Size Doesn't Matter -- The Case for Coverage Safeties

I think that the safety position has become more and more of a corner position in the National Football League. There were times when some of the safeties, particularly the strong safeties, fit more almost like linebackers than they did as defensive backs.

I think that’s changed gradually, but now to the point where your [safeties] a lot of times have to cover wide receivers or they have to cover tight ends who are very, very good in the passing game. It’s not guys running 5-yard hook routes, and stuff like that. The tight ends in the league, and it seems like just about every team in the league has one, can get down the field and make athletic and acrobatic catches … I think the demand for that position has changed and I think that’s changed the evaluation a little bit.

-- Bill Belichick

Belichick has a point.  Lets take a look at the safety tandems for all the 2008 playoff teams:

AFC

Strong Safeties (all weights from NFL.com)

  • Jim Leonhard -- Baltimore -- 186 lbs.
  • Bob Sanders - Indy -- 206 lbs.
  • Yeremiah Bell -- Miami -- 205 lbs.
  • Ryan Clark - Pittsburgh -- 205 lbs.
  • Clinton Hart, San Diego -- 207 lbs.
  • Chris Hope - Tennessee -- 208 lbs.
  • Average -- 203 lbs.

Free Safeties

  • Ed Reed -- Baltimore -- 200 lbs.
  • Antoine Bethea - Indy -- 202 lbs.
  • Renaldo Hill -- Miami -- 202 lbs.
  • Troy Polamalu - Pittsburgh -- 207 lbs.
  • Eric Weddle -- San Diego -- 200 lbs.
  • Michael Griffin - Tennessee - 202 lbs.
  • Average -- 202 lbs.

Notice there's practically no difference in overall size between the strong safeties and the frees.  Jim Leonhard, a darling of the blogging crowd here, played at a minuscule 186, dripping wet, with no Creatine to pump him up, and nobody accused the Ravens of being weak up the middle. 

NFC

Strong Safeties

  • Adrian Wilson -- Arizona -- 230 lbs.
  • Lawyer Milloy -- Atlanta -- 216 lbs.
  • Chris Harris -- Carolina -- 205 lbs
  • Darren Sharper -- Minnesota --  210 lbs.
  • James Butler -- N.Y. Giants -- 215 lbs.
  • Quentin Mikel -- Philadelphia -- 206 lbs.
  • Average -- 214 lbs.

Free Safeties

  • Antrell Rolle -- Arizona -- 208 lbs. 
  • Erik Coleman --Atlanta --  206 lbs.
  • Charles Godfrey -- Carolina -- 205 lbs.
  • Madieu Williams -- Minnesota -- 202 lbs
  • Michael Johnson -- N.Y. Giants -- 207 lbs.
  • Brian Dawkins -- Philadelphia -- 210 lbs.
  • Average -- 206 lbs.

As these numbers demonstrate, the king-sized, Roy Williams-type strong safety is almost extinct.  There are only three safeties on this entire list over 210 lbs. and only Adrian Wilson qualifies as a big-time, big-thumper safety.  (Lawyer Milloy did, at one time, but Atlanta is trying to replace him with all deliberate speed.)

More and more teams are going to two quick. all-around types, who can cover and fill on run plays.  Look at Pittsburgh, with the 205 lb. Clark and the 207 lb. Polamalu, or Philadelphia, which moved the 206 lb. Quentin Mikel from corner to SS and reaped the benefits of two safeties with outstanding range.  Mikel and Brian Dawkins let Jim Johnson blitz freely, with full confidence that his backstops would cover up most mistakes up front.

Belichick?  He has the 200 lb. Brandon Meriweather paired with 210 lb. James Sanders.  He just signed the 207 lb. Shawn Springs to provide corner and safety depth.

How does this relate to Dallas?  They have the 208 lb. Ken Hamlin holding down one safety spot.  They have 204 lb. Gerald Sensabaugh, for the moment anyway, penciled in as the other safety.  The Cowboys appear to be adopting the interchangeable-safety model.

When it comes to college safety prospects, don't stereotype a player according to size.  The days of the mini-linebacker strong safety and slighter, center-field type free are done.  That does not mean you should eliminate bigger guys like William Moore and Patrick Chung simply because they're big.  I am saying you should not automatically elevate them according to a SS template that's no longer followed by most teams.  Dallas may draft one of these two, but they'll do so because they're confident he can cover as well as hit.

It's an open field.  Judge the prospects by performance over time and their overall skills.  The team will.

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