The Increasing Importance of the Safety

By Lance Zierlein
February 20, 2011

People who follow the draft closely know that safeties are not considered a high-priority position when it comes to the first round. There are always some exceptionally gifted safeties out there worth taking that early, but for the most part, teams prefer to look at other positions of need in the first round because they believe that they can always find safeties later in the draft if they need to. The news continues to get worse for "box safeties"—guys who specialize in run support and handling coverage underneath. A quick "box" safety definition: Strong safeties who spend most of their time as an eighth defender near the line of scrimmage. There was a time when almost every team had to have a player like that to help support against the run. Now, with the proliferation of 3 wideout, 4 wideout and even empty sets, it has become very difficult for the box safety to make it as a starter in the league. Thanks to the recent increase in pass-catching tight ends with speed, offensive coordinators have more weapons than ever and they won't hesitate for one second to use them in an attempt to isolate a safety who struggles in coverage. The days of David Fulcher, Roy Williams or even John Lynch are drifting away; teams are looking for their safeties to be interchangeable in terms of their skill-sets—now, they are looking for safeties earlier in the draft.

Value of the Safety Position

It is never wise to look at talent evaluation or building an NFL team with a blanket approach. There are different approaches to building a football team—depending on that team's philosophy—and there are a variety of different ways that teams will utilize their safety positions. Some teams covet the safety position based on their defensive scheme; others feel like they can find players to fit into their scheme without having to prioritize that position in the draft. While I'm sure that there are still general managers and coaches who still cling to the latter, it appears as though the aerial attack is changing the way that teams prioritize the safety come draft day. At the time of this post, 18 of the 32 teams in the league start a safety they drafted in the first or second round (either as a safety or cornerback). Thirty of the 64 starters at either safety position were drafted within the first two rounds when they came into the league. Fans will look at guys like Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu and get fired up about taking a safety early in the first round, but most safeties will never have that level of impact on their defense—using either of those two future hall-of-famers as an example is silly. However, we are beginning to see a correlation to early round safeties and good secondary play (imagine that!). For example, all of the top five pass defenses has safeties who they had drafted within the first couple of rounds:

Top 5 Pass Defenses

1. San Diego - 177.8 / Eric Weddle (2nd round) 2. Oakland - 189.2 / Michael Huff (1st round) 3. Buffalo - 192.0 / Donte Whitner (1st round), Jairus Byrd (2nd round) 4. New Orleans - 193.9 / Malcolm Jenkins (1st round) 5. Green Bay - 194.2 / Nick Collins (2nd round) Now let's take a look at the bottom five pass defenses in the league.

Bottom 5 Pass Defenses

32. Houston - 267.5 / None 31. Washington - 261.7 / Laron Landry (1st) 30. New England - 258.5 / Patrick Chung (2nd round), Brandon Meriweather (1st round) 29. Tennessee - 252.0 / Michael Griffin (1st round) 28. Jacksonville - 250.2 / None Obviously corner-rushing and pass-rushing play a big part in pass defense as well, but it appears as though more and more teams are beginning to realize that they better look for their "quarterback of the secondary" within the first two rounds of the draft if they expect to have the results on the back-end they desire. Photo: Gridiron Experts