One of the more confounding positions for personnel people in the NFL is safety.
For a variety of reasons, the position is at a crossroads in the NFL.
The league long ago bid adieu to the 6-foot-3-inch, 225-pound player who patrolled center field waiting to dish out punishment to the rare receiver who dared cross the middle of the field. Think Ronnie Lott or Steve Atwater.
“Safety has changed,’’ said Rams general manager Les Snead. “Steve Atwater, you can’t unload on a receiver like he used to, so maybe that type of player is gone. I don’t know how he would fit today, or if he could.’’
Part of it is the evolution of the game, but part of it has to do with economics and what is being done at the college level.
“What used to be safeties are now corners,’’ said Eagles general manager Howie Roseman. “You’re taking the 6-2, 210-pound guy who ran a 4.4 and he’s going to play corner because that’s the position where he thinks he can get the most money, get the most notoriety. And the bigger guys - 6-2, 230 - are moving to linebacker because everything’s about speed.
“So when you’re looking at the college game, there aren’t a lot of true safeties. They’re hard to find. And it didn’t used to be like that five years ago.’’
“Generally speaking,’’ said former Colts general manager Bill Polian, “there are fewer and fewer of the big-stiff guys because so much of third down is Cover 2 [two defenders split the deep part of the field] or a Cover 4 shell [four defenders split in quarters], so you’re looking for guys that can run and have ball skills. And at the college level, that’s especially true.
“Bill Parcells said to me about a year ago, ‘We’re at the mercy of what the colleges produce.’ Well, the colleges are producing four-deep safeties. Very few eight [defenders] in the box against a spread [offense].’’
The rise of the passing game also has led teams to shift to smaller safeties. Eric Berry and Earl Thomas, who were taken fifth (Chiefs) and 14th (Seahawks) overall in 2010, were under 6 feet and 212 pounds.
“I think it’s changing because I think you need to have two free safeties on the field all the time,’’ said former NFL safety Matt Bowen, who is an analyst for NationalFootballPost.com. “You have New England, Green Bay, and New Orleans spreading you out, so you have to have a safety that can come down and cover a slot, and a safety that can cover these tight ends.
“It’s so different than when I came in 2000. I was a strong safety and that was great for me because I didn’t have to cover anybody. I played in the run front, took on blocks, and covered big tight ends, who were basically offensive tackles. Those guys are all gone. If you don’t have cover skills right now, I think that really hurts you.’’
To cover, safeties need to be sleek and fast. But the receivers, tight ends, and running backs they’re asked to cover and tackle have only gotten bigger and faster, which has led to a ton of injuries at the position.
Of the 64 safeties who started last season, only 27 started all 16 regular-season games.
And 22 starting safeties missed at least a quarter of the season. A total of 10 safeties were placed on injured reserve or were not able to start their team’s playoff game (Brian Dawkins, Broncos).
There were 14 teams that saw their two starting safeties combine to miss at least seven starts, and the Patriots led the league with 19 starts missed by their starting safeties; Josh Barrett went on injured reserve after five games and Patrick Chung started just eight games.
“I just think you’re just seeing bigger, faster, and stronger guys,’’ Seahawks general manager John Schneider said of the injuries. “You see it at every position, but I think safety is the one position where it really shows up.’’
Basically, teams are starting to view safeties as the defensive running back position: You’re not going to get through a whole season with just your starters. You have to plan on using multiple safeties during the season, which is what all but three teams - the Cowboys, Bengals, and Steelers - had to do in 2011.
Most teams normally carry nine defensive backs - five cornerbacks and four safeties. Teams could trend toward keeping 10 defensive backs with an extra safety, and cutting elsewhere (likely linebacker because teams play sub packages with two linebackers on the field 60-70 percent of the time now). Or the split could become four cornerbacks and five safeties, with the emphasis on positional versatility, players who can play both cornerback and safety.
“I think five safeties is the right number. Sometimes you do four,’’ said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. “It’s usually nine defensive backs on a roster, it could be 10. You like for those guys to be your special teams players.
“So it’s been five corners and four safeties most of the time, but I think five safeties, you might see more of that. He’s going to have to be a special teams guy, which means it’s usually a bigger guy.’’
The Patriots have long taken the versatility approach, and took it to another level this season when cornerback Devin McCourty was asked to play safety on passing downs at the end of the season.
Bowen would like to see a different solution to the injury problem.
“I do think eventually they’re going to have to expand the rosters because you’re going to need more defensive backs,’’ he said. “I think if you’re a defensive coach right now, you want to go to the Competition Committee and say, ‘You guys love passing so much, well, I have to be able to dress more guys. I need 10 defensive backs to beat the Patriots. I need them. Because if one guy goes down, I’m toast.’ ’’
Besides tweaking the roster breakdown, or hoping for the NFL to add more players - likely only with an 18-game season - teams are going to have to make the safeties more effective by adjusting to the rule changes that cut back on the punitive hits over the middle through scheme.
“If you think about the concept of zone coverage, you were going to make the quarterback throw to a hole and have somebody go physically hit the receiver, and at that point, you hear the term ‘alligator arms,’ ’’ Snead said. “Well, that’s now out because of safety concerns.
“These quarterbacks are so good now, the timing, they can throw to spots because every zone defense has a route that can beat it, and the great quarterbacks know it post-snap, and they throw to spots and the receiver gets there.
“I think you’re going to see over the next 2-5 years the evolution of maybe new coverage schemes based on that.’’
TIME TO START
Flynn ready to pack up
When the Packers decided to move on from Brett Favre and go with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback after the 2007 season, one of the reasons used by coach Mike McCarthy was that it was time, after three seasons on the bench, for Rodgers to play.
McCarthy basically said the same thing about quarterback Matt Flynn, who is expected to be one of the more intriguing free agents when the signing period begins March 13.
“Based on what I see in the everyday classroom, practice field, he’s ready,’’ McCarthy said. “It’s his time to play. In my opinion, he’s ready to be an NFL starter. If I was at a club and was looking for a good young quarterback, he’s definitely someone I would talk to.’’
The next step will be the Packers’. Since they reached a two-year contract extension with tight end Jermichael Finley, they are free to use the franchise tag on another player.
Flynn, after two impressive starts against the Patriots and Lions the past two seasons, will have value. Could the Packers try to maximize that value by placing the franchise tag on him? They could, but as soon as he signs the tender, he will be guaranteed $14.4 million for the 2012 season - which is more than Rodgers.
General manager Ted Thompson could work out a handshake agreement for a sign-and-trade deal to minimize his risk. And three of the teams that would likely have interest have ties to Thompson: Browns (team president Mike Holmgren), Dolphins (head coach Joe Philbin, former Packers offensive coordinator), and Seahawks (general manager John Schneider).
It’s more likely the Packers let Flynn walk and receive a third-round compensatory pick in 2013 and a second-round pick this season.
If it weren’t for celebrity-hungry owner Stephen Ross, the Dolphins would be a perfect fit for Flynn.
“We’re looking for a great decision-maker,’’ said Philbin. “We’re looking for a leader, we’re looking for an accurate passer, we’re looking for a guy that has excellent game-management skills, a guy that has pocket presence and awareness, the leadership skills.
“Obviously, the stronger the arm, the more velocity, the better, but we’re looking for a guy that can manage a team, lead a team, make good decisions in critical times and make big plays when games are on the line.’’
That fits Flynn to a T. And Philbin knows exactly what he would be getting in Flynn and would easily be able to tailor his offense, which has some nice parts.
Rookie cap alters view
With two picks in each of the first two rounds of April’s draft, the Patriots are once again well-armed.
The Patriots have never traded far up to select a player, but the rookie cap that was implemented last year makes it much more likely.
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff shocked much of the league last year when he traded two firsts, a second, and two fourth-round picks to the Browns to move up 21 spots to sixth overall in order to take receiver Julio Jones.
It was a move Bill Belichick told his former director of college scouting that he wouldn’t make.
Not only did Dimitroff gamble picks in the trade, but he also took a risk financially because at that time the league was in a lockout, and no one knew for sure whether there would be a rookie cap in the new collective bargaining agreement.
But there was, and that took the financial risk - a bigger concern than the picks given up in previous drafts - out of the equation.
Dimitroff thinks the rookie cap will free teams to trade up as he did.
“I do believe that’s going to affect the movement in the top 10 picks,’’ he said. “I really believe there are a lot of my contemporaries in the business who will consider - not sure if they’ll necessarily do it - but I think that is one less element to think about compared to other years, which would have been a monumental difference from 27 up to 6.’’
Nearly a year after the trade, and after a second straight first-round exit in the playoffs, Dimitroff said he has no regrets.
“I think in today’s game, it’s very important that your picks are there to acquire [players] but they are also there, in my mind, to use as trade fodder,’’ he said. “I think that’s very important.
“I don’t think that in this day and age that you can just sit on your hands and wait for things to always come to you. If you have a desire and you know what you want as an organization, I firmly believe that you need to go after it.’’
Could that be the Patriots in this year’s draft? It’s not likely, but the ground for such a move is certainly more fertile this year.
Receivers are on the radar
So it seems to be a match made in pigskin heaven that the Patriots need a vertical, outside-the-numbers receiver, and there looks to be a huge class of available free agents at the position. Is that the case? Not exactly. Teams are starting to sit down with their free agents, and a lot will happen between now and the start of free agency March 13.
When you talk about the Patriots signing a free agent, you have to keep in mind a few things. One, Wes Welker is due to be a free agent. An extension is not likely at this point, but the team is expected to place the franchise tag on him for at least $9.4 million of the cap. Signing a free agent would be on top of that.
And at some point the Patriots will need to extend one or both tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, since both contracts expire in 2013. And any young free agent is going to want big money, with the new television money set to hit the cap in 2014.
That being said, we do expect the Patriots to be involved with free agent receivers. Here’s a rundown on where the top receivers stand:
Mike Wallace, Steelers (age 25): He’s a restricted free agent, and he’s either going to get the highest first-round tender, or the Steelers might place the franchise tag on him. Both sides sounded optimistic this week that Wallace would remain with the Steelers, but he could be available for a first-round pick when signed to an offer sheet. There’s a little buyer beware here because Wallace’s route running and instincts are still questioned by scouts. He may not get New England’s system quick enough.
Vincent Jackson, Chargers (29): It looks as though San Diego will let him test the market because his franchise number would be too high. He’s big (6-5), fast (4.46 in the 40), and smart (33 on the Wonderlic). Would the Patriots go higher than the $11 million over five years the San Diego Union-Tribune reported the Chargers have on the table? Doubtful, but he’s certainly intriguing. After being in a similar situation as Logan Mankins, Jackson wants to get paid.
Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs (27): An ascending player who will make the tough boundary catch, but not a true stretch-the-field burner type. Indications are he will remain with the Chiefs, either with an extension or franchise tag.
Stevie Johnson, Bills (25): Looked to be a solid candidate because the Patriots couldn’t cover him, and Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis had trouble doing so, but the sides appear to be moving toward a deal.
DeSean Jackson, Eagles (25): ESPN reported that the team will place the franchise tag on the former second-round pick with hopes of trading him. If Welker is retained, it wouldn’t make sense to have both players. Never mind the concussion and attitude issues, Jackson is 5-9 1/2 and 175 pounds. He plays in the slot and is not an outside-the-numbers guy. But if the Patriots let Welker walk . . .
Marques Colston, Saints (28): New Orleans will let him test the waters, and the former seventh-round pick could be intriguing. At 6-4, 225, he’s a big and physical receiver, but he’s not a true vertical threat.
Brandon Lloyd, Rams (30): Most ready-made for the Patriots since he already knows the system from being with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in Denver and St. Louis. This is likely his last contract, so he’ll want top dollar. The Patriots haven’t dealt with his agent, Tom Condon, since the Ben Watson negotiations. Condon said it’s not an issue for him, but he’s not the side choosing which deals to make.
Reggie Wayne, Colts (33): Still one of the top threats in the game because of his smarts and hands. Makes a lot of sense because he’d probably be very open to a two-year deal with a winner.
Robert Meachem, Saints (27): New Orleans will probably let Colston walk thinking it has Meachem in the bag, but that might be flawed thinking. Scouts really like Meachem’s big-play ability and think he could have a bigger impact than Colston elsewhere. Inconsistency is a concern.
Greg A. Bedard can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.