Defenses now thinking safeties first

Any expert or fan knows the NFL is a quarterback-driven league. What fewer realize is that it's also become a safety-significant league.

So as the first weekend of games kicks off, it's worth noting what has happened in recent years. Since 2000, 13 of 14 Super Bowl champions have fielded an elite safety who has been voted to at least two Pro Bowls. Look at the list:

Seattle had three-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas and two-time Pro Bowl safety Kam Chancellor last season; Baltimore had nine-time Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed in 2012; the New York Giants had three-time Pro Bowl safety Antrel Rolle in 2011; Green Bay had three-time Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins in 2010; New Orleans had five-time Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper in 2009; Pittsburgh had eight-time Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu in 2008 and 2005; Indianapolis had two-time Pro Bowl safety Bob Sanders in 2006; New England had two-time Pro Bowl safety Rodney Harrison in 2004 and 2003; Tampa Bay had nine-time Pro Bowl safety John Lynch in 2002; New England had four-time Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy in 2001; and Baltimore had 11-time Pro Bowl safety Rod Woodson in 2000.

The only team not to line up an elite safety selected to at least two Pro Bowls was the 2007 New York Giants, who featured a devastating front four.

But in a league in which tight ends and slot receivers have thrived, safeties have become almost as important to defenses as quarterbacks are to offenses. Their value never has been greater than it is today. They have to be stout enough to stop the run, but speedy enough to defend the pass. Not many can do it; but those who can are more valued than before. It has shown up in free agency and the draft.

Four safeties -- compared to zero running backs -- were selected in the first round of May's draft: The Jets drafted safety Calvin Pryor with the 18th overall pick, the Packers grabbed safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with the 21st overall pick, the Cardinals made safety Deone Bucannon the 27th overall pick, and the 49ers added safety Jimmie Ward three picks later.

San Francisco didn't start there, either. Back in March, the 49ers signed former Colts safety Antoine Bethea, who has achieved the magic number of two Pro Bowl appearances, and 2013 first-rounder Eric Reid already has earned a Pro Bowl trip. So San Francisco has the requisite safety strength to try to match Seattle's and continue the trend of Super Bowl champions boasting elite Pro Bowl safeties.

New Orleans and Denver attempted to do the same. The Saints signed three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd to a deal that had $7 million more in guaranteed money than they gave Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham, while the Broncos bolstered their secondary with safety T.J. Ward, who was selected to his first Pro Bowl last season with the Browns. If Ward has a big season, he could wind up going to his second Pro Bowl, the magic number for safeties and seeking championships.

It wasn't always this way. Many organizations and coaches thought they could find safeties anywhere and get by without an elite one. The value of safeties in the draft used to be viewed the way the value of running backs is today.

But the last 14 years have shown otherwise. Championship teams and defenses have proven one thing as much as anything: Good safeties, elite safeties, are more vital than ever. Don't be surprised if this season proves it again.

• Cutting To The Front: As the season prepares to kick off, get ready to see yet another team go from worst to first, a recurring trend in the NFL.

Scenarios that cannot be pictured at the start of the season may turn into reality by the end of the season.

In each of the past 11 seasons, at least one team has gone from last place to first place within its division.

Should the pattern hold, at least one of these teams -- the Bills, Browns, Texans, Raiders, Redskins, Vikings, Falcons, Buccaneers or Rams -- will go from worst to first.

The feeling around the NFL is that the Redskins and Buccaneers have the best chance of extending the streak. The Redskins' roster is loaded with talent and a healthy Robert Griffin III, and the Buccaneers look to be vastly improved over last season.

But the one thing that always can be counted on in the NFL is that very little can be counted on in the NFL.

One of these teams will be a surprise team -- and that shouldn't be much of a surprise.

• Patriot Way Strikes Again: Sometimes football can be a game of numbers. But other times, it's the numbers within the numbers that can be so intriguing.

Take the case of free-agent wide receivers Golden Tate and Brandon LaFell. Tate was the most-sought free-agent receiver on the market and wound up signing a five-year, $31 million deal with the Detroit Lions.

LaFell did not generate the interest nor the contract Tate did, landing a three-year, $9 million deal with the New England Patriots.

Yet here's where it gets intriguing. Despite the fact that Tate's contract is two years longer and $21 million more than LaFell's, the two have posted eerily similar statistics in their careers.

After becoming Seattle's second-round draft pick in 2010, Tate went on to catch 165 passes for 2,195 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Meanwhile, after Carolina made him its third-round pick in 2010, LaFell caught 167 passes for 2,385 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Yet the Lions paid top dollar for Tate whereas the Patriots got a steal in LaFell. If Tate produces, he will be well worth the Lions' money, and it won't matter much.

But heading into the 2014 season, it looks another example of the Patriot Way: a New England bargain deal.


Player of the Week: 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick -- Look for Kaepernick to become the first of many quarterbacks to put up huge numbers against Dallas' porous defense this year.

Game of the Week: Indianapolis at Denver -- Andrew Luck vs. Peyton Manning, the man who preceded him, in a game Denver hopes resembles last season's regular-season opener vs. Baltimore. Denver beat the Ravens, 49-27.

Upset of the Week: Tennessee over Kansas City -- The Titans have the type of defense that could take advantage of the newfound holes along the Chiefs' offensive line.