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What do NFL scouts look for in safety prospects?

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Former NFL scout Matt Williamson gives us the top three traits needed for success at the safety position

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 12 Alabama at Texas A&M
Alabama safety Xavier McKinney
Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In Part 7 of our scouting series, we examine safeties. Check out the first six parts of the series HERE.

This position has evolved at a very rapid rate over the last several years. The distinction between free safety and strong safety is blurrier than ever and many teams prefer their safeties to be truly interchangeable with less defined roles. “In the box” safeties used to fall down draft boards. Now, they are often turned into dime linebackers or even every down players on the second level.

Also, playing this position is more difficult now than ever. Not only is far more asked of today’s safeties from a coverage perspective, but offensive coordinators and quarterbacks manipulate safeties more now than ever. Furthermore, safeties in today’s NFL can’t get their revenge with an earth shattering hit over the middle of the field anymore. In fact, the tackling and hitting portion of playing safety now really puts these defenders at a huge disadvantage … and often costs them quite a bit in fines. Receivers aren’t scared or threatened of getting blasted after the catch or “Separated from the ball.” That being said, there remains a physicality to this position for sure and many safeties have to make their bones in this league on special teams. But today, playing safety is more about athletic traits and their mind rather than brutality.

3. Range

There are a lot of traits that you want in a safety prospect. Of course, it is great if they have size, girth and length. Small safeties will generally struggle high-pointing the ball or matching up with savvy (and much bigger tight ends). Great tackling is still very important, as is playing the run and taking on blockers (that are also usually much bigger). Ball skills is another trait that separates adequate safeties from impact players at this position. But covering a lot of ground is something that everyone craves in this league. Obviously having outstanding pure speed helps a ton in pursuit and in covering ground overall, but the reason “Range” was used as a header here rather than “Speed” is that there is a lot of truth to players, especially at this position, that “Play Fast”. Speed is great, but if you are a second slow to process or take steps in the wrong direction before getting it right, much of that speed advantage is nullified. Also, some safeties might run very fast in a straight line or have a great 40-yard dash time, but if they can’t abruptly change directions or fluidly flip their hips to turn and run, much of that pure speed can go for not. Range is being very efficient with your steps and movements, having the ability to get to where you need to be and having an explosive closing burst to finish the play.

2. Awareness

This is a big one. Safeties have to be aware of the coverage scheme they are running and all the responsibilities of their teammates around them. They must know the coverage concepts inside and out. They must be aware of the offensive scheme they are playing against, route combinations and how the opposing quarterback is looking to manipulate that coverage with such tactics as pump fakes, eye manipulation and play action passing. This starts before the snap of the ball in recognizing personnel groupings, alignments and presnap motion and shifts. Especially when a safety aligns in the deep middle of the field, he has a unique big picture view of the other 23 players on the field and it is imperative that he not only is aware of the entire situation, but that he also can communicate what he is processing to his teammates. Safeties on the second and third level and constantly being challenged by route concepts to play the receiver in front of them or the one behind and sometimes there isn’t a truly correct answer. Great safeties are well prepared, quick thinkers with an excellent awareness of their surroundings. This also goes for blitzing from the safety position and reading blocking schemes in the run game as well as all offensive tendencies.

1. Man Coverage

Awareness is great, but a safety that can play man coverage at a reasonably high level can get away without supreme awareness. Many safeties are asked to walk down to the line of scrimmage and play man coverage against slot receivers. Such slot receivers vary from the traditional Wes Welker types to big powerful slot receivers in the Marquis Colston mold as well as do-it-all slot types like Michael Thomas. They also get glorified slot receivers in the form of tight ends. Someone like Evan Engram or Jared Cook comes to mind. Safeties that can compete well in man coverage also could draw the responsibility of manning up against receiving running backs like James White or Alvin Kamara. As you can see, the variety of styles of receivers that a safety might find himself alone on varies a great deal. And if that cover man from this position is up to the task, it is a huge advantage to the defensive play calling with a major ripple effect to the rest of the defense in terms of being able to stack up against the multitude of receiving options on a dangerous opposing offense. If you can have just one attribute from your safety, you want man coverage skills for today’s NFL.