June 29, 2011
It's probably harder to accurately portray on-field performance for safeties than it is for any other position in the NFL. First of all, on at least half the plays, a deep safety is off the camera view — it's impossible to know where he's lining up and what his initial read may be. Then, you have to factor in the radical difference most teams still have in responsibility between their free and strong safeties. The Buffalo Bills are a good example. On many plays, the Bills will 'hi/lo' their safeties pre-snap — Donte Whitner(notes) will start off at equal depth with Jairus Byrd(notes) in a vague Cover-2 look, but he'll move up to linebacker depth before the snap, while Byrd takes more of a center-field responsibility. Without fixed positions, it's difficult to separate performance from scheme in a way that's truly representative of talent and effectiveness.
For our safety stat rankings, we're moving away from Burn Rate, the metrics we used for cornerbacks. Now, we're using Football Outsiders' Stop Rate stat as the primary indicator — specifically, Stop Rate against the pass. Stop Rate is a percentage that shows how ofen a defender kept an offense from making a successful play — success in this case is defined as gaining 45% of needed yardage on first down, 60% of needed yardage on second down, and 100% of needed yardage on third or fourth down. As safeties are generally the last line of defense on pass plays, the average stop rate is going to be lower than you might expect. In Byrd's case, he might not even get to a receiver until that receiver is over 10 yards downfield. But since so many safeties involved in at least 40 pass plays (which was our minimum for this list) are playing behind coverage, dividing catches by targets really doesn't make a lot of sense.
Here are the five most effective and five most susceptible safeties (40 minimum pass plays) when it comes to creating stops. Again, with the radical differences in safety responsibilities, this is less about who's 'best' and more about who's getting the job done in specific roles. Keep in mind also that pass plays aren't the same as targets — pass plays also include sacks and passes defensed. Tackles after the catch are covered with the 'pass tackles' metric in parentheses, and since flat-out whiffs aren't covered in play-by-play, they aren't counted here.
Highest Stop Rates (vs. pass)
Gerald Sensabaugh(notes), Dallas Cowboys (50% passing Stop Rate, 48 pass plays, 9.4 passing yards per play, 5 interceptions, 10 passes defensed, 36 pass tackles, 12 tackle stops, 55% run Stop Rate)
Playing at linebacker depth a great deal of the time as the Cowboys showed single-safety shells, Sensabaugh had many more opportunities for stops than your average deep safety. He was often dropping into coverage against slot receivers and was able to clamp down after the catch
Deon Grant(notes), New York Giants (49% passing Stop Rate, 51 pass plays, 7.2 passing yards per play, 3 interceptions, 10 passes defensed, 40 pass tackles, 14 tackle stops, 71% run Stop Rate)
Not bad for an older guy … while Grant did come up to linebacker depth a lot, he was more versatile than your average veteran box safety. Grant would blitz, read and drop, and occasionally provide lockdown deep coverage in New York's frequent three-safety looks.
Mikell excelled in slot and flex coverage, covering tight ends and inside receivers with aplomb all season. He's been one of the game's more underrated defenders over the past couple of years.
Behind Troy Polamalu(notes) and Ed Reed(notes), Wilson may be the third-best safety of his era. When you factor in the lack of help he had around him in his first few years with the Cardinals, he's been as great as anyone playing his position. From in the box to depth coverage, Wilson can still do it all.
Malcolm Jenkins(notes), New Orleans Saints (47% passing Stop Rate, 51 pass plays, 10.9 passing yards per play, 2 interceptions, 12 passes defensed, 38 pass tackles, 11 tackle stops, 35% run Stop Rate)
Jenkins is one of the new breed of safeties playing with a lot of cornerback skills; what's perhaps most impressive about him is that among the players in this top 5, he plays safety depth most of all. He's also a fierce closer after the catch.
Lowest Stop Rates (vs. pass)
Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills (10% passing Stop Rate, 40 pass plays, 15.2 passing yards per play, 1 interception, 2 passes defensed, 37 pass tackles, 1 tackle stop, 38% run Stop Rate)
As we pointed out in the preface, Byrd's schematic setup precludes him from making a lot of stops, but still … these numbers are problematic. Byrd also does come up in a Polamalu-like role at times to crash the edge on run blitzes, but game tape shows that in 2010, he spent most of his time in center field, trying to catch up with receivers who had pinballed their way through Buffalo's front seven. A very disappointing campaign after his nine-interception rookie year, though the difference also shows just how random interceptions can be. One positive point — according to FO's game charting, Byrd finished eighth among qualifying safeties with 1.8 yards allowed after catch.
Hope also played deep a lot, especially against cluster receiver formations in which he played a backfield supporting role in zone coverage. He also play rover on obvious rushing downs, covering a lot of intermediate ground.
Bethea lined up just about everywhere in the Colts' zone looks — a lot of intermediate and back- coverage with some box.
Brandon Meriweather(notes), New England Patriots (19% passing Stop Rate, 48 pass plays, 13.9 passing yards per play, 3 interceptions, 6 passes defensed, 42 pass tackles, 3 tackle stops, 27% run Stop Rate)
Meriweather played a lot of mid-to-deep coverage, often past the first-down marker. He's frequently savvy when jumping passes, but the after-catch tackling needs a lot of work.
Ryan Clark(notes), Pittsburgh Steelers (21% passing Stop Rate, 53 pass plays, 12.9 passing yards per play, 2 interceptions, 7 passes defensed, 46 pass tackles, 4 tackle stops, 52% run Stop Rate)
Clark holds a lot of deeper coverage responsibilities when Troy Polamalu goes all bombardier with the blitzes; he's also one of the better run defenders at his position.
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