By Joey “KirkLover” Esquire
Rounding out the defensive side of the ball with a look at safeties. I think the safety position has been a thorn in the side of all four teams for nearly a decade, but a couple teams appear to have made some huge improvements in recent years and are set up well for 2017. The other two… maybe not so much.
1. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
2. NEW YORK GIANTS
3. DALLAS COWBOYS
4. WASHINGTON REDSKINS
4. WASHINGTON REDSKINS
Depth Chart: DJ Swearinger, Su’a Cravens, Montae Nicholson, Deshazor Everett, (Deangelo Hall), (Will Blackmon)
In 2016, the Redskins safeties were on the short list for worst safety groups in the NFL, and that showed in the results. Despite having one of the best CBs in football, the Redskins ranked 24th overall against the pass and 30th defending deep passes, and were particularly bad in the deep middle. They also only ranked 19th in defending the run in open field, so they weren’t especially good in run support either. The Redskins defense was weak up the middle on all three levels, so safety was among the most glaring areas that needed to be addressed heading into 2017.
The Redskins signed DJ Swearinger in free agency and moved Su’a Cravens from dime linebacker to strong safety. Both guys are probably upgrades over what they had last year, but that’s not saying much. DJ Swearinger is on his fourth team in five NFL seasons. No team that he has played for has made an effort to keep him, and the Cardinals will replace him with 33-year-old Antoine Bethea at basically the same money Swearinger signed with the Redskins. He is coming off his best statistical season, but that’s a low bar to clear. I love Su’a Cravens as a player; I think he has a nose for the ball and an attacking mentality that will make him a good fit for the SS position, but he hasn’t actually been a safety since his freshman year at USC, so expect a learning curve in 2017. If the Redskins use him right, they will keep his coverage responsibilities to a minimum and let him diagnose and chase the play a la Landon Collins or Troy Polamalu, but I’m not sure DJ Swearinger at the FS spot will give him the kind of umbrella protection he needs to be able to freelance without the defense getting burned over the top.
As far as depth goes, the Redskins drafted Montae Nicholson in the 4th round and kept Deangelo Hall at a reduced cap hit. I think Deshazor Everett sticks as a special teams player, so it may come down to either Hall or Will Blackmon as a 5th safety, or they could keep both and go light at CB.
3. DALLAS COWBOYS
Depth chart: Byron Jones, Jeff Heath, Kavon Frazier, Xavier Woods, (Robert Blanton)
Like the rest of the Cowboys defense, this was a unit that held together in 2016. The Cowboys were 18th overall versus the pass in 2016, and Barry Church especially did a good job in run support, helping the Cowboys rank 10th in the NFL in limiting open field yards by opposing RBs. Alas, the 2016 stats aren’t particularly helpful, as Church and the Cowboys primary backup, JJ Wilcox, both left in free agency. Byron Jones returns as the starter at FS and Jeff Heath, who has basically been a special teamer the last three seasons, looks like he will be elevated to the starting SS.
Don’t be fooled by Cowboys fans and writers. Byron Jones is not good. Last season he was tasked with dropping down to cover TEs in the passing game, and the Cowboys ranked 30th in the NFL defending TEs. In 2016, despite playing the third-most snaps of any DB in the NFL, on a team facing the most passes of any team in the NFL, he tied for 50th in passes defended and had just one interception. So he doesn’t cover well, he doesn’t make plays on the ball, and in my watching he doesn’t tackle very well either. And in 2017, they’re pairing him with a special teamer who hasn’t played more than 23% of defensive snaps since 2013. I can’t figure what the Cowboys were thinking in the way they managed their safety position this offseason (or really the defensive backfield in general).
As far as depth goes, there’s not really much notable there for the Cowboys. Kavon Frazier, a 6th round pick from 2016 is likely to return, but he barely played as a rookie. The Cowboys drafted Xavier Woods in the 5th round in 2017, so he is likely to make the team. This is a team with poor starters and no meaningful depth, so expect this unit to struggle in 2017. Frankly the only thing keeping them out of 4th on my rankings if the fact that the Redskins are heading into 2017 starting a guy nobody wants and a linebacker.
2. NEW YORK GIANTS
Depth Chart: Landon Collins, Darian Thompson, Andrew Adams, (Nat Berhe), (Eric Pinkins), (Duke Ihenacho)
The second-year leap by Landon Collins in 2016 was one of the more surprising storylines in the NFL. By solidifying their secondary overall, the Giants were able to move Collins closer to the line of scrimmage and let him diagnose and chase the play, and he excelled. Collins was constantly around the ball last season and played on both sides of the line of scrimmage. As a result, the Giants were 4th in overall pass defense, 2nd in defending the deep ball and 4th in covering the middle of the field, including best in the NFL at protecting the deep middle. If there is a chink in Collins’ armor, he’s still not a very good man-to-man defender and can get beaten by athletic tight ends, and the Giants as a team were ranked just 26th in the NFL defending opposing TEs.
The safety spot alongside Collins was a bit of a revolving door in 2016. Nat Berhe was initially named the starter, but he split time with Darian Thompson in the first two weeks of the season. Thompson wound up suffering a season-ending foot injury, and Berhe battled concussions throughout the year, which elevated undrafted rookie Andrew Adams to the starting spot. Now Berhe is not considered a lock to make the roster, and it seems that second safety spot will be settled between Adams and Thompson in training camp. The good news for the Giants is they have three strong cornerbacks and a DPOY candidate at the other safety spot, so the free safety isn’t likely to be exposed as a weak link with such a good supporting cast.
As far as depth goes, I think the fourth safety spot is up for grabs, and I listed Berhe, Eric Pinkins and Duke Ihenacho as candidates. It wouldn’t surprise me if any of them gets the last spot. But overall, this unit will go as Landon Collins goes. If he does get injured there is nobody on that roster to replace him, but it’s more likely he stays healthy and makes this unit a strength again in 2017.
1. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
Depth Chart: Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod, Chris Maragos, (Jaylen Watkins), (Terrence Brooks)
Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod had their work cut out for them in 2016. The Eagles started what might have been the worst CB group in the league, and Jim Schwartz’s defense makes life tough on safeties. Unfortunately for the Eagles, the results were a mixed bag. The Eagles were consistently good on defense versus both the run and the pass, but were vulnerable to the big play. Overall they ranked 2nd versus the pass, but 22nd defending the deep ball. Overall they ranked 2nd in the NFL at limiting rushes to 4 yards or fewer, but when RBs broke through the front seven, they were 31st in the league at limiting 2nd level yards. One area they excelled (particularly Jenkins) is man coverage, and the Eagles were the No. 1 team in the NFL defending opposing TEs.
The Eagles bring back Jenkins and McLeod as starters in 2017, and haven’t really improved the CB corps, so I expect mostly similar results. Their best hope for improvement is health. In 2016, Ron Brooks got injured in Week 6, forcing Jenkins to man the slot and bringing Jaylen Watkins in as a safety. The results were predictably disastrous. Of the Eagles 10 worst defensive performances by yardage allowed in 2016, only one was with Brooks in the lineup (and Jenkins playing safety). The Eagles have shored up their depth at CB this season so if a player goes down, hopefully Jenkins can remain at safety.
As far as depth at safety goes, the Eagles are in real trouble if either Jenkins or McLeod, both of whom played over 99% of defensive snaps in 2016, gets hurt. Chris Maragos is on the depth chart as a safety, but is really a special teamer only. Terrence Brooks was brought in as a special teamer as well and only played 3 defensive snaps in 2016 (which is apparently enough playing time to pick off Eli Manning), but projects as the primary depth at safety in 2017. Watkins is terrible, but may make the roster by default.