Either the Packers knew they had a problem at safety this time last year or they badly misevaluated their own players. No other explanation fits with an offseason in which no significant upgrade was made to a position that has been an Achilles heel basically since Nick Collins’ career ended in 2011. Brian Gutekunst said they were going to roll with their young players, even with veteran players available for a song on the open market.
With roughly a dozen current or recent starting safeties set to hit the open market this spring, will the Packers change their approach to the position? The answer may offer insight into how the NFL seems to have changed their evaluation of the position.
Earl Thomas was the best safety in football before he got hurt in Seattle last year. He’s going to walk. Landon Collins has been on every NFC Pro Bowl team since 2016. Darien Stewart made a Pro Bowl in 2017 and the Broncos cut him Wednesday. Eric Weddle made three straight Pro Bowl’s before the Ravens decided to move on this week. Tyrann Mathieu, at 23, was a first-team All-Pro and remains just 26, yet doesn’t have a contract for 2019. Adrian Phillips took a surprise trip to the Pro Bowl this season for the Chargers but lacks a long-term deal and may not get one with Derwin James ascending as a superstar.
What’s the explanation for all this talent hitting the market at once? Simple serendipity? Or did what happened last offseason, when the safety market featured a handful of starters, none of whom got what felt like market value, portend things to come at the position?
Any of these players would be significant talent upgrades from what Green Bay currently has, and with so many guys on the market, will likely come at reduced prices. For the old guard of safeties, this is a “going out of business” sale.
In 2017, Thomas played 14 games for the Seahawks, helping his defense finish 13th against the pass by DVOA. A year later, he played four games and the Seahawks finished 13th in DVOA defending the pass. For four games, he was the best safety in the league by a wide margin, and the defense didn’t skip a meaningful beat with him gone.
Mathieu came to Houston supposedly to secure the Texans place as an elite defense. Even with J.J. Watt in All-Pro form, Whitney Mercilus back and Honey Badger in the fold, they only improved from 25th to 18th against opposing aerial attacks.
Miami backed the Brinks truck up for Reshad Jones in 2017 and ended up benching him for parts of the 2018 season.
What if, in a delicious irony, the NFL as a whole came to realize what it hasn’t yet about running backs: the best way to handle the position is to draft players and then not pay them unless they’re superstars in their primes. The reasoning would be slightly different in that it’s not actually particularly difficult to find a running back who can affect winning. It’s much harder to find safeties who meaningfully impact a defense outside of three or four players. So why allocate resources there?
Myriad reasons brought us here, from specialization in college to the proliferation of spread offenses and sub-package defenses to combat them. Teams aren’t dropping seven steps and heaving the ball anymore. Safeties can’t take off receiver’s heads over the middle, which may have been a bigger value to the position than the league or its member teams would like to admit. Offenses, though more spread, have taken a conservative approach to the passing game, prioritizing efficiency and matchups. A player who starts the play 15 yards from the action when the action rarely gets 15 yards down the field simply has less value than the players more near to the ball.
Teams prize corners to mitigate the quick passing game the league loves. Pass rushers provide a more impactful role than ever with players who can win early nearly impossible to subvert. Much like the Packers with Mike Pettine, defenses are taking linebackers off the field and putting safeties in their place to match up with running backs and tight ends in coverage. If there are more safeties on the field, we might expect the position to become even more valuable, but with each necessitating a more niche role, the individual impact of each player ends up checking in below what a centerfield safety may have been worth even four or five seasons ago. Most teams don’t have a player who can fill multiple roles, so they’re having to play multiple players instead.
More traditional box safeties die out every year in the NFL and we may be seeing the subversion of the centerfield safety as well. Perhaps it’s not that the league doesn’t value safety in a vacuum, but it doesn’t value the position the way it’s been played for the last quarter century. It’s an anachronism. A dinosaur.
The NFL may finally be catching up the college game in defending these wide open attacks, where players have been playing hybrid roles for years. Packers linebacker Oren Burks played what Vanderbilt and many other teams call the “star” role. A little linebacker, a little safety, a little slot, a little everything. How many of the safeties currently available in free agency could fit such a role? It could be the case their free-agent acquisition of a safety is simply Burks making a Year 2 leap to play a little bit of everywhere for Pettine.
Looking at the players selected in Burks’ draft class at the safety position in the top of last year’s draft, and to a man, they qualify. Derwin James checks that box with ease, as does Minkah Fitzpatrick. Terrell Edmunds doesn’t and that should make his disappointing rookie season even less surprising. Jessie Bates starred for the Bengals last year because he has the speed to cover like a cornerback but the playmaking and ball skills to play deep as well. Justin Reid played safety, slot corner, and even some linebacker for Stanford, then immediately showed up for the Texans in multiple roles on their defense. No wonder Mathieu may be deemed expendable.
Landon Collins is one of the best box safeties in football, but his deficiencies in coverage flag him as a player who can’t consistently impact the game in the most crucial way a defender must in 2019. The Giants rightly decided that guy isn’t worth paying premium prices to keep.
Seattle drafted Oklahoma State safety Tre Flowers and moved him to cornerback outright, even with their superstar safety’s health and contract situation an open question. He shined in the role, helping stabilize a defense in flux. Seattle doesn’t have to play three safeties because they have Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright who can cover incredible amounts of ground with their speed and coverage ability.
It’s not that safeties are the new running backs, it’s just that right now they’re being treated like them. The better analogy would be a car lease. NFL teams are trading in their old safeties for the new model, understanding modern defense requires a different kind of player. Paying a high price for guys who only fit specifically into one type of role simply doesn’t pass muster from a value standpoint.
In the short-term, signing a free agent safety makes sense for the Packers given their deficiency of talent. But the better long-term play would be to turn their attention to the draft, to speedy safeties with the ability to play and cover in the slot in nickel, but also defend the run on first down. Players like Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Johnathan Abram, Taylor Rapp, and Juan Thornhill all present some version of that package.
Signing Thomas represents the splashy option and there’s no question Thomas would make the Packers defense better in the short-term. But players like him are rare, an old guard safety who can impact the game every play. If he gets injured again, where does that leave the defense? Brian Gutekunst and this front office have to be preparing for the future, both in the age of the players they bring in and in the way defenses are evolving to meet the needs of the modern game.