We conclude our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position was we approach the 2012 regular season with a look at the safeties.
As the 2011 regular season came to a close, the Titans were facing issues at both safety positions, as four of the top five safeties were heading to free agency and the only returner had played in just three NFL games in his career. The Titans ended up retaining both primary starters, though, and both are poised to start again.
The three of us who write for Total Titans don't necessarily completely agree on everything Titans-related very often, but one thing we did all agree on was Michael Griffin was too inconsistent for the Titans to sign him to a long-term extension. Heck, I didn't think he was even a lock to receive a franchise tag designation. We'll never know what the Titans would have done if every other top potential free agent safety wasn't franchised by the time they got around to franchising Griffin, but he's now poised to be here for the next couple years.
I once saw a critic snark about the award of a Nobel Prize in Literature that "hopefully this will inspire [the author] to write better books." Similarly, there's a bit of an aspirational aspect to the decision to sign Griffin to an extension scheduled to pay him $35 million over 5 years. He made an impact when he stepped into the lineup mid-season as a rookie, had a great second season, terrible third one, improved but not very good fourth one where he made the Pro Bowl anyway, and then was okay but not great by my estimation last year.
Griffin at times seems like a prototype free safety in the deep middle of the defense, like a player who could have the impact Darren Sharper did for Gray's mentor Gregg Williams when the Saints won the Super Bowl, but he alternates great plays with head-scratchers. Gray noted that bipolar attitude this offseason, and the Titans have to be hoping he's able to play reasonably well all the time this year.
The other retained starter is Jordan Babineaux, a hybrid corner-safety who was a marginal starter. He stepped into the lineup when Chris Hope got hurt and never relinquished the starting job. Like Griffin he signed a multi–year deal this offseason, but his was for much more modest terms-two years, up to $5 million. I found his play somewhere between "just a guy" and "efficient but unspectacular." He recently turned 30, and his contract term indicates to me the Titans find him a useful player in the short run but not a great reason not to make other plans.
The player who may figure in those other plans is Robert Johnson. As fifth-round pick in 2010, he spent his entire rookie year on the 53-man roster without making it into a game. When the new coaching staff cut him at the end of training camp last year after he was slowed by injury, I wasn't sure if he had a future with the Titans. Fourth safety Anthony Smith went to injured reserve late in the season, though, and Johnson was activated off the practice squad for the final three games. He seems to have had a much stronger offseason and particularly training camp this year, though, and started a couple preseason games, both while Babineaux was injured and while he was healthy enough to play at least some. A collegiate free safety, he fits more naturally as Griffin's backup, but Gray made noises about using Griffin differently.
The fourth safety to make the team out of training camp was Al Afalava, who played both free and strong safety for the Bears in 2009 but was cut at the same time as Titans backup MLB Tim Shaw. My Football Outsiders co-author and fellow Chicago area resident Mike Kurtz had praise for Afalava's 2009 play, noting he showed athleticism and spatial awareness that had previously been in short supply among Bears safeties. He spent part of 2011 with the Colts, but was cut in preseason. He won the fourth safety job over Aaron Francisco probably in part becuse he was healthy this preseason while Francisco was not. Health has been an issue for Afalava in his career, though, as he suffered from a nagging shoulder injury in 2009 and showed up on the Colts' injury report in the time he was with them in 2010 and again in training camp in 2011. He may be the guy Jerry Gray was looking for for the Ruby package, though both he and Johnson played with Griffin and Babineaux there this preseason.
But really, please, Michael Griffin, play well. If you play like you can play like, then whether it's Babineaux or Johnson or even Afalava next to you doesn't matter so much. And if you're as bad as you were in 2009, well, I may be writing another post about how I'm done with a Titans first-round draft pick who just signed a contract extension.