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This is the fifth of an eight-part series previewing the NFL draft April 25-27.

Today’s installment: defensive backs.

By Mark Gaughan

NEWS SPORTS REPORTER

It’s a good year for safeties in the NFL draft.

There is a good chance 10 safeties could be picked in the first three rounds. The last time that happened was 2002. Just once in the last five years have more than five safeties gone in the first three rounds.

“I think people are starting to appreciate safeties more, now that tight ends are turning into freaks and controlling the middle of the field,” said University of Texas free safety Kenny Vaccaro. “So you’ve got to have a safety who can cover and come up and hit.”

Vaccaro fits the description. The 6-foot, 214-pounder is expected to be the top safety selected, in the second half of the first round.

Vaccaro started 32 games, was a team captain and made a career-high 107 tackles as a senior. He’s more physical than most free safeties. He also continues a Texas tradition of producing defensive back draft picks. The man Vaccaro replaced, Earl Thomas, was a first-round pick and has made two Pro Bowls for Seattle. The Longhorns have had nine defensive backs drafted in the last seven years, six among the top 50 picks.

“I played both safeties, strong and free,” Vaccaro said. “I played nickel. I played dime. In some instances I played corner. We had two great corners. But most of the time I played corner in one-on-ones in practice.”

“This is one of the best safety classes I’ve seen in years,” said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock.

“There’s an elite group that are all going to go high,” said ESPN analyst Mel Kiper. “You’re going to have a run on safeties in the second round.”

After Vaccaro, the next three best at the position are strong safeties Jonathan Cyprien of Florida International, Matt Elam of Florida and Shamarko Thomas of Syracuse. They all could go in the top 40. Cyprien is a hitter who played well when he faced top competition. Elam was first-team All-America. Thomas draws comparisons to former Colts star Bob Sanders and ran a 4.42 time in the 40.

The other second-day safety prospects include Louisiana State’s Eric Reid, Fresno State’s Phillip Thomas, South Carolina’s D.J. Swearinger, Georgia Southern’s J.J. Wilcox and the Georgia duo of Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams. Reid wasn’t quite as sensational in his senior year as he was his junior year, but he draws comparisons to former LSU safety and current NFL star LaRon Landry.

There is a lot of depth in the cornerback draft crop, as well.

The top corner is Alabama’s Dee Milliner, who is physical against the run and ran a blazing 4.37 at the combine. The next two are Washington’s Desmond Trufant and Florida State’s Xavier Rhodes. They’re big. So are some likely second-day picks, such as Houston’s D.J. Hayden, UConn’s Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Mississippi State’s duo of Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, North Carolina State’s David Amerson and Oregon State’s Jordan Poyer.

“Almost all the top corners this year are boundary guys coming out of college,” Mayock said. “Typically that means a tough, smart guy that can tackle, but is speed deficient.”

Hayden nearly died during a November practice when he tore a major vein in his heart. He recovered and ran the 40 in 4.42 seconds at his pro day. Next: Offensive line.

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com