It took 15 minutes for Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris to learn what SEC quarterbacks have known for three years: You don't challenge Tennessee safety Eric Berry. The two-time All-America was spinning through the NFL's speed-dating program two months ago at the scouting combine in Indianapolis, where prospective draft picks are ushered from room to room for interviews with interested teams. When Berry stepped through the door at the Bucs' suite in the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Morris was eager to test the youngster's understanding of the Tampa Two defense that both he and Berry had learned from respected coordinator Monte Kiffin.
As Berry stood at the whiteboard, marker in hand, Morris called defensive plays in the Tampa Two scheme and asked Berry to draw up the formation and explain each player's responsibility. If the engagement had been a Little League game, umpires would have invoked the mercy rule. Berry answered each question without hesitation or error.
Morris smiled and nodded—but refused to give up. He called out "China," a coverage in which Berry functions as an extra linebacker. Then he asked what Berry would do if the guard pulled away from him on a run play and if the play came right at him. Again Berry responded flawlessly.
But when Morris asked Berry about his assignment if the center released to the second level of the defense immediately after the snap, Berry hesitated. It appeared Morris had finally stumped him. "Monte didn't teach you about that one, did he?" the coach said.
"It kind of threw me off," Berry recalls. "It took me about five seconds to realize it was a zone play, and I told him I'd have to [move parallel with] the fullback and try to keep outside leverage on him, because you don't know which hole the running back is going to hit. I guess he expected me not to know that, because he looked kind of shocked."
It will be no surprise to NFL scouts if Berry steps into a defensive backfield this season and enjoys immediate success. Some say he's the only can't-miss prospect in the draft, after starting as a true freshman at Tennessee, intercepting 14 passes over three years and winning the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation's best defensive back, by a landslide in 2009. But what really has personnel people buzzing is his versatility. Safeties are typically either free (mobile pass defenders) or strong (big, physical run stoppers). Berry fits both descriptions—making him extremely attractive to teams trying to combat the exotic offenses that are transforming the game.
In the 1980s the NFL was a run-first league. That decade quarterbacks threw for more than 4,000 passing yards in a season just 13 times. In the '90s no more than five did so in any one year. While the strategy preserved ball control, it often meant nap time for fans as teams went long stretches without a big play. To boost scoring and add pizzazz, the NFL began adopting new rules—and enforcing old ones more tightly—to open up the airways. In 2009 a record 10 quarterbacks threw for more than 4,000 yards.
"With more teams going to spreads and four vertical receivers, you need to be able to get back and cover," says Chiefs defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. "But at the same time you have to stop the run. So when you have safeties who are versatile enough to play both the run and the pass, you can bring either one of them down in the box or keep one or both of them back in coverage. That makes it tougher on the quarterback because you're eliminating his presnap reads."
In the past, safeties were almost an afterthought in building a team. Only seven have been drafted in the top 10 since 1992, and when the 2010 franchise tenders—the average of the five highest salaries at each position—were announced in February, safeties ranked behind every position except tight ends and kickers/punters. But that's likely to change as offenses rely more on the arms of their quarterbacks instead of the legs of their running backs. "The way the position used to be played, you need only to look at the name, safety," says former Bucs and Broncos great John Lynch. "You were the last line of defense, and that's all you were expected to do. You weren't involved unless someone broke free or they threw way downfield."
Like Berry, though, Lynch brought versatility to the job. "I always felt I played a little bit of every position," he says. "At times you're covering receivers, at times you're a linebacker in the box, at times you're blitzing. Now you're seeing how the safety position can take over games."