A player, coach or issue that should be on your radar as training camp approaches.
When examining the landscape of the NFC East, it is somewhat surprising how many issues there are across the board at the safety position. Let’s take a quick overview of the situation while remembering that this is a division that features tight ends such as Jason Witten and Brent Celek, a lot of firepower at the wide receiver position and a fine foursome of passers to attack safeties at the third level.
In Dallas, Gerald Sensabaugh looks entrenched as the starting strong safety, while Alan Ball will do battle with Mike Hamlin at free safety, with the long shot of rookie Akwasi Owusu-Ansah factoring in here as well.
Sensabaugh is probably the best safety on the roster, but his coverage skills are average. He is best against the run, but it should be noted that he played a large portion of the season with a broken thumb. Everyone else is really an unknown, other than Pat Watkins, but Watkins has proved to be someone not worth getting excited about. Ball is small and has more of a cornerback skill set than that of your typical safety.
The Giants were horrendous at safety last season and obviously some of that had to do with the brutal knee injury to Kenny Phillips, who looked like a real up-and-comer before he got hurt. It’s hard to speculate if Phillips will be ready for this season or if he will be the same player when he does return, but the Giants were quite proactive in their approach to the position.
Though they spent a lot of money to acquire him, I commend the signing of Antrel Rolle. He is extremely talented and entered the league as a highly touted cornerback prospect. While already a very good player, he should only improve with more reps at free safety, where he will start for the Giants. His ability to read the play from the deep middle does need work though.
If Phillips cannot man the strong safety spot, the job would go to either Deon Grant, recently signed as a free agent, or Michael Johnson, who had a rough year in 2009 and makes too many errors with his assignments. New York also used a third-round pick on Chad Jones, a player with a lot of ability. His game seems best suited for free safety, but he has the body to play closer to the line of scrimmage.
While New York was probably the worst off in this division at safety last year, I expect them to be the best of the four in 2010. You have to commend their aggressive approach to fixing a problem. And although all these moves seem to indicate that New York is seriously worried about Phillips’ recovery, it also should be noted that new defensive coordinator Percy Fewell used a lot of three-safety sets with the Bills and that could carry over to the Giants this year.
Philadelphia also was proactive in improving its free safety position, but an Achilles injury to Marlin Jackson took him out of the equation. Second-round pick Nate Allen also is a fine-looking prospect for this position. That is a lot of pressure to put on a rookie -- especially in this division -- but Allen has the skills to handle it. What is worrisome, however, is how well he will handle the mental aspects of the position, which can be taxing.
The Eagles are set at strong safety with Quintin Mikell, who is a very solid all-around safety who is asked to do many things in an attacking scheme -- and does just about everything well. With Jackson’s injury, depth here is a major concern, although Macho Harris could potentially move back to free safety if needed. Still, the Eagles are not real deep at cornerback either, which gives me some pause about their sub package defenses. If we lined up today, I would attack this defense with three- and four-wide receiver sets until the secondary proved it could handle the stress.
Like their counterparts in the division, the Redskins have questions at safety as well. I see three decent safeties -- one with loads of ability -- but all three are more strong safety types. The player with loads of ability is LaRon Landry, who will handle the starting strong safety spot. Landry was overwhelming coming out of college, but certainly has not lived up to his draft position. As the Redskins move to a 3-4 scheme, maybe Landry will see more of a versatile role, such as the one Pittsburgh uses with Troy Polamalu. Landry has reportedly bulked up for the role, which could be a good or bad thing, depending on how it affects his movement skills. He really struggled in deep coverage, but I am predicting a breakout season for him.
Neither Chris Horton nor Reed Doughty is the ideal fit at free safety. Doughty fits the mold better and should get the nod, but he isn’t going to make anyone forget about Sean Taylor in terms of his physical skill set. He plays the run better than the pass. This safety situation could lead to a lot of big plays deep downfield against the Redskins.
There are some good football players at safety in this division and there are others with a lot of ability who could flourish in 2010. But it does surprise me that three of the four teams -- Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington -- do not appear interested in adding a true centerfield type in Oshiomogho Atogwe. And while there are questions across the board at safety, for the most part, the teams in the NFC East can really rush the passer -- which of course can make problems on the backend disappear.