NFL Analysis


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NFL Teams Are Making a Statement About How To Get Paid as a Safety

Jan 20, 2024; Baltimore, MD, USA; Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) points to Baltimore Ravens safety Kyle Hamilton (14) during the first quarter of a 2024 AFC divisional round game at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

It was a tough offseason to be a safety. While a high volume of them became free agents, few got significant multi-year contracts. There are players like multi-time All-Pro Justin Simmons, who remains a free agent in mid-June.

That volume of players was part of the reason for the slow market. With so many safeties available and the rise of two-high coverages, some defenses don’t need to overpay at the position.

But there’s a difference for the players who did get paid — they do everything. Safety versatility has been a big talking point in modern defenses, but a select few can actually move all around the field and do it well wherever they line up.

Top of The Class

Let’s look at the top 10 safeties by three-year cash and note the three deals given out this offseason to Antoine Winfield Jr., who reset the safety market, Xavier McKinney, and Kyle Dugger.

What’s interesting about the safety market is there are so many different avenues for a player to get this type of contract. In contracts given out this offseason, one was a deal off the franchise tag, one came off the transition tag, and one was a free agent.

Of this top 10, four were unrestricted free agents. The only defensive position with more is off-ball linebacker, with seven.

There’s a similarity between those positions, with a small gap in the quality of players in the middle tiers. However, there are a few game-changers who can transform a defense. Those players are doing a bit of everything.

Let’s look at the same top-10 list and show where those players have lined up during the past two seasons.

Only Jessie Bates and Jalen Thompson played more than 70 percent of their snaps at deep safety. Minkah Fitzpatrick was close at 67 percent and could join those two this season after the Steelers felt they moved him around too much in 2023.

Players like Bates and Fitzpatrick can focus on playing deep because they're the best in the league in that area and thrive driving to the ball. McKinney could join this group in 2024.

He played the most single-high among these players during the past two seasons and signed with a defense expected to rely on a post safety and play more single-high under new defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley. But he can also play the slot and in the box, creating more possibilities for the Packers.

Versatility Separates The Best

For most of these players, versatility is the key. While great for the individual players, moving one piece around the field can open many things up for the defense. This is especially true when creating a pass rush.

Winfield had six sacks in 2023 from all over the field. Winfield could line up in the box like he did in the below image for a sack against the Saints.

He could also blitz out from the slot and in on the quarterback before the offense can notice.

By playing all over the field, the alignment does not give away what the defense is doing, which is valuable.

Taking some of these players who can play downhill and moving them closer to the line of scrimmage at times can benefit the defense as a whole.

All of this applies to the next safety who will get paid, Kyle Hamilton. The 6-foot-4 Hamilton played mostly slot corner during his rookie season but was unleashed in Year 2. 

When Marcus Williams was healthy, the Ravens used Hamilton’s versatility to run a bunch of three-safety looks while staying in nickel personnel. That allowed Baltimore to stay strong against the run while not losing anything against the pass. On 299 plays with Hamilton, Williams, and Geno Stone on the field, the Ravens kept EPA per play and success rates equivalent to their full-season rates, which were third in the league.

That personnel package allowed Hamilton to move all over, and the defensive disguises gave opposing offenses trouble.

With Mike Macdonald now in Seattle, it doesn’t appear that the plan for Hamilton with new Ravens' defensive coordinator Zach Orr will change. Orr talked to the media during OTAs and explained how a player like Hamilton helps the defense.

“Kyle Hamilton is the ultimate chess piece; I think he’s one of the top players in the league,” Orr said. “My goal for him is to one day win defensive MVP here,  of the league. I think he has that type of talent, he has that type of work ethic, he’s that type of person. The thing about him being the ultimate chess piece [is], depending on what the offense does, he can play anywhere. He can play safety, deep safety, box safety. He can play corner, nickel, backer; he can even play outside linebacker, too, and you guys know he can rush the passer. The thing that you appreciate about Kyle Hamilton is that he works at it. He’s a smart player, so he can handle all the volume that you give him. I think he’s eager, going into his third year, to do more, so we’ll see.”

As a quick aside, let’s use this time to clarify something about chess pieces — they have specific rules about where they can and cannot go. It’s kind of the whole basis of the game. The piece that can move anywhere it wants is the queen. These players are not “chess pieces.” They are the queens on the chess board.

Hamilton might be the best example of this type of player. He’s a threat wherever he lines up on the field. He could be even more dangerous in his third season. He’ll be extension-eligible after this year. The price might only go up after that.

The top players at safety have no restrictions on movement. This type of player has become more prevalent in the modern game, and players who can differentiate themselves there will continue to be highly valued.