It was a scary sight. Chris Hope lay twitching on the Field Turf of Paul Brown Stadium. Scarier words would follow, like neck surgery and spinal cord injury.
The play of the Tennessee Titans’ defense in 2008 will depend heavily on the success of that surgery and Hope’s rehab from the injury.
Because the Titans don’t draw too much distinction between strong and free safety, they have the benefit of their safeties being able to play either on the right or left side, with the responsibilities being the same. Sometimes they flip, sometimes not. It appears to based more on individual personnel groupings and matchups than on a strict strong/free basis. It’s especially helpful in substitutions, as was the case when Hope went down last year. It may also be a factor this season.
A thumbnail look at the Titans safeties:
Chris Hope – The Titans definitely missed Hope at the end of last season. The safety play was down a notch or three without him. Although the Titans have said Hope is expected to make a full recovery, I have reservations about several aspects of their optimism. First, recovery and the ability of a player to perform at his previous level are often two different things. Second, I don’t trust their statements on injuries. They’re frequently overly optimistic. And finally, neck and spinal injuries are tricky. I worry about the likelihood of a recurrence and the associated dangers.
Michael Griffin – I’m excited about Griffin’s potential. In time, he should be a very good one, one of the best safeties in the league. But he was a rookie last year and is still on the learning curve. After a few good games as a starter, he regressed at the end of the season. There was a very good reason why his play wasn’t as good — it deteriorated after Hope was no longer next to him. The return of Hope should be a major boost to Griffin’s continued development this summer and fall.
Calvin Lowry – His potential and offseason performance a year ago earned him a starting job at free safety at the beginning of the year and resulted in the release of Lamont Thompson. Lowry’s play wasn’t satisfactory during the season, though. Although he was a second-year player, it was his first as a starter and he often played like a rookie. After a poor game at Houston, he was benched in favor of Griffin and only regained starter status after Hope’s injury. I like Lowry’s potential. It doesn’t match Griffin’s and he will probably never achieve Hope’s success, but he should be a solid backup for many years, and perhaps even an overachieving starter. I like Lowry’s tackling a lot better than his pass coverage. He’s also good on special teams.
Donnie Nickey – This may be the year that someone finally beats Nickey out for a roster spot. Nickey’s not the most physically talented player, but he’s a good athlete who’s no slouch. He knows the defense well and is a good practice player. He’s also able to play at any time though he sees most of his regular playing time in situational packages. Nickey’s primary contributions have always been on special teams. Until the Titans can find someone better for teams play, he’ll continue to hold down a roster spot as the fourth safety.
Vincent Fuller – A cornerback at Virginia Tech, Fuller was switched to safety his senior year. He’s been listed as a safety on the Titans roster ever since they drafted him in the fourth round of the 2005 draft. His main contributions have been as a nickelback, where he should compete once again this year. I doubt if Vince sees much action at either safety spot this year, but he’s a viable option if Tennessee needs him.
Outlook: The young safeties, Griffin and Lowry, have two excellent coaches in Chuck Cecil and Marcus Robertson, who were both Pro Bowl safeties back in the day. What they teach should be invaluable, as well as the leadership of Hope. As I opined earlier, the safety play this year should be dependent on Hope’s recovery and ability to play this fall. Health permitting, Hope will start again, with Griffin the favorite over Lowry to be the right-side starter. All three will make the 53-man roster this fall, as well as Fuller, although whether Fuller will be a nickel or safety remains to be seen. Nickey may or may not make the team again. If Tennessee picks up another safety, either in free agency or the draft, it signals me that they want insurance for Hope.
Next in the series we turn our focus to the offense.