(Field Yates, a former Chiefs scouting assistant under general manager Scott Pioli, continues a month-long series offering insight into how teams scout for players at each position.)
OVERVIEW: As the last line of the defense, a safety – free or strong – plays an integral role in the execution of a given play call. To simplify the safety position, the goal is to keep everything in front of them while not sagging into such a deep drop that offenses can pick them apart underneath. The safety is a hybrid player who's capable enough to move in space and defend the pass while tough enough to step up and fill gaps against the run. In New England, the safety play in 2011 was affected by injuries to key starter Patrick Chung, and the team has worked hard this offseason to add a number of bodies who project to make an impact at safety. Patriots fans are used to steady rearguards on the defensive side of the football, with the likes of Lawyer Milloy and Rodney Harrison manning the deep half of the field for the team in the past. The team is working now to find consistency at the position heading into 2012.
DESIRED TRAITS: A safety is the ultimate two-phase player; he must be an impact player against both the run and the pass. That means, from a physical standpoint, he must have the core and base to hold up through a high volume of tackles, but also the athleticism to cover in the passing game.
A safety must be reactively athletic and able to work laterally and open his hips. He must have the body control to get depth in his backpedal without losing his vision of the quarterback, the fluidity to turn and run, and the speed to keep up with the receivers and make sure no one trails behind him. As a pass defender, his ball skills and man-to-man coverage skills must be good enough to hold up against athletic tight ends and bigger wide receivers. In Chung, the Patriots have an adept coverage man who has enough versatility to both defend seam-stretching tight ends and some slot receivers.
When it comes to defending the run, a safety must show tremendous toughness, grit and tackling ability. A safety will often find himself near the line of scrimmage, meaning he must be reliable to take down runners before they break to the second level. Safeties also make a number of tackles in the open field on the second or third level, further increasing the need for sound tackling form. A safety who is not willing or not able to take on the biggest and fastest running backs is a liability.
Safeties are quarterbacks in the secondary and must be strong leaders and communicators. This involves making his secondary aware of the down and distance on each and every play, having enough savvy to recognize when to adjust to an offensive formation pre-snap, and the smarts to understand the defensive concepts called by his coordinator. When in doubt, his teammates must be able to turn to the safety for answers.
SPECIAL TEAMS ANGLE: A safety is expected to be a core contributor in special teams, with the blend of speed, size and tackling ability to cover and hold up on kicks and punts. The Patriots received strong contributions from their safeties on special teams in 2011 (particularly Sergio Brown) and will need the same this season.
PATRIOTS TAKE: The most important key to the Patriots’ safety play in 2012 is the return to full health of Patrick Chung. Chung is their most gifted and, within their system, most experienced safety. His ability to stay on the field is paramount to the secondary’s success. If he can be penciled in as one starter, it remains to be seen who his partner will be. The leading candidate is veteran Steve Gregory, who signed a three-year pact this offseason to join the Patriots. Other potential starting candidates include second-round pick Tavon Wilson. James Ihedigbo, a recent re-signing, played extensively in 2011, but is probably best suited in a situational role. Fellow veteran Will Allen, who has played primarily as a corner in his career, worked at safety this offseason. Reserve options include Josh Barrett, Brown and sixth-round choice Nate Ebner, who will be a fascinating player to watch in training camp; his role at Ohio State was almost exclusively on special teams.