Path to the draft: Safeties

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Alabama safety walked on the team as a running back and became a starter and a captain under coach Nick Saban.

The Texans are looking to fill several defensive needs through the draft and selecting a physical safety ranks high on their list of priorities.

Eugene Wilson, who is entering his seventh year, re-signed with Houston this offseason and is presumed to start at free safety. The Texans also re-signed Nick Ferguson, a nine-year pro, and return Brandon Harrison and Dominique Barber. It appears that Barber is the frontrunner to start at strong safety, but the Texans still could use a hard-hitting defensive back who can change games like Indy's Bob Sanders or Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu.

"I think we'll look at a big-time safety," general manager Rick Smith said during the offsason. "I think Eugene Wilson did a nice job for us when he had his opportunities to play.

"There's a really deep safety group, so we certainly will continue our process at this point."

Players like Sanders or Polamalu don't come around often, but there are several safeties who look like they could develop into big-time playmakers. Troy's Sherrod Martin and Missouri's William Moore continue to improve their draft stock and impress scouts.

In an exclusive for HoustonTexans.com, Michael Lombardi of The National Football Post offers his Top 5 free safety and strong safety prospects in the 2009 draft class. As the draft approaches, Lombardi, a 23-year veteran of NFL personnel departments, will list his Top 5 prospects at each position group.

Michael Lombardi's Top 5 Free Safeties

  1. Sherrod Martin: Troy (6-1, 198)
    Martin has done nothing but impress scouts throughout his post-season workouts and now looks to be butting himself in position to become one of the first defensive backs off the board come April. Martin is a fluid defensive back with great footwork and range in the secondary. He has the ability to play some corner and looks like real ball hawk at the next level.
  1. Rashad Johnson: Alabama (5-11, 203)
    Johnson is one of the most instinctive and intelligent safeties in the entire class and consistently reads the action quickly. He does a nice job recognizing run/pass keys and is always around the football. Johnson possesses only average speed for the position but plays a lot faster than he times and is an absolute playmaker in the secondary.
  1. Darcel McBath: Texas Tech (6-0, 198)
    McBath is a centerfield-type safety who showcases impressive range and ball skills in the deep half of the field. He excels at reading the quarterbacks eyes and getting good initial jumps on the football. He also does a nice job attacking downhill at the line of scrimmage and wraps up well as a last-line defender.
  1. Louis Delmas: Western Michigan (6-0, 202)
    Delmas is a well-built safety prospect who displays good range and plays with reckless abandon all over the field. He exhibits impressive power on contact and can deliver the big it. However, he takes too many bad angles when attacking downhill and isn't very fluid in man coverage. He is a bit overrated because of the weak safety class.
  1. Derek Pegues: Mississippi State (5-10, 199)
    Pegues is a former high school cornerback who displays natural footwork and good fluidity in and out of his breaks. He showcases good range in the secondary and possesses the ball skills to track the ball in the deep centerfield type role. However, he needs to add more mass to his frame to become more physical in the run game.

Brooke Bentley's Top 5

  1. Sherrod Martin: Troy
    Bentley: Martin stole the show at Troy's pro day where he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 and 4.49 seconds and had a 36.5-inch vertical jump. The questions surrounding him are related to durability because he had surgery on both shoulders, but scouts think he's the real deal.
  1. Darcel McBath: Texas Tech
    Bentley: McBath is built like a strong safety and runs like a free safety. At the combine, he ran the 40 in 4.58 seconds and had a vertical jump of 38 inches.
  1. Rashad Johnson: Alabama
    Bentley: Johnson walked on the team as a running back but flourished as a safety under coach Nick Saban. Last season, he collected 89 tackles, five picks and 11 passes defended. (Watch this interview with Johnson)
  1. David Bruton, Notre Dame
    Bentley: Burton (6-2, 219) had scouts buzzing at the combine when he ran a 4.40 in the 40 and soared 41.5 inches in the vertical jump. Last year, he had 97 tackles, four interceptions and two forced fumbles.
  1. Louis Delmas: Western Michigan
    Bentley: Delmas is a natural playmaker in coverage, and despite concerns about his size, he plays a physical game

Michael Lombardi's Top 5 Strong Safeties

  1. William Moore: Missouri (6-0, 221)
    Moore was considered one of the top prospects in the entire draft entering the season, but an injury-plagued senior year caused him to drop down draft boards. However, Moore is finally healthy and has impressed scouts during his post-season workouts. He displays natural range and coverage ability in the secondary and does a great job breaking on passes on all levels of the field. He is a guy who could be a real steal for an NFL team in the second round.
  1. Chip Vaughn: Wake Forest (6-2, 221)
    A tall, long armed defensive back with a well built frame and good power as a tackler. Vaughn does a nice job taking good angles in pass coverage and delivers quite the blow on contact. He showcases good deep speed and range for his size and has the ability to play the centerfield type role. Vaughn is a bit slow to re-direct, however once he gets his legs going, he tracks the ball very well.
  1. Patrick Chung: Oregon (5-11, 212)
    Chung is a hard-hitting defensive back that takes great angles in the run game and is a secure, wrap-up tackler. He lacks ideal burst and range versus the pass; however, he relies on his instincts to diagnose plays quickly and get after the football. He consistently puts himself in position to make plays but struggles making up for a false step.
  1. Emanuel Cook: South Carolina (5-10, 197)
    Cook is an aggressive, hard-hitting safety that plays a lot bigger than his frame would indicate. He does a nice job breaking down in space and is a strong wrap-up tackler. Cook is very smooth and fluid in coverage and does a nice job of changing directions cleanly and getting back up to speed. However, he lacks the ideal height and speed for the position.
  1. Courtney Greene: Rutgers (6-0, 212)
    Green is a versatile safety who has lined up at both safety spots in the Rutgers secondary. He's also a physical hitter who takes good angles in coverage and can dislodge the ball from his man. He needs to do a better job of wrapping up on contact and simply not going for the knockout blow. Greene displays good awareness in coverage and closes quickly on the football, but he plays too long legged and struggles out of his breaks.

Brooke Bentley Top 5

  1. William Moore: Missouri
    Bentley: He exploded onto the scene in 2007 when he notched eight interceptions. He has a history of turning interceptions into touchdowns, with four of his 11 career picks returned for scores. Moore is big enough to be a linebacker, but he moves with fluidity. At his pro day, he recorded an impressive vertical jump of 37.5 inches and a 40 time of 4.49 seconds.
  1. Patrick Chung: Oregon
    Bentley: Chung has a lot of starting experience (51 career starts) and he can tackle (led the team with 117 tackles in 2007; made 92 stops in 2008). At his pro day, he showed his agility by runnnig a 4.24-second short shuttle and 7.11 three-cone drill.
  1. Chip Vaughn: Wake Forest
    Bentley: Last year, Vaughn ranked third on the Deacons with 87 tackles and pass breakups with six. As a junior, Vaughn led Wake with 105 tackles and was an Honorable Mention all-ACC selection.
  1. Emanuel Cook: South Carolina
    Bentley: Cook is a physical safety, somewhat in the mold of Sanders. His downside is off the field: He missed the Outback Bowl loss because of an academic suspension and he was arrested on a gun charge and suspended in 2007; however, those charges were later dropped and Cook was reinstated.
  1. Michael Hamlin: Clemson
    Bentley: Last season, Hamlin received first-team all-ACC honors after recording six interceptions and 97 tackles. At the combine, he ran 40 yards in 4.57 seconds and jumped an impressive 37.5 inches in the vertical jump. The 6-2, 214-pound Hamlin has the size and agility to star at the next level.

Michael Lombardi* spent 23 years as a high-level executive in NFL personnel departments, working with the San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns, Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles and Denver Broncos. He has spent 26 years evaluating college and pro football talent. He currently serves as one of the main contributors of The National Football Post.*

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