Position Progression: Safeties

Wrapping up the Player Progression series is Nathan Jahnke who examines the trajectories of the safeties taken early in the draft in recent seasons.

| 3 years ago

Position Progression: Safeties

pos-progression-SAs we fast approach the new season it’s time to turn our attention to the newest members of each NFL teams – their rookies. Everybody expects their new stars to step in and make an impact right away, but the fact is that rarely happens.

We have looked at every draft pick of the PFF era and analyzed their expected progression based on both snaps and grade and the bottom line is you are doing well if your rookie plays at an above average level in his first season in the league. There isn’t a single position that projects first-year players to perform better than the league average and some positions project them to play far below it. Though the NFL has become all about immediate results, despite notable exceptions the draft still remains about acquiring talent for the future, not necessarily the present.

Today we conclude our position by position examination of what to expect from rookies by examining the safeties. Safety has become an increasingly popular position to pick in the first round as teams have put increasing importance on the position. This included a few first round safeties taken in this year’s draft.

The Curve

pos progression S

Recently safety has been a relatively safe pick in the first round compared to other positions. Of the seven players picked who played safety as a rookie since 2010, all seven saw at least 800 snaps in their first year. At worst they posted an overall grade of -3.9 which Mark Barron had in 2012. The best was Eric Berry in 2010 when he earned an overall grade of +8.5. Of the six safeties picked from 2007-2009, only two received over 800 snaps and both had positive grades.

For the most part, safeties improved from Year 1 to Year 2. Earl Thomas, LaRon Landry and Michael Griffin all had decent rookie seasons, but were among the best safeties in the game by their second year. For players like Brandon Meriweather, Kenny Phillips and Devin McCourty, they made their big leaps in Year 3. Then, for Eric Berry, it was his fourth season which (last year) where he cemented his spot among the better safeties in the game.

At other positions we see players who started out poorly but improved to become above average players. Here we see players who start close to average moving to playing well above average at least for a short period of time.

Of the safeties picked from 2007-2010, seven of the nine had at least one season with an overall grade above +10.0. There are some safeties that aren’t able to sustain great play from one year to another, but there are very few who are clearly busts.

Best Case Scenario

While Devin McCourty started his career as a cornerback, he has played so well since he transitioned that drafting a player like McCourty is the best a team can hope for when drafting a safety. He had a great rookie season with seven interceptions and 12 passes defended at cornerback.

It wasn’t until part way into 2012 that McCourty moved to safety, but once he did he was excellent in coverage. He had three interceptions compared to five catches allowed while lined up at the back end of the defense. His 0.20 Yards Per Coverage Snap was second best for safeties with 300 or more snaps.

In 2013 he logged nine games with no positive passing yards allowed in 18 outings and led safeties with seven passes defended. While his route to becoming a safety wasn’t as traditional as most first-round safeties, it doesn’t get better than drafting someone who becomes our highest-graded player at the position.

Worst Case Scenario

Of the 13 safeties picked outside of Malcolm Jenkins since 2007, the worst overall career grade that a player has earned is -9.3. The worst case for drafting a first-round safety is Jenkins as he has a career grade of -30.9.

Like some other players who now play safety, Jenkins started his career at cornerback. While he only played 315 coverage snaps, he allowed 670 receiving yards. In 2010 he became the starter at safety, although he did still play a few games at cornerback.

He has remained one of the starting safeties in New Orleans over these past three seasons. In each of those three seasons when quarterbacks have thrown his way, they’ve had NFL passer ratings of over 100 and in these past two years he has missed 36 regular-season tackles. Teams took the most advantage of Jenkins last year when he allowed 486 passing yards; the second most for all safeties.

This offseason the Saints decided to upgrade in a major way with the addition of Jairus Byrd, and allowed Jenkins to move on to Philadelphia.

The Path Most Trodden

Safety Reggie Nelson is probably the most typical case for a first-round safety that you can find. After being drafted late in the first round of the 2007 draft by Jacksonville, he played in over 90% of the team’s snaps as a rookie. His play in nearly all areas was close to the league average at the position.

Throughout his career he had his fair share of up and down seasons — 2009 being one of the down variety, allowing an NFL passer rating of 147.7 which led to his departure to Cincinnati. While most first-round safeties never have that bad of a season, he started to have consistently good-but-not-great seasons once he arrived with the Bengals.

In 2010 he only played in 295 coverage snaps, but his passer rating allowed dropped all the way to 30.4. From 2011-2013 he returned to a full-time starting role outside of missing a few games with an injury. He had an overall positive grade in each season, with his best play coming in 2012. In 11 of 17 games he allowed fewer than 10 passing yards. The typical first-round safety is someone who is a long-time starter that is dependable, and that is just what Nelson has become.


See the progression at other positions:

QB  |  RB  |  WR  |  TE  |  OT  |  G  |  C  |  ED  |  DI  |  LB  |  CB  |  S 


Follow Nathan on Twitter: @PFF_NateJahnke

| Director of Analytics

Nathan has been with Pro Football Focus since 2010. He is the Director of Analytics, an NFL analyst, and a fantasy writer.

  • Glenn

    Too bad Eric Weddle was a 2nd rounder. He would have made a better “best case” in my opinion

  • Junior Taylor

    Seeing articles like this always makes me think about what Sean Taylor could have become.