He hits like a truck, runs like a gazelle and thinks like a coach, which is why Tennessee's Eric Berry is considered the best prospect in this year's draft—and the prototype safety for the modern NFL game
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."
Case in point: the Steelers' Troy Polamalu. In 2008, when he was healthy, Pittsburgh's defense finished No. 1 overall, against the pass and in points allowed. Last year, when Polamalu missed 11 games and parts of two others with a knee injury, quarterbacks no longer had to worry about where he might be or what he might do, and the Steelers slipped to fifth overall, 16th against the pass and 12th in points. In the three full games he played, the Steelers had nine takeaways; in the 13 others, they had 13. Most telling, a year after winning the Super Bowl, Pittsburgh missed the playoffs.
Berry, 21, has been likened to Polamalu, and to Ravens star Ed Reed "with speed," according to one general manager, who calls Berry the best safety prospect in a decade. At 5'11" and 203 pounds, he's athletic, intelligent and has the instincts of a ball hawk: His 14 picks were returned for 494 yards, second most in college history. He's also a fierce hitter. As a kid in Fairburn, Ga., Berry played a backyard game called Throw 'Em Up, Bust 'Em Up that was part football, part rugby and all self-preservation. To know who did most of the bustin' up, check out the YouTube clips of Berry laying out SEC stars Knowshon Moreno, Ben Tate and Marquis Maze while at Tennessee.
Those big hits were matched by his big plays. A state 200-meter champ in high school, Berry ran back interceptions for scores of 96, 72 and 45 yards in his first two seasons at Knoxville. Quarterbacks wised up during his junior year: They'd often call out his number at the line of scrimmage, letting him know he wasn't going to be a factor. Berry was the third true freshman in former coach Phillip Fulmer's 17 years to start a season opener, the first Vol to be named consensus All-America in nearly two decades and the first to win the Thorpe Award.
Yet he seems more concerned with others than with himself. Berry turns down autographs as often as he avoids contact. As he exited a freeway in Georgia and braked at a stoplight one day this spring, he rolled down the window to hand money to a homeless person. Berry wears jersey number 14 in recognition of the 14 hours his mother spent in labor to deliver him. The strips of white tape he wraps around his fingers before games are a tribute to Sean Taylor, the Redskins safety who was murdered in 2007 while defending his home against burglars. Berry and Taylor had planned to work out together that off-season.
Berry could have returned to Tennessee for his senior season but chose to go pro to improve his parents' quality of life. Carol lost her job at a mortgage company two years ago, and James, a municipal worker who was a starting running back at Tennessee and a team captain in 1981, had heart surgery last summer. Berry's lone splurge since declaring for the draft was on a black Range Rover, which he had delivered to his mom with a red ribbon on the outside and a box of grits on the passenger seat. James always told Eric he'd be a grown man when he could buy his own grits.
If taking care of his parents was priority No. 1, refurbishing Fairburn's Duncan Park, where he spent his childhood playing football and baseball, was 1A. It used to be the jewel of Berry's neighborhood, but now the playing fields are suffering from years of neglect and underfunding. Berry's foundation plans to replace the worn grass fields with synthetic turf for football, baseball, soccer and softball so that a new generation can have the kind of constructive outlet he had.
"I know teams don't typically take safeties high in the first round, but this is a guy you'd make an exception for," says one G.M. "He not only brings the skills on the field—the speed and athleticism and smarts—but he's also a quality character. You can draft him and not have to worry about him or that position for 10 years.
"The way that he moves, the fluidity in his hips, the way that he breaks on the ball, it's second to none. It's really impressive and very eye-catching. And you talk about changing the prototype at that position—we've started to move away from the big, in-the-box, downhill, 235-pound guy to ideally having interchangeable safeties. He's that type of guy. He's the complete package."
Berry is a fit for any team drafting in the top five, though the Rams, Lions, Bucs, Redskins and Chiefs each have pressing needs elsewhere. Those who do pass on him will learn what it means to challenge Berry. His message to NFL teams: Pick me, or get picked.
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Nowadays, says Lynch, "You're seeing how the safety can take over games."
Photograph by JOE MURPHY/GETTY IMAGES
RE-VOL-UTIONARY Berry's prowess both in coverage (right, at the combine) and against the run makes him an ideal counter to exotic offenses.
[See caption above]
KEVIN C. COX/GETTY IMAGES
BUST 'EM UP In '08, Berry memorably laid out Georgia's Moreno, one of many SEC ballcarriers to feel his sting.