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NFL Draft

Safety Is NFL’s Most Undervalued Position

  • The Draft Network
  • August 30, 2020
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New to TDN, I’ll be doing a weekly series that exposes some of the NFL’s most common misconceptions and false narratives. After exploring Brian Schottenheimer and Robert Woods over the past few weeks, this week I’ll be turning my attention toward the secondary, detailing why safety is the most undervalued and underappreciated position in the entire league.

Salary Perspective

In an ever-changing league that is putting a priority on versatility as much as ever, the safety position—as well as the Swiss Army knife connotations that come with it—are reaching a new level of importance. The contracts for these same players, however, have yet to reflect their on-field value.

As more and more data comes out that supports coverage being more important than pass-rushing, safeties should theoretically be getting salaries that are at least comparable to defensive linemen, corners, and receivers. What we have, however, is the complete opposite. The average safety makes just under $2.0 million/year, while no other position outside of running back (1.7 million/year) and tight end (1.8 million/year) makes less.

Even when bringing up top-end salaries and not just the general whole, safeties still pale in comparison to edge rushers, corners, defensive tackles, and even linebackers.

The average top-10 salary for a safety is a reasonable $12.7 million/year, while, once again, only running back ($10.7 million/year) and tight end ($10 million/year) have lower marks in this regard. EDGE ($20.6 million/year), cornerback ($14.5 million/year), defensive line ($18.04 million/year), linebacker ($14 million/year), and wide receiver ($18 million/year) all obliterate that same number, proving the extreme financial value that a top-end safety provides.

At the end of the day, no matter how you slice it, safeties are getting the shaft in today’s market. Generally speaking, there’s no justifiable reason for any top safety to make less than a linebacker or interior linemen, while the discrepancy at edge rusher and receiver is also way, WAY more than it should be. After all, even if you think pass-rush is more valuable than coverage (contrary to what the data suggests), the impact a top-tier edge rusher provides isn’t $8 million/year more valuable than a top-tier safety. It’s that simple.

Draft Perspective

Jamal Adams, Derwin James, and Minkah Fitzpatrick were all considered studs prior to their drafts, but were all selected outside the top five. Why? Positional value groupthink has knocked them down boards.

A position that has provided its fair share of elite prospects and strong talent, recent years have seen many young, underdrafted safeties take the league by storm and dominate in a way that has teams regretting their draft-day decisions. The problem is that these organizations, despite all the talk, still haven’t valued the safety position in a way that they should.

Since 2015, the only positions with fewer first-round picks than safety are running back and tight end, while many others—including linebacker and defensive line—have seen exponentially more players taken with those valuable picks.

In the chart below, you can see the positional tendencies from teams since 2015 (excluding offensive tackle and quarterback). It’s clear from this that top safety prospects are valued drastically less than they should be.

Position: Avg. # of 1st Round Picks—ADP of 1st Player Taken

EDGE: 4—2.7

IDL: 3.7—6.3

CB: 4—10.7

RB: 1.7—12.7

WR: 3.8—14.0

LB: 2.7—13.2

IOL: 2—17.5

S: 1.8—19.7

TE: 1—30.8

Ultimately, many young, talented safeties are up for new contracts soon, so the position might not be underrated for long. I’d advise teams to appreciate and exploit the current market at the position, though, as it’s clear that anyone who values them properly is currently reaping the rewards.

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