If you want to know what's going on with the safety position in the NFL, follow the touchdown-catching, slam-dunking tight ends. And the field-spreading offenses. And the hybrid defenses. They all lead to a pot of gold.
The start of free agency provided a bonanza for a number of safeties. In the first three weeks, safeties signed contracts worth a record $84 million in guaranteed money. The six safeties who signed the most lucrative deals will average $6.13 million per year -- $940,000 more per year than the top six safeties one year ago.
"There was a time when that money might have gone to running backs in free agency," said Saints coach Sean Payton, whose team gave Jairus Byrd more guaranteed money -- $26.3 million -- than any team ever has given a safety. "I think it's shifted offensively over the years as teams look at the makeup of their roster. Specifically you are looking for ball production. You really begin to value those guys who, the ball finds them. [Byrd] is one of those players who really seems to be around the ball a lot."
Another safety scramble could ensue May 8-10 on draft weekend. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix of Alabama and Calvin Pryor of Louisville are almost certain to be first rounders. Because there is not much depth behind them, teams could reach to try to find solutions for their defensive backfields. Players such as Jimmie Ward, Deone Bucannon, Craig Loston and Ed Reynolds could be drawn up in the draft as a result of the safety vacuum.
Almost every coach is looking for a way to improve at the position, which is why at least 20 teams are expected to have a new starting safety when training camp begins. What they really want is just to survive, because more passing means safeties are stressed like never before. Ponderous safeties are about as useful these days as a VCR tape. Poor angles, blown assignments and missed tackles can be more costly than ever.
Safeties are being targeted as if they were clay pigeons. "There was a time when if a safety was in position, the quarterback might not throw to a target," Payton said. "I think anymore he might be in position, but if he is someone who can't turn his hips, or if he is someone who struggles catching the football, the quarterback is throwing it. I think offenses pay close attention to ball skills on the other side of the ball and attack those players who don't have it."
This mostly is about the passing game. Many of the safeties who have cashed in -- players such as Byrd, Antoine Bethea, Malcolm Jenkins and Mike Mitchell -- have an ability to defend the pass well. In New England, there is talk the Patriots might move cornerback Logan Ryan to safety. This would give them two former cornerbacks at safety (Devin McCourty also has a cornerback background), and make them the new model for the NFL.
"The safety position used to be a run support position," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "Now it's not near as much of that... The in the box safeties really are not in the box anymore. They are becoming dinosaurs." The traditional designations of strong safety and free safety are a thing of the past, like a printed road map. Safeties have to be able to do all in most schemes. There are a few defenses, like the one in Seattle, that still do it the old way. But the Seahawks, with Earl Thomas at free and Kam Chancellor at strong, are the exception rather than the rule.
As offenses have played more three receiver sets on first and second down, defenses have been forced to play an extra cornerback. That makes them more vulnerable against the run. But if the defense has safeties who can cover receivers, the third corner is not a necessity. To Zimmer's way of thinking, one of his safeties needs to have the ability to do what cornerbacks do -- play the deep third, cover the slot receiver and support the run. He points to Raiders safety Charles Woodson -- who has spent most of his career at cornerback -- as the type of defensive back who is well suited to play in the today's NFL.
Defenses have struggled to counteract the new age tight ends like Jimmy Graham of the Saints who combine size, speed and athleticism better than anyone on the field. Safeties are the defense's best hope for not getting destroyed by these players. When former Bucs general manager Mark Dominik took stock of his opponents in the NFC South, he noted the Saints had Graham, the Falcons had Tony Gonzalez and the Panthers had Greg Olsen. His response was to use the seventh pick of the 2012 draft on safety Mark Barron, and then to guarantee $22 million to free agent safety Dashon Goldson last March. "Tight ends are turning into large wide receivers," said Dominik, who now is an ESPN analyst. "You have to try to find a way to minimize their production. Often, you are going to walk your safety down and put him in coverage. So you need safeties who have that ability."
Athletic safeties are becoming weapons in their own right. In fact, a defensive coordinator really can't be much of a mad scientist unless he has some explosive safeties in his lab. Versatile safeties are the key to a creative defense.
Last year the Saints chose safety Kenny Vaccaro with the 15th pick in the first round of the draft. Rob Ryan played him all over the field, having him cover the slot receiver, blitz, play linebacker and be the last line of defense. Dominik believes more safeties are blitzing these days, in part because they sometimes are being lined up over the flexed tight end. That can give the safety a short path to the quarterback and a chance at a sack as long as the defense can roll coverage behind him.
The problem is there aren't enough safeties like Vaccaro and Barron. The demand is greater than the supply, which led to the safety scramble in the first wave of free agency. "To me, Barron is going to be the prototypical 21the century safety," Dominik said. "He's long, he's athletic, he's tough enough, he has ball skills and he has range and speed. You have to have all of that now with the way the rules are and with what offenses can do."
It wasn't long ago when safeties were second-class citizens on teams. General managers preferred to draft them after the top rounds, and they also frequently tried to keep safeties on the lower end of their salary scale. Those days are over. With no hesitation, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome used a first round pick last year on safety Matt Elam. "His ability to play man coverage, be effective in the run game and have some range in the back end helps out," Newsome said. "You need guys who are multi-dimensional with the way the game is changing."
Some teams are getting greedy with safeties, stockpiling them like cases of water before a storm. Dominik points out some teams want three safeties who can play, as they are looking at athletic safeties as nickel defenders. The benefit is the safety typically is a better tackler than a cornerback would be, and he gives the defense more versatility in terms of matchups with tight ends. The Saints last year used a three safety package quite a bit in response to injury issues at other positions.
So these are good times to be a safety. And also to be the agent of a safety. "The demands of the position are requiring a different type of athlete," Newsome said. "And that's requiring a different amount of salary."