Our final stop on the defensive half of our trip around the Titans position by position as we head into the 2014 offseason, after previous stops at defensive tackle, defensive end, outside linebacker, middle linebacker, and cornerback, is a look at the safeties.
I covered in the DT positional analysis what new defensive coordinator Ray Horton has said about how he intends to align the defense, more or less, though what I said there pertained primarily to the front seven. Safeties in a Horton defense have a role in run fits, but otherwise in base situations there tend to be somewhat distinct front seven and back four responsibilities.
On the subject of Horton and safeties, defensive backs coach Louie Cioffi noted in a radio interview he and Horton tend prefer more interchangeable safeties than the distinct strong and free safety types on a team like Seattle, another defense that liked to play Cover-3 and man-free much like the 2013 Browns did (a casual impression I had Cioffi reinforced in that interview). That may have implications for the Titans, though I should point out neither the Browns (T.J. Ward and Tashaun Gipson) nor the 2012 Cardinals (Kerry Rhodes and Adrian Wilson) had a player I would characterize as a prototype free safety.
That means it will be interesting to see how Horton and Cioffi use Michael Griffin, a classic prototype free safety who lately has seemed to perform best when he is in a more defined role and struggled as a strong safety early in 2012. He spent much of 2013 lining up somewhere between the middle of the Cumberland River and the line of scrimmage and had his best, most consistent season since probably 2008 in my view. Though he only had 1 interception and 5 passes defensed (per the Titans), he played his high safety role capably. I thought he tackled much better than he did in 2012 and did a better job of getting to his landmarks. He did miss two games, the first of his NFL career (898 snaps, 84%, 97% when active). One was due to injury, while the other was a suspension for too many high hits. That's something that has been an occasional issue for him, and it seems related to his limitations as a prototype free safety. He is not malicious, but rather seems to lack the instincts, knack, whatever it may be to make the hit in the right spot and with the right timing.
The challenge for Cioffi and Horton will be to find a way to do what Griffin does best and incorporate that into their scheme. As we have seen with Griffin, he seems to be a player who does his best work when he has the best situations around him. One thing we do know is something he indicated and Cioffi confirmed, that he will be lining up closer to the line of scrimmage. I do not believe he will or should be a true in the box player more regularly, but rather expect him to be lined up between 8 and 12 yards off the line of scrimmage instead of 15 or 25.
It is an NFL offseason, which means it is time for another round of "Does Bernard Pollard's leadership, fiery attitude, and willingness to hit outweigh his coverage limitations and always-on persona?" If yes, you can get a player who can add a proven veteran and known professional to a team desperately lacking in both and he can have a big impact, as he did for the 2013 Titans. He started all 16 games (1054 of 1065 snaps, 99%) and led the team with 142 tackles (93 solo). He did actually hold up reasonably well in coverage most of the time, though he was beat at times. I also was not always impressed with the job he did as a zone defender, but perhaps I am holding him to an unreasonably high standard.
As a potential Horton safety, I wonder about the fit-Pollard is far from an ideal single-high player and seems to me best suited as more of a pure strong safety. I also wonder about his personality meshing with Ray Horton's. I thought he was a good fit with, and would successfully reinforce, the message Gregg Williams was adding to the 2013 Titans defense, but I do not have the same confidence he is so personally simpatico with Horton. This may be me overreading some indistinct tea leaves, but as a free agent I lean toward the idea Pollard is a player the Titans would have back at the right price, but is far from a must-sign.
Perhaps my thinking about Pollard is affected by the presence of George Wilson on the roster. The apparent strong safety starter when the Titans signed him last February, Pollard's later signing pushed him to the three-safety packages and Griffin's missed time. He finished the season playing 383 snaps on defense (36%, 27% in the games Griffin was active) and was also a valuable special teams player, leading the team in tackles in that area (per the Titans). Like Pollard, he added a needed dose of veteran leadership and professionalism to the team.
Maybe it's just from watching the 2012 Cardinals, but Wilson feels like a Horton safety to me. Not ideal range, but smart, reliable, and a veteran. Turning 33 in March, he is definitely a year-to-year proposition at this stage of his NFL career but could be the bridge to another starter or spend another year (the final year of the two-year deal he signed last February) as a valuable reserve and special teams player.
2013 seventh-round pick Daimion Stafford made the team and was almost exclusively a special teams player, playing just 9 snaps on defense. A collegiate free safety, he is an NFL strong safety-I was not even sure I like him in the interchangeable safety mold (or even Cover-2 safety, not that I expect the 2014 Titans to play much Cover-2). Given how little he played, I have no good read on his likely fate. After a regime change, though, marginal players are the most vulnerable, easily exchanged for players at a similar general skillset but with a slightly different, preferable set of traits.
Is Micah Pellerin a cornerback or a free safety? The Cowboys, who had him during the 2013 season before releasing him, listed him as a cornerback. The Packers and Colts, where he was before, had him at safety. He was a collegiate cornerback. Listed at 6'0, 192 pounds, he is more cornerback-sized, but the Titans list him as a "DB" rather than a "CB." (Tommie Campbell is also listed as a DB, for the record, though we've seen him play on the field and that has always been at CB.) On the roster for the final six games after being added for Corey Lynch (a safety), Pellerin was inactive three times and played only special teams the other plays. Throw him somewhere in the mix, though probably for just a roster spot rather than a big role on defense.
Michael Griffin will start and play a lot. I still do not see a clear backup for Griffin on the roster, though not having a true FS-type would be a smaller deal in 2014 than I thought it was in 2013. Bernard Pollard was a nice player for the 2013 Titans, but would he be as nice for the 2014 Titans? I think Horton's answer might be "No," and I expect him to hit free agency, where anything could happen. George Wilson will have a role. Unless the Titans are higher on Stafford than I am, I see a need for a 2015 and possibly even 2014 starter, at least if they agree with me Pollard is not that guy.