How NFL coaches grade rookie safeties

Let’s talk rookie safeties today and focus on what we want to look for this weekend, and throughout the month of August, when it comes to grading their play. For some clubs, rookies will have a major impact on the regular season: Eric Berry in Kansas City, Earl Thomas in Seattle, Taylor Mays in San Fran, Nate Allen in Philly, Morgan Burnett in Green Bay, Major Wright in Chicago, etc. We shouldn’t expect them to be “game ready” after two weeks of camp, but this weekend we get to see how they react to the speed and the competition of the preseason.

Let’s break down what NFL coaching staffs are looking for...

Eric BerryICONHow will Berry's game translate to the NFL?


Something we hardly talk about in the months leading up to the draft, because it is viewed as a “coached skill.” The NFL invests its money in safeties that have ball skills and make plays in the secondary. But let’s not forget how important it is for a rookie to take the proper angles to the football and make a sound tackle on the ball carrier. This weekend, watch these rookies at the point of attack. Do they wrap their arms or do they try and they go for a knockout blow? Can they use the sideline and cut down the angle of the ball carrier? Do they dive at player’s legs or do they run through the tackle? What about their head placement? And, most importantly, can they get a ball carrier down in the open field? Without a doubt, the toughest test for a safety at any level of football, but in the NFL it wins or loses games.

The base defense

Don’t expect to see defenses use a bunch of exotic looks or pressure schemes this weekend that aren’t already on tape. Cover 1, Cover 2, Cover 3 and some Cover 4 are the norm for the preseason. Use a little disguise before the snap, but get to your landmark and play football. We want to see if the rookies can handle the basic calls, know their run fits and when they are in coverage keep everything in front of them. The worst thing you can do as a rookie safety is to play too shallow and get beat over the top. Know the defense and know what the coach expects.

Cover skills

Safeties in the NFL are expected to play some man-to-man. NFL coordinators want to keep their base defense on the field when they see three wide receiver looks and walk down a safety in coverage. It is something I have written about before and it is crucial to the position in today's game. Whether that is on the TE or against a third WR in a slot look, let’s see how the rookies use their feet and hands. Can they play press? When they are aligned off of the receiver, are they patient with their footwork—or do they panic? Can they keep their leverage and funnel the receiver to their help in the middle of the field? Plus, when the ball is thrown, can they get “in-phase” (think hip to hip) with the WR and play the “pocket” (in between the hands of the receiver) at the mesh point? Defensive backs that have man-to-man skills find a way to get in the field in the regular season.

Major Wright ICONChicago's Major Wright.

Conditioning level

Sounds simple, but can these guys make it through a 10-play series? Two-a-days are tough, but players usually go for five plays max in camp before they take a breather. This weekend, rookies will be excited to throw on that NFL jersey with their name on the back for the first time—and they are usually gassed after three plays. Throw in the fact that their legs are already beat from two weeks of camp, and you might see a player bent over and holding his knees early in the series. Plus, these rookies will also be knee deep in special teams throughout the game. As Gregg Williams used to say in Washington, “Slow down your heart rate and go make a play.” Like I said, sounds simple, but on the field you have to manage your conditioning and use the rest time in between plays to get ready to run again.

The middle of the field

Range. It is a buzzword we use for the position, and although we don’t expect these rookies to look like Ed Reed this early in August, what kind of range do they have? Can they get from the middle of the field to the top of the numbers? The bottom of the numbers? The sideline? This is big, and when a safety can show that he has the range to go over the top of any outside vertical route it changes how offenses call plays. Watch how they read the QB, because we want to see what kind of “jump” they get on the ball. No different than a baseball player stealing a base, free safeties have to anticipate and leave on the throw. Too late and they won’t get there. And, don’t forget about veteran QBs—who will look these guys off all night long. It is easy to look like a fish in the middle of the field.

Playmaking ability

Can these guys show up? Sure, we want to see them do everything we talked about above, but when we turn on the tape, do we notice them? Make a play in the backfield in the run game, close on a receiver and get your hands on the ball, force a fumble or make an interception. They will be tested until they show opposing offenses that they can step up and make that big play.

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