If one were asked to name the best starting safety tandem in the NFL right now, the most likely answer you’d expect to hear would be Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor of the Seattle Seahawks. Not only did the Seahawks win the Super Bowl behind what can only be described as the best defense we’ve seen in at least the last decade, a big part of that defense’s success was the play of their safeties. In the modern day passing league that’s seen almost as many 5,000 passers as 1,000 yard rushers, the Seahawks have laid the blueprint for how to slow explosive offenses down. While Thomas and Chancellor compliment each other very well as Thomas is a ballhawk and Chancellor is a heavy hitter, the real reason for their success is a lack of weaknesses. Both players are well rounded, complete, and do everything well regardless of the assignment. That also makes them less predictable because they can be interchangeable. A tandem that talented is very hard to come by, but based on the success that came along with their performance it was only a matter of time until it would be imitated. And now the question becomes: have the New Orleans Saints already created a safety tandem that’s better?
The Saints started this effort by drafting Kenny Vaccaro out of Texas in the 1st round last season. As a rookie his versatility was impressive. The Saints lined him up in the box, as a blitzer, in the slot as a cover corner, and deep as a high safety. His ability to do everything well, as well as match up effectively one on one with big physical receivers like Tony Gonzalez and Vincent Jackson, has made him extremely valuable. When he went down with an injury, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan explained that replacing him was challenging because no player could replace him in every area and do what he did, so Ryan had to rotate a few players with different skillsets to make up for the loss. His role in the Saints’ defense is a complicated one that showcases his variety of skills.
This offseason, the Saints signed the consensus #1 free agent in football in safety Jairus Byrd to pair him with Vaccaro. While the Saints’ defense was solid a year ago, the one thing missing was turnovers. Byrd is as noted of a ballhawk as there is in the league, and the Saints thought highly enough of his skills that they rewarded him with the richest deal in NFL history for a safety priced at $9 million per year. Interestingly, Earl Thomas would get a contract worth $10 million per year a couple weeks later to take over the distinction. Byrd was approached about comparing the Saints’ safeties to the Seahawks this week at camp and had the following to say:
“I think we stand right at the top. We have to go and do it. They’ve done it.”
But with the Saints, it’s not just a tandem. You cannot discuss the quality of the Saints’ safeties without also mentioning the name Rafael Bush. That’s because Bush plays a very significant role in the defense as well when Vaccaro goes to cover the slot in nickel situations. Bush only missed one tackle last season and Pro Football Focus ranked his “combined tackle efficiency” as the very best in the league. Vaccaro was 3rd in the league in that statistic. Chancellor and Thomas ranked 16th and 37th, respectively, out of 71 safeties graded. Byrd was 20th.
Bush is not a one trick pony tackler, either, as he was also ranked #1 by PFF in coverage snaps per reception in the NFL (tied with Chris Clemons of the Dolphins). A statistical argument could be made for Bush being the best safety on the Saints’ roster. His numbers were impressive enough that the Atlanta Falcons tried to poach him by signing him to a 2 year, $4.5 million offer sheet as a restricted free agent this offseason. The Saints wasted no time matching it.
And while part of what makes the Seahawks’ tandem so good is that they can focus on other areas of the field while leaving Richard Sherman completely alone on an island, the Saints have a player like that in Keenan Lewis. Lewis is maybe not in the Patrick Peterson/Darrelle Revis/Sherman elite group of corners, but he’s squarely established himself as a premiere cover man that’s just behind them. Make no mistake, I’m not suggesting Lewis is as good as Sherman, but he fills a similar role in the Saints’ defense with success.
Based on the very high profile addition of Byrd, combined with the young talent the Saints already have in Vaccaro and Bush, the Saints’ safety trio is as good as the league has to offer. In fact, they are already in the preseason discussion as the league’s best along with the now established Seahawks tandem. And if you see the Saints have a significant amount of success in 2014 defensively, you’ll see more teams take the route of investing in safeties more significantly to boost overall production.