NFL Safeties Need to Reinvent Themselves


Just like everything else in life, the NFL experiences transition. Depending on who you speak to, it can be for the better or for the worse.

Your more traditional football observers will most likely tell you they aren’t too fond of where the NFL game is nowadays. Over the past decade, it’s clear to see how the league is catering to the offenses. When you consider all of the rule changes, it makes defending pass catchers nearly impossible.

New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty spoke on the matter a year ago.

“They always want the offense to score touchdowns. So I’m sure it’ll make it a little tougher,” McCourty said. “But I tell people, I mean, each year we hear it’s gonna be an emphasis: You can’t touch the guy. So we’ll see. I think each game you’ve got to just do business as business is being done.”

It’s difficult for guys like McCourty to be as physical as they’ll like to be. Over the past three seasons, defensive backs have committed 199 or more pass interference penalties each season. 

With all of that being said, the NFL has a plethora of good cornerbacks, but what about the safety position?

It seems as if the position is going through a transition period between old style box safeties and rangy guys.

Earlier this millennium, we grew accustom to hard hitting safeties like John Lynch and Rodney Harrison. Even more recently, guys like Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed and Roy Williams were all known for laying the wood.

Free agent Bernard Pollard also fits the mold of a hard hitting safety.

“I grew up watching [Hall of Fame defensive back] Rod Woodson, but I was a big fan of players like [former Denver Broncos safety] Steve Atwater, [formerPittsburgh Steelers linebacker] Greg Lloyd and other guys who would hit you. I took a little bit from all those players because I loved how they approached the game,” Pollard explained. “Now will I pay a price for how I play? Probably. I know that at some point my body will feel the effects of what I do now and that I’ll be hurting because of it. But how is that any different than the man who works his whole life in a factory and has health problems because of that? It might not be the same level of pain, but we all have repercussions in what we do.

“My thing is that when you think about this game, you’re talking about some fans who save up all year to see maybe two or three games — in person — if they’re lucky. Those people deserve to see a show, and big hits are a part of that. If that goes out of the game, the game will take a hit.”

Now, general managers and scouts may be looking for safeties to become the size of cornerbacks because their size is being negated due to the new rules.

Although New Orleans Saints Brandon Browner is a cornerback, the following quote perfectly explains why safeties need to transition into more of pass coverage style players.

“I just try to play my game, be physical out there, because that’s the big asset in my game is to be physical,” Browner stated. “I’m a big 6-foot-4, 200-pound guy. So I’m not as quick as some of these other guys. I’ve got to use my abilities.”

We’ve seen the direct results with the new rules, as quarterbacks are breaking records left and right. Hall of Famer Dan Marino held the single-season touchdown record for 20 years, until Peyton Manning broke it by tossing 49 touchdowns in 2004.

Since 2004, Tom Brady held the crown, but Manning took it back in 2013 with 55 touchdowns.

Granted, the league still has some good safeties, such as Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Rashad Johnson and the great Charles Woodson, but most teams have a deficiency at the position.

With today’s game being all about the aerial attack, it puts tons of pressure on safeties, since they’re the last line of defense. Sure, having a hard hitting safety has it perks, but more importantly, teams need safeties who are able to cover just as well as cornerbacks.

About Mark Gunnels

Mark Gunnels

Mark Gunnels is an NFL columnist for Football Insiders. He has several years of experience covering the NFL and NCAA football. He's the radio color commentator for Lincoln University football. Mark's work has been featured on Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports and Yard Barker.