Last week, this series comparing the rosters in the NFC North moved from offense to defense, and the Bears found themselves lacking despite a busy (but somehow unsatisfying) free agency. Now it’s time to round out the secondary and look at safeties.
First, there’s a big question to ask: how does one define “success” at the safety position? To some extent, safeties are dependent on the failure of other members of the team to get stats. After all, if a safety has to make a tackle against a running back, it means that by scheme or failure the rusher has already made it through two layers of defense. Likewise, safeties are not always challenged in the passing game. More importantly, while there is a traditional distinction between “strong” and “free” safeties, the defensive schemes currently in the NFL make that distinction tough to support.
That said, there are a couple of team-level clues and also a few individual stats worth consideration. Sporting Charts keeps track of what they call “big plays,” defined as follows:
[A] Passing big play is one in which the yards gained on the passing play equal 25 yards or more while a rushing big play is one in which the yards gained on the rushing play equal 10 yards or more.
The Bears were allowed more big plays than all but eleven teams last season, with 76 (still well-behind the “leader”, San Francisco, who allowed 100). No team in the NFC North allowed more than this, but everyone was close (Detroit and Green Bay both allowed 72, whereas Minnesota allowed 71). All of those but the Bears were better than average, but even the Bears were close (the mean was 75 while the median was 73.5). In other words, there was a lot of clustering around the middle here.
Meanwhile, the Bears were 20th in the NFL at allowing 3rd-down conversions (a disgusting 40.5% of third downs went converted), but within the division only the Vikings were better than that (14th), with the Packers hovering around Bears’ territory (41.2%) and the Lions near the very bottom (31st with 45.5%). Even more than Big Play charting, it’s tough to directly link this stat to safety play. However, it serves as a nice cross-check on what instincts might tell us about the effectiveness of a defense.
Reinforcing the earlier point that safeties are limited by opportunity, total tackles (including assists) are a measure typically dominated by linebackers. 22 of the top 25 tacklers last year were LBs of some flavor, and so it’s tough to make much of the fact that Green Bay’s Morgan Burnett and Minnesota’s Harrison Smith tied for the lead among safeties in the division with 91 apiece, thought I admit to some frustration at seeing the most prolific Bears’ tackling safety (Harold Jones-Quartey) at 28th.
Okay, with that sort of context, how do the rosters themselves stack up?
#1) The Green Bay Packers
Green Bay enjoys the services of Morgan Burnett (9th in total tackles among safeties and 16th in plays on the ball), Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (24th and 11th), although they have moved on from Micah Hyde. Instead, they have Josh Jones, their second-round draft pick. Jones was one of my favorites coming into the 2017 draft, and his presence follows the trend of the Packers taking a defensive playmaker that I really wanted for the Bears. Jones is aggressive, and while he can get burned, he seems to be in the mold of a modern NFL safety—about 60% cornerback and 40% linebacker.
This is a depressingly familiar pattern, in that the Packers have managed to reload at safety before there is a need, and Clinton-Dix and Burnett are likely to hold down the safety position just fine while Jones transitions to the pros. Worse, Burnett was actually the only safety in the NFC North last season to be in the Top 15 for that position group in terms of defeats, per Football Outsiders (tackles for a loss, turnovers, and stops on third or fourth down), though there is an asterisk there.
#2) The Chicago Bears
Without any improvement, it would be easy for Chicago to be at the bottom of this group. The team struggled to stop big plays, struggled to force turnovers, and allowed a frightening rate of conversion on third down. Only the presence of the Lions’ faltering unit (32nd in the NFL, per Football Outsiders, in total efficiency) could save them from last place. However, now it’s time to come back to that asterisk. Quintin Demps was tied for 13th in the NFL last year for total defeats by a safety, and his 15 plays on the ball placed him at third in the NFL among safeties last season. For those who care, Demps also received a solid run-defense grade from Pro Football Focus (17th among safeties). If he can simply maintain his performance level from 2016, Demps might be one of the best safeties in the NFC North.
Backing up Demps should be the reliable (but unspectacular) Adrian Amos and players like Harold Jones-Quartey. In short, the Bears’ safety unit has gone from mediocre to a group with potential. This is assuming nothing comes immediately from the drafting of Eddie Jackson. To be clear—it is the addition of Demps that places the Bears’ safety group a spot above middling heading into 2017, not the as-yet-to-be-seen potential of Jackson. If Jackson turns into something special, then that’s purely a bonus.
#3) The Detroit Lions
Detroit’s Glover Quin and Tavon Wilson were not prolific at making plays on the ball (add in Miles Killebrew and you have 13 plays on the ball, two short of Quinten Demps’s 2016 total). However, Tavon Wilson was able to record the 7th-most solo tackles among safeties last year, and Glover Quin (55) was at about the same level as Chicago’s own Adrian Amos (54).
Meanwhile, Quin did manage 12 defeats last season, which tied him for 17th in the NFL among safeties, per Football Outsiders. That means that one of the Lions’ safeties is about a mid-level starter. Killebrew might very well turn into a true playmaker, but so far he has yet to establish himself consistently.
Basically, the Lions have a pair of serviceable safeties in Quin and Wilson, with Quin especially seeming to be an impact player at moments. They have a recent draftee who might turn into something but is still a work in progress. Keeping in mind the overall ineffectiveness of Detroit’s defense, though, the impression left is that their safety group is a little less than mediocre. Add in the fact that they did not address the position in this offseason, and it’s easy to place the Lions’ safety group near the bottom of the NFC North.
#4) The Minnesota Vikings
Minnesota, meanwhile, after Harrison Smith, has former 7th-rounder Jayron Kearse to back up Andrew Sendejo and Anthony Harris. The truth is that while the Minnesota Vikings defense is a solid unit, its safety position group is pretty mediocre. That’s okay, because it can afford to be mediocre. Watching the Vikings play, I can see a reasonable argument that the safeties did not get called on to do “stats” things, simply because the rest of the unit around them played solidly.
That said, if the safeties are really hurting for something to do, then it would make sense that the Vikings could break away from the masses by cutting down on big plays, and they didn’t. The end result is that among a group of middling safety units, the Vikings at best stayed afloat. I could see an argument to move the Vikings ahead of Detroit, but the fact is that the Lions have at least some sort of established playmaker at safety, as well as a promising younger player, and the Vikings just don’t.
So, the Packers have the most established unit, the Bears brought in the most promising free agent, and outside of Green Bay the whole position group is a weakness in the division.