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NFL offenses are continually evolving. Safeties are following that lead.

Safeties — from left, Jessie Bates III, Derwin James, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Jordan Poyer — are having a moment. (Illustration by Michael Domine/The Washington Post; photos by Getty Images)
9 min

The computer in Justin Simmons’s head goes into overdrive just before the ball is snapped. In a matter of seconds, his eyes scan the quarterback, then shift to the running back and the alignment of the tight end before looking at the wide receivers.

“ ‘Okay, who’s at the X? Who’s at the Z?’ ” he said. “I’m checking out my side of the field, then I’m looking at the other side. I’m looking to see if there’s condensed splits, if they’re regular splits. That automatically eliminates like half the route combinations I think I could get.”

Simmons uses a wide lens to examine every angle and every possibility, and each clue adds a pixel to his mental preview. His mind is everywhere, largely because he has to play everywhere. The 6-foot-2, 202-pound safety has a title unbefitting of his job. He has played every spot in the Denver Broncos’ secondary — cornerback, slot, deep safety, the box — and is the quarterback of their defense, responsible for making the calls and any checks at the last second.

“There’s a lot,” he admitted, “which is why I love it.”

As the 98th draft pick in 2016 out of Boston College, Simmons wasn’t a household name when he entered the NFL. Now he’s among the league’s new brand of do-it-all safeties — who are built more like cornerbacks, can play like linebackers and blur the lines separating traditional defensive roles. As NFL offenses spread out and deploy more college concepts, these versatile safeties have become more integral to the game than ever before.

“You look at Kansas City and what they do, look at Philadelphia with Jalen Hurts, look at all these offenses that use [run-pass options] and spread the field out on you,” said ESPN analyst Matt Bowen, who played safety in the NFL from 2000 to 2006. “You need players that can match that stuff. That’s why the position is becoming much more valuable.”

He added: “When I played, you had a strong safety and your free safety. Now you have two safeties. They have to be interchangeable.”

For decades, versatility has been a hallmark of the position, which has featured legends such as Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu and Ken Houston. The great ones nowadays, such as Pittsburgh’s Minkah Fitzpatrick and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Derwin James, can play almost anywhere and do almost anything, often doubling as their teams’ finest all-around athlete and strategic leader on defense. Yet the position has never been recognized as a premium position — not in overall value or pay.

Perhaps it should be.

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A willingness to adapt

Before the start of last season, the Washington Commanders finally scrapped any notion of their traditional 4-3 “base” defense, which features four defensive linemen and three linebackers. They, like most NFL teams, play the majority of their defensive snaps (73.3 percent) with five defensive backs on the field. So they altered their depth chart to finally reflect a change that had started years earlier.

The history of the nickelback — the fifth defensive back on the field — dates back decades, from when defenses first added reinforcements on obvious passing downs. But the game now is more spread out. Three-receiver personnel groupings are the staple of most offenses: Last year, NFL teams used 11 personnel — one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers — on 61.3 percent of their offensive plays, up from 50.2 percent in 2013, according to TruMedia — and tight ends have morphed into oversized receivers.

The big nickel, or “Buffalo” nickel, isn’t new, either, but it has become a popular defensive option to account for tight ends who run like wideouts but are built more like power forwards. Instead of a cornerback, a safety is the fifth defensive back, effectively replacing a linebacker to provide a blend of coverage, run-stopping ability, speed and strength.

“Safeties have to be so smart nowadays,” said ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, a former NFL quarterback. “They have to have great ability to lie to quarterbacks because quarterbacks get so much shown to them before the snap. They’ve got to be able to cover, and they’ve got to be able to tackle in space because that’s what the game is right now. It’s matchups in space. There are no longer box safeties.”

Commanders General Manager Martin Mayhew said those box safeties, who played closer to the line of scrimmage to help stop the run, have become hybrid linebackers and big nickels. He added: “It’s important to have safeties that have range and that can cover. … That’s sort of something that’s evolved in the league for a while now, and most of our guys kind of fit that profile.”

In Washington, the player who best fits the profile is Kam Curl, a seventh-round pick in 2020 who shifted from cornerback to strong safety at Arkansas and last season played more than half of his snaps in the box as a pseudo-linebacker. Darrick Forrest, a fifth-round pick in 2021, has emerged as a second interchangeable safety, and the team is on the hunt for a third. It may find one in this week’s draft.

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Alabama has become a factory of versatile safeties; Brian Branch, a likely first-round pick this year, is the latest. He played Nick Saban’s version of the big nickel, known as the “star,” and has the prototypical size (6-0, 190) for the role; he played 73 percent of his snaps last season in the slot, according to Sports Info Solutions.

“It’s a position that’s kind of a combination of corner and safety,” Fitzpatrick, another former big nickel at Alabama, said in 2018. “You can make calls like a safety. You can rush or fill the holes, working the gaps like a safety. Then you get to cover man-to-man, or on pass downs you need to [cover] like a corner.”

Versatility remains key

The NFL’s emphasis on the passing game has put safeties in a position of power.

Vic Fangio, now the defensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins, has made a career out of confusing quarterbacks. Two deep safeties and light boxes have become signatures of his defense, but the magic is in pre- and post-snap movement that allows for multiple coverages out of the same look.

Safeties are largely responsible for creating this “illusion of complexity,” as Broncos defensive backs coach Christian Parker has described it. The scheme’s play-calls have built-in options, and the onus is on the safeties to make the checks.

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“The safeties are important, obviously, because they are what’s being looked at by the offense — the quarterback in particular,” Fangio said. “They’re looking for any tell or tip they can get, and the safeties are where they start. You need safeties that can have some understanding of the game and can utilize the tools and the nuances of the defense to their advantage.”

The Bills have perhaps the league’s best safety tandem: Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, veterans who play in lockstep and patrol the back end interchangeably. In 2021, they split time at free safety.

New Orleans’s Tyrann Mathieu, a smaller hybrid safety at 5-9, has the range to align anywhere. Most of his snaps last season came with him in the box, but he also played more than 300 snaps at free safety and allowed only 0.5 yards per snap while in coverage in the slot, per Pro Football Focus. The website graded him the top safety in 2022.

The Chargers have James, who, like Fitzpatrick, epitomizes the role of the do-it-all safety. He had four sacks last season.

“We ask our guys to see more than most,” said Chargers Coach Brandon Staley, who has implemented his version of Fangio’s defense in Los Angeles. “… What you’re looking for is somebody who can process, and game speed is your [40-yard dash] plus how well you process.”

And to find that?

“Find the evidence of them playing in the deep part of the field, where they’re having to respond to the whole picture,” Staley said. “You’d be surprised how little that happens in college. … And there’s your answer: ‘Hey, I know he can see it.’ ”

“It’s one of those really impactful positions,” he added. “If you have a great safety, the reason why there’s value in it is because he’s always in the way. He’s always in the way. He’s in the middle of everything. He’s the guy, besides the middle linebacker, who can impact the quarterback the most.”

Proper appreciation

Safeties being underappreciated runs deep in NFL history.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame has had a run on safeties over the past five years, inducting Polamalu, Reed, Steve Atwater, John Lynch and Brian Dawkins, among others. But from 1999 to 2017, it didn’t welcome a single true safety among its modern-era candidates. Paul Krause, the NFL’s all-time leader with 81 interceptions, played his last game in 1979 but wasn’t inducted until 1998.

No safeties were drafted in the first round in 2020 or 2021. The Baltimore Ravens ended the drought last year when they selected Kyle Hamilton 14th.

“I think the NFL is telling us, still, that the premium positions, the ones that are going to be paid and drafted the highest, are still outside of the safety spot,” Bowen said.

The average salary for the position still falls below that of linebacker and wide receiver, per Spotrac. But as the position has evolved, players such as Simmons (who signed a four-year, $61 million deal in 2021), Fitzpatrick (four years, $73 million last year) and James (a record $76.5 million over four years) have reset the market.

“I would call it a premium position in today’s NFL, regardless of the value of contracts and the draft value,” Bowen said. “If I’m the coach right now, I need two interchangeable safeties with multidimensional traits to compete.”