Cosell’s Take: The safety switch, Part 2

Greg Cosell

Maybe I’m the only one, but I have been fascinated by what I believe is the changing nature of the safety position in the NFL over the last decade. At times, I feel like a lone wolf, and I know many don’t see it the same way, but I strongly feel that safety is a much more significant position than it has been perceived to be. In my most recent article, I outlined why changing NFL trends and offenses have dictated this -- now, it's time to discuss this year's draft class of safeties.

Whether it’s the shotgun spread with multiple wide receivers, or the increasing utilization of “12” personnel (one back, two tight ends and two wide receivers), the role and responsibilities of safeties has expanded, especially in the passing game. Think about it - a safety must be able to do the following: play with range and speed as a single high defender and in a 2-deep shell; play man-to-man against tight ends, backs and at times, wide receivers. This says nothing about the ability to defend the run, whether from a box alignment or playing downhill from a deep safety position. As I said, I believe those tasks are absolutely critical to the success of defense in today’s NFL. Just ask NFL defensive coaches the value of the safety position when they are preparing game plans.

[Related: The safety switch, Part 1]

That makes the safety class in this year’s draft so compelling. There are a number of players who are very good in coverage, particularly man-to-man. I will be very anxious to see how they are valued by teams, principally those teams that must defend the increasing number of quality receiving tight ends in “12” personnel sets.

Every once in a while, a specific game or two really stays with me, well after it has been played and catalogued. This year, it was the Atlanta Falcons' two playoff games, the victory over the Seattle Seahawks, and the loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Why those two games? Because of the difficulty Atlanta had in minimizing the impact of the tight end. In the divisional round, Zach Miller of the Seahawks had eight catches for 142 yards and a touchdown. In the NFC Championship, Vernon Davis of the 49ers caught five passes for 106 yards and a touchdown. There’s no question some of the culpability fell on the Falcons linebackers; in fact, I know that to be true. But as I studied the tape, not only of those two games, but of the Atlanta defense as a whole, it was apparent that their safeties, while very good in some areas, were not at their best in coverage.

This is not meant to isolate the Falcons, but rather to make a larger point. When your safeties have limitations in coverage, you are vulnerable not only to tight ends, but to the passing game as a whole. When a defensive coordinator has to be concerned about camouflaging or compensating for weakness, he structures his concepts differently. There are some tactics he won’t be comfortable deploying; others he will, hoping it does not get exploited on that particular play call. He knows he can be hurt on any play, and that could be the difference in the game.

Back to the 2013 safety class. One of the things I love about tape study is its revelatory nature. The more you watch, the more you learn. Quite frankly, you never feel as if you see enough, that there will be something you’re missing.

In this context, the first safety I watched was Kenny Vaccaro of Texas. What initially stood out was how much he was utilized as a slot defender. He played significant snaps of man-to-man on wide receivers, including West Virginia’s Tavon Austin. Vaccaro was not the least bit overmatched versus Austin. There were many snaps in which he locked on, and stuck. He even ran down the seam with him. Vaccaro played man over the slot in every game I evaluated. Overall, he was very good at it.

[Related: Florida's Matt Elam could have an impact at multiple positions]

Keep in mind that Vaccaro is 6’0”, 215 pounds. That’s very good size for the position. He was a smooth athlete with excellent movement skills. Not only did he display the ability to play man-to-man versus wide receivers, he also was utilized as a deep safety, both in single high coverage and 2 deep shells. In those situations, he was both fluid and active in coverage, and aggressive playing downhill in the run game. He always pressed to the ball, and demonstrated sideline-to-sideline range with outstanding play speed and a reckless attitude. He showed explosion as a tackler with natural pop. Overall, I saw Vaccaro as a multi-dimensional safety with an expansive skill set and no physical shortcomings that would limit defensive coordinators.

Then I put in the tape of Florida's Matt Elam. What a difference in body type! Unlike the long Vaccaro, Elam is short and very compact, less than 5-foot-10 and 208 pounds. But again, what immediately was apparent was he also aligned over the slot in Florida’s sub-packages, playing man-to-man just like Vaccaro. In the base defense, he played both single high and 2-deep. It was not hard to like Elam. He was active, aggressive and competitive. He covered, and he hit, with striking ability and force. He flashed explosive traits as an athletic and physical defender with multiple and interchangeable attributes to play effectively both in the box, and deep. The one concern, and it returns to what I discussed earlier, is man coverage versus tight ends. That’s where his lack of height comes into play. Elam is one of several players whose draft position I am anxious to see. Will teams see him as a Bob Sanders type player whose overall impact outweighs his potential coverage limitation? My guess is, yes.

Watching tape is a process. Everyone always wants lists, by position, overall. That’s great, but ultimately pointless. Every coordinator, and by extension his defensive staff, evaluates players based on adaptability to their system, how they envision that player being utilized within the parameters of their concepts and schemes. Every once in a while, you get a safety that’s scheme-transcendent, but those players don’t show up in every draft. For me, the fun is the process of evaluation. It’s always easy to be an expert when you have access to the result. We’ll know in three years about the safeties, as we will all the players in this draft. That’s no fun. There’s no debate at that point.

[Related: Jonathan Cyprien is a small-school player with big-time talent]

With that in mind, my two favorite safeties to watch on film were Jonathan Cyprien of Florida International, and South Carolina’s DJ Swearinger. They likely won’t be the first two safeties drafted (although you never know), but that’s not my point. And by the way, they both will be NFL starters and quality players, maybe even as rookies.

Let’s start with Cyprien. The first thing I noticed when I plugged in the tape was his size and muscle definition. His dimensions are very similar to Vaccaro’s, but Cyprien just looks bigger and more defined. I said to myself, He’s a big dude. What really stood out was he played the game fast, with velocity, passion and tenacity. There’s no question there were times he was over-aggressive and reckless, although overall he played with an efficient mix of ferocity and control. Given his height – over six-foot – and his physique, he exhibited surprising (to me, anyway, since I had not seen him on television and knew little about his game before my tape study) athleticism, with excellent change of direction and closing speed.

Even as a deep defender, Cyprien showed a very smooth back pedal, with the ability to plant and drive with burst and speed. I must admit I did not expect that. And his range as a single high safety, with his size and stride length, was outstanding. He made an interception against Louisville that was as good as any I have seen this off-season breaking down college tape. He back pedaled as the single deep safety, at the same time reading quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater kept his head in the middle of the field, just as he was taught. Then he turned and delivered to the right sideline, about 20 yards down the field. Cyprien showed tremendous anticipation, range and speed to get to the boundary and make the interception. It was an extraordinary play.

I could see Cyprien becoming the best safety in this draft class three or four years down the road. If not, how about Swearinger? Forget about the 40 time. Those who focus on his timed speed miss the overall package. This kid played fast and decisively. There was a snap to his movement. He trusted his eyes, and he attacked aggressively. He showed excellent balance and body control breaking down to tackle in space. He competed with an edge. I loved his playing personality. He was clearly the tempo-setter for the South Carolina defense.

Here’s why I believe Swearinger transitions very well to the NFL. He played every position in the Gamecocks’ secondary. He has significant experience at safety, both deep and in the box, slot corner and outside corner. He played man-to-man against Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter both outside and in the slot, and he ran with Hunter. You know what really stood out when he played man, especially over the slot; he understood how to play to his safety help over the top. He undercut routes, taking away the throwing lane for the quarterback. That’s great awareness. I do not often see that with college defensive backs.

Swearinger’s position versatility fits the NFL game. You don’t have to project. It’s all there on tape. With the myriad responsibilities that safeties now must perform, and that coordinators need them to execute to game plan a fully dimensional defense, the adaptability of a player like Swearinger is critical in the constantly changing world of NFL offense.

And please don’t tell me you can get really good safeties anywhere in the draft.