(Editor's note: More than 320 standout college players put their skills on display at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. From that group will come the majority of young men who will hear their names called during the 2011 NFL Draft in April. Buccaneers.com was at the Combine, and during the weeks leading up to this year's draft, we will be taking a closer look at some of players who participated in six days of workouts, interviews and medical evaluations in Indianapolis. This series is NOT meant to reflect any specific opinions of the actual draft decision-makers in the Buccaneers' player personnel department. Any mention of draft-board status or a player's strengths and weaknesses are from outside sources, not the team's own scouting work. Next up in our series is UCLA safety Rahim Moore.)
Just two years ago, in the 2009 NFL Draft, the league's 32 teams conducted an entire first round without selecting a single safety. The very same thing may happen when the NFL convenes again next month for the 2011 draft.
One man thinks it will not.
That man is UCLA's Rahim Moore, and he likely has the best chance to keep the safety position from being shut out on Thursday, April 28, when the three-day draft opens with the first round only. Moore certainly believes he's worthy of that distinction, and he knows that he only needs one team to agree with him.
"I believe I have first-round talent," he said. "I believe that I'm special. I believe that my hard work and my film and my accolades have said a lot, but you know what? I can't be the judge. It's all about that one team that will fall in love with me. Hopefully on draft day I'm in the first round and my dreams come true."
It's no guarantee. Flip through a series of mock drafts online and you'll find Moore in the bottom half of the first round in some, and in the top half of the second in others. Believe one analyst and the Bruin defender will be dropped right into the defending champs in Green Bay; trust another and he'll be part of a rebuilding process in Denver.
By Moore's way of thinking, however, he would be a good fit nearly anywhere, because the team that drafts him will be making a decision with a long-term payoff.
"If a team drafts me, they won't have to worry about the safety position for the next 10 or 12 years," he said. "I believe that I'm special, and I mean that in the most humble way. I'm going to get in early and I'm going to leave late and I'm going to put in the same amount of hours, maybe more, than the coaching staff."
The 6-1, 196-pound Moore certainly looked special during his three seasons at UCLA, where he went from conference all-freshman honors in 2008 to third-team Associated Press All-America accolades last fall. In 2009, he led the nation with 10 interceptions and was a second-team AP All-America pick. In 2010, with teams now leery of throwing in his direction, he ramped up his efforts in run support and amassed a career-best 77 tackles. At that point, he decided it was time to take on the next challenge, declaring for the draft as a junior-eligible.
"I just pretty much felt like it was time for me to move on," he explained. "I've been dreaming about the NFL for 21 years now. I saw an open door and I had to walk through it."
Which NFL team will be on the other side of that door? Presumably one that covets a swift safety with great instincts and possibly even the ability to player cornerback-type coverage in the slot in nickel packages. Moore isn't the biggest safety to come out of college in recent years, but he did prove his toughness last fall, showing he could make a difference as both a run-stopper and a playmaker. Scouts agree with Moore's self-assessment about his work ethic and his love of the game, and he obviously doesn't lack in confidence.
"A lot of times, teams wouldn't throw at me, so I had to push my game up and play more of a strong safety-type," he said. "In our system, a free safety has to be a strong safety, and a strong has to be a free. I mixed it up more and showed teams I could be physical down in the box, and just be an overall football player.
All of which has put Moore at the top of what is considered a very thin safety class, much like the one in 2009. The New Orleans Saints did take Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins, who is now starting for them as a safety, at #14 overall but he was drafted as a cornerback and played at that position as a rookie. Similarly, in 2005 the only safety drafted in the first round was Thomas Davis, by the Carolina Panthers, but he was converted to linebacker as an NFL rookie. And the 2000 draft also had a safety-free first round. In contrast, it's virtually unheard of for a first round to go by with no linebackers, cornerbacks, defensive ends or defensive tackles being draft; that hasn't happened once in the last 20 years.
It's not that teams don't value the position, or feel it is unworthy of addressing in the first round. Five of the last nine drafts have had a safety come off the board among the first 10 overall picks: Eric Berry in 2010, LaRon Landry in 2007, Michael Huff and Donte Whitner in 2006, Sean Taylor in 2004 and Roy Williams in 2002.
Apparently, Moore is not seen in that same category, perhaps because he's not considered the classic hard-hitting John Lynch type of safety. Then again, Lynch was a third-round pick, Troy Polamalu went 16th in his draft and Ed Reed was picked 24th in his. Those are three of the best safeties of the last 20 years, but also three players with very different styles. Moore's game may be a bit different, too, but potentially valuable enough to warrant a first-round pick, particularly due to his coverage skills.
"I have a little experience [at corner]," he said. "Sometimes in practices you might think I'm a corner because you might see me pressing up or making plays up there. My background is as a corner. In high school my senior year I played corner because safety was getting a little too boring. I've been blessed to have some corner skills. A lot of teams have been mentioning that and I wouldn't mind. Wherever a team needs me – play strong safety, play free safety, play corner. I believe when you play secondary and you love football you should be able to play all three positions."
Moore did concede that his favorite part of the game is deep coverage, where he can read the quarterback and break on the ball. He finished his three years at UCLA with 14 career interceptions, tying the school record.
"A lot of it comes from film and putting the work in," said Moore. "Being a ballhawk and being able to find where the ball is, it takes a lot of range and conditioning and hard work. Film is a big part of it because you have to be able to put yourself in position to make plays, and it goes along with the guys up front creating pressure and the coaches calling good plays."
That coaching at UCLA provided him with another advantage, he claims. Moore got a lot of playing experience that should translate directly to his next stop, and hopefully get him into the lineup quickly.
"[The UCLA defense] helped me out a lot because it was an NFL scheme," he said. "My freshman year I had Dewayne Walker, who was an NFL [coach], so I've been used to the NFL-style defense. Even in high school, even in Pop Warner I was running 4-3s, 3-4s and 5-2s up front. So I've been used to those types of things and it helped me out a lot."
It may be Moore's dream to be drafted in the first round, but it might just help his NFL career if he slips farther than expected. That would surely provide him with an extra dose of motivation, similar to the one he got just before his breakout sophomore campaign with the Bruins.
"Some guy showed me a magazine and I saw how somebody projected me to be a fourth-team Pac-10 player, and I just felt embarrassed, because I felt like I was better than that," he recalled. "So I went back to the basics. I studied a lot of my freshman film and I just got better. I had people in my life to help me reach my goals. I told myself that if I wanted to be remembered at UCLA and be mentioned as one of the best safeties in college football I had to have a good season. And fortunately I did."
In Moore's case, fortune favored the prepared mind. He's sure he can make the same thing happen in the NFL.