The Safety Dance
In recent years no position on defense has become more significant than safety, both free and strong.
Defensive coordinators rely on complex schemes to create pressure and, just as important, the illusion of pressure. This is often achieved by using amorphous and/or overloaded fronts, which requires a free safety with ample range to secure the middle of the secondary all by himself. Many of these front are most potent with a strong safety, who is faster than anyone else near the line of scrimmage and therefore able to reach the quarterback quicker when blitzing. Strong safeties are also adept in coverage, so dropping out of a pressure look is less difficult than it would be for a linebacker.
Safeties are paramount even in schemes that don’t regularly manufacture pressure. Seattle’s corners couldn’t exert suffocating physicality in press-man coverage if they didn’t have the game’s rangiest centerfielder, Earl Thomas, behind them. Most zone schemes rely on safeties to be hard-hitting intimidators or primary read-and-react pass-stoppers. In basic zone, you don’t necessarily need a dynamic safety, but you can’t have a porous one. (Just ask the 2013 Bears). But basic zone schemes are being used less and less today’s NFL due to the rise in multifaceted passing offenses, which have forced the safety positions to evolve.
Offensive coordinators have been widening the field and featuring athletic tight ends to create favorable mismatches against safeties. Often run at no-huddle tempo, spread sets typically require man-to-man coverage, which means defenses are demanding more out of their safeties. Cornerbacks and pass rushers remain essential. If your corners can’t cover, you’re hamstrung. If your pass rushers can’t generate pressure, you’re playing uphill. But if you don’t have quality safeties, you’re ultimately at a creative disadvantage.
One-fourth of the league’s teams have already made significant changes at safety during free agency, and a handful of others are likely to do so in the draft. Here’s a look at what those changes mean for each club, and the men in those evolving roles.
Out: T.J. Ward (signed as UFA with Denver for four years, $22.5 million, with $14 million guaranteed)
In: Donte Whitner (signed as UFA from San Francisco for four years, $28 million, with $13 million guaranteed)
At first glance, this appears to be a downgrade. Ward, 27, costs an average of just under $6 million annually and is coming off the best season in his four-year career. He’s not only a stalwart tackler (both in open field and in traffic), he’s also instinctive in zone coverage and formidable in man-to-man. Whitner, who turns 29 in July, will cost his hometown Browns an average of $7 million annually. He’s a better downhill hitter than Ward, but not a better tackler. He can play zone coverage but is less dimensional in man-to-man, having operated primarily as a two-deep help-defender in San Francisco. Whitner also has the veteran experience to communicate disguises and adjustments before the snap, which is crucial in Pettine’s scheme.
Whitner, however, is arguably a superior fit in new head coach Mike Pettine’s multidimensional scheme. Pettine didn’t blitz his safeties all that often as Buffalo’s defensive coordinator last year—perhaps due to his secondary being depleted until November—but he routinely did under Rex Ryan in New York. Whitner, thanks to tremendous initial downhill burst, is a missile who excels on blitzes. That same downhill burst also allows him to squat and fire into passing lanes, a terrific trait to have in disguised-pressure schemes that are designed to force quarterbacks into throwing early.
The Browns paid more for an older, less versatile safety, but they might have gotten the one best suited for their needs. Indirectly, they confirmed that Pettine’s scheme will be very similar to the one he ran with the Jets. Which makes sense. In Joe Haden, Pettine has one of the few corners who can play the Revis role.
Out: Mike Adams (unsigned)
In: T.J. Ward
John Elway should send the Browns a gift basket. Ward may not have fit ideally in Cleveland’s scheme, but he does in Denver’s. The Broncos run a multiple, man-based defense under coordinator Jack Del Rio and coach John Fox. A key component in many of their pressure designs is the strong safety’s ability to play man coverage inside. Mike Adams, who toggled between starter and backup, was solid but not spectacular. Ward is on track to be an upper-echelon man-to-man safety. And we know the Broncos plan on playing even more man coverage because no reasonable team would give cornerback Aqib Talib $26 million guaranteed to play zone.
Ward will also shore up the run defense, especially in nickel; the Broncos have spent the past two years toying with different personnel groupings in hopes of finding one that can actually corral a ballcarrier. And he can moonlight at free safety, which creates an insurance policy behind the talented but unreliable Rahim Moore.
Out: Donte Whitner
In: Antoine Bethea (from the Colts for four years and $21 million, with $9.25 million guaranteed)
There’s a gross misconception that Bethea, entering his ninth season, is on the downside of his career. In reality, he doesn’t turn 30 until late July and he hasn’t missed a game since 2007. He looked a bit up and down at times last year because the Colts, in order to allow the fast-but-mechanically-unsound LaRon Landry to operate in open space, used Bethea more as an iso-man-to-man defender against tight ends.
The Niners won’t do this. Relying on linebacker Patrick Willis to cover tight ends, they usually keep two safeties back deep. Bethea will be a read-and-react help defender, which is his forte. He doesn’t have Whitner’s pad-cracking prowess, but he’s a trusty wrap-up tackler. (Second-year safety Eric Reid does have that pad-cracking prowess, so the Niners’ secondary will still be intimidating.)
At the top of Bethea’s résumé is his experience as an on-field veteran leader who has worked in different schemes. Under Bill Polian, the zone-heavy Colts rarely invested in top-flight cornerbacks. And they rotated a lot of backup safeties because Bob Sanders was often hurt. Bethea routinely stabilized those defensive backfields, operating at both free and strong safety. And when Chuck Pagano’s regime replaced the zone system with a multifaceted man-based hybrid scheme, Bethea expanded his game. The Niners, having overhauled their entire secondary with mostly youth, need a cerebral field general on the back end.
Out: Malcolm Jenkins (wasn’t re-signed and landed in Philadelphia for three years and $15.5 million, with $8.5 million guaranteed)
In: Jairus Byrd (from Buffalo for six years and $54 million, with $28 million guaranteed)
This signing raised eyebrows. The cash-strapped Saints made room for the market’s most expensive safety rather than re-signing the cheaper Jenkins, who had performed relatively well not just as a centerfielder but also as a nickel slot corner. Generally, this would be an indication that the departing player was a locker room headache. But there have never been such reports about Jenkins, who was a team captain the past two seasons.
If this move was strictly for on-field reasons, then the logical assumption is that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is poised to fulfill his reputation by blitzing more in 2014. (Ryan can be as complex and aggressive with blitzes as his brother, but in recent years he’s been more coverage-oriented than people realize.) Byrd might be the game’s rangiest, most instinctive deep centerfield outside of the Seahawks’ Earl Thomas. The Saints wouldn’t splurge for him unless they feel he can be versatile and provide them a with a top-echelon single-high force whenever needed. Teams play a single-high safety when it’s an eight-man box or when they’re in man coverage against a three-plus receiver package (among other scenarios). In both cases, this usually means some sort of blitz.
The Saints’ long-term plan is probably for Kenny Vaccaro to become their version of Troy Polamalu. The multi-tooled 2013 first-round pick is comfortable playing in open space but even more so near the line of scrimmage. He was a heady blitzer and box defender last season, though not as often as hoped for because injuries at cornerback required him to play the slot—he got more snaps in this role than Jenkins did, and he handled them well. The Saints might still be too thin at corner for Vaccaro to become a regular box rover. Then again, they’re even thinner at outside linebacker, so Vaccaro’s blitzing could be in high demand. (Especially given that top blitzing safety Roman Harper is now in Carolina.) Either way, what’s sure is that with Byrd around, Vaccaro won’t have to drop deep.
Out: Patrick Chung (released)
In: Malcolm Jenkins
On the surface, this one isn’t hard to understand. Jenkins is simply a much better player than Chung, and safety has been Philadelphia’s weakest position the past two years. Upon closer inspection, this move is more interesting. Jenkins, if you recall, entered the league as a first-round cornerback. He proved to not have fluid enough hips to consistently turn and run on the outside, so the Saints made him a free safety. But just because Jenkins isn’t an everydown corner doesn’t mean he can’t successfully moonlight at the position. As mentioned higher up in the story, Jenkins was serviceable last year when pushed into slot coverage.
The Eagles already have an ascending slot corner in Brandon Boykin, and they signed a good No. 4 in Nolan Carroll (who might even challenge Bradley Fletcher for the No. 2 job). Jenkins was not brought in to reinforce the cornerback depth. However, he may have been brought in to expand defensive coordinator Billy Davis’s slot blitz packages. Davis quietly began expanding all of his pressure packages last season, with good results.
Aligning a strong cover guy like Jenkins—who himself can blitz—in the slot would exponentially expand the pressure concepts. It would also give the Eagles, who played only nickel in passing situations last season, a three-safety dime package, which more and more teams are using. In dime, Nate Allen would replace DeMeco Ryans at linebacker. Allen is always a hit-or-miss proposition, but he’s more athletic than Ryans as a pass defender. Many players have recently found their niche as dime linebackers; Allen could be next.
Out: Chris Clemons (unsigned)
In: Louis Delmas (UFA from Detroit for one-year, $3.5 million)
Many mistakenly believed the 28-year-old Chris Clemons to be an ascending player, but the coaches and scouts who knew him best did not. So he was allowed to walk. The fact that Clemons remains unsigned tells you the Dolphins aren’t alone in their assessment. Clemons started 32 games over the past two years (plus 14 games in 2010) and proved masterful at blending in on film.
That the Dolphins would replace Clemons with a player like Louis Delmas tells you they’re desperate to have a playmaking safety. Delmas is injury prone, which explains the brevity and relative diminutiveness of his contract. But he offers a high-risk, high-reward style of play. Delmas is similar to Clemons in that he can interchange between free and strong safety. The Dolphins made this move just prior to free agency, which suggests their intention is to leave defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle’s existing scheme intact.
Out: Ryan Clark (unsigned)
In: Mike Mitchell (UFA from Carolina for five years and $25 million, with $5.5 million guaranteed)
Steelers GM Kevin Colbert is mistaken if he thinks newcomer Mike Mitchell can replace Ryan Clark in centerfield. Yes, the soon-to-be 27-year-old Mitchell is an upgrade over the 34-year-old Clark. But Mitchell doesn’t compare to even a 30-year-old Clark, which Colbert is presumably paying him to be. The closer Mitchell is to the line of scrimmage, the better he plays. In that sense, he’s almost the antithesis of Clark, who, in his prime, had tremendous awareness and good movement skills in wide-open space. Clark provided insurance for a lot of Troy Polamalu’s gambles. Mitchell is more of a missile that requires insurance.
One might surmise the Steelers view Mitchell as Polamalu’s heir apparent, but that would suggest they’re giving up on last year’s fourth-round pick, Shamarko Thomas, who became the first player since 1973 that the Steelers traded a future pick (third-rounder in ’14) in order to move up and draft. Thomas struggled to grasp Dick LeBeau’s nuanced matchup-zone scheme last season, but most rookies do. History suggests he will get a chance at regular playing time this season. The Steelers, due to limited depth at inside linebacker, will likely continue to use a three-safety dime-sub package in lieu of a nickel. Thomas and Polamalu are well suited to interchange between strong safety and linebacker in dime.
But that still leaves Mitchell out of position in centerfield. Unless the 31-year-old Will Allen can suddenly emerge as a viable single-high safety (highly unlikely), the Steelers will be gambling here. Colbert knows it, too. Notice that barely 20% of Mitchell’s contract is guaranteed.
Out: Major Wright (unsigned)
In: M.D. Jennings (UFA from Green Bay for one year and $745,000)
The Bears don’t feel their predominantly zone-based scheme requires a big-time safety. But they know that, like any scheme, it still requires a reliable one. Wright was terrible in run fits last year and made far fewer plays in coverage than the year before. He had to be replaced. Jennings is a cheap option who offers familiarity with the NFC North. The best-case scenario with this move: no one notices or remembers it come fall.