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Sanders, Polamalu, Help Redefine Safety Position

May 21, 2007 – 11:14 AM
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Ryan Wilson

Ryan Wilson %BloggerTitle%

If nothing changes, the Colts' Bob Sanders and the Steelers' Troy Polamalu will become free agents at the end of the season. In the last five years or so, the safety position has become something more than an afterthought -- not just some place to stick a too-slow cornerback, or an undersized linebacker.

Obviously, Ronnie Lott defined the position, and John Lynch served as the bridge between Lott and today's players. But this is the first time, well, in NFL history that so many teams feature big-play safeties. In addition to Sanders and Polamalu, Ed Reed, Sean Taylor, Roy Williams, and Brian Dawkins are arguably one or two of the best defensive players on their teams. And top-10 picks Donte Whitner and Michael Huff (2006), and LaRon Landry (2007) were drafted with similar hopes in mind.

So why the switch? For starters, offenses are more complicated. With four- and five-wide sets, defenses need players who not only have coverage skills, but also have the ability to play the run out of these formations. If neither Sanders nor Polamalu is re-signed, they can expect ridiculous paydays in free agency. Pound for pound, Sanders is the league's best player. Yes, "pound for pound" is cliche, but it applies in this case. Last year, the Colts were a soft, porous run defense without Sanders, who has battled injuries during his three-year career. With him, were a hard-hitting unit that missed fewer tackles and ended up in the Super Bowl.

Likewise, Polamalu is more than just a safety. He has lined up at every position except nose tackle and his versatility has made defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's job much easier.

As long as offenses continue to evolve, there is no reason to think safeties won't continue to have bigger roles. No longer are they the equivalent of the little league right fielder; safeties are now an integral part of the defense, often forcing opposing teams to actually game plan against them. Which means that wherever Sanders and Polamalu end up in 2008, they will do so with shiny new contracts.
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