Speed is paramount for all free safeties, but particularly for those few who regularly roam in Cover 1 shells.
In said concept, the deep safety has to diagnose the downfield threat(s) before devoting his assistance. If the play presents more than one, he's tasked with prioritizing urgency. He usually serves as the last wave of run defense as well.
Bob Sutton presumably figured that a blitz-centric Cover 1 philosophy would, given the amount of physical corners and vaunted pass-rushers, accentuate the strengths of the roster. And it did throughout the first half of the season.
When Kansas City began facing more revered passers and cohesive aerial attacks, though—plus, losing Justin Houston and a healthy Tamba Hali only worsened the issue—the exploitation of Kendrick Lewis snowballed into a trend. Lewis can survive in a Cover 2; an approach that doesn't require him to survey the full width of a field. Cover 1? Not so much.
The following candidates can plug the defensive leak and supply an immediate upgrade.
For my money, Jairus Byrd is the best free safety roaming the fields of today's NFL. Yet, due to Buffalo's market (and team), the average fan probably isn't familiar with him.
Byrd isn't just a ball-hawking deep safety, he's an aggressive pursuer against the run whose yearly missed tackles—four last season; two in 2012—can be counted on one hand.
However, his coverage abilities are the foundation of his three Pro Bowl nods. Byrd doesn't contain the freakish speed of someone like Eric Berry, but he's incredibly light on his feet and, judging by his instincts on tape, is a student of the game.
In 2013, no free safety limited targets to fewer yards per catch (7.5) and confined passers to a worse rating (35) than Byrd. Only half of the balls that spiraled in his vicinity were caught.
Recruiting Byrd wouldn't just bolster Kansas City's secondary, it would elevate free safety to one of the defense's strengths.
Byrd aside, there aren't a lot of notable free safeties scheduled to hit the open market.
Husain Abdullah, for reasons unknown, garnered a meager 240 snaps throughout the regular season—that's only 68 more than he received throughout the Chiefs' preseason and lone playoff game combined.
Meanwhile, only 10 defensive players collected more snaps (655) than Quintin Demps—who also split time as a deep safety—and Kendrick Lewis' 1,072 regular-season snaps headlined the entire team.
Throughout the aforementioned 240 plays, Abdullah sacrificed just 11 catches and 9.8 yards per reception, the latter ranking No. 15 amongst safeties (including strong).
Last season, the newcomer's role alternated between free safety, strong safety and interior corner.
His repertoire includes modest man-to-man skills, but he doesn't have sufficient straight-line speed to be trusted on the edges. However, the veteran consistently left favorable impressions when used as a slot nickelback, and while he doesn't have great closing speed, he clearly has more than Lewis.
Abdullah, like Schwartz, was one of the most underrated offseason pickups for Kansas City.
He just didn't net nearly as many opportunities as his talent warranted. There's a reason why, in Kansas City's wild-card collapse, Abdullah's season-high 57 snaps returned two interceptions.
Ha'Sean "Haha" Clinton-Dix, Alabama
The Chiefs' free-safety play was a joke last year, so it's only fitting that they sign a man named "Haha" (Clinton-Dix) as the icing.
Not only is Nick Saban a revered head coach, he's a defensive mastermind. And not only is he a defensive mastermind, he's a secondary guru.
Clinton-Dix is just the latest shipment on Alabama's conveyor belt. The 2014 rookie is arguably more well-rounded than Calvin Pryor, who may be a hair more physical (and I emphasize "hair") but also slightly more vulnerable to play fakes and a shade slower.
Alabama's 2013 safety valve reliably thwarts potential highlights by corralling open-field runners before they break the last line of defense. But if Kansas City selects him—and at this point, he might be the odds-on favorite—the choice will ultimately be credited to his coverage abilities.
Clinton-Dix thoroughly understands the quarterback mindset—the fear of a vein-popping Saban tends to instill that in a guy—which is the most vital component of a deep safety's mentality. He lets the down and distance dictate his aggressiveness, while constantly communicating pre-snap notes to his secondary colleagues.
The collegiate standout was also one of the speediest safeties in the country last season.
Terrence Brooks, Florida State
If Terrence Brooks breaches the third or fourth round, a GM could have a bargain on his hands.
At 5'11", he doesn't possess ideal height for the position, but while he's one inch shorter than Lewis, his vertical more than compensates for the difference.
From time to time—due to his inherent instincts, willingness and ability to shed blocks—Brooks stepped up into the box in a role similar to Eric Berry's, covering the flat or tailing a running back on passes, while filling gaps and hunting down ball-carriers on rushes. He rapidly processes reads and reacts in the snap of a finger.
After gauging a quarterback's intentions, he flashes closing speed comparable (but a touch slower than) Clinton-Dix's, helping him prevent any potential momentum-swingers.
Judging by his on-field intuition, Brooks is a quick learner who, with a few offseasons under his belt, could ultimately evolve from a Day 1 contributor to a respected starter.
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