Football has always been a reactionary sport.
What offenses do dictates how the defense responds.
In recent years, as tight ends morphed from hulking, blocking behemoths who were anchored to the line of scrimmage into athletic, basketball-playing route runners, teams have scrambled to figure out ways to defend them.
The answer, as defenses quickly discovered, wasn’t in their secondaries.
As the first round of the NFL draft kicks off Thursday, safety will again be a position that teams gravitate to throughout the next three days. In 2011, just one safety was drafted in the first two rounds. A year later, three were. In 2013, there were five.
That is not a coincidence. As teams continue to make athletic tight ends part of their multiple receiver packages by flexing them outside alongside bigger receivers, the demand to stop them has increased, ESPN NFL Draft Insider Todd McShay said.
But it’s not just simply drafting more safeties that is becoming a trend. Teams are looking for a different type of safety than the prototypical smash-mouth hitter.
“You add those things up and it creates a demand for defensive backs,” McShay said. “At safety it creates a demand for a guy who is athletic and fast enough to cover, but yet is still big enough that he can go up and compete and contest throws against bigger receivers and taller tight ends.”
The Arizona Cardinals know how important a safety who can defend tight ends can be.
Last season, the Cardinals allowed 29 passing touchdowns, of which 17 went to tight ends. To make it worse, of those 17, eight were caught by tight ends in the NFC West. It was a major reason the Cardinals watched the playoffs from home.
It was also a major reason why Arizona didn’t bring back strong safety Yeremiah Bell, who was a big hitter, but wasn’t tall or fast enough to stick with tight ends like San Francisco’s Vernon Davis or St. Louis' Jared Cook.
Among the Cards’ needs in this draft is a tall, long safety with speed and range, and there are enough in this class that fit what Arizona is looking for.
“With the emergence of tight ends, especially the basketball-playing tight ends, the traditional, hard-hitting box safety (who) goes around 5-foot-9 and he struggles covering those guys,” Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians said. “The taller, rangier safeties have become (more of a) premium.
“When you see guys making $10 million a year now at safety, that tells you it changed. (Seattle safety) Earl Thomas is a good reason for it, as is (New Orleans safety Jairus) Byrd. Those guys are game-changing players now. The emergence of tight ends and backs as mismatches in the passing game, you have to have a more versatile player there.”
Teams haven’t always placed a premium on safeties like they’ve done in the past few years. Arians remembered when safeties were lumped in with tackles as positions people generally discarded.
“Safeties and tackles,” Arians started, “everybody used to have a low opinion (of).”
The past couple of drafts are evidence of that changing.
Cardinals general manager Steve Keim believes there are four or five “really good” safeties in this draft -- of which Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Calvin Pryor and Deone Bucannon are likely first-round selections. McShay listed about seven more safeties that could be drafted anywhere from the second to the fifth rounds.
Keim sees those safeties as potential starters later in their careers after spending time developing on a roster while contributing on special teams.
But football has always been a reactionary sport, and teams tend to follow the latest trends. A run of safeties will be seen this year, whether it’s on the first or second day of the draft. There is a demand and throughout this draft class, there is a supply.
“It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out, but I do think we’re gonna see more safeties go than probably in your average year in the last few years in the first few rounds,” McShay said. “It is not a great class necessarily, but I do think there are enough athletic guys and enough of a demand that we’ll see some guys come off the board maybe even earlier than they would in previous years.”