Article: Safeties move from rear to forefront

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    Safeties move from rear to forefront
    By Albert Breer/MetroWest News/ NFL Draft Notebook
    Sunday, April 15, 2007 - Updated: 08:17 AM EST

    In the late 1980s, Mike Stoops lettered three times as a strong safety at Iowa. He finished his career with more than 100 tackles.


    “I don’t think I’d be recruiting myself to play here,” Stoops, the defensive coordinator at the University of Arizona, said with a laugh.

    The concept of a safety has changed over the past decade. No longer are they big corners who can’t cover. No more are they a playing piece that teams look to add late in the draft, or through cheap, free agent signings.

    Once a sideshow to the prime-time position in the defensive secondary, cornerback, the profile of safeties is rising. So is the perception of their value on a football team. Accordingly, the value the NFL places on the spot has changed.

    From 1982-2000, just 17 safeties were selected in the first round, and only three went in the top 10 of the draft. In the last six years, seven such prospects have gone in the first round, four of them in the top 10, exceding the total of the previous 19 drafts.

    Even more staggering is the rate of success of the picks. In the ’82-’00 time frame, eight of the 17 first-rounders developed into Pro Bowlers, and four made multiple trips to Honolulu. Of the seven first-round safeties picked in the past five years, four have already made Pro Bowls and three (Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed and Roy Williams) have been named Pro Bowlers at least three times. Two more, 2006 rookies Donte’ Whitner and Michael Huff, seem headed that way.

    Thirteen days from now, four safeties - LSU’s LaRon Landry, Florida’s Reggie Nelson, Miami’s Brandon Meriweather and Texas’ Michael Griffin - are near-locks to go in the first round. Each represents what the position has become.

    “These guys can do it all,” said Stoops, who coached Reed and Taylor as their secondary coach at Miami. “They can play the run, they can play the pass, they can play some ‘man’ coverage. Those are the most valuable guys.”

    What the four top safety prospects have in common is that each has played corner during their college careers. In fact, that flexibility is what makes them most valuable.

    A study in evolution

    After spring practice in his first year at the University of Texas, defensive co-coordinator and backs coach Duane Akina graded his players. He noticed the top four scorers were corners.

    Rod Babers and Quinton Jammer were the starters, with Nathan Vasher and Ahmad Brooks the backups. Going forward, instead of relegating two top athletes to situational roles, Akina moved Vasher to strong safety and Brooks to free safety.

    It worked. The trend continued, though often more from necessity than choice. Over the next few years, Texas saw Oklahoma and Ohio State lining up Mark Clayton and Ted Ginn Jr., respectively, in the slot on early downs.

    Akina suddenly felt the need for better athletes at safety, and that’s how Huff, Akina’s best corner in ’04 and ’05, wound up at the position.

    “In the old days, that big, 215- to 220-pound safety was physical and always playing zone,” Akina said. “They have to play ‘man’ now, because more offenses are coming out in ‘11’ personnel (one back, one tight end). At the same time, it’s necessary for that player, who is in the middle of the defense, to support the run.”

    The evolution has gone so far now that some coaches at the college level are going against the grain and putting their best athletes at safety, not corner.

    “How the game’s developed, where there are more multiple formations, that position really has to be the quarterback of the secondary more than ever,” Akina said. “Defenses are doing more too, with pressure and coverage, so you need to find a flexible athlete that can do more. It’s tough to find a great corner. But to find a safety who’s intelligent, physical and fast enough to cover, that’s the guy you latch on to.”

    In turn, that’s what NFL types have done.

    Cream of the crop

    Because colleges are placing elite athletes at safety, the pros are getting better players at that position, a trend validated by the higher draft picks and bigger salaries invested in the position.

    “You’re talking about guys that are superstar athletes,” one NFC personnel director said. “In the past, players weren’t picked as high, because guys weren’t standout athletes. If you look at Polamalu and Reed, and check the numbers from Pro Day workouts, the athleticism is jumping off the charts.”

    But just like the college game, the evolution of offenses to multiple-receiver looks on all downs, and more diversified schemes. In the past, for instance, most teams employed strong and free safeties, with the strong safety playing closer to the line and the free safety operating in center field. Now defenses are forced to play with split safeties. The safeties are also called on more to play deep, “bracket” coverage in doubling a tight end or slot receiver. The run-stopping duty is still there, but its level of emphasis has shifted - and the NFL has reacted.

    Look at four of the top five defenses in the NFL last season.

    Baltimore has Reed. Jacksonville has Donovin Darius. Oakland has Huff. Chicago started the season with Mike Brown and finished with emerging rookie Danieal Manning.

    The improvement in Indianapolis’ defense last season could be directly attributed to Bob Sanders, who battled injuries through the regular season before leading the unit to a Super Bowl title.

    At both the pro and college levels, these game-breaking safeties are becoming more of a necessity than a luxury.

    Over the past two years, the Patriots [team stats] have moved heady corners such as Chad Scott [stats] and Artrell Hawkins to safety to help offset the loss of Rodney Harrison [stats] to injuries. They drafted corner Eugene Wilson and switched him to safety. They did it because they had to, because the athletes they needed at safety were playing corner.

    That’s no longer true, and it will show a week from Saturday when the NFL will be thankful there are safeties in numbers.

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