Amidst all the hoopla surrounding the Seattle wide receiving corps, and the entrance of Terrell Owens into the picture, one deficiency that seems to be going overlooked by a great majority of fans and media, is the lack of quality veteran depth at safety.
For the past couple of weeks, I've been adamant about Seattle going out and signing a veteran safety. On ScoutTheSeahawks' free-agent tracker we've been following former Packer Charlie Peprah, as well as recently released Brodney Pool (Dallas) and I've received several emails implying that my concerns are misplaced in this regard. Rather than break into a long, anecdotal justification of my position, I'll summarize my concern with a simple question:
What happens if Earl Thomas gets hurt?
It could happen. It has happened. One of the most common arguments I get in response to my insinuation that Seattle should sign a veteran safety, is that the team should be "trying to get younger". While I agree that getting younger is exciting and beneficial in many ways, there are certain positions on the team whereby a "better safe than sorry" approach is the more responsible approach, and safety is one of those positions. Particulary your free safety/deep safety.
Earl Thomas is a rarity. For a guy to step into the league and decipher offensive information as quickly as he did his rookie season, and make adjustments and reactions with the precision and accuracy that he has over the last couple of years, is extremely rare for young safety. Hence, being taken with the 14th pick, making a Pro Bowl and achieving 2nd team All-Pro status in year two.
This is not to say that a safety has to have the physical skills and athleticism that Earl Thomas possesses, in order to be a successful safety at the NFL level. However, what one lacks in athleticism, he must make up for with instincts and awareness, and In the NFL, and particularly at the safety position, awareness is something that is more often than not learned with experience.
Lawyer Milloy was a great example of this. Even in his mid to late 30s, he was an effective safety because he was able to make reads early in the play, and react to put himself in a position where he could break up a play or deter an opposing quarterback from throwing into his area. Did he make a ton of plays on the ball late in his career? No. He wasn't near the playmaker/finisher that he was in his earlier days. But he didn't have to be. All he needed to do was to play smart, and prevent big plays by putting himself in the right place, at the right time.
Question #2: Beyond Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, who on the Seahawks roster gives you the confidence that he can step in and cover with enough awareness and intelligence to prevent big plays from happening in Thomas's absence?
Jeron Johnson and Chris Maragos are two talented, athletic safeties who bring value to special-teams, and possess enough athleticism to be intriguing prospects. But we're not talking about athleticism here. We're talking about experience and instincts to be effective consistently in coverage.
A big part of this D's success last year had to do with Thomas's ability to read and react to plays at a speed that dissuaded opposing QBs from throwing deep at all. It's also worth noting that in a scheme that is so press-heavy at the corrners, you need a guy who can diagnose and converge on plays in front of him (over the middle) or to the sidelines (closing the window in cases where the WR beats the jam/press on the edge). As athletic as Thomas is, it's really his instincts and awareness that shine.
If you've had a chance to watch any of the "All-22″ footage and have zeroed in on Thomas, you'll notice that he's reading and starting toward the ball's eventual location before the pass is thrown, and he does it a lot, whether behind him or in front of him. As a result, the D-line is more effective in that the QB has to hold the ball longer, and corners are able to be more aggressive at the line knowing that they have a guy like Thomas behind them to fill gaps.
People often wonder how Seattle's defense was able to be so effective last year without a significant, consistent pass rush. Well, the safeties had a lot to do with it.
I'm not saying that you need "Earl Thomas 2″. You won't find him. But, a veteran that possesses the element of Thomas's game that is pure instincts and awareness, would be highly preferred to a raw, young, inexperienced safety who can simply cover a lot of ground. If he doesn't know where he's going, and if he can't diagnose early, the speed won't matter. Thomas is so fast and athletic, that he has been able to get away with a mis-step here and there, but that's incredibly rare.
Last year, Seattle kept Atari Bigby around at final cuts, and sent guys like Josh Pinkard packing, despite the fact that Pinkard played well in the preseason, was younger, and was arguably more versatile in that he could also play some corner.
But Pete Carroll and his coaching staff clearly saw the better value in a veteran like Bigby, knowing that he had the experience to step in and cover for either of the safeties in the case that one of them went down to injury.
While Winston Guy now steps in and provides a strong safety presents behind Kam Chancellor, he does not bring the level of coverage the Bigby did to the safety corps. Guy will spend most of his time up in the box and near the line of scrimmage, where he'll provide run support, but the tape on him at Kentucky shows a guy who's much better against the run than he is in coverage.
You absolutely must have a guy in your group of safeties, who has experience in coverage, and can provide a smart presence in the defensive backfield in the case that your best coverage safety goes down to injury.
I don't see this player on the roster, currently. Guys like Peprah and Pool have that experience and despite possessing some limitations at this stage in their careers, they would bring a veteran presence and valuable experience to the competition. It may be wise to give one of them, or both of them a look, assuming they're healthy enough.
DK Note -- Derek has transitioned from doing league-wide NFL Draft analysis at his blog to a more focused and specific, Seahawks-centric draft - free agency - pro player personnel site called "ScoutTheSeahawks." It's now up - and it's definitely a site you must bookmark.