Polamalu is leader of the new school

Troy Polamalu, Roy Williams and the rest of the safety contingent at the Pro Bowl are helping to usher in a new era.

Updated: February 11, 2006, 12:36 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

HONOLULU -- The man who perhaps first represented the "New Age Safety" in the NFL glanced around at the assemblage of talent here following a Thursday practice, nodded and smiled, then agreed that, yeah, the ongoing evolution at the position continues to go pretty nicely, indeed.

Philadelphia Eagles star Brian Dawkins, with creative defensive coordinator Jim Johnson using him as a versatile wind-up toy, was a catalyst for the makeover of the safety position. For years, he was the face of change, the man who most represented the redefinition of a position that had waned in significance around the NFL. Now there are a lot of fresh and compelling faces in the roll call of outstanding safeties in the NFL.

And most of them will be on display in the Pro Bowl on Sunday evening.

None is more familiar than Troy Polamalu, the Pittsburgh Steelers' mane man, and a bit of a Pied Piper here the last couple of days, given his long, black tresses and his Samoan heritage. And none, Dawkins acknowledged, has so much potential to further elevate the profile of the safety position. Polamalu is a consummate hybrid player, so multi-dimensional in his skills set that even veteran coordinator Dick LeBeau is challenged when conjuring up new and devious ways to deploy him.

"You look at a safety like Troy," said Dawkins, "and think, 'Is there anything that this guy can't do?' He can cover. He plays the run tough. You blitz him and he simply does not stay blocked. He just might take the [safety] position to another level."

Brian Dawkins
Brian Dawkins was a key figure in the safety revival.
Truth be told, it seems the safety spot has been uplifted in general over the last few seasons, in part by the seven men here for the Pro Bowl game.

Teams still don't spend a lot of money on safeties, and in the last five years, only seven have been chosen in the first round of the draft. When the NFL Players Association released the "franchise" and "transition" figures for 2006 during Super Bowl week, only two position categories, tight end and punter/kicker, registered lower values. The "franchise" qualifying offer for a safety is $4.109 million, or 30 percent less than that of a cornerback.

But that might be changing, at least a little, with the re-emergence of the safety position.

"For a lot of years, it seems, [safeties] have been on the back burner," said Minnesota Vikings free safety Darren Sharper, whose nine interceptions in 2005 ranked as the third most in the NFL, and who is making his third Pro Bowl appearance. "But coordinators are getting more inventive with how they use safeties. Teams are drafting differently, because they're asking [safeties] to perform so many tasks now. Look at the young guys here and you definitely see where the safety position is going."

Or, in the cases of players such as Polamalu, Bob Sanders of Indianapolis or Roy Williams from Dallas, where it has already arrived.

Said Williams: "I'm sort of [prejudiced] but, with all the responsibilities a safety has now, I think it's become a critical position for any defense. You're going to see a lot of safeties going higher in the draft, I think, in coming years."

Of the seven safeties in the Pro Bowl, none was chosen lower than the third round, and six were either first- or second-round selections.

Counting Mike Brown of Chicago, who will not play because of injury, the seven safeties here demonstrated notable diversity in 2005. The group averaged 76.1 tackles, topped by the 100 stops recorded by Polamalu, and all but two had more than 70 tackles. More importantly, safeties made more game-altering plays in 2005, in part because coordinators often put them in advantageous play-making situations.

Time was, and not all that long ago, that safety was considered the equivalent of playing right field in a Little League game. You plugged a guy, held your breath, and prayed the ball didn't come his way.

"No more," said Carolina Panthers secondary coach Rod Perry, who is part of the NFC staff for Sunday's game. "The way the game is played now, you can't hide your safeties. They're back to being playmakers again."

Mike Brown
The safety position has become critical to any defense.
In 2005, the seven Pro Bowl safeties averaged two sacks, 3.3 interceptions, 7.6 passes defensed, 2.1 forced fumbles and 1.3 recoveries. Five of the men here recorded at least one marker in each of the major defensive statistical categories. Even an old, dogged safety like 13-year veteran John Lynch of the Denver Broncos learned some new tricks.

A liability in coverage at age 34, Lynch was used more as a blitzer in 2005, and had four sacks, after notching only eight sacks in the first dozen seasons of his career. He also forced a career-high four fumbles.

Lynch wasn't the only older safety taking advantage of the new emphasis on the position. In his 10th season, Dawkins, 32, was as good as ever. He had 77 tackles, 3.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, two recoveries, three interceptions and an amazing 19 passes defensed. That's more pass break-ups than most starting NFL cornerbacks recorded in 2005.

"I don't know how [a defense] can line up anymore without a safety who has some cornerback-type coverage skills," Dawkins said. "Having a guy like that means that you can play your 'base' defense more, you don't have to substitute nearly as much, and things are less confusing. I really feel like it's becoming kind of a golden age for safeties again. The fact there are so many great safeties here is an indication of that."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.