SEATTLE, Wash. -- It's becoming increasingly obvious that the safety position is more important than ever to NFL defenses. Once a positional purgatory for those "tweener" players not good enough to cover as cornerbacks and not big enough to tackle like linebackers, the modern safety must possess several different skills — sometimes all of them on the same play. No other player in a defense is asked to crash down on a blitz from 20 yards deep, or fake that blitz to read run or coverage, and all with a sharpshooter's eye and a daredevil's guts. The modern safety could be seen as a new type of defender; one that we haven't seen with consistency before the last few years.
On July 27, the San Diego Chargers agreed to a five-year, $40 million contract with free safety Eric Weddle. Weddle had been the Chargers' best defensive player over the last two seasons, but this was the biggest contract ever given to a veteran safety, and it was only beaten in sheer dollars by the five-year, $60 million rookie deal given to Eric Berry of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Berry tied with the late Sean Taylor as the highest-drafted safety of the new millennium when he was taken fifth overall by Kansas City in 2010. Turner was taken second overall by the Browns in 1991, but that was an outlier year, with Stanley Richard taken by the Chargers with the ninth pick the same year. Every other safety taken in the top 10 since 1990 was taken after 2000 — Roy Williams in 2002, Sean Taylor in 2005, Michael Huff and Donte Whitner in 2006, and LaRon Landry in 2007.
The Weddle contract was the gold standard as far as veteran safeties getting paid, but everyone knew that Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu was set to benefit from Weddle's deal more than anyone else. A possible free agent in 2012, Polamalu agreed to a four-year, $36.5 million contract extension on Sept. 10. That's a lot of scratch for a guy who missed 13 regular-season games total in the 2009 and 2010 seasons, but it's also true that since he was selected with the 16th overall pick in the 2004 draft, Polamalu has been the one defensive constant -- and the player that Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau allows to freelance more than any other he's ever coached.
More now than at any other time in the game's history, safeties can (and must) serve as the epicenters of their defenses. Surprisingly, Tomlin pointed to the increased complexity of the NFL's passing game — not the influence of players like Polamalu and division-mate Ed Reed -- as the main reason for this change.
"I think the nature in which offenses attack defenses has redefined that position," Tomlin said on Wednesday about safeties in general. "I think the day of the box safety is dead. I think they have to be multi-faceted, multi-talented people. They've got to be able to play in the box and be intricate parts of the run game. They've also got to be able to play on the back end and play against receivers. I just think that's the evolution of today's football. Troy, of course, has been the appropriate athlete at that time, but I think it's more about what offenses do, as opposed to about the physical characteristics of the men themselves."
When asked if he and the Steelers are now looking for safeties with more cornerback skills, Tomlin was succinct. "I don't think it's just me -- I think everyone is."
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll started looking for those safeties when he came back to the NFL in January of 2010 after a decade at USC, where Polamalu was one of his standout players. In the 2010 draft, Carroll took Texas safety Earl Thomas with the second of his two first-round picks. In the fifth round of that draft, Carroll and general manager John Schneider picked up Virginia Tech strong safety Kam Chancellor. Now, Thomas and Chancellor comprise the youngest starting safety tandem in the league. Chancellor is just starting to establish his reputation as an enforcer in the intermediate area of the defense; Thomas already made his name with Berry last year as one of the new breed of defenders that fit Tomlin's job description.
Carroll echoed Tomlin's thoughts about the new nature of the safety position -- since he last coached in the NFL in the mid-to-late 1990s with the New York Jets and New England Patriots, offenses have dictated radical changes in what's required. Teams are running more four- and five-wide sets, right ends are playing more multiple roles, blocking systems are more complex, and slot-to-seam receivers will show a nearly infinite series of schematic challenges. The Chiefs found that out the hard way in their season opener against the Buffalo Bills, when Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was able to rip apart the Kansas City defense after a first-quarter knee injury took Berry out of the game — and out for the season. Not only are these types of safeties extremely valuable — they're also just about irreplaceable.
"The spread out offensive attacks do eliminate that [box safety] for the most part," Carroll said. "There is more throwing game, and there's a broader acceptance and willingness to throw the football. It's all over high school football, college football — everybody that plays the game is really going to a different level of throwing the ball. The NFL is no different. So, the safety position is guys that can cover guys outside, guys that can move around and play one-on-ones when you need them to. Guys that can cover a lot of space are really valuable. Earl is exactly that kind of guy. So we were really fortunate. He can play corner as well. He does a lot of corner stuff for us at times. Those guys are most valuable because everybody's looking for matchups. Everybody's looking to get the fast guy on the slower guy. So you need guys that have versatility [and] can handle that and he's one of them."
As the only person to coach Polamalu in college and Thomas in the pros, Carroll said that while Polamalu is obviously far ahead of the game, there are some serious similarities between the two players.
"The thing that separates them and makes them alike is they're both so darn fast. Both these guys ran in the 4.3s [in the 40-yard dash], and it shows up all the time. Some people run a 4.3 and you don't see it. What Troy is so famous for is just these knifing, rocketing drives to make a tackle or to make a play on the football and the willingness to take a chance and go for it. Both these guys are like that. If Earl could be so lucky somewhere down the road, six or eight years from now… You look at them and say there are a lot of similarities in what they're able to produce.
"They're not the same guys at all but they have the same fire about them, their will to be the best. So you put together a really good package — they're both tough, they're both really fast, they're both really instinctive. One guy's just proven it over a long period of time and he's a great player. Earl, he's emerging. We really want to do similar things [with Earl] that we did with Troy back in college because of their nature and the style of play that they offer you. To me it's a real exciting matchup to look at.
It's Thomas' first time facing the safety that every new NFL safety looks up to. How did Carroll see Thomas' mindset with that challenge in front of him?
"Earl looks up to Troy in his play. We've talked about it enough -- he's curious about how he's gotten to where he's gotten. It's a good model for him to follow."
Tomlin completed the circle by noting what the Seahawks have in their defensive backfield. "They're a very talented, young group of safeties. I'm sure they're very excited about those guys out there and they should be."
They're part of the new breed — the new breed that Polamalu helped to establish. The new breed that will define a new and necessary era of pass defense.