Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

05 Apr 2010

Do Star Safeties Have Shorter Careers Than Other Defenders?

Jason Lisk at the pro-football-reference.com blog looks at star players at every defensive position and how likely they are to have long careers. In a nutshell, he finds that interior defenders (safeties and inside linebackers) are much more likely to be done by age 30 than perimeter players (cornerbacks and outside linebackers).

That makes Ray Lewis' career even more amazing.

Posted by: Vincent Verhei on 05 Apr 2010

37 comments, Last at 10 Apr 2010, 10:33pm by huh?


by Junker23 :: Mon, 04/05/2010 - 8:50pm

More amazing? More like more overrated, amirite?

by MPavao (not verified) :: Mon, 04/05/2010 - 8:52pm

How does it make his career more overrated if he lasted such a long time at a position that usually leads to shorter careers?

by tuluse :: Mon, 04/05/2010 - 10:58pm

adjust your sarcasm detector

by woodentaco (not verified) :: Mon, 04/05/2010 - 11:50pm

Uhh, excuse me? I don't have a sarcasm detector. What do you mean?

by Key19 :: Mon, 04/05/2010 - 8:56pm


by Temo :: Mon, 04/05/2010 - 11:10pm

It kinda makes Roy Williams' rapid decline more understandable, doesn't it? He turned 29 last year.

by Dean :: Tue, 04/06/2010 - 9:04am

Not if you believe Williams was a product of hype, and never as good as advertized.

by JIPanick :: Tue, 04/06/2010 - 11:44am

For the first few years, he was every bit as good as advertised. He did fall off sooner than the hype did, but from 2002-2004 maybe 2005 he deserved it.

by Brendan Scolari :: Tue, 04/06/2010 - 11:21pm

How does that make his decline more understandable at all then? So in 2006, when he was 26 years old, he was already declining because of age? That would be like Polamalu delining permenantly in 2007, or Ed Reed in 2004. Sorry, not really buying it.

by Temo :: Wed, 04/07/2010 - 3:41pm

Whether you buy it or not, it's the truth. And I'm not at all saying it was age related (though saying that all players age differently should, well, be obvious to you). But that's about the arc that his career took.

I would say that he was at least league-average in 2006 as well, before being below-replacement level in 2007.

Also, Roy Williams had more games played at the same age vs. Polamalu and Reed, due to Polamalu not starting his rookie year and Reed being 24 when he entered the league. And Williams was a run-support first strong safety, while the other two are free safeties.

by Raiderjoe :: Mon, 04/05/2010 - 10:01pm

dsidnt look at pfr blig yet but mak sense. cornerbacks and outside klinebackers going to be away from piles and heavy traffic more than safetes and inside linrbackrts. ss and ilbs goibng to mix it up more which mran grearter chance of injuries.

by Temo :: Mon, 04/05/2010 - 10:41pm

True. I was thinking it didn't make sense because the outside guys rely on speed so much more, and that tends to go first. But I didn't consider the collision aspect of it.

by Nathan :: Mon, 04/05/2010 - 11:33pm

side note, exactly why I think Rod Woodson may be the best defensive back ever even if he wasn't the best CB of all time (or is it Ronnie Lott?).

by Dean :: Tue, 04/06/2010 - 9:05am

Having grown up watching them both, I'd take Lott. Maybe there are some metrics out there to support Woodson, but going strictly by the eyeball test, Lott stands head and shoulders above everyone else I ever saw play DB.

by bravehoptoad :: Tue, 04/06/2010 - 10:35am

I don't know...there's an awfully wide variety of safeties, more than any other defensive position. You've got the pseudo-linebacker to the centerfielder. I can see why some little guy who's playing like a linebacker can get beat up pretty quick, but some free safety who's built like strings -- why wouldn't that guy last as long as any CB?

Stringiest guy I ever say in football was a safety named Merton Hanks, on the early 90s 49ers teams. Guy looked like he would snap in half if he tried to make a tackle, so he was almost never near the line of scrimmage. Still -- five time pro-bowler -- and he retired after eight years.

Is Free Safety that much rougher on a body than CB?

P.S., I don't think Ed Reed is contemplating retirement because he can't play anymore.

by bravehoptoad :: Tue, 04/06/2010 - 11:27am

...and the answer, judging by Delta Whiskey's link below, is no. It's just that CBs will stick around longer in non-starting roles, or transition to safety. Safeties have no fall back plan like that.

by Kevin from Philly :: Tue, 04/06/2010 - 1:54pm

I always figured he had to retire early because he'd messed up his neck doing that crazy shakey-head thing after he made a play. Strangest celebration dance I ever saw.

by Anonymous2 (not verified) :: Mon, 04/05/2010 - 11:52pm

Makes sense. Same reasoning probably also explains the rapid decline of over 30 running backs on offense.

by huh? (not verified) :: Sat, 04/10/2010 - 10:33pm

Totally agree.

What is a safety/inside linebacker? Its the mirror image of a running back. They do what RBs do in reverse, and usually end up with a lot of the same high speed collisions.

by Sean :: Tue, 04/06/2010 - 4:16am

Interesting. I'm wondering if this sort of thing is looked at by the teams? I'm thinking about this in reference to what the Browns do in this year's draft. I've seen a lot of mock's saying they either go Berry if available or Haden. Given that safeties tend to be out of the league earlier than other positions, is it better to take the potential superstar safety and have 6-7 years of top level. Or, go with the potential steady starter at another position - CB with Haden - and have them for 9-10 years.

by Phil Osopher :: Tue, 04/06/2010 - 5:55am

Browns need star talent at any position. Long or short term....they need top level talent. thay have very little of that now

“You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else.”
-Albert Einstein

"Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers"

by langsty :: Tue, 04/06/2010 - 7:38am

Its worth noting that Ed Reed has been publicly contemplating retirement this year, at the age of 31.

by DeltaWhiskey :: Tue, 04/06/2010 - 8:35am
by bravehoptoad :: Tue, 04/06/2010 - 11:27am

Interesting that he comes to the exact opposite conclusion. The big difference seems to be that he's looking at games as a starter rather than years in the league. If we correlated the two studies, the conclusion would be that CBs hang on longer in backup or nickel- and dime- roles, or transition to safety.

He also reaches the conclusion that safeties start for more years than any other position.

I want to get these two guys in a room and have them fight it out.

by JasonK :: Tue, 04/06/2010 - 10:15am

Really, does it make sense think much about career length in making a draft pick? You're selecting the exclusive right to sign the player to for up to 4, 5, or 6 years, depending on how high the pick is and on the free agency rights in whatever CBA is in effect, not the sole ownership of his entire career.

As the incumbent team, you probably have a leg up on signing the player to his second contract (mostly because players are usually eager to get their first big-cash-in signing bonus before their rookie deal expires), but that's nothing to count on unless you know that you'll be willing to use the franchise tag to keep a player (and if you're certain that future CBAs will include a franchise-tag-like mechanism).

by dmb :: Tue, 04/06/2010 - 11:49am

Really, does it make sense think much about career length in making a draft pick? You're selecting the exclusive right to sign the player to for up to 4, 5, or 6 years, depending on how high the pick is and on the free agency rights in whatever CBA is in effect, not the sole ownership of his entire career.

The author makes this point at the end of his post, but he goes a step further and points out that based on his findings, it would actually make more sense to acquire safeties in the draft. First, their "bust rate" is relatively low; second, because of the truncated career length, most of a safety's value is likely to come over the course of that rookie contract. I thought it was an excellent point.

by loneweasel (not verified) :: Tue, 04/06/2010 - 10:27am

Interesting analysis, but doesn't really have much relevance in this years draft. Since if a team is going to shy away from Berry because of problems with the position it should shy away from two DTackles as well. Somehow they are always mocked top five and Berry isn't.

by Bobman :: Tue, 04/06/2010 - 1:13pm

Bob Sanders.

But he shortened the health curve to include Jr year in college as well....

And I don't like him much, but I still vote for Ray Lewis as amazing. His longevity, particularly at that position, is crazy. If you compare these guys to car resale values (I'm making ths up on the fly, so bear with me) Ray is trading at maybe 60% of purchase price after 13 or so years, primarily because the end is near and not because he can't produce today. Most guys are fully depreciated by now, and most MLBs have been so for 5 years or so. Now if you could sell your 13 year old car for 60% of purchase price, wouldn;t you say "damn, that baby held its value amazingly well"? You should. My guess is that 15% is the norm for most cars that actually run (remember a lot no longer run at this point, bringing the true average down), and even top-level cars (call Ray a Mercedes or Lexus) 40% would be pushing it.

Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.

by dbostedo :: Tue, 04/06/2010 - 1:45pm

I'm bearing with you, but if you're going to arbitrarily compare middle LB career length/skills to consumer goods, why not a couch? Or house? Or apple?

Are you really saying that because Ray Lewis' value has deteriorated slower than a car, that's impressive? Are cars noted for holding their value for a long time? Is there correlation between car value and middle LB value? I wouldn't think so. Should we compare Ray Lewis to, say, and apple, and find his career even more impressive because an apple is worth essentially nothing after a month or so, while Lewis has gone on for 13 years?

(I'm not trying to be harsh - sorry if it comes off that way. I just found the comparison kind of funny.)

by TreeRol (not verified) :: Tue, 04/06/2010 - 2:35pm

The comparison to a specific consumer good was probably just so we could wrap our heads around it, but if you want to focus just on the numbers the post still makes sense. Ray Lewis is a consumer good that holds 60% of its value after X years; most goods of that type hold 15% of their value after X years. That is remarkable.

The numbers are made up, but it's at least a framework you can use to approach the question. I found it insightful. (This isn't to say I agree or disagree with the conclusion - I just liked the framework.)

by dbostedo :: Tue, 04/06/2010 - 5:40pm

Well if we knew that most middle linebackers typically are only worth 15% after X years, then Ray Lewis at 60% after X years would be impressive. But that's not the framework given.

It was "product-unrelated-to-linebackers" is typically worth 15% after X years...therefore Ray Lewis being worth 60% after X years is impressive.

Unless I'm misreading something.

by God (not verified) :: Tue, 04/06/2010 - 3:29pm

For my sakes !
makes me think of John Lynch -- a hard hitting safety and still was playing the game at 50 years old. Now that's an accomplishment.

by Anders Jensen (not verified) :: Tue, 04/06/2010 - 8:19pm

Makes me as an Eagles fan appriciate Brian Dawkins even more.
34 years old and still a very good in the box safety.

Look at this decade to see that it had some great safeties there play(ed) long into there 30's like Lynch, Harrioson, Sharper and Dawkins.

by tuluse :: Tue, 04/06/2010 - 8:39pm

On the other hand, Polamalu, Reed, Bob Sanders, Mike Brown.

by Brendan Scolari :: Tue, 04/06/2010 - 11:26pm

Reed is still great and Mike Brown never was, Polamalu is only 28 and might still be great for a while, and Sanders has been injury-prone since college, I don't see how these guys are counter-examples at all.

by chemical burn :: Thu, 04/08/2010 - 12:30pm

Seems pretty obvious: Reed is contemplating retirement at 31, Polamalu has begun to struggle with injuries, Sanders remains injury prone (and likely will have a short career), Mike Brown fell apart after a couple out-standing seasons. The poster above isn't commenting on the article, he's noting which talented safeties don't seem likely to play well into their 30's (in contrast to Dawkins, Lynch, etc.) What are you confused about?

by cisforcookie (not verified) :: Thu, 04/08/2010 - 4:26pm

You're talking about an awfully small sample size here with just a few guys. What I find most interesting is when you consider the injuries that players take at different positions. Cornerbacks suffer a lot of knee and ankle injuries. Safeties suffer more broken bones, concussions/brain/spinal injuries, and more upper body injuries i feel like. Linebackers suffer from hand/arm/shoulder/hip injuries a fair deal, but I don't feel like ankle and knee injuries are as much of a problem. Where's the research tracking the types of injuries and rehab times associated and comparing that data to what positions/styles people play. then you could see whether it's a specific position or style of play or whatever that is hurting people. i'm sure the nfl teams all have this data and use it to train their guys to avoid injuries specific to their positions.