Draft science 2014: Free safeties

Melina Vastola-US PRESSWIRE

From the FanPosts -Joel

I’m back with the second evaluation of the series. For those who missed the first post on the wide receivers, you can read it here

Again, this series will focus on the potential draft choices on the first two days of the 2014 NFL Draft, under the premise that you can get starters all the way down in the third round, like Jamaal Charles and Justin Houston.

All the variables and personal evaluations are in the hands of the personnel staff, scouts and coaches. But we can look at the available data and draw some conclusions. This post is looking at the free safeties.

In breaking down the free safeties that could potentially go in the in the first three rounds of draft, I have included the top free safety prospects that could possibly to be available at pick number 23. For comparison sake, I have not excluded any of the expected early picks or those "tweener" safeties. The analysis will show the differences.

Again, the analysis here was separated into two categories: Physical Capability and Functional Capability. This is a "could do" versus "does do" distinction.

Free safeties are responsible for a number of things pre-snap, including reading the offensive formation, setting secondary's alignment and the crucial pre-snap process of Read– Adjust – Re-read. The All-Pro caliber safeties can win half the battle with their eyes and the adjustments they give the opposing quarterback. But from the snap forward It is all about the angles they take and their acceleration and speed. Coaches can teach smart players to not only make but disguise the adjustments pre-snap. And players with free safety experience will have a leg up on that process. But like the old coaches say, "You can’t coach speed and explosion."

For Chiefs fans, it was difficult to watch the safety play the second half of the 2013 season. By the bulk of the opinions I have seen and I the one I share, it's evident that Kendrick Lewis was a competent safety pre-snap. But the limitations of his physical capability to accelerate to top speed and cover ground made him a subpar player and not needed going forward into 2014.

This evaluation will look at the available players’ physical capabilities to cover the ground required of a single deep, true free safety.

Physical Capability - Explosive Range

The Explosive Range is the index developed to show the capability to accelerate out of their backpedal to cover intermediate and short routes. It is focused on the quicker developing routes of 25 yards or less.

I have included the safeties currently on the Chiefs roster to find a comparative upgrade for the position.


Current roster observations

1) Eric Berry is an exceptional athlete who can play the free safety spot. His range is significantly better than anyone available in the draft.

2) Three of the four fastest 40-yard dash times are already on the roster. The classic thought that 40 times are the best measure of a free safeties ability is proven out of date by the current roster’s performance.

3) Sanders Commings is interesting physically. He can cover ground but is only at the middle ground here. If the Chiefs' excitement about his mental game and technique is justified, he could grow to be "the answer".

4) As we all knew, Lewis' physical capability to cover is drastically low. This list shows that even the least explosive of these players is still an upgrade.

Draft prospects

1) While they play well and know the defense from the safety position, both Calvin Pryor and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are below the median and below Commings in terms of their coverage range.

2) Terrence Brooks and Keith McGill have the most Explosive and Deep Range of the safeties available in the draft.

3) Experience and instincts matter. The highest rated free safety draft prospect is the least explosive athlete among the available safeties.

Physical Capability – Deep Range

The Deep Range rating is similar but emphasizes the deep downfield routes that a safety may need to provide over-the-top help on. When a receiver runs a 40-yard route down the right side line, a safety lined up on the opposite hash has to cover 50 yards to meet the receiver.


Current roster observations

1) Sanders Commings is capable of covering more deep grounod than Husain Abdullah (who is running with the ones this spring).

2) Again, Berry is the most likely to be in position to cover the deep secondary. But his SPUR responsibilities are too important to Bob Sutton’s scheme.

Draft prospects

1) Terrence Brooks, of Florida State has the most range of the free safeties available. He’s built but undersized.

2) Keith McGill is the Seahawks style of safety but has the range to control the deep secondary.

3) Ed Reynolds, the Stanford safety, is physically on-par with the two top-rated safeties in this draft.

Second tier

Crunching the data on these players, I found the lower tier players also needed to be addressed. If the Chiefs management feels the other needs take priority over safety, there are some significant values to be found on day three of this draft.

If the team feels that Commings is ready to be the starter at free safety, they may not draft a free safety in the first three rounds. If they don't, one of these players would be a great value pick late to provide depth behind Abdullah and give Sutton some explosive options as the third safety. (Sutton does like to use three safeties in a number of formations). They also have the physical capability to potentially grow into the starting role.


1) Walt Aikens would be in the top five at this position if this were the major metric by which picks were made.

2) Jonathan Dowling, Antone Exum and Marqueston Huff all have better deep range than Abdullah.

Functional Capability

This is the analysis of what the prospects have done in their college careers. It uses data for each player consisting of plays they were involved in which there was a result. These are plays where the defender listed performed the tackle, interception or pass defensed (PD) that ended of the play.

For comparison sake, I have included last year’s Pro Bowl free safeties college accomplishments. This gives us an idea of what today’s Pro Bowl free Safeties produced for their college teams.


The first calculation is tackles per game. It is the dividing line between which safety position the players actually are. It’s obvious that this can be drastically affected by the performance of their college team's front seven.


1) The true free safeties, at least in their college careers, averaged less than six tackles per game.

2) Earl Thomas and Jairus Byrd were on competitive defenses and still have five-plus tackles per game.

3) Jimmie Ward and Calvin Pryor play predominately as strong safeties rather than free safeties, as did Berry.

Solo Tackles

This value shows the percentage of their total tackles that were made solo. This also reflects ability to place in space as the last line of defense.


1) Clinton-Dix and Pryor relied on their teammates help more so than the top three prospects or the two Pro Bowl free safeties.

2) Brooks and Dowling are both free safeties that made a higher percentage of open field solo tackles. They are in fact very close to both Thomas and Byrd.

Hawk Rate

This is the rating I developed to show whether or to what degree a player can be called a "Ball Hawk". A Ball Hawk meaning the rate the player is in position to defend or intercept the ball, rather than simply tackling the man.


1) The Pro Bowl safeties are all in the top five, with Brooks rate being virtually identical to Berry's.

2) Brooks, Dowling and Clinton-Dix are all in a range between the Pro Bowl strong safety in the Pro Bowl free safeties. There is a drop-off below Brooks.


Playing the deep secondary, as the free safety is as much mental as it is physical, technique, coaching, vision and instincts are important variables that contribute to the free safety’s success. But the physical explosiveness and range are critical in being able to cover the immense open ground of the deep secondary.

1. Terrence Brooks has top end range and explosiveness to compete with Pro Bowlers like Berry. Though undersized, his physical abilities combined with solid coaching could produce the best free safety of this draft.

2. Clinton-Dix and Pryor have been successful at the college level. But will their lower explosiveness and range hurt them against faster smarter and more experienced players / offenses?

3. Second tier players such as Aikens, Exum, and Dowling could emerge from the late rounds to be solid starters.

4. Aikens and Exum both have experience at corner as well as safety and could fit well in the third safety / nickel role.

5. Dowling plays as well as a free safety with his instincts and physicality but character concerns and lower explosiveness could keep limit his development in the NFL.

Final Thought

There are not a lot of big safeties in this draft, with McGill and Dowling as the biggest. With John Dorsey's preference for big corners, I think smaller players will be in just as much demand so long as they can cover the ground and defend passes.

The draft choices this year could come down to instinct / experience vs. explosive athleticism.

I will be back next Wednesday with a look at other highly-explosive players at other positions. You never know what could happen!

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Arrowhead Pride's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of Arrowhead Pride writers or editors.

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