When the Buffalo Bills selected Terrel Bernard in the third round, many fans began discussing his potential to move to safety. Why? Because a third-round pick for a third linebacker feels high. Let’s cleanse ourselves of both the insanity of Twitter and the notion that it is simple for professional football players to change positions.
My daughter is really good baker. Gourmet cookies, triple layer cakes, and made-from-scratch berry pies with lattice work crusts are all on her baking resumé. She has made flawless cheesecakes using completely different methodologies. She knows her way around the kitchen for baking. If I asked her to fry an egg, she’d be lost. She knows all the attachments to the Kitchen Aide but would struggle to make spaghetti because baking and cooking, while both happening in the kitchen, are significantly different skill sets.
Likewise, playing linebacker and safety, while both happening on the football field, are very different skill sets. Putting Terrel Bernard at safety would emphasize his weaknesses (or at least skills he has yet to put to tape consistently) and would detract from his strengths. This flip flop is also true for his physical traits.
The Switch Would Destroy Bernard’s Advantages
Physically, Bernard has advantages as an LB in speed and agility, and those advantages dissipate relative to NFL safeties.
Note how Bernard’s ranks shift moving from LB to S. The speed and explosiveness ranks in the shuttle, 3-cone, broad jump, and vertical compared to NFL LBs significantly diminish, and his gains versus NFL safeties are all in areas that are not movement-based (bench press, height, weight, and hand size). Jordan Poyer’s unknown future is part of the speculation fuel because the Bills defense relies on quality safety play. This makes Poyer’s possible departure worrisome.
Different Traits Matter Differently Based on Position
Initial athletic comparisons between Poyer and Bernard appear to favor Bernard. Take a closer look at where each player tested better. Bernard clearly shatters Poyer in static measures like weight and bench press and explosion measures like broad and vertical jumps. However, Poyer is superior in every speed and agility metric.
Now, consider which metric types are more important for the respective positions. While size matters at the safety position, movement skills are far more important. Moving to safety would turn Bernard’s current speed and agility advantages (at linebacker) into weaknesses. Asking a player to make that kind of move is bad coaching and lackluster team-building.
Going Beyond Just Physical Traits
It is uninformed fandom to look at a player’s build and think he can simply shift to another position. This is true for moving Tremaine Edmunds to DE and most every positional shift fans clamor for. Playing in the NFL is much more than elite athleticism; all of the techniques, reads, and skills any player has spent their career developing are particular to that position. Asking a player to not only increase their level of play — jumping from college to the NFL — but simultaneously asking him to unlearn significant portions of what got that player to the NFL is a dangerous recipe. There are examples of players switching positions and succeeding, but it is an enormously difficult request and a hard way to start a career.
Let’s consider a common coverage to look at how strong safety and weakside linebacker might have different tasks.
Differences on Film
Matt Bowen was part of a series of Bleacher Report articles that introduced fans to some basic coverages. In the pic above, he details how New England used Nickel Cover 1 against the Dolphins when they were in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE). Following the immediate “low hat/high hat” reads, the strong safety (red circle) is reading the TE (“Y”), looking through the TE to the backfield to watch for a handoff or drop back, and taking a step toward the line of scrimmage to bring run support or begin to pick up the TE in his route.
If the TE goes into a route, the safety has to provide coverage like a cornerback in man to man. The weakside linebacker (light blue) is watching through a triangle of the G/C/G and into the backfield. Based on his read, he is preparing to fill or chase in run support, and preparing to drop into the underneath hole if it’s a drop back. They’re both on the field, but one is cooking and the other is baking.
Bernard’s Skills (Strengths/Weaknesses) Tell You He’s a Linebacker
Bernard is a force in creating pressure off blitzing. He does not have edge skills like hand-fighting, but he does throw his body into seams in the offensive line and create pressures. From PFF, Bernard was fifth in creating pressure as a linebacker and first in their Pass Rush Productivity analysis. (Thanks to Kendall Mirsky for sharing those stats.)
@PFF_College released a tweet when Bernard was drafted that he had not given up a touchdown in 983 career coverage snaps. That’s really impressive. However, being reliable in pass coverage as a LB does not mean Bernard would be viable as a safety. The way a safety provides coverage includes movement skills Bernard has not demonstrated. Also, safety is the stereotypical “last line of defense”, and you need reliable tackling in that position. Of all safeties with 80% of snaps in 2021, Hyde and Poyer were both top-20 tacklers (Poyer: 9% missed tackle rate, Hyde: 11.8%). In 2021, Bernard’s missed tackle rate was 15.9%, which ranked 161st (PFF).
Playing in the NFL takes elite athleticism relative to the position. Spencer Brown has one of the highest Relative Athletic Scores scored ever recorded for OL (10 out of 10). As a safety, his RAS would be 3.56. Asking Terrel Bernard to change positions would be moving away from his athletic strengths.
Excelling in the NFL is also much more than elite athleticism. The reads, keys, reactions, and instincts required for each position are learned over a long period of time and, while similar, are distinctive, complex, and nuanced.
So, if you hear folks proudly declaring Terrel Bernard will “just switch to safety”, please tell them, “Bernard can’t cook, he’s a LineBAKER”.
Imagine making it to the end of this article and having to suffer that terrible a dad joke. All apologies, but once it was in my head, it had to be shared.