The NFL’s Safety Squeeze
When free agency kicked off a few weeks ago, George Iloka’s phone didn’t ring as much as the 25-year-old safety had expected. After finding a soft market, he wound up re-upping with the Bengals, who offered a five-year deal worth $30 million, of which only $5 million is guaranteed.
In terms of talent and impact, Iloka ranks somewhere in the 8-15 range for NFL safeties (his annual salary of $6 million is 14th at the position). But it wouldn’t have been outrageous for him to expect top-five money, because that’s how growing markets are supposed to work. Elsewhere in the NFL, free-agent megadeals were signed at defensive end (Olivier Vernon), nickel defensive tackle (Malik Jackson) and cornerback (Janoris Jenkins).
Vernon isn’t the NFL’s best defensive end, but the Giants guaranteed $55.2 million of his $85 million deal. Jackson isn’t the best defensive tackle, but the Jaguars guaranteed him $42 million. Jenkins is hardly one of the league’s top two corners, but the Giants guaranteed him $29 million—second most in history for a corner behind only Darrelle Revis. With an inflated cap, NFL salaries are soaring. But it hasn’t been quite the same for safeties.
The position’s value is by no means stagnant, but front offices would be wise to reconsider just how they’re determining value. The position’s 2016 franchise tag is $10.8 million, a 56% increase since 2013, when all franchise tag values started increasingly annually. And while that is a greater jump in percentage than every other defensive position except for tackle (61.5 %), it remains the lowest-paid defensive position in the NFL. That’s baffling because safety is rapidly becoming the most important position to defensive strategies across the league.
NFL offenses are using three-receiver sets more than ever—about 65% of the time in 2015—but wideouts aren’t the driving force behind this sea change: Tight ends are.
In 2015, there was about an 11% increase in the number of wide receivers who had at least 50 catches compared to the 2001 season; the same 11% increase is also true of wide receivers who had at least 600 yards during those years.
From 2001 to 2015, the number of 50-catch tight ends jumped by 150%. The number of 600-yard tight ends rose by 49%.
The rise of the tight end coincided with the emergence of Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates. In the early 2000s, these ex-college basketball players brought a never-before-seen level of athleticism to the position. NFL offenses quickly realized that having an uber-athlete in the middle of the field was a huge advantage. They started using more three-receiver sets, which spread the width of the defense and created more space in the middle of the field.
The superiorly athletic tight ends also began to revolutionize their position. Instead of always lining up in a three-point stance next to the offensive tackle, tight ends started sliding out to the slot, motioning out of the backfield and even splitting out wide. Offenses suddenly had more schematic variables with which to leverage the defense. The increased flexibility not only expanded playbooks, but it also presented more opportunities to go no-huddle. Formations were no longer constricted by personnel packages. With flexible tight ends, you could line up seven men across the line of scrimmage (five linemen, two tight ends) and pound the rock on one play, then split both tight ends out in a 3x2 spread set and throw on the next play without substituting or even huddling.
Defenses did not—and still don’t—have athletes who can adequately guard these tight ends. Cornerbacks are much too small, linebackers much too slow. And so it falls to the safety.
This is what makes Iloka’s soft market so puzzling. He had some cornerbacking experience at Boise State. More importantly, he’s 6' 4" and 225 pounds, with long arms. He might not be able to shut down Rob Gronkowski on an island for four quarters, but he has the physical tools to compete with an athletic pass-catcher of Gronk’s mold.
Of signed NFL safeties who play meaningful snaps on defense, only a dozen are at least 6' 2". Only eight weigh at least 225 pounds, and only seven others weigh more than 215. An average tight end runs somewhere around 6' 6", 245, and defenses simply don’t have big enough athletes in the deep middle of the field to compete with these versatile offensive weapons.
The problem will only get worse before it gets better. This year’s draft class is particularly weak at safety. Only four of most experts’ top 20 safety prospects are 6' 2". And none weigh more than 219.
This athleticism gap between safeties and tight ends helps explain why an overwhelming number of quality tight ends have been drafted after the first round. (Gronkowski in the second; Jimmy Graham, Jordan Reed, Travis Kelce and Jared Cook in the third; Julius Thomas in the fourth; Gary Barnidge in the fifth; and Delanie Walker in the sixth.) If the safeties are limited in their capabilities, then you don’t need to draft a stud tight end in the first round; all you need is a decent tight end in order to create the desired offensive advantages. This frees up more first-round picks to be used on wide receivers. If your passing game is already rich by way of tight ends over safeties, it can keep getting richer by way of receivers over cornerbacks. (And it has. Any NFL coach will tell you that there aren’t enough quality corners to handle all the league’s dynamic wideouts.)
At some point, coaches at all levels will get desperate enough to start grooming bigger, better athletes to play safety. But we’re probably a long way from that day. So congratulations to the Bengals. They got one of the few safeties with a fighting chance against tight ends. All things considered, they got him at a bargain price.
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