In the hierarchy of positional importance in the NFL, safety is not exactly high on the totem pole. That isn’t to say it’s not important, nor is it undervalued within the draft community with CBS’ Dane Brugler, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr and NBC Sports Josh Norris all predicting that the Texans would draft a safety at some point or another in 2017. What we are going to do today is take a deep look at the question of whether or not the Texans should spend a first round pick on a safety.
THE CASE FOR NOT DRAFTING A SAFETY IN THE FIRST ROUND:
Say hello to your 2016 Houston Texans defense. Come see your two high safeties, your corners playing five yards off, and a box filled full of joy (or if you’re Andrew Luck, pain). This was the Texans’ base on first and second down. Naturally there were wrinkles thrown in, such as safeties dropping down into the box for run support to cover a TE man-to-man, but for the most part the Texans’ defense relied on a few things.
- A pass rush comprised of Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and Benardrick McKinney is terrifying, especially when factoring in Romeo Crennel’s ability to scheme open pass rushing lanes for them to tear through.
- Any rushing attack has to play against the same three monsters, one of whom was tied for second in the NFL in tackles for loss last season (a/k/a your weekly reminder that Jadeveon Clowney is a freaking monster).
- With the pass rush being as good as it is, the opportunities for longer developing plays and deeper pass attempts become less and less likely. This is compounded by having two safeties play the deep to middle zone, which leaves only the underneath routes.
- Give the receivers four to five yards of space off the line of scrimmage and allow the corners to essentially keep the receivers in front of them and play downhill whenever they saw a receiver make a break. As we know, the Texans DBs are excellent at changing direction quickly and attack the route in an attempt to disrupt rhythm.
You may have noticed in that spiel above that I mention very little of the safeties’ actual purpose and use within the defense. That is because in the grand scheme of the defense, they are not what makes it tick or what makes it great. Their responsibilities within the system are to not screw up and give up the deep ball, which is not that likely to be thrown in their direction because the defense is giving more favourable looks underneath. On the odd chance the QB doesn’t take those short options, the pass rush will punish him for his insolence.
The Texans’ numbers against the deep ball last season reflect this. Houston gave up the second fewest passing plays of 20+ yards last season were tied for sixth fewest passing plays of 40+ yards surrendered. There’s also the point of the Texans’ remaining safeties all still being on the young side, with only one on the roster currently having more than four years’ playing experience; even that player (Eddie Pleasant) has not been a consistent starter for the Texans. For a position at which the Texans have a large portion of young players, is it worth allowing those players to develop in a system that isn’t heavily reliant upon them instead of sacrificing any potential development they might make by drafting a player to play in front of them?
Considering all of this, how could it possibly make sense for the Texans to use their most valuable draft asset on a position that’s not as important as others?
THE CASE FOR DRAFTING A SAFETY IN THE FIRST ROUND:
Say hello (again) to the 2016 Houston Texans’ defense. Whilst this defense did produce results and the machinations of it did create a unique set of decisions for an offense to deal with, there are by no means a guarantee that they will replicate such heights in 2017. The Texans have lost one of their best corners (and one of the best in the league). They are relying on 32 year old Johnathan Joseph (who had a great year) and a returning Kevin Johnson (injured the past two seasons) to anchor the two boundary corner slots.
This uncertainty, along with the allowance for regression, leads to the conclusion that the Texans’ defense as a whole will not be better next season. The biggest issue is the fact that the safeties on the current roster are not good. Andre Hal has the potential to be good, but within the Texans’ system, he’s asked to do things he’s not great at. Asking him to come down into the box and play man-to-man against the tight end or to be an extra blitzer just isn’t a great use of Hal’s talents, much in the same way it was with AFC South Defensive Player of the Month Quintin Demps. Both of those guys are free safeties who like to roam around the middle of the field, reading the QB’s eyes to pick off all the juicy passes that A.J. Bouye managed to knock up in the air. This inflexibility affects what teams will do against the Texans. No defense is going to fear Andre Hal or Eddie Pleasant on a blitz. Nor will any offense that schemes to have their larger TE go up against either of them.
The Texans lack a specific type of safety on the team—one that can drop into that Cover 2 when necessary but mostly act as an LB/S hybrid in a Cover 3 while Andre Hal roams wild and free in the sole deep safety zone where he can drift and pick off passes. It’s imperative that the Texans do improve at safety, considering teams have exploited the Texans less than stellar play at safety before.
That failing could only be compounded further by the fact that Demps’ potential replace on the roster right now is Eddie Pleasant, who has yet to chart more than 300 snaps in a single season. While the concerns over the defense could be placed behind the issues on the offensive side of the ball, it is worthy to note that the safety class this year is loaded at the top. While the Texans may not be able to get a look at Malik Hooker or Jamal Adams, a player like Jabrill Peppers could very much be a possibility for the Texans in the first round over some of the lesser talent available in this year’s tackle class. Rather than investing an important asset into a talent pool that isn’t that strong, it might not be a terrible idea to take advantage of the excellent talent within the safety class to preemptively address the safety position before it become a bigger problem down the road.
That’s the case for and against drafting a safety in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. What say you? Do you think it’s wise for the Texans to snag a safety with their first pick?