The last on-the-field testing and drills that took place at NFL Scouting Combine this past week were Monday afternoon with the class of safeties.
Alabama's Minkah Fitzpatrick and Derwin James of Florida State are considered the head of the class, and potentially Top 10 picks. Watching the entire class of safeties run the 40, it seems the position is adjusting to the NFL's complex passing schemes and the ability of athletic tight ends and big pass catchers to take over a game.
A record nine safeties ran the 40 in sub-4.5 seconds this year at the Combine. Fitzpatrick ran it in 4.46, James in 4.47, and Penn State's Troy Apke had the fastest time at 4.34 seconds.
There were a total of 10 safeties that ran a sub-4.5 in the last three combines combined, according to Pro Football Reference. Six of them were in 2017.
NFL Network booth analyst Mike Mayock and on-field reporter Deion Sanders seemed taken aback by all the fast times being recorded by the position. Mayock even suggested that a number of the players were converted cornerbacks.
But if we think about the way the NFL game has turned into such a multifaceted passing game, should we really be all that surprised by the evolution?
The NFL game is all about mismatches, and typically the biggest mismatches come in the slot or at the tight end position. Tight ends find themselves matched up with linebackers and increasingly more often now the safety position.
Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce is 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, and can run. He's too big for slot corners and too fast for most linebackers and safeties. The problem in defending him is how versatile Kansas City can be with him. They can motion and move him to get the matchup they like. Kelce ran 512 routes last year, per Pro Football Focus stats, and almost half (252) were in the slot. He caught 42 passes and scored three times as a slot receiver.
More than half of New England tight end Rob Gronkowski's routes were run from the slot.
View photos of the defensive backs meeting the media at the 2018 NFL Combine.
Teams are looking for ways to slow down Kelce, Gronkowski, and the rest of the bigger pass catchers in the league. Versatile safeties, ones who can tackle, cover and run, have usually proven to be the most effective.
James measures in at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds with a 40-inch vertical and 132-inch broad jump to go along with the 40 time of 4.47. Those vertical and broad jump numbers speak to his explosiveness as an athlete. He has the type of physical profile that should allow him to be a plug-and-play safety with the ability to match up physically and run with these freakish tight ends that have become some of the best weapons in football.
Having a back-end defender who can tackle, but also run and cover is a terrific asset in today's NFL.
Detroit's Glover Quin and Quandre Diggs are converted nickel cornerbacks turned safeties. While neither is considered a burner in terms of their long speed, they were both successful cover men before making the switch to safety.
We saw a collectively more athletic safety group at the Combine this year with a more refined set of cover skills. Don't be surprised if that's the trend at the position moving forward.