We all know the NFL has become a passing league. Quarterbacks are rewriting the record books seemingly every year, leading receivers are gaining more yards than leading rushers and the average points per game has gone up. There are a variety of reasons behind this shift, mainly the rule changes to limit contact by defensive backs, but one thing is certain, the pass happy NFL is here to stay.
This significant change in how offenses operate has forced defenses to adapt. For years the best defenses featured a bruising middle linebacker like Dick Buckus, Mike Singletary or Ray Lewis. Fast forward to 2013 and the most dominate defense since Ray Lewis’ 2000 Ravens featured quality but certainly not elite linebackers. Instead, the Seattle Seahawks had three elite defensive backs, two of which were safeties.
The first few days of the NFL’s free agency period has shown how the NFL now values defensive backs more than ever before. In particular the safeties position, which has long been one of the lowest position in terms of average salaries, had five players sign $20 million dollar contracts or greater.
The biggest of the $1.3 billion in contracts given out so far has been the 6 year $56 million dollar deal the Saints gave Jairus Byrd. Which also happened to be the largest contract ever given to a safety. This huge investment by a cap strapped team like the Saints shows just how valuable safeties have become in today’s NFL.
For the Saints the safety position, especially a true free safety like Byrd, was imperative given Rob Ryan’s hyper aggressive defensive scheme.
Whether it’s an all out blitz, Man 1 or Cover 3, Rob Ryan loves playing with a single high safety. The pro to the Ryan family scheme is the ability to overload the box and pressure the offense across the line of scrimmage. The con is the single deep defender and the need for an elite single safety.
That is why Jairus Byrd is the perfect fit for the Saints. He has consistently shown the ability to play center field. Let’s look at how he robbed his new team of a sure touchdown with an excellent play from a lone safety look while playing for the Bills.
This is a textbook example of how a safety should play Man 1 coverage. Starting in an offset position to provide help for the double team of Jimmy Graham, the Bills put 3 defenders on Graham on this play. Byrd has no business making a play on a seam route on the far hash. Yet he shows his elite combination of awareness, speed and ball skills by breaking on the throw before it leaves Brees’ hand, sliding 15 yards across the field and successfully challenging a catch against a bigger receiver.
Byrd’s ability to handle the deep part of the field by himself will allow Ryan to do what he does best, wreak havoc with complex blitzes. For a defense that was historically bad in 2012, the addition of Byrd gives the Saints defense the potential to finally match their explosive offense.
If Jairus Byrd is a true free safety, T.J. Ward is on the opposite end of spectrum. Known more for his ability to creep down in the box and deliver big hits, Ward plays a very different role on defense than Byrd. Despite clearly being the #2 safety pick for most of the media, Ward signed a 4 year $23 million dollar contract, a full $26 million less than Byrd. (Byrd received $28 million guaranteed and Ward received $14 million guaranteed.)
This huge discrepancy in contracts illustrates what NFL teams are willing to pay for the top safety. No longer is the top priority the ability to instill fear with punishing hits over the middle. Instead the elite safeties, or at least the ones getting the biggest contracts, are the safeties that can truly cover and play a center field role.
Those aren’t T.J. Ward’s strengths. His strengths are walking forward and acting like a pseudo 4th linebacker; setting the edge against the run, playing underneath zones and providing the occasional blitz.
Let’s look at a great example of how Ward has become the premier run-stuffing safety in the NFL.
This is an outstanding play against the power sweep for any player, let alone a safety. The Lions have the Browns exactly where they want them with their right guard leading blocking against a defensive back, yet Ward makes an incredible play by getting up field to set the edge and force Bush inside. That alone would fulfill his contain responsibilities, but Ward finishes the play by ducking under the pulling lineman and tackling Bush for a 2 yard gain.
These types of plays aren’t the exception for T.J Ward they are the norm. He ranked #1 in run support among safeties according to Pro Football Focus and finished the 2013 season with 112 tackles, the 3rd most of any safety.
So then how did Ward only receive a $23 million dollar contract? Simply put he is a great run defender but only an above average pass defender. He ranked a respectable 12th in PFF’s but his game film shows some shortcomings, especially when asked to play a deep zone, a critical responsibility of today’s safeties.
Plays like this are why Ward received only half the money Byrd got. He is an average deep zone defender that doesn’t have the speed or awareness to provide help over the top of man coverage. On this play he is way too late to break on the ball, especially when compared to Byrd’s break and drive on Bree’s throw. He allows an easy 20 completion on 3rd down.
The discrepancy between the contracts of T.J. Ward and Jairus Byrd is a clear indication of how the NFL values safeties. NFL teams want and are willing to pay top dollar for true center fields that can single handedly play the deep part of the field. In the box safeties, even elite ones like Ward, are a replaceable. And it makes sense: having the luxury to play a single high safety allows your defense to be much more aggressive across the field.
The prime example of this is the Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks. With a dynamic duo of safeties, primarily Earl Thomas who is the best free safety in the league by far, the Seahawks smothered opposing offenses at the line of scrimmage. Seattle was able to overload the box because they had elite playmakers on the back end of their defense capable of winning one on one matchups.
All in all I like the moves by both the Broncos and Saints. The difference is Byrd is a dynamic playmaker that will give Rob Ryan the freedom to bring all sorts of blitzes while Ward is a great run defender and solid pass defender that has a serious limitation in his game. Bottom line: the Saints got the better player with a more valuable skill set but at twice the price.