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MOBILE, Ala. — Teams might be coveting the next Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham, hoping to find the next athletic, seam-stretching tight end that can take over a game in today's NFL.
But what many teams are also realizing is that it might be just as important to find a safety that can counter today's tight ends.
Gronkowski and Graham were each in the top 10 in the league in receiving and both broke Kellen Winslow's record for most receiving yards in a season by a tight end. They combined for 28 touchdown catches and gave opposing defenses matchup nightmares.
Center-field safeties who can hit, play in the box and cover tight ends are hard to find these days. There aren't many Ed Reeds or Troy Polamalus. In last year's draft, a safety wasn't taken until the 45th overall pick (Rahim Moore to the Broncos).
This year's draft features Alabama's Mark Barron, who could be a top-10 selection with a new priority on finding that safety to cover the Gronkowskis and Grahams of the world. It's a new era for tight ends, and it's a new era for safeties as well.
"I think it's far different around the league what you look for in a safety today versus say, 10 years ago, when the game wasn't quite as wide open, where receivers dominated," said Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier, who is coaching the North team at the Senior Bowl. "Today, it seems like there has been a bit of a retransformation with what's happened with tight ends."
Frazier knows the importance of a tight end — even though the Vikings have Visanthe Shiancoe, they drafted Kyle Rudolph 43rd overall last year.
Barron is not playing in the Senior Bowl, but there are a handful of big, athletic defensive backs who could be drafted higher than usual because of their ability to stay with tight ends, including Notre Dame's Harrison Smith, Oklahoma State's Markelle Martin and Boise State's George Iloka.
Iloka checked in at 6-3, 222 pounds and certainly looks the part.
"You need an athlete that can carry out the game plan. The tight ends are athletic and fast. Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, they are jump-ball guys who are strong and big," Iloka said. "You need a DB that can get physical with them but still is agile enough to run with them and cover."
Showing that versatility to the scouts is important to Iloka, who pointed out that he played cornerback in his last three games in college.
"My versatility, my size, my range and my ability to cover," Iloka said when asked about his strengths. He made a diving interception in Tuesday's practice, one of the more notable plays of the week.
In the NFL, you cannot make contact with receivers after five yards, and Iloka is well aware of that when it comes to covering the tight ends.
"I can only get my hands on them between five yards, after that, I have to run with them and that's how they score touchdowns. They are quicker than guys (defending them) and run away from them," he said.
D'Anton Lynn played cornerback at Penn State but said he has mainly played the two safety spots in Mobile. Lynn checked in just under six feet and weighed 205 pounds.
"I want to be as versatile as possible. The more positions I play here the better," said Lynn, whose father, Anthony, is the running backs coach for the Jets. You can tell that he is a coach's son when you hear him discuss covering tight ends.
"You have to be physical. That's the problem with a lot of cornerbacks who aren't physical enough to do that," he explained. "There are a lot of safeties that don't have the coverage skills to cover them. You have to try to have the best of both worlds, which I think I do."
Frazier said that teams need that versatile safety who can get physical and turn and run once the athletic tight ends take off up the seam.
"Most teams look for a hybrid-type safety. A guy who is not just a guy who can play eight-man fronts and be in the box as a tackling safety, but who has the ability to match up on tight ends like the Jimmy Grahams of the NFL."
This year's draft should have more safeties going in the first two rounds than we saw last year as teams continue to try and keep up with the new dynamics on opposing offenses.
"Part of it might have to do with the advancement of offenses, and defenses are having trouble adapting," Lynn said about the possible reason for a lack of safeties in the NFL who can fit the mold that teams need to shut down the tight ends.
"It's a lot different makeup for a safety today than maybe a few years ago," Frazier said. "You look at the cover skills as much as you look for a big hitter."
Iloka and Lynn are among the safeties in Mobile trying to show they can do both, but as the rest of the NFL learned in 2011, covering Gronkowski and Graham is much easier said than done.