Are Impact NFL Safeties Becoming a Thing of the Past?

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Are Impact NFL Safeties Becoming a Thing of the Past?
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Ed Reed might be the last of the impact safeties in the NFL.

It wasn't too long ago that impact safeties were part of the makeup of the National Football League. The best defenses in the sport boasted someone on the back end who could either lay the wood or cover like a true shutdown cornerback. 

Those times surely have passed. 

Impact safeties are becoming a thing of the past. That's pretty much not in question at this point. I do, however, plan on addressing why they are becoming irrelevant and exactly what led to what promises to be an inevitable extinction of the Ed Reeds and Ronnie Lotts of the world. 

First, let's focus on how front offices around the league seem to be valuing safeties in the draft compared to a few years back. In doing so, it's important to look past the specific rounds some safeties have gone in the draft and look more at production and performance. 

You might be surprised to know that there has been an uptick in safeties selected in the first round over the past few seasons compared to earlier years. 

There have been a total of 14 true safeties selected in the first round since the 2006 NFL draft. In the previous seven drafts before that, only six true safeties were selected in the initial round. 

Among the safeties teams thought high enough of to select early between 1999 and 2005, the late Sean Taylor as well as Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu stand out. 

While we might be seeing a trend toward certain organizations looking to add elite safeties, it appears that finding them from the college ranks has become increasingly more difficult. 

New Orleans, San Francisco and Baltimore all thought it was worthwhile to go out there this past April and target safeties on the first day of the draft. It is interesting that among the three safeties that did go early, only Kenny Vaccaro was considered a first-round lock in the weeks leading up to the draft. 

The lack of sure-fire safety prospects over the past eight drafts has seemed to lead to some teams placing a lesser importance on the position simply due to the lack of high-quality options.  

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Did Eric Berry represent value for Kansas City in the 2010 draft?

Just take a look at Eric Berry, whom the Kansas City Chiefs selected with the No. 5 overall pick back in 2010. He jumped onto the scene as a Pro Bowl performer during an impressive rookie campaign that saw him record 10 passes defended, four interceptions and two sacks. 

Berry was then injured in the very first game of his sophomore campaign back in 2011 and missed the final 15 outings that season. I will touch on injury issues a bit later. 

His return to health this past year didn't mean that he was ready to take that next step among the best safeties in the NFL. 

Despite earning a Pro Bowl berth in 2012, Berry struggled a great deal in coverage. 

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Berry graded out 68th out of a possible 88 safeties in coverage last year. This was a small decline from his No. 58 ranking as a rookie two years before. 

Berry ended the 2012 season as the 43rd-best overall safety, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). 

This is an interesting fact to note considering that Kansas City was applauded for making the creative decision to spend that high of a pick on a strong safety. Offensive tackle Russell Okung, cornerback Joe Haden and running back C.J. Spiller were all selected immediately after Berry in the top 10 of the 2010 draft. 

Kansas City didn't exactly acquire the best possible value by spending that high-round pick on the former Tennessee standout. 

This brings me to my next point. One of the primary reasons that safeties are not as highly regarded in the NFL today is that they're considered, for a lack of a better term, "a dime a dozen." 

Again, looking at Pro Football Focus. You'll be extremely surprised to see where the top 10 overall safeties from this past season were drafted (subscription required). 

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Despite going undrafted, Ryan Clark is among the best safeties in the NFL.

 

Player 2012 Team Round Pick Year
1. Eric Weddle San Diego  Second 37th 2007
2. Jairus Byrd Buffalo Second 42nd 2009
3. Reshad Jones Miami Fifth 163rd 2010
4. Kerry Rhodes Arizona Fourth  123rd 2005
5. Quintin Mikell St. Louis Undrafted N/A 2003
6. T.J. Ward Cleveland Second 38th 2010
7. Reggie Nelson Cincinnati  First 21st 2007
8. George Wilson Buffalo Undrafted N/A 2005
9. Ryan Clark Pittsburgh  Undrafted N/A 2002
10. Ronde Barber Tampa Bay Third 66th 1997

 

It's interesting to see that three of the 10 players listed above weren't valued enough to get drafted at all. Another three players on this list are currently without jobs, including two (Kerry Rhodes and Quintin Mikell) in the top five. 

Only one of these safeties was selected in the first round, and three more were chosen in the second round. The other seven were mid-round picks, late-round picks or undrafted free agents. 

That's definitely a dynamic you need to look at when coming to the conclusion that safeties are just not valued the way they used to be in the NFL. 

Some of this obviously has to do with the performances of those highly decorated safety prospects this past season. Let's look at the other end of the spectrum and see where the safeties who ranked in the bottom 10 overall were selected, via Pro Football Focus (subscription required). 

 

Grant Halverson/Getty Images
Even after signing a huge extension, Michael Griffin leaves a lot to be desired.

Player 2012 Team Round Pick  Year
88. Malcolm Jenkins New Orleans First 14th 2009
87. Roman Harper New Orleans Second 43rd 2006
86. Michael Griffin  Tennessee First 19th 2007
85. Kurt Coleman Philadelphia Seventh 244th 2010
84. Nate Allen Philadelphia Second 37th 2010
83. Mistral Raymond Minnesota Sixth 170th 2011
82. Charles Godfrey Carolina Third 67th 2008
81. Kendrick Lewis Kansas City Fifth 136th 2010
80. Atari Bigby San Diego  Undrafted N/A 2005
79. Chris Prosinski Jacksonville Fourth 121st 2011

 

See a disconnect here? More first-round picks ranked among the bottom 10 safeties in the NFL last season than ranked in the top 10. 

That's simply astonishing. 

It should be noted that neither Ronde Barber nor Malcolm Jenkins were selected as safeties. Barber turned in a possible Hall of Fame career by playing both cornerback and safety. Meanwhile, New Orleans came to the conclusion after Jenkins' rookie season that he was better suited to move from corner to safety. 

Obviously, that didn't work out too well for the Saints. 

Another thing to look at when drawing the conclusion that impact safeties are becoming a thing of the past it to check in on who some of the top overall defenses in the NFL have at that position. 

A lot was made about both Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson earning Pro Bowl berths for San Francisco last season. In addition, Seattle boasted one of the best safety tandems in the NFL in the form of Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. 

Is this the exception to the rule? 

Pittsburgh ranked No. 1 in overall defense this past season. It did so despite the fact that its two starting safeties, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, missed a combined 10 games due to injury. 

Denver ranked second in overall defense, but didn't have a single safety rank among the best players at the position in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Rahim Moore finished 10th overall, while Mike Adams came in around the middle of the pack for starting safeties at No. 27.

Not bad, but also not what you'd expect from the No. 2 overall defense in the NFL. 

While San Francisco and Seattle did come in at No. 3 and No. 4 in overall defense last season, it could easily be stated that their success on that side of the ball had more to do with play in the front seven or solid coverage by cornerbacks outside. 

Chicago, Cincinnati, Houston and the New York Jets closed out the top eight overall defenses in the NFL last season. Only Reggie Nelson of the Bengals finished in the top quarter of Pro Football Focus' rankings.

This tells us a story of defenses scheming around lackluster safety play in order to have success on the field. 

For San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Denver, Cincinnati, Houston and Chicago, it was all about getting pressure from the front seven and throwing off the timing-based passing routes of the offense. For the Seahawks and Jets, it was more about shutting down the outside with stellar cornerback play. 

It should also be noted that these eight teams combined to have 10 Pro Bowl performers in the front seven, but just four safeties (three from San Francisco and Seattle), earn a trip to Hawaii. The lone safety from this list outside of the NFC West to earn a Pro Bowl trip was LaRon Landry, formerly of the New York Jets. 

With the trend toward getting more pressure on the quarterback in what has become a pass-happy NFL, the ability to find safeties who can cover over the top has simply eroded (more on that later).  

The next point of emphasis has to be injury issues. 

We all know the story of former Green Bay Packers safety Nick Collins. The former second-round pick earned three consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl from 2008-2010. The then-27-year-old defensive back was well on his way to becoming one of the best overall safeties in the NFL. 

Then this happened...

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Nick Collins carted off the field in September of 2011.

Just a few short months after returning an interception for a touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Green Bay's Super Bowl victory, Collins suffered a herniated disk in his neck against the Carolina Panthers.

According to Collins' agent, Alan Herman, Collins is likely forced away from the game he loves due to this injury. He hasn't played a snap in the NFL since, per NFL.com. 

Some may say that this is the exception to the rule. After all, how many hard-hitting safeties defy injury on a continual basis?

Interestingly enough, Collins might not be the only case study here.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Bob Sanders was also in the height of his career when injuries derailed him.

At just 5'8" and 200 pounds, no one really expected Bob Sanders to make a huge impact when the Indianapolis Colts selected him from Iowa in the second round of the 2004 draft.

He was too small to make an impact. His size would inevitably catch up with him against superior, bigger and more athletic offensive players. These were some of the questions that faced Sanders early in his career.

Sanders went on to earn two Pro Bowl selections and All-Pro honors in his first four seasons, which seemed to quiet the critics.

However, a myriad of injuries caught up with Sanders after four seasons. Since earning that Pro Bowl trip back in 2007, Sanders has played in a total of 11 games and is currently unemployed, according to Pro Football Reference.

Here are two high-round picks who both seemed destined for stardom and were in the peaks of their careers, only to have it all thrown out the window due to injury.

Can teams go ahead and risk high-round picks on safeties when specific examples of career-ending injuries have sprung up over the past few seasons? Can they do so knowing full well that the safety position can be handled later in the draft?

Those are the big questions currently facing front offices around the NFL today.

It's also important to look at how offensive schemes may have started to limit the impact that safeties can make in the NFL. 

Name one single starting safety in the NFL today who can go one-on-one against the likes of Vernon Davis, Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham. 

The advent of this new-breed tight end is making it imperative for defensive personnel packages to match up against these offenses. 

We already know that not one linebacker can drop back into coverage and go up against these athletic freaks. Short of finding a true cover safety, which is rare in the NFL today, defenses have been forced to play more of an umbrella coverage against tight ends. This is to say that they line up a nickelback against a tight end with safety help over the top. They might even go with mixed coverage, which takes away both the linebacker and safety from the rest of the field. 

Going up against these types of offenses is tricky. No longer can you have a Ronnie Lott, John Lynch or Jack Tatum roaming free at the back end of the defense. Instead, safeties have assignments in coverage and are asked to hit the box more often than not, depending on what specific role they play. 

This limits the impact a true stud safety can make in the NFL today. 

Jimmy Graham is a prime example of the nightmare matchup.

As you can see in the video embedded above, these tight ends are just plain freakishly athletic and talented. You may have noticed the complete mismatch that Atlanta was facing with Brent Grimes going up against Jimmy Graham.

That's just not fair. As indicated in the video, that's why point guards don't guard power forwards.

San Francisco's design here wasn't an accident.

As you can see, San Francisco was targeting the mismatch between Vernon Davis and Roman Harper the entire time. While New Orleans did place a linebacker in coverage underneath, its scheme was to allow Harper to jar the ball loose at the last possible second.

We all know how that play turned out.

In fact, Harper was the player who seemed most affected by the collision between himself and Davis. That's exactly what I am talking about in terms of the complete and utter physicality we see from these new tight ends in the NFL today. 

There is no safety, outside of maybe one or two, who would have been able to stop those two touchdown passes I showed above.

One final thing to look at are the rule changes as they relate to how defenses are allowed to play in today's NFL. Would the likes of the aforementioned Ronnie Lott and Jack Tatum be effective right now? That's a question that has really stuck in my mind over the past couple seasons. 

How many of these Lott hits would be legal today?

Safeties in today's NFL always seem to look up and wait for a flag to be thrown the minute they lay a hard hit on a running back or receiver. It really is like clockwork.

Per ESPN.com, Dashon Goldson has now been fined three separate times for hitting defenseless receivers, all hits that would have made Ronnie Lott proud. 

In fact, San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh had the following to say, via NFL.com, after Goldson laid former Arizona Cardinals receiver Early Doucet out back in 2011.

A clean shot...Vince Lombardi would be proud. 

Interestingly enough, Goldson was not fined for that specific hit. This represents a double standard of sorts because he has been fined for "less brutal hits" since. 

Football is an instinctive game, especially in the defensive secondary. If a safety has to stop what he is doing midstream to think about the possibility that he could see a fine coming his way, he's simply going to be less valuable on the field. 

Are new rules marginalizing safety play in the NFL?

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While we should all be for player safety in the NFL today, the minute that the league disabled a defender's ability to react naturally and show instinctive mentality on the field is the very same minute that he became marginalized as a player. 

For all these reasons, and many more, impact safeties seem to be dwindling in the NFL today. There is no telling whether they will make a comeback or if some of these youngsters will represent a new Ed Reed. 

But on thing is for sure. 

The days of NFL defenses utilizing the safety as the focal point of their success on the field are over. Instead, teams are now relying on more aggressive game plans, stout front sevens and lockdown corners. 

It surely is sad to think about because I absolutely loved the way some of these safeties played the game. I guess their inevitable fade from importance is a sign of the changing landscape around the league today. 

 

Vincent Frank is an NFL featured columnist at Bleacher Report.

Vincent is the head sports editor at eDraft, co-host of Draft Sports Radio, which airs every Monday and Wednesday from 3-6 p.m. ET, and a fantasy writer for Pro Football Focus.

 

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