Evolution of safety position makes draft evaluations difficult for Eagles and other teams

Evaluating safeties such as Florida's Matt Elam has become more difficult as the position has changed.
Evaluating safeties such as Florida's Matt Elam has become more difficult as the position has changed. (MICHAEL CONROY / Associated Press)
Posted: April 15, 2013

In 2004, the Eagles started Brian Dawkins and Michael Lewis at safety. Both reached the Pro Bowl.

Both were also second-round picks - Dawkins in 1996, Lewis in 2002. Those picks were the highest the Eagles allocated on a safety since Jesse Campbell in 1991, and the Eagles' evaluations proved to be correct.

Replacing them has been an ongoing issue. Other than Quintin Mikell, who was a four-year starter and one-time Pro Bowler, the position has been a revolving door in Philadelphia.

The Eagles invested second-round picks on safeties with Nate Allen in 2010 and Jaiquawn Jarrett in 2011. Jarrett was cut in his second season. Allen has been injured and demoted during the last three seasons, and he must prove he's worthy of remaining in the team's plans.

The struggle for the Eagles to find long-term starters at safety illustrates what has become a challenge around the NFL. Because of changes in both the NFL and college football, safeties are difficult to evaluate and good ones are harder to find. When Eagles general manager Howie Roseman was asked at February's scouting combine whether he would redefine what he looks for in a safety, he briefly laughed before admitting it's a fair question.

"It's hard to find safeties in this league," Roseman said. "The game is so fast, and it's changed for those guys. You talk about safeties, guys who used to play safety, now they're moved to corner. They're big and fast, because they can play 10 years in the league instead of maybe seven or eight, and the corners are making more money in the league."

The Eagles signed Patrick Chung and Kenny Phillips in free agency, former high draft picks not heavily pursued by their former teams. And they could complement Chung, Phillips, and roster holdovers Allen, Kurt Coleman, David Sims, and Colt Anderson with a player from a draft class multiple evaluators and analysts praise for its safety depth.

"This is one of the best safety classes I've seen in years," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said before the combine. "I think the Eagles are going to get a chance to get a safety in the second or third round, and that's important."

But the front office needs to figure out who is the right safety. Multiple interviews revealed two key issues: So many college programs run the spread offense that safeties are used differently on defense, and many bigger safeties now play linebacker and faster safeties now play cornerback. In fact, Giants coach Tom Coughlin noted that the safeties of 10 years ago are now college linebackers.

Another issue is that the NFL game has started to deemphasize safeties who play mostly in the box, and the league's rule changes have nullified the effect of a big hitter at the position.

"I think it has become a little bit tougher to judge," said Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, a former NFL safety. "And part of it is because of the way the game has evolved. There was a time when you could draft a safety and say OK, we need a guy who can play close to the line of scrimmage and really be almost another LB. And another guy who can maybe play deep in the defense.

"Well, in today's NFL, the way offenses spread you out, if you just have a guy who's one-dimensional, you can get exposed if he's a guy who can only help you in the run game but can't match up sometimes on running backs or tight ends. That can be problematic for your defense."

Frazier said the NFL is leaning to more of a "hybrid-type" of safety, one who has cover skills and the ability to play deep defense. Frazier admitted that such a player might not be as aggressive in the running game.

"So it's changed," he said. "When you're looking at safeties in the college draft, you're trying to find more cover-ability guys than you are the guys who are the hard hitters."

Bears general manager Phil Emery said "five or six" starting safeties will be available in this draft, which he labeled "rare." The Bears have drafted a safety every year since 2004. The strength will be in the second and third rounds, when the Eagles could be in the market for a safety.

The top safety in this year's class is Texas' Kenny Vacarro, who is expected to be a first-round pick. Florida's Matt Elam, Louisiana State's Eric Reid, and Florida Atlantic's Jonathan Cyprien could also go in the first round. There were 25 safeties at the combine, and many emphasized versatility and coverage skills when describing the way they play, understanding the changes in the game.

"First of all you've got to have great instincts," said South Carolina's D.J. Swearinger, a big hitter who played both safety spots and slot cornerback in college. "Great ball skills. You've got to read coverages. You've got to be able to run, tackle in the open field, and play the ball when it's in the air."

Notre Dame's Zeke Motta said, "You don't want a safety that's just a safety."

No team has succeeded in evaluating safeties better than the Seahawks. They drafted two future Pro Bowlers in 2010: Earl Thomas in the first round, and Kam Chancellor in the fifth round. Seattle general manager John Schneider downplayed his prowess, calling it the "luck of the draw." The team thought Thomas was versatile enough to play cornerback or safety, and Chancellor offered a rare combination of size and athleticism.

"It's still the hardest position to evaluate, in my opinion, because those guys are playing so far off the ball and they can be lumped in categories a little easier than other positions, so you need to be careful," Schneider said.

This is the quandary in Philadelphia and in other general manager offices around the NFL. Safeties are as important as ever, but they've evolved, and evaluations have changed, too.

"It's a challenge," Roseman said. "But we're working on it."

Contact Zach Berman at zberman@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @ZBerm.

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