Our final stop on the defense as we tour the Tennessee Titans position by position as they head into the 2013 offseason is a look at the safety position.
Back in 2008, when the Titans had the best record in the league thanks in large part to a very strong defense, you could credibly argue the league's best safety combination was in Tennessee. While one of the players from that combination is still there, the Titans since that season ended in disappointment have experienced new faces or simply poor play at the position every season. As with the outside linebacker position, which has been subject to a broadly similar dynamic, this extended period of transition and uncertainty was accompanied by something of a change in conception for the position.
The goings-on at safety haven't been quite the same as the transitions at outside linebacker, as there's been one player whose presence, though not his level of performance, has been quite consistent. Having made a dubious decision to financially commit to him before last offseason, the story of the safety position for the Titans in 2012 was how to get their designated star to play like a star for the first time in five seasons, a problem that seemed to vex defensive coordinator Jerry Gray as much as the casual fan.
The 2013 offseason has already seen one move made and another potential one not made at the safety position for the Titans. Given that context, just what should we think of the Titans' safeties as they stand right now, and should we expect more moves to be made?
The man at the heart of the enigma at safety is Michael Griffin. As I noted in my preseason look at the safeties, he's ranged from great to terrible with stops at about everything in between in the past five seasons. He missed 15 plays all year, ranking second on the team behind Jason McCourty with 1114 snaps (99%). The Titans credited him with 103 tackles (72 solo) and five passes defensed. I wrote a post about his role (or lack thereof) in a post in early October entitled Where's Michael?
Back in 2008, the Titans kind of used him and Chris Hope as interchangeable safeties, both capable of being either a single-high man over the top or coming up in run support. Jerry Gray tends to prefer a more traditional strong and free alignment. Griffin seems like a prototype free safety with great range, but even playing 30 yards off the ball can be pulled out of position by playfakes and doesn't have the ball skills or reaction you'd like your first-round pick free safety to have. As we saw in the brief, abortive experiment early in 2012, and as we were reminded at times during the season as well, he can be overly inconsistent in tackling and run support as a strong safety as well. Perhaps the thing to say about him is his level of play tends to reflect the performance level of the defense around him.
The Titans had a chance to part ways with him this offseason without the obligation to pay him further guaranteed money. As expected, they did not do so. (If I think a key player getting cut is a realistic option, I'll do a post on it.) Especially with the latest move, it seems almost certain Griffin will return to the free safety role he played the final 14 games of 2012. Since two of his four interceptions that counted actually came because of ball skills, the first time that had happened since at least 2009, maybe he'll suddenly once again be the player he was in 2008. More likely, WYSIWYG and Griffin will be the same player he's been the last three seasons, with performances ranging from the good to the not so good.
Jordan Babineaux was the surprise hit of the 2011 season, stepping in at strong safety for a rapidly-aging Chris Hope. He played 766 snaps (68%), starting 12 games and playing in all 16, and finished with 92 tackles (66 solo). Unlike 2011, he didn't lead the team in that last category.
While not falling off quite as much as Hope did, it seems fair to say the modest contract the Titans gave him in re-signing him last offseason was an indicator they believed his talent was modest. He was a backup the first two games in the experiment, was active but did not play on defense in the season finale, and Gray gave him breaks other than as required by health in several other games. Even in 2011, he wasn't a great space player and was or could have been exploited at times even in a more limited two-deep safety role. In 2012, his deficiencies as a cover player and as a run stopper seemed more pronounced, though his Football Outsiders coverage numbers are actually better than they were in 2011. It's probably fair to think of him more as ineffectual and not a presence in 2012 than as quite bad. Due $1.6 million in the second and final year of his deal in 2013, I preliminarily rate his chances at being on the Titans roster Week 1 as somewhere between questionable and doubtful.
That assessment of the chance of Babineaux sticking around is based in large part on the recent acquisition of George Wilson, whose signing I recently covered. He's a strong safety to play the strong safety role in Jerry Gray's defense. I would rate him as better than Babineaux. Michael Griffin is starting. Wilson is ahead of Babineaux. I don't really love him in a two-deep safety role, either, but he should be at least a competent starter at strong safety in 2013.
Al Afalava was the strong safety Gray tried instead of Babineaux. He ended up playing 234 snaps (21%) and had 23 tackles (13 solo). The vast majority of his work came the final two games, when he played 134 snaps combined. I declared in my review of the Week 17 game I'd be fine if Afalava never started a game again and would characterize his play that day as somewhere between non-impactful and ineffectual. He's also hurt a lot. Under contract for 2013, I think he has a chance to stick as a fourth safety and part-time player if the Titans don't make any additions at the position.
Beyond trying Griffin at strong safety, the man behind The Experiment was Robert Johnson, the starting turned backup free safety. He played 278 snaps (25%), 141 of them in the first two games and no more than 25 in a single game thereafter before finishing the season on injured reserve. The Titans credited him with 13 tackles (10 solo). An evaluation of his performance in 2012 is almost impossible to extricate from the team's overall defensive struggles in, and relatively quick discarding of, The Experiment. Suffice to say with Griffin at free safety, he's not going to be a starter, nor has he really shown that he clearly deserves a shot at a starting job. Under contract for 2013, my guess is he'll be back for another season as Griffin's backup.
Tracy Wilson was added to the roster when Javon Ringer went on injured reserve after Week 7. (The Titans spent the first 7 games with 4 safeties, had 5 for 5 weeks, and finished the year with 4 more weeks, for a total of 12, with 4 safeties.) He played 4 snaps on defense in the Week 10 blowout win against Miami, but didn't get into another game even though he was active all 9 contests he was with the Titans. The team credited him with 6 special teams tackles. Throw him into the fourth/fifth safety and backup strong safety roles, I guess.
Markelle Martin spent his entire rookie season on the injured list dealing with the effects of a pre-draft injury. He was a very nice college player whom I struggled to see as a quality NFL player. He was listed in the unofficial depth chart in last training camp's media release as a free safety, so consider him a potential challenger to Robert Johnson as backup free safety.
Michael Griffin is your starter. That will be a not too bad thing at times and give me and everybody else, including Jerry Gray and Gregg Williams, indigestion at times. George Wilson is your presumptive starter at strong safety. Beyond them, though, the outlook is murky. I think there's a good shot Robert Johnson is your backup free safety again.
The big question is whether the Titans feel compelled to address this offseason the reality that Wilson is not a long-term solution at strong safety, even if your definition of "long-term" is "after 2013." I believe the Titans should strongly consider drafting a strong safety in the second through fourth rounds and treat Wilson's presence as a luxury that allows them to play that player only a limited amount in 2013 if he's not ready to play a lot. Given the team's other needs, though, it would not surprise me to see the Titans eschew drafting a safety they don't absolutely need in favor of a position where a new player is a bigger priority. I repeat I think this would be a mistake, but I can see it happening.
The other question is how much the Titans' usage of safeties will change. Gregg Williams' defenses in New Orleans were known for having safeties play a prominent role, especially in the pass rush. In my post on Wilson's acquisition, I noted I thought he might make a decent Ruby safety, a player I don't think the Titans ever found in 2012. Williams' defenses in New Orleans featured strong safety Roman Harper as a key pass rusher. Neither Wilson nor Babineaux has a history of pass rushing, so if the Titans want to follow that mold, they'll need to add that player, most likely in the draft. That may be a key thing to watch this offseason in determining whether the Titans will run a Jerry Gray defense or a Gregg Williams defense in 2013.