Scouting the Broncos: Safeties

As a defensive back, Denver Broncos safety Renaldo Hill has seen it all.

By all, what I mean isn’t limited to the length of his career, although that is moving into its 11th year. Hill has seen the change in the modern game to ever-increasingly pass-oriented offenses which use more of the short pass as a staple of their approach. That movement (although some teams still predominatly use the longer, Coryell-type offensive passing strategy) has led to a need for the safeties - both strong and free safeties - to have coverage skills as well as to be strong hitters. The lines between the strong and the free safety are becoming blurred, as compared to the historical versions of those positions. Hill is a good example, since he began his career in 2001 as a cornerback with the Arizona Cardinals before sliding back to safety, where he’s quietly been highly effective ever since. Brian Dawkins has said that he and Hill tend to take turns quarterbacking the defense. Both are excellent at reading the offense and calling the responses.

No one can dispute the effect that a powerful tackling safety, ala Troy Polamalu, can change the way that offenses have to deal with your team’s options on defense. But Polamalu is an anomaly in many ways, as you’d expect from one of the best safeties in the game. He has the skills in both coverage and run defense, reads the offenses well, has an explosive first step and hits like a Stinger missile.  He can be used almost anywhere on the field. And, he’s had the good fortune to be playing under master defensive strategist Dick LeBeau, who uses all of Polamalu’s talents to their highest level. Polamalu is a unique athlete and a unique player, yet his overall role is being increasingly duplicated around the league. 

ESPN The Mag did a fairly good piece recently on the changing role of the safety in the modern NFL, and LeBeau was quoted for it. Summarizing the entire article, he said,

The era of the strong safety playing only the line of scrimmage is pretty much gone forever.

So it is.

It wasn’t long ago that the strong safety was most commonly an in-the-box player, used often as a smaller, quicker linebacker who hit hard and stopped the run more often than anything else. The free safety was more of a coverage guy, playing deep to keep the field in front of him and to prevent the long pass from turning into a long score. Denver kept John Lynch on the team in much the traditional role of a strong safety, even though the constantly increasing passing game was making his role less and less helpful to the team. His insights, experience, mentoring and ability to read the offenses for a time balanced out his increasingly diminished coverage skills. To some extent, Denver is likely to keep Brian Dawkins in a similar role - he may not always start, and he may be used in a more situational role, but his experience, mentoring and ability to bring a defense together are powerful reasons for a team that has finally (thank you, John Elway) announced that they are in a three-year rebuilding phase to keep him on the roster. There are a lot of young guys playing safety for Denver right now, and Dawkins' tutoring may make a big difference in preparing the team for his own inevitable retirement.

One of the things that stood out to me in terms of this year’s draft was a striking sense of deja vu - in the first (2009) draft of the shortlived Josh McDaniels era, the coach and GM Brian Xanders drafted two safeties - one in the second round (Darcel McBath, 6'0" 198 lb) and another (David Bruton, 6’2” 211 lb) in the fourth. Bruton ran the 40 in the upper 4.3’s at Notre Dame but ended with a 4.46 average and a 6.50-second three-cone drill (along with the 20-yard shuttle, the three-cone is probably the best measure of quickness and agility of the Combine drills) and a 4.28 while McBath was slower in the 40 with a 4.52 average, but also quick, managing a three-cone time of 6.87 and a shuttle of 4.18. McBath had six INTs with seven PD during his last year at Texas Tech and was considered by most to be the all-around athlete at the FS position that teams are looking for, but there was some concern, now understood, about his leaner, more slender lower body and his 14 reps on the bench press. Bruton was faster, but more raw - he had 24 starts in college as compared to McBath’s three years as a starter. Bruton was said to have struggled at times with play recognition, but put up four INTs, 10 PDs, two forced fumbles and two fumbles recovered as a senior.

Given the traditional separation of strong and free safety, most people saw Bruton as more of a strong safety and McBath as a free safety. Both played well on special teams, with McBath leading Denver with 11 ST tackles in 2009 as a rookie before losing nine games to injury last year. Bruton had nine ST tackles as a rookie, and got a few reps due to injury as a second-year player but he, too, was injured at times, suffering rib and leg  injuries. He notched six tackles - five of them solo - against Arizona last December. New ST coach Jeff Rodgers has already praised Bruton’s ST play. McBath ended the season with a broken arm, but had multiple injuries over the course of 2010, a fact that had to concern the Broncos. At the least, both players are top special teamers (when healthy) and may end up as quality backups as well, given recent events.

The injury issues of their younger safeties and the aging of leaders Brian Dawkins and Renaldo Hill led to an odd pattern - in the first draft of the John Elway/John Fox regime, the crew drafted another pair of safeties: Rahim Moore, at 6’0”, 202 lb in the second round, who looks more like a traditional free safety, and Quinton Carter at 6’1”, 208 lb in the fourth, who looks more like a traditional strong safety. Given that Robert Ayers was drafted more as an OLB, in both regime’s first drafts there was little shrift given to the defensive line. In the second McDaniels/Xanders draft, they took Zane Beadles in the second round - in the first Elway/Fox/Xanders draft, it was Orlando Franklin in the second. Such things are probably more coincidence than pattern, but are worth keeping an eye on, for the fun of it if nothing else.

But is Moore going to move to FS and Carter to SS? That remains to be seen. One thing that’s certain - the traditional safety slots have changed, and changed in response to the NFL’s evolutions on offense. Teams have countered the modern passing approach by using more nickel defenses (which are already the base defense for some teams) and by using more Tampa-2 defense - but in the long run, the days of a run safety and a pass safety are gone. Speed and coverage skills are overtaking the strict run-stopping abilities that once defined the strong safety position.

Why? It’s not just due to the increase in passing, although that plays a big role. It’s also because the traditional use of the strong safety gave the offenses too much information. If the strong safety was positioned deep and came up to the line when the offense was in a run formation, the QB was responsible for audibling into a pass. If the SS followed a man in motion, the QB could generally count on seeing man underneath coverage. If the SS played the deep middle of the field, you were usually looking at a Cover-3 or man-free defense. If he moved laterally, you were generally seeing Cover-2. That kind of simple, automatic information had to stop in order to give defenses a chance. It did.

Troy Polamalu is one example of the modern response - he is a player who can be moved anywhere on the field, and that tends to minimize the entire categorization of SS/FS. He may blitz off the edge, coming to the LOS prior to the snap, but he may drop from there into coverage on a WR or TE. He is used on delayed blitzes, stunts, and even as an additional cornerback. When the Saints won the Super Bowl two seasons ago, Darren Sharper played FS out of a Cover-1 ‘Robber’ formation that let the players move around more freely and blitz heavily: perhaps new Denver DC Dennis Allen is looking at his safety options with that in mind. Former Ravens and current Jets safety Jim Leonhard is another player who moves all over the field, but doesn’t give away what he’s going to do. He claims that he does a lot of things well, but none of them exceptionally. I’d beg to differ - doing that many things well is exceptional. It’s the mold that is going to be increasingly followed by top safeties around the league.
                 
It already is, in many ways. If you look at what has happened with LaRon Landry in Washington - a player who also started as a cornerback in college - defensive coordinator Jim Haslett moved him from the standard free safety slot, where he was never comfortable, to the free-roaming kind of safety in the Polamalu mold. It worked well - Landry sniffs out bubble screens, shadows TEs, drops back unexpectedly and comes up to the line - and, just as often, back off it. He had 85 tackles and was in some discussions as a Defensive POY last year. He’s gone from a guy who was nearly cut to one that plays an essential role in Haslett’s defense.

Safeties have also changed in another way - top safeties now command as big a contract as the cornerbacks have in the past. It only makes sense - the top safeties have many of the cornerback skills, but have to also be the cerebral quarterback of the defense and still hit hard on run plays. Kansas City's Eric Berry will pull in $60 million over the five years of his contract, but he’s shown already that he’s going to be worth every dime. With 92 tackles (72 of them solo), 10 PD and four INT as a rookie, Berry is another of the mold that every other team is looking for.

Which brings us back to the Broncos. Denver is hoping for big things from Rahim Moore. Moore went from pulling in 10 INTs in 2009 to only one in 2010, but although this was often misunderstood, he played even better in 2010 than he had as a sophomore (Moore came out after his junior year). The change came down to an alteration in his role on the defense - he became the defensive QB on a team that was decimated by graduations and injuries. Living in Carlsbad CA, in North San Diego Country, I’ve gotten to see a lot of his play at UCLA, and he’s the real thing. He has such good skills in coverage that many see him more as a cornerback, but he has too many of the qualities that you hope for in a FS in terms of play recognition, leadership and technique that he’s far better left as a FS.

He’s very durable, never having missed a college game, is a good wrap-and-drag tackler who needs to work on his fundamentals to become a better hitter, but who misses few tackles. He has the instincts, ball skills, quick feet and fluid hips to become a top player, given that he left school early and will need to be coached up to reach his full potential. He takes coaching well, though, and that’s unlikely to be a problem. He astonished with a 3.96-second short shuttle at Combine, and that’s far more important than his average 40 time of 4.64. He also reads the QB's eyes well and reacts very quickly. There will be calls for him to gain some muscular weight, and I agree with that as long as it doesn’t interfere with his quickness.

Quinton Carter will almost certainly start his contributions as a special teams player, and will try to work his way up to a starting slot. Carter had an interesting Combine - his 40 time was pedestrian at 4.57 and his three-cone drill was somewhat slow at 7.05, but his short shuttle was performed in a very quick 4.06. He also rated as a First Team All-American by AFCA, AP and Sports Illustrated. Most sites had him second only to Moore in this draft class, while others felt that Aaron Williams or Marcus Gilchrist (who wound up at San Diego) was better than him. It’s a minor point - Denver picked up two of the top three safeties in this year’s class, and although it wasn’t the strongest groups of safeties, both players have the potential to start in the NFL. Many sites also have Carter listed at free safety, the position that he took over as a junior in college - and at this point, that’s immaterial. He’s smart, reads plays well and was a quarterback in high school - a very highly rated one, too, so he understands the player that he’s up against. He had 96 tackles, with 59 of them solo, to go with four INTs and six PDs in 2010. He’s more of a tackler in the box, and struggles somewhat in man coverage. How he is used will probably be as much of a factor as what skills he brings to the game in establishing how far he rises in the NFL.

Moore will have the inside track, but a healthy Darcel McBath could still put Moore on the bench for a while, especially if the lockout lingers - learning to start at FS is never easy for a rookie, and without a full set of OTAs, minicamps and training camp with preseason games, it’s going to be tough on Moore. Look for him to gain time as the season moves along, if he can manage the jump. Denver will have a tough job choosing which of its safeties to hold on to - Kyle McCarthy is likely to be gone, and losing Renaldo Hill would greatly change the look of the defense - which, admittedly, Dennis Allen is going to do anyway. McBath will have to show that he can stay on the field, while Bruton just needs to keep on learning and improving - he has some great tools, and lacks experience. You can expect to see all four of the younger safeties on Jeff Rodger’s ST squad, and the kind of play that gets a guy first to the ball carrier tells you a lot, as Rodgers pointed out in a recent interview for Broncos TV. David Bruton is usually the first guy to the ballcarrier - Fox & Co. will be watching to see if anyone beats him there, since that’s as much about effort and liking contact as it is speed.

That’s the nature of the changes to the free safety and strong safety positions, too. Both have been greatly modified since the simple SS/FS categories that most of us have known in the past. It’s been said that baseball fans know that the game is complex because they understand it, while football fans know that their game is complex because they don’t. The safeties that will be successful going forward will be able to quarterback the game, move around at need, tackle, blitz, cover and maintain a wide variety of skills. More will be asked of them, and to start in this league, more will need to be demonstrated. Then, eventually, offenses will begin to concoct ways to counter the movement and versatility of the safeties.

It’s the way the game has always evolved. Go Broncos!

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