After seeing the money handed out to safeties such as Jairus Byrd, Donte Whitner and T.J. Ward during the opening days of NFL free agency, is it fair to say the position is becoming a premium spot in today’s game?
Let’s break down why the value of the safety position is on the rise, focus on the importance of protecting the middle of the field (using some All-22 examples) and discuss how these players can dictate the flow of the game from a physical perspective.
The Money Tells a Story
Before we break down scheme/technique/impact at the safety position, let’s talk about the contracts that were signed this week.
Looking at the defensive side of the ball in free agency, the majority of the cash is expected to go to the edge players. Think of the cornerbacks, defensive ends and rush backers, as those are impact positions on the field that command big money.
However, the numbers coming in for the top safeties on the market tell a different story:
Jairus Byrd, Saints: six years, $54 million ($28 million guaranteed)
Donte Whitner, Browns: four years, $28 million
T.J. Ward, Broncos: four years, $23 million
Antoine Bethea, 49ers: four years, $21 million
Mike Mitchell, Steelers: five years, $25 million
Malcolm Jenkins, Eagles: three years, $16.5 million
As with any deal in the modern NFL, the length of the contract shouldn’t be the focus. But looking at some of these numbers (particularly the guaranteed money being paid out to Byrd), it’s obvious that defenses in this league are seeing the importance that the safety position can play on Sundays.
Free Safety Impact
I often talk about closing the seam-post (middle of the field) when breaking down the free safety position, which refers to the player's ability to play with depth, break on the ball and create an angle that allows him to take away the inside vertical seam or post.
Think of base Cover 1 (man-free), where the help defenders are taught to play from an outside leverage position (outside shade) and funnel receivers to the middle of the field. That “help” is your deep middle of the field defender—or the free safety—in Cover 1.
Everyone wants to play press-man, disrupt the release at the line of scrimmage and win within the route stem in order to limit the intermediate route tree (curl, dig, etc.) and the vertical passing game versus NFL offenses.
But to do that—and play aggressively in man coverage—you need an “angel” in the middle to drive those routes and also showcase the range to get to the bottom of the numbers versus the 9 (fade) route.
Does Byrd deserve the $28 million guaranteed he received from the Saints? Watch the tape. The former Bills safety has the game speed, range, transition ability (break, plant and drive) and ball skills at the point of attack (22 career interceptions) to close the middle of the field.
Look at Earl Thomas’ impact in Seattle. That’s why the Seahawks can lean on Cover 1 and Cover 3 consistently in their game plan; he erases the middle of the field.
Here’s an example with Byrd driving on the seam route versus Drew Brees and the Saints from this past season:
With the Bills using a “cloud” technique over the top of Jimmy Graham to the backside of a 3x1 formation, Byrd reads the shoulders/eyes of Brees and breaks on the throw (before the ball is out). Given the angle that Byrd creates to the ball, he puts himself in a position to challenge receiver Marques Colston and take away six points.
Now, check out Byrd (at the break point) versus Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers:
Again, Byrd is out of his pedal and has already created an angle to the receiver before the ball is out. That allows the safety to get over the top of the 9 route and finish the play with an interception.
Let’s take a look at one more from Byrd versus Geno Smith and the Jets on the “NCAA” concept (post, dig, shallow drive combination):
Just like the previous two examples, Byrd reads the rookie quarterback, sits on the dig and breaks at an angle that puts the safety in a position to finish with another interception. Again, he identifies the concept and makes the play.
I can talk about Cover 2 (two-deep), Cover 4 (quarters) and Cover 6 (quarter, quarter, half) at length, as those are all solid, proven schemes. However, the ability to limit pro offenses by playing single-high safety defenses (Cover 1, Cover 3, Cover 7 combo-man) has increased the value of the middle-of-the-field defender who closes the seam/post and makes plays on the football.
Whitner, Ward, Mitchell, Bethea and Jenkins didn’t break the bank like Byrd, but don’t discount their value to the game plan—because there is no substitute for a physical brand of football.
I love the way these guys play at the point of attack, as they are all downhill defenders who will set their pads against receivers/ball-carriers. That shows up on the tape with their ability to tackle, fit versus the run and deliver a violent blow on contact.
Where do NFL offenses want to go with the football? Most of them want to go between the numbers on inside breaking routes versus both zone and man schemes. Look at the Patriots, Broncos, Bears, Packers and Saints, for example, as they are productive offenses that work the intermediate passing game in the middle of the field.
You want safeties who can intimidate versus Hi-Lo concepts (underneath crossing routes), stand up a pulling guard versus the Power O scheme and fill the “C” gap against the Lead Strong.
True physicality at the position comes when a safety drops into the run front and explodes through the lead blocker in order to constrict/squeeze the hole—and it also sends a message to the opposing offense.
Go back to the Super Bowl tape; by the end of that game, the Broncos receivers didn’t want to catch the ball in the middle of the field versus Thomas and Kam Chancellor.
Here’s a quick view of the Seahawks playing Cover 1 “Robber,” with Chancellor dropping down as the underneath hole defender:
On two levels, the Seahawks are in a position to take away the dig (Thomas) and shallow drive route (Chancellor). And the result is a clean, physical hit on the receiver when Peyton Manning unloads the ball.
These safeties can get off the numbers in Cover 2, roll to the middle of the field or match up versus a tight end in coverage because of their technique on the release (leverage, hands, transition). And every safety in today’s game has to show the ability to tackle, play in the box or get over the top as a deep defender.
However, that physicality can never be replaced.
One of the major positives for the Saints after signing Byrd is the creative ability Rob Ryan now has in New Orleans when he sets his game plans. Along with the skill set of Kenny Vaccaro, the Saints can now be very flexible with their schemes and matchups.
The ability to use your safeties to match up versus specific offensive personnel groupings/alignments allows you to eliminate concepts based on down-and-distance and field position.
And given the spread looks that NFL offenses roll out onto the field every week—plus the production at the tight end position—safeties are asked more than ever to show their versatility within the game plan.
Whether it comes with playing the deep middle third, matching up to a tight end removed from the core of the formation or being used in blitz packages to provide pressure off the edge, the role of the safety is vital to the success of any defensive scheme.
I do believe safety is a premium position in today’s game. Yes, the money tells us that, too, as NFL teams continue to pay up for talent. However, looking at the tape—and seeing the impact Seattle had at the position during their Super Bowl run—the demand for middle-of-the-field defenders and physical, downhill players should only continue to rise.
Seven-year NFL Veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.