Has anyone else noticed that Strong Safeties have become quite rare in the NFL?
Years ago, there were plenty of Rodney Harrison clones, Linebackers too small to actually play the Linebacker position that were shifted to Strong Safety. Teams eventually figured out how to turn that into a weakness with spread offenses that forced those slower Safeties to cover Wide Receivers and Running Backs out of the backfield that were almost as good at catching and running as Wide Receivers.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. For NFL defenses, that meant finding smaller, faster Safeties that could cover Wide Receivers and Running Backs but still hit like a ton of bricks. Players like Bob Sanders and Troy Polamalu became new pieces to a puzzle that opposing offenses couldn't figure out. They also became injury prone, the beating of the SS position wearing on them early in their careers, leaving defenses to try and find a new solution.
More and more, NFL defenses are shifting towards a "two Safety" philosophy. That is the philosophy that there is no Free Safety or Strong Safety, but rather two guys playing the same position on two different sides of the field. It is similar to the Outside Linebacker position in a 3-4 Defense, where the positions have small differences but most guys that can play one can play the other.
The San Diego Chargers haven't quite switched to that philosophy yet, and maybe it's because they play more Cover 1 (with one deep Safety) than most teams (who play more Cover 2). Eric Weddle plays Cover 1 about as well as two Safeties playing Cover 2, which makes it a tempting weapon to use against opposing offenses. However, that doesn't mean the team can start the 2013 season with zero healthy Strong Safeties on the roster, which is where they stand currently.
Keeping in mind the that team still prefers to try and find the next Troy Polamalu, and there's really nobody left in Free Agency that fits that description, let's see what the 2013 NFL Draft might have to offer:
Matt Elam, Florida - 5'10", 208lbs
My favorite SS prospect in the draft, Elam can do it all. He can play Cover 1 or Cover 2, he can come down in the box as a blitzer or 8th defender, he can cover WRs as a Nickel CB and he simply makes plays. His college career is littered with impressive numbers for tackles, sacks and interceptions, and he's consistently shown up in big games for the Gators. His height probably keeps him from being an option at Free Safety in the 1st Round, but it shouldn't be a problem at Strong Safety.
Expected Draft Position: Late 1st Round
Jonathan Cyprien, Florida International - 6'0", 217lbs
Cyprien has been flying up mock draft boards after impressive performances at the NFL Combine and at the Florida International pro day. He certainly has the size and skill set to play either Free Safety or Strong Safety, but there are some concerns about his lack of straight-line speed. Unlike Elam, he would probably be a liability in Cover 1 and could struggle if matched up against the WR in man coverage. His size probably makes him less likely to become an injury-prone Strong Safety, and would make it easier for him to cover Tight Ends.
Expected Draft Position: Mid 1st Round
Kenny Vaccaro, Texas - 6'0", 214lbs
Often considered the best overall Safety prospect in the draft, Vaccaro played a lot of Free Safety with the Longhorns. Vaccaro hasn't put up tremendous interception numbers, but his coverage skills and run defense are probably tops amongst all Safeties in this draft. A smart player with great size and enough athleticism to cover WRs and RBs, he should be ready to start immediately.
Expected Draft Position: Mid 1st Round
Shamarko Thomas, Syracuse - 5'9", 213lbs
Obviously, Thomas is a bit undersized. However, he's roughly the same size as Bob Sanders and plays a similar style. He's not a bad player to take a chance on in later rounds, if he's there, but probably not somebody you want to draft if you need a starter immediately.
Expected Draft Position: Late 2nd Round / Early 3rd Round
Shawn Williams, Georgia - 6'0", 213lbs
I love Williams. He's basically a younger Bernard Pollard. While he might be a little stiff and a little "old-fashioned", there's something to be said for having a Strong Safety that strikes fear into the hearts of Wide Receivers going over the middle of the defense. Williams played a little LB at Georgia when injuries required him to do so, and was just as good there. He is known as a natural team leader. He could start immediately in the NFL, but his ceiling probably isn't quite as high as the players listed above him.
Expected Draft Position: 3rd Round