Ranking the NFL’s top safety groups
The safety position is changing across the NFL.
It’s no longer good enough to have only two fantastic starters. Sure, that’s fine if they’re two Hall of Fame caliber talents (hello, Seattle), but players on the back end are being put under more pressure than before. They face a constant barrage of pre-snap movement, versatile offensive weapons and nifty personnel groupings that force them into near impossible decisions.
Two innovations have sprung up across the league:
- The advent of “big nickel” packages, where teams put three safeties on the field. It allows them to match up better with the all-freak tight ends that are spread throughout the league, better disguise coverage, run more creative coverages, and, if they want, limit communication.
- The dime linebacker. More teams are sliding one of their box safeties down as a linebacker. It gives them players who can turn and run with tight ends and running backs, rather than the heavy-footed plodding linebackers of yesteryear. And it allows defenses to stay in the same personnel packages, regardless of whether the opposing offense shows a spread or heavy look. Get caught in the wrong package and opposing offenses will feast. Use a dime linebacker, and there’s little need to substitute on second or third down. It’s yet another innovation built to combat pace-and-space offenses.
With those in mind, let’s look at the top-10 safety groups in the NFL.
1. Seattle Seahawks
Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Brad McDougald
Seattle’s duo remains far and away the top safety tandem in the league. The only caveat is health.
Thomas and Chancellor have suffered injuries in the past couple of years. Thomas is recovering from a broken leg (he did participate in OTAs), and Chancellor has not played a full 16-game slate since 2013.
When they’re together and healthy there’s nothing like their blend of smarts, instincts and menace. Chancellor is the enforcer: A fire-spitting alpha with better intelligence than he’s given credit for. Thomas is the star of the show. He never makes mistakes. His range is as intimidating to quarterbacks as Chancellor’s 6-foot-3, 225-pound body is to slot receivers crossing the middle of the field.
Thomas pops up in the right places at the right times. It allows others to gamble (like Richard Sherman), and covers up for mistakes.
Without Thomas, the Seahawks defense was shredded through the final month of the 2016 season. Steven Terrell, a veteran special team’s player, stepped in for Thomas, but was ineffective.
Thomas’ greatness allows Seattle to sit in single-high safety sets, be it their patented cover-3 match look, or straight man-to-man coverage (which they increased last season). It also means they don’t have to play a lot of three-safety sets.
We may see more of them in 2017. The league is trending that way, and Bradley McDougald can be more than an insurance policy (they also have the option to slide DeShawn Shead back there when he’s healthy). McDougald has been taking reps at both safety spots during OTAs. It would represent a fresh look for a defense that has shown signs of schematic staleness, though they’ll likely wash away once Thomas is back to his best.
2. Philadelphia Eagles
Rodney McLeod, Malcolm Jenkins, Jaylen Watkins
Don’t act too surprised. Jenkins and Watkins are complements to one another. Jenkins likes to play closer to the line of scrimmage, McLeod likes to sit in the middle of the field and cover sideline-to-sideline. They’re both terrific in their own right. And they work perfectly together.
Close your eyes and you can picture one of the league’s most effective unit. But Jenkins was shifted into the slot late in 2016 to help cover up for the mess that’s masquerading as a pro football cornerback group. He played well, showing that, if required, he could play there full-time. There’s a case to be made, but I still believe he’d be better served moving across the formation at safety.
3. New England Patriots
Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon
No team has embraced the safety revolution more than the Patriots.
Bill Belichick helped cause the problems that everyone, himself included, are now seeking to stop. His offenses throughout the past decade have helped revolutionize that side of the ball. The constant pre-snap movement, variety of formations, man-beater concepts and expansive personnel packages (including the destructive twin tight end sets) have forced more defensive backs on the field, and increased the need for positional versatility.
At the heart of the unit is Devin McCourty. He’s a front-runner for the best non-Earl Thomas middle of the field safety in the league. But what happens around McCourty is more interesting.
The Patriots move a bunch. Like, constantly. Patrick Chung has aligned everywhere. His resurgence in New England (after originally being cut by the team, then being shipped out of Philadelphia), came as a pseudo linebacker. He aligned in the box, provided a good presence against the run and was better than the average linebacker turning and running in coverage.
His game has since evolved, again. In 2016, he spent more time in the slot helping disrupt the man-beater concepts the Patriots offense has used to wreck the league throughout the Tom Brady-Belichick era. Chung has gone from a player the team was happy to move on from, to one of its most valuable pieces.
He still moves all over the place. The slot stuff is a new string to his bow, but he remains best when charging and attacking downhill. His lack of size can be a cause for concern when his technique isn’t on, but for the most part, it allows him to get underneath the pads of climbing linemen or tight ends, discarding them like they’re some kind of irritant rather than a world class athlete.
He also has an excellent nose for sorting through traffic and finding the ball. Sometimes he’s a beat too late, but he’s able to dance and prance his way through crevices that bigger bodied linebackers can’t.
Duron Harmon is a crucial part of the group’s success, too. He played 48 percent of the team’s defensive snaps in 2016, mostly in “big nickel” sets. He works well with McCourty. They can each rotate down, or slide across and play in the deep middle of the field — better disguising coverages than when McCourty and Chung start deep.
Harmon’s development has freed Chung to get closer to the line of scrimmage, or kick into the slot, while allowing the Patriots to keep two safeties deep if they wish.
I was surprised a team did not take a big run at Harmon in free agency, like how the Bills snagged away Micah Hyde from the Packers. Harmon ostensibly performs the same role. He may not be a star in his own right, but he can align in any spot, playing any technique required. That helps put McCourty and Chung in the most advantageous spots possible. Harmon is a big reason why the Patriots allowed the second fewest number of big plays in 2016, per Sporting Charts.
4. Baltimore Ravens
Eric Weddle, Tony Jefferson, Ladarius Webb, Marlon Humphrey
Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens front office have transformed the safety group over the past few offseasons. Now they’re in a position to field one of the best groups in the league.
In theory, Weddle and Jefferson should work perfectly together. Each can perform any role you ask: sit in a deep zone, drop down, rotate, match up with a tight end or blitz into the backfield. That should allow Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees to get creative with his coverages and blitz packages. With two guys who can slide to any spot, they can conceal coverages and mix up their tendencies week-to-week.
They’ve got depth as well. I’d like to see recent first-round pick Marlon Humphrey get some reps in big nickel packages or as a deep safety. He isn’t the most fluid of movers — a concern I have with him lining up outside as a corner, too — but he plays better with the game in front of him.
5. Green Bay Packers
Morgan Burnett, HaHa Clinton-Dix, Josh Jones
If they had managed to keep hold of Micah Hyde, the Packers would have the second best unit in the league. And they might even push Seattle given the Seahawks’ injury worries.
It’s hard to put the loss of Hyde into words. He wasn’t one of the league’s top safeties, but he did stuff. And his stuff allowed everyone else to do their stuff better.
Hyde aligned everywhere for the Packers in 2016. He covered weaknesses at boundary corner, played extremely well in the slot and allowed Burnett and Clinton-Dix to go on the attack by sliding in at deep safety when required — even playing some dime linebacker himself.
He may not have jumped off the screen. But he was the type of player that turned a good unit into an excellent one.
He’s gone now. It’s a concern, but it’s not devastating. The Packers have two fabulous players back there, and a talented rookie to boot.
Think about what Clinton-Dix and Burnett are asked to do: be the primary play makers, coverage options and signal callers while flames and chaos envelope around them.
The Packers’ off-ball linebackers have been disastrous coverage options in space. Their cornerbacks have been worse (in part due to injury, but mostly because of poor management decisions). It puts a heavy workload on their safeties to be near perfect.
Burnett was close in 2016. With Clay Matthews vacillating between playing outside and inside (stinking at both by the way), and a shocking lack of hip fluidity and speed among the other linebackers, Burnett kicked down into a near full-time dime linebacker role as the season progressed.
Clinton-Dix did what Clinton-Dix always does: hunt for heads and hunt for the ball. He’s at his best on creative zone-blitz designs, either when he’s thundering downhill, bluffing or able to slide into a zone and read the quarterback. He makes things happen.
His overall coverage skills remain a concern. At times, he looks lost. Tennessee tortured him during the Week-10 matchup. But there’s no doubt he’s improving, and he will get better as those around him progress and take more off his plate.
The key for this group in 2017 and beyond is how Jones slots in for Hyde.
They’re different players for starters. Hyde played everyone. Jones fits more of the Clinton-Dix mold. He’s a heat seeking missile who wants to play in constant attack mode. Whether or not he can carve out a role that frees up Burnett and Clinton-Dix remains to be seen. It’s more likely Jones is there to act as an insurance policy, with Burnett entering a contract year.
I’d suggest giving first round pick Kevin King some reps at safety. But they need all the help they can get at cornerback first.
6. Kansas City Chiefs
Eric Berry, Ron Parker, Daniel Sorensen
The Chiefs have a fascinating group. They may not leap immediately to mind, but they’re fun to watch.
Everyone knows Berry. He’s a superstar who deserved every penny of his $78 million contract. Simply put, he’s one of the 50 best players in the league.
Instead, let’s talk about Sorensen.
It’s OK, you’re not supposed to know the undrafted third safety for the Chiefs. But Sorensen epitomizes the changes to the safety position. He plays anywhere and everywhere. On one play, he will slide down as a pseudo linebacker, taking on linemen and corralling a ball carrier.
The next, he plays a deep safety in single-high sets, freeing up Berry to play in hole coverage to go hunting for the ball. And he can make plays from that spot, too. He’s not some lumbering strong safety shifted back there to confuse opposing quarterbacks. He’s a fluid mover, who isn’t overly springy (that’s why he went undrafted), but who reads the game well.
There’s more of those type of guys than ever (they used to be called tweeners), but they still don’t grow on trees. Find one — and a cost effective one at that — and a defense can get more creative and better defend against spread looks in this pass-happy era.
Sorensen played 48 percent of K.C.’s snaps in 2016. Mostly he lined up as a linebacker, particularly when Derrick Johnson went down with an injury. And while he wasn’t a dominant player, he was a pivotal reason why the Chiefs finished seventh in pass defense DVOA.