- Matt Williamson, ESPN.com
Playing safety in the NFL is more difficult than ever. The NFL has become a passing league, so the days of pure in-the-box, run-stuffing safeties are over. Safeties need to be able to play a center field role in two-deep zone and man-to-man coverages against wide receivers, tight ends and athletic pass-catching running backs. Plus, they need to be able to assert themselves against the run and also blitz in today's sophisticated defenses.
Complicating their issues of late is the development of the tight end position. Every team now covets -- and many have found -- tight ends that are remarkably athletic and are equal parts tight end and wide receiver (think Jimmy Graham or Jermichael Finley). As such fantastic offensive weapons emerge, someone has to cover them. And that responsibility usually falls on the shoulders of safeties. We are also seeing more and more "Big Nickel" sets -- five defensive backs, including three safeties -- against offensive base personnel.
Below is a list of very young players at this position who should have bright futures ahead of them. Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu are still the best two players at the position, but they won't play forever. This is the next wave.