, silly. It’s taken other players entering their echelon to even set up such a scenario, and that’s why Brees’ Saints beating Manning’s Colts serves as the only example during Manning or Brady’s career. 

The strong performances of those who dominated the regular season have often carried over into their Super Bowl meetings, but not always. Drew Bledsoe and Jim Kelly (both throwing two touchdowns and four picks in Super Bowl losses) are examples of the wheels falling off in the final game. 

Here’s a breakdown of past occurrences. Note that all four of them saw the winning team score at least 30 points, something the Pats have done just once in Brady's four Super Bowl wins: 

Super Bowl XLIV: Brees vs. Manning

Brees led NFL with 34 touchdowns in regular season; Manning finished tied for second with 33

Final score: Saints 31, Colts 17

Brees: 32/39, 288 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Manning: 31/45, 333 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT

Brees completed a postseason in which he had no turnovers and did so in a nearly exactly average game for him that season, as e averaged 292.5 yards, 2.26 touchdowns and less than one interception per game in the regular season. The two quarterbacks also combined for just one sack. 
 
Super Bowl XXXII: Favre vs. Elway

Favre led NFL with 35 TDs in regular season, Elway finished second in TD/interception ratio

Final score: Broncos 31, Packers 24

Favre: 25/42, 256 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, fumble lost 
Elway: 12/22, 123 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT

Again, this is the forced one because Jeff George (3,917 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, nine interceptions) had the better regular season than Elway (3,635 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, 11 picks). Elway may have been the winning quarterback, but he didn’t have anything to do with the win. Terrell Davis carried the Broncos, playing through a migraine and rushing for 157 yards with three touchdowns en route to Super Bowl MVP honors. 

Super Bowl XXXI: Favre vs. Bledsoe

Favre led NFL with 39 TDs, Bledsoe third with 27

Final Score: Packers 35, Patriots 21

Favre: 14/27, 246 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Bledsoe: 25/48, 253 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT

Both quarterbacks took five sacks in this game. For Bledsoe, it was the most he took all season. The game was the third four-pick performance of his NFL career. 

Super Bowl XXVI: Kelly vs. Rypien

Kelly led NFL with 33 TDs, Rypien second with 28

Final score: Redskins 37, Bills 24

Rypien: 18/33, 292 yards, 2 TD, INT
Kelly: 28/58, 275 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT, fumble lost

Turns out five turnovers (and being sacked four times) is not a recipe for winning the Super Bowl. Kelly’s 58 passes thrown set a Super Bowl record.
 

Dimitroff, Pioli the first Belichick defectors to lead new team to Super Bowl

Dimitroff, Pioli the first Belichick defectors to lead new team to Super Bowl

Working for the Patriots makes you attractive to other teams. Many have left, but Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli are finally showing that major success can be attained in the process. 

Dimitroff and Pioli have built a team in Atlanta that will play for the franchise’s first Super Bowl title on Feb. 5. While many have been hired away from Bill Belichick's Patriots to lead other organizations, Dimitroff is the first of the defectors to get to the Super Bowl on his own. Adding an old friend in Pioli has played a part in that. 

Dimitroff served as New England’s director of college scouting from 2003 through 2007 before becoming Atlanta’s general manager in 2008. He hired Pioli in 2014 as an assistant GM after the longtime Patriots director and vice president of player personnel had a messy stint as the Chiefs’ GM. 

Executives and coaches (even Field Yates; yes, the fair-haired boy from the television) leaving the Patriots for better positions with other organizations has been common, but with the new positions have often come diminished success compared to New England. 

Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Bill O’Brien, Charlie Weis (in his brief return to the NFL in 2010) and Josh McDaniels make up the list of coordinators who have left winning with the Patriots to experience a dropoff without Brady and Belichick. John Robinson (Titans), Jason Licht (Buccaneers) and Bob Quinn (Lions) currently serve as GMs elsewhere, while former Pats secondary coach Joe Collier works with Dimitroff and Pioli as the Falcons’ director of pro personnel. 

It’s only fitting that Dimitroff and Pioli will have to go through Belichick in order to secure a title on their own. Winning without Belichick has proven hard enough for his former colleagues; winning against him will be even harder.