Athletic, instinctive and versatile enough to play any position in the defensive backfield (as well as returner), there is no denying Tennessee's Eric Berry is a phenomenal talent and a potential top five prospect in the 2010 draft. He'd have nothing to gain and potentially everything to lose had he elected to return for his senior campaign. The fact that he has two widely respected former NFL coaches in Lane and Monte Kiffin on hand to endorse him only adds to his impressive resumé.
Berry is also coming out in the perfect year for a ball-hawking safety considering the monstrous impact we've seen in the NFL this season from Darren Sharper and Brian Dawkins. Their first seasons with the New Orleans Saints and Denver Broncos, respectively, have been instrumental in the defensive turnarounds of these clubs. The impressive rookie years by Pro Bowler Jairus Byrd (Buffalo) and Louis Delmas (Detroit), among others has proven that young players can make an immediate impact, as well.
Furthermore, we've seen the impact felt by the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts defenses when their ulta-athletic, ultra instinctive safeties Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed and Bob Sanders have missed time.
And yet as important as the safety position is, NFL scouts will tell you that the relative value of the safety position simply limits his draft stock. Because of their greater ability to change the game on a play by play basis, quarterbacks and, more importantly for this year in particular, defensive linemen, will earn the higher draft slot come April.
I believe Eric Berry to be a future Pro Bowl regular, and yet barring a freak injury or surprise character question, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is not only going to be drafted ahead of Berry, he'll deserve to. Oklahoma junior Gerald McCoy and Georgia Tech junior Derrick Morgan (should he, as expected, leave school early), will also jump ahead of Berry, if history is any indication.
Consider that there has been only three safeties taken in the top six since in the past twenty years: Eric Turner (Cleveland #2, 1991), Sean Taylor (Washington #5, 2004) and LaRon Landry (Washington #6, 2007). In comparison, there have been 30 defensive linemen drafted in the top six during this time -- including four that have gone #1 overall (Steve Emtman-Indianapolis-1992; Dan Wilkinson-Cincinnati-1994; Courtney Brown-Cleveland-2000; Mario Williams-Houston-2006).
The player most scouts will tell you Berry reminds them of is Reed, who somehow slipped to 24th in the 2002 draft.
I certainly don't believe scouts will take as long on draft day this year to realize the impact a potential Pro Bowl safety can have on their defense, but to rank Berry higher than a dominant "big," as some in the media are apparently doing, is simpy an attempt to be different.