2011 NFL Draft, Safeties: My, How the Times Have Changed

Michael SuddsCorrespondent IJuly 10, 2010

NEW YORK - APRIL 22:  Eric Berry (R) from the Tennessee Volunteers poses with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell as they hold a Kansas City Chiefs jersey after Chiefs selected Berry number 5 overall in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 22, 2010 in New York City.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

I was given the task of evaluating the free safeties, and strong safeties for the 2011 NFL draft for DraftTek.com. The “Tekkies” wanted rankings for each player’s primary position, and rankings for each player’s secondary position.

So, off I went on my strong and free safety stats hunt. Spreadsheets were constructed. 64 players were evaluated on 2009 tackling skills and ball skills. The free safeties and strong safeties were segregated according to their positions. I ended up with 28 strong safeties, and 36 free safeties. That was the relatively easy part.

Initially, I assumed that I would find that the “measurable” statistics (height, weight, and 40 times) would indicate that the strong safeties would be the larger players. Also, I assumed that the tackling stats (total tackles, tackles for a loss, sacks, and forced fumbles) would translate more closely to the skill sets of outside linebackers.

The free safeties, I assumed, would be somewhat smaller in stature, have faster 40 times, and would dominate in ball skills (interceptions, and passes defended). I thought that the free safeties would have the skill sets of cornerbacks.

After the stats were fleshed out, I sat there in dismay. None of my assumptions were valid.

I set out to study the safeties in depth in order to determine where my assumptions went so terribly awry. It was off to Safety 101.

I concluded that the game had changed.

Traditionally, the strong safeties were larger then their free safety counterparts by necessity. They needed to match up physically with TE’s, and RB’s. A strong safety would typically play 5-7 yards off the line of scrimmage.

Free safeties were the “center fielders,” playing a full 20 yards off the line of scrimmage, roughly in the center of the field. The free safeties were smaller in stature, but were ferocious hitters. They needed great closing speed on both running and passing downs.

Then came the paradigm shift.

The traditional roles of safeties were relegated into obscurity by a number of changes, starting with league policy.

First, came the league’s crackdown on illegal contact. Helmet to helmet contact was singled out for harsh punishment. The free safeties could no longer go “head hunting”. strong safeties couldn’t adapt either. Suspicious contact was largely construed to be illegal contact. A blizzard of yellow flags ensued.

This caused the offenses to go vertical. Three- and four-receiver sets proliferated, along with several variations of the “spread” offense. Defensive backfields became exploitable as scoring soared.

The value of safeties in the draft was depressed for decades.

Defensive coaches had to come up with countermeasures. Many adopted the 3-4 Defense, and even those teams still running the 4-3 defensive scheme would throw in a lot of 3-4 “looks” in order to be more deceptive.

Disruption by deception became the mantra of defensive coordinators. The safeties would play a prominent role in modern defensive theory.

The strong safety now plays 7-10 yards off the line. The free safety now plays 10-12 yards off the line, and shades the weak side of the field. The safeties are very active prior to the snap. They counter pre-snap offensive movement, show the blitz all along the line, and give the QB another problem to solve in three seconds. Safeties disguise their coverage schemes, and assignments.

The modern safety skill set requires that both have the CB speed to cover wide receivers. Both need great ball skills. Both need the tackling skills that limit yards gained after the catch.

As a result of this paradigm shift, a safety has been selected no later than eighth overall in the last three drafts. They are commanding CB contracts that were not possible for many years.

It is my firm belief that in a modern defense, the only thing that defines a strong safety, vs. a free Safety is where he lines up on the field. The distinction between the two safety positions has become unrecognizable.

Below, you have my latest and greatest strong safety rankings, with free safety cross-rankings. The rankings are based solely on 2009 stats. The only outside influence came in the form of the strength of schedule stats from ESPN.com. No projections were made by this author.

Note 1. An asterisk = underclassman. Two asterisks = sophomore.

Note 2. Numbers within brackets are the free safety rank when all other strong safeties have been stripped from the list. This, in my opinion, yields the truest cross-evaluation data.


1. DeAndre McDaniel, Clemson. FS rank = 2 [2]

2. Mark Barron, Alabama. FS rank = 3 [3]

2. Johnny Brown, Mississippi. FS rank = 5 [4t]

3. Andrew Rich* , Brigham Young. FS rank = 6 [4t]

4. David Sims, Iowa State. FS rank = 9 [6]

5. Shiloh Keo, Idaho. FS rank = 11 [7t]

6. Ahmad Black, Florida. FS rank = 12 [7t]

7. Duke Ihenacho, San Jose State. FS rank = 15 [9t]

8. Jeron Johnson, Boise State. FS rank = 16 [9t]

9. Eric Hagg, Nebraska. FS rank = 17 [9t]

10. Eugene Clifford* , Tennessee State. FS rank = 19 [11t]

11. Dom DeCicco, Pittsburgh. FS rank = 20 [11t]

12. Max Suter, Syracuse. FS rank = 21 [11t]

13. Joe Lefged, Rutgers. FS rank = 22 [11t]

14. Hiram Atwater, UAB. FS rank = 26 [13t]

15. Zac Etheridge, Auburn. FS rank = 27 [13t]

16. Jay Valai, Wisconsin. FS rank = 30 [15]

17. Jasper Simmons, Missouri. FS rank = 32 [16]

18. Davonte Shannon, Buffalo. FS rank = 34 [17]

19. Mana Silva* , Hawaii. FS rank = 41 [23]

20. Chima Nwachukwu, Washington State. FS rank = 43 [24]

21. Justin Winters, Buffalo. FS rank = 45 [25]

22. Dominique Reese, Georgia Tech. FS rank = 47 [26]

23. Da’Norris Searcy, North Carolina. FS rank = 49 [27]

24. Kevin Brown, Middle Tennessee. FS rank = 52 [29]

25. Joel Schwenzfeier, North Dakota. FS rank = 54 [30]

26. Anthony Leon* , Arkansas. FS rank = 59 [34]

27. Wyatt Middleton, Navy. FS rank = 64 [37]

Please note the growing disparity in bracketed rankings starting with No. 19. This is due to a higher number of free safeties (36), than strong safeties (28).

Now, I went ahead and ranked the free safeties in the secondary role of strong safeties:

1. Tyler Sash*, Iowa. SS rank = 3 [3t]

2. Deunta Williams, North Carolina. SS rank = 4 [3t]

3. Raheem Moore*, UCLA. SS rank = 5 [4]

4. Brian Lainhart, Kent State. SS rank = 8 [5]

5. Quenton Carter, Oklahoma. SS rank = 10 [6t]

6. Robert Sands*, West Virginia. SS rank = 11 [6t]

7. Chris ProsinskI, Wyoming. SS rank = 14 [8t]

8. Jeramy Kellem, Middle Tennessee. SS = 18 [8t]

9. Sean Baker*, Ball State. SS rank = 19 [11]

10. Jaiquan Jarrett, Temple. SS rank = 24 [15t]

11. Mike Holmes, Syracuse. SS rank = 25 [15t]

12. Max Hewett, North Colorado. SS rank = 26 [15t]

13. Lance Mitchell*, Oregon State. SS rank = 29 [17t]

14. Chris Culliver, South Carolina. SS rank = 30 [17t]

15. Blake Gideon*, Texas. SS rank = 32 [18]

16. Jermale Hines, Ohio State. SS rank = 34 [19]

17. Kenny Tate*, Maryland. SS rank = 36 [20t]

18. Tejay Johnson, TCU. SS rank = 37 [20t]

19. Wes Davis, Boston College. SS rank = 38 [20t]

20. Nate Williams, Washington. SS rank = 39 [20t]

21. Tim Atchinson, Baylor. SS rank = 40 [20t]

22. Brett Greenwood, Iowa. SS rank = 41 [20t]

23. Fon Ingram, Mississippi. SS rank = 43 [21]

24. Jonathon Banks**, Mississippi State. SS rank = 45 [22]

25. Antwine Perez, Maryland. SS rank = 46 [23]

26. Alex Ibiloye, TCU. SS rank = 48 [24]

27. Maurice Rolle, LA-Lafayette. SS rank = 50 [25t]

28. Mark LeGree, Appalachian State. SS rank = 51 [25t]

29. Will Hill*, Florida. SS rank = 53 [26]

30. Mario Edwards, Georgia Tech. SS rank = 55 [27t]

31. Alex Frye, Wake Forrest. SS rank = 56 [27t]

32. Troy Woolfolk, Michigan. SS rank = 57 [27t]

33. Marcious Ball, Memphis. SS rank = 58 [27t]

34. Drew McAllister, USC. SS rank = 60 [28t]

35. Chris Conte, California. SS rank = 61 [28t]

36. Justin Byers, North Carolina State. SS rank = 62 [28t]

The statistical data pointed out that there was little to distinguish between the skill sets of the strong, and free safeties.

Now, I’d like your feedback. Let me know if I have missed a safety that should be included in the 2011 NFL draft discussion. Let me know if “Your” guy should have gotten more respect.


Michael Sudds is an analyst, and team correspondent for DraftTek.com.


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