Jordan Babineaux is an easy player for fans to like. An undrafted free agent out of Arkansas, he worked his way up the ranks with quality special team play and a surprising ability to make big plays at key moments. Especially against the Cowboys, as he intercepted a Drew Bledsoe pass in 2005 to set up a game-winning field goal, and followed up the act with his tackle of Tony Romo after his bobbled hold in the Wild Card game.
Babineaux had been extended during the Ruskell era, with a five year contract worth between 10 and 17 million. This was too much for our current FO, and they cut him as they were slashing down the roster last pre-season, only to resign him two days later at a drastically reduced rate and on a one-year contract. His wages for the year would've come in at $2.45 million, and you can understand if the FO felt that was a little much for a third safety (for reference, Earl Thomas signed a contract that tops out at 21 million, making about half a million in wages in both 2010 and 2011).
Does that mean Babs won't be back with the Seahawks next season? It certainly seems to indicate as much. Where Babineaux started 16 games and played pretty decently as FS under Jim Mora, he didn't get any starts under Pete Carroll, our head coach giving preference to the starting duo of Lawyer Milloy and Earl Thomas. Earl Thomas has the free safety position locked up, and while Lawyer Milloy might not be back, I don't think Babineaux is the ideal candidate to replace him in our system.
But starts aren't always that meaningful, especially not in our multi-DB rich defense. The stats Babineaux accrued with 37 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 interceptions and 8 passes defended are not the kind of stats you see for a backup safety who rarely sees the field. Tallying the different snap counts from the excellent Seahawks personnel review series by Brian McIntyre, I come up with Jordan Babineaux playing over 500 snaps, being on the field for the Seahawks defense roughly 40% of the time.
That's a pretty high number of snaps for a 3rd safety. More so than our other key defensive depth (rookies Kam Chanchellor and Walter Thurmond, as well as Roy Lewis, who played nickel corner quite a lot), Jordan Babineaux's flexibility is really important here. He has played snaps in the base defense as strong safety and free safety subbing for our starters, as well as snaps in base as a bigger corner replacing Kelly Jennings. This was done in situations where Kelly Jenning's lack of size and power could be problematic, namely in short-yardage situations or if the opposing offense was in 22 formation (2 running backs, 2 tight ends and 1 wide receiver). This happened a lot in our loss at the 49ers, where he played 11 snaps in base, or against teams like the Atlanta Falcons (six snaps), New Orleans or even the Rams in week 17.
On top of snaps in base defenses, Jordan Babineaux played almost every snap in the Bandit (3-1-7) and short-yardage (5-3-3) packages. He would often play coverage on the slot receiver in 5+-DB packages, rotating with Roy Lewis depending on the opposing personnel. PC referred to our nickel package with Jordan Babineaux (essentially a three-safety package) as "Nickel Babs", but it's not something unique to our defense. The "big nickel" or "Wolverine" defense was popularized in the late 80s by Fritz Shurmur to battle the 49ers offense. It lessened in popularity afterwards, but has been making a big comeback of late, particularly to counter the big pass-catching tight ends in the NFL - such as the 49ers TE Vernon Davis or the Rams TE Lance Kendricks.
Re-watching games against the Rams, Saints and 49ers, I see Babineaux make heads-up plays all over the field. Dragging down Rams TE Daniel Fells, whailing on RB Steve Jackson right after a flubbed catch, upending Saints RB Julius Jones on a two-yard run, wrapping up 49ers RB Brian Westbrook on the open field. His quality of play is pretty high for a DB depth, being both a solid if not intimidating tackler, and having pretty good awareness most of the time, even if I could cite some lesser examples, such as him being way too late in tracking the 49ers Josh Morgan who makes an easy catch and run for 21 yards on 3rd and 7. Babineaux was also a frequent blitzer (though I don't have exact snap counts), producing less sacks than Lawyer Milloy (1.5 to 4), but more pressures (7 to 6, Football Outsiders charting), which is a more relevant stat to show he's a good pass rusher out of safety blitzes.
Carroll and Schneider don't want to overpay for a player like Babineaux, who got starting money from Ruskell. I think they're willing to have him test the open market. Some of us expected him to be gone quick when he was cut last year, but instead he was back pretty soon. I think the FO would like to have him back this season, and personally hope he'll be back. Our DB group is pretty young (depending on FA signings) and could use the presence of a hard-working veteran like Babs. He represents both high-quality depth, flexible enough to sub in at any cornerback or safety position, as well as a valuable contributor to our defense in our multi-DB packages.
It's not impossible we might see him walk if another team gives him a good offer, or if we make moves in the FA market that leaves us with no room for him. But the frequent usage of Big Nickel, other multi-DB packages and the high frequency of safety blitzes means we do need a player like him. The need for someone to substitute a cornerback in short-yardage situations should be lessened, but our system still needs a player that is a CB/S or DB/LB hybrid for "Nickel Babs" and other packages. If we do let Babineaux walk, it could be because we already have candidates for his role on our roster in Byron Maxwell or Brandon Browner.