Building the Perfect NFL Safety

Photo: USA TODAY Sports - Derick Hingle

With another NFL draft cycle in the books, it is time for evaluators like myself to recalibrate. One of the best exercises to do each offseason is to study the best players at each position in order to see what the standard is for each trait. If you only watch college players on film, you will never know what to look for. With that being said, I’m going to break down the safety position and what I look for in each trait. For each trait, I have an NFL player that I believe exemplifies what I look for in that specific skill. However, I did not pick elite players like Earl Thomas and Harrison Smith for these trait-player matches. Not every safety coming out of college will be elite in the NFL, so I think it’s equally important to highlight traits from players who are not viewed necessarily on that level, but still show exactly what I’m looking for. As a result, the players I picked for each trait have not made a Pro Bowl to this point.

Play Speed – Justin Simmons

Play speed is the combination of mental processing and athletic ability. Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons is not the fastest player in terms of straight-line speed, but I strongly believe he plays at a pace as quick as any safety in the league. As you can see on this play, Simmons is lined up as the deep-middle safety and reads the quarterback's eyes to the ball. A safety can run 4.25 and have poor play speed because he is indecisive. Simmons' reactionary quickness makes the difference in this play being a touchdown and an interception. Personally, this is why I believe play speed is the most important trait for the safety position because it epitomizes the "last line of defense."

Range – Anthony Harris

Range is closely related to play speed in that mental processing plays a key role, but this is more about what happens after the initial read. Specifically, I'm talking about coverage angles. Keep this in mind when talking about range: All rangy safeties are athletic, but not all athletic safeties have good range. Range is how efficiently a player can get from point A to point B, and this requires precise angles/tracking. I believe this trait is the best predictor for NFL success, when it comes to playing the deep safety spot. One of the best up-and-coming safeties in this league, Anthony Harris, is an excellent example of someone who plays with great range. He recognizes the progression of this play a bit late initially, but because of his athleticism and this great angle, he is able to make a play on the ball.

Run Support – Jaquiski Tartt

Run support at the safety position is evolving because a lot are serving as linebackers in some schemes, and in today's NFL where speed and three-down value is king, more and more defensive packages involve three safeties on the field. At cornerback, all I want in terms of run defense is consistency in the open field. At safety, I want to see a physical, tone-setting edge, while staying under control at the same time. The non-Pro Bowl safety with that best blend is San Francisco 49ers safety Jaquiski Tartt. He has no problem working in tight spaces, breaking down in the open field, and lowering his pads to punish ball carriers. If he can stay healthy, I have no doubt Tartt will be one of the league's best safeties, as he is already a top run defender in the box.

Man Coverage/Versatility – John Johnson

Like I just mentioned above, three-safety sets are starting to become more of the norm than the exception. That means man coverage ability at the position is becoming more essential. This is also why teams covet safeties who have a cornerback background. Speaking of, the Los Angeles Rams used John Johnson a ton last year in a man coverage role on tight ends and top slot receivers. I talked a lot about how back to ball reliability is a fundamental aspect of man coverage in my cornerback traits article, and the same applies here. Johnson is split out with tight end Jared Cook on this play. He trusts his recovery speed to get back on the hip pocket, and he has the instinctual feel to turn and find the ball at the right moment, which leads to the interception. I think John Johnson is one of the league's most underrated defenders, let alone safeties. Fun fact: John Johnson and Justin Simmons were teammates in college, and they are now on this list together as two of the best non-Pro Bowl safeties in football.

Playmaking Consistency – Marcus Williams

Ball skills will always be one of the fundamental traits for every defensive back, but I believe that specific term is too broad. For safeties, I really just look for consistency in terms of challenging and making plays at the catch point. Having good ball skills requires good eye discipline, tracking, timing, and ultimately, the finish.Through two seasons, New Orleans Saints safety Marcus Williams has already tallied six interceptions. If not for his infamous faux pas against the Minnesota Vikings in his rookie year, people would be talking about Williams as one of the league's best safeties. With another year of strong playmaking, Williams will be firmly in that conversation.