The importance of the safety position in the NFL is at an all-time high. For a defense to function at a high level, it must have a safety that can cover the width of the field and attack the ball when it's in the air. Anything less than that places stress on the defense because it condenses the playbook.
It's like a quarterback who has a weak arm and can't make all of the throws on the field. It limits the creativity of the offensive coordinator. In the case of a safety, it allows less disguise and fewer looks from the defense.
Having a rangy safety allows the defensive coordinator to hide his intentions before the snap. For example, lining up the safety in the box and then running him out to the middle of the field at the snap.
Quarterbacks are taught to read the defense before the snap and identify the coverage possibilities. Having a rangy safety is significant because it changes the structure of the defense post-snap, consequently changing the read of the quarterback (and receivers as well).
If there are no safeties deep, it indicates Cover 0 (no safety help, man coverage all over). But if a safety rotates into coverage at the snap, the quarterback is suddenly given a different look that makes him uncertain of where he should throw the ball.
In addition to the quarterback, the wide receiver is given a different look. Unlike in college, receivers have to read the leverage of a cornerback and safety. The cornerback's positioning and movement usually indicates what the coverage will be, but it could also be part of a disguise or baiting of the passer.
If the cornerback is setting a trap, and the safety is getting into his coverage late, the receiver is likely to run a route that leads his passer straight into an interception.
It's something we've seen the Baltimore Ravens do many times over the years, largely in part to the mid-boggling range of safety Ed Reed. Reed's range is the key to it all, and it's the reason why the safety position is increasingly growing in value. I have said in the past that this was the case, but it's even more now because of teams looking to play more press-man coverage.
NFL Films' Greg Cosell has recently alluded to teams wanting to play more press-man following the success of the Seattle Seahawks' defensive backfield. He also noted that it's not about the talent of the cornerbacks, rather the safety, and he's absolutely right. The free safety has to be able to get over the top of vertical routes and more often than not, that's hard to do from a single-high alignment without range.
With the draft just ending, I was curious about who, exactly, is a fit for the single-high safety position? Based off of what I've seen, there's not one safety that has that excellent (and rare) range, but Florida International's Jonathan Cyprien has enough.
Cyprien, who is 6' and 217 lbs, reminds me a lot of the Green Bay Packers' Morgan Burnett when he came out of Georgia Tech. Like Burnett, he can play all over the field. He has the range and hips to play as a single-high safety, where he can patrol the middle of the field.
He also has the ability to play in man coverage against tight ends because he can run and is physical. That same physicality is an asset in run defense, where he doesn't hesitate to attack and lay the wood on ball-carriers.
The Jaguars are a smart team for grabbing him with the first pick of the second round.