The safety position is one that is evolving right before our eyes. One factor in this, is that the tight end is becoming a major focal point to high powered offenses. The new policies aimed at reducing concussions has also greatly impacted the position of safety. Change is mandatory in order for the position of safety to make an impact this season or in the future. The best way to see where were are going is to see where we came from.
Last year, the safety positions were easily the biggest weaknesses on the team, never mind just the defense. It seemed like Smith, Leonhard, and Pool were being beaten at will by tight ends and slot receivers. I remember for fantasy football, I would always go out and get the opposing tight end. It was almost a given that they would have a great game against us. The deep part of our secondary just didn't have the size, talent, speed, or physicality to matchup with teams' tight ends. Smith and Leonhard are decent tackling safeties in the box, but lacked the size and physicality, necessary to take out tight ends. Pool wasn't really efficient at much of anything. In the open field, none of our safeties were able to make plays consistantly or efficiently. Out of this group, Leonhard was the only safety to stand out. His instincts, and tenacity kept him in plays, and even won a few battles here and there. Once he went down for the year, it was lights out for our safety core as well.
This year brings a whole new challenge with a whole new set of safeties. Leonhard and Pool are out, and what we are left with, has a few question marks. For those that don't know, the new comers are Yeremiah Bell, and LaRon Landry. Neither safety is your typical free safety. Both players thrive when they are in the box, playing with the ball in front of them. Bell and Landry are very physical players that won't shy away from a hit. They also bring some much needed size to the positions. The only true free safety out of the bunch is rookie Josh Bush. I don't think we should expect much of a contribution right away from him. How can our safeties succeed without a free safety? The answer is the "Big Nickel."
What The Big Nickel is essentially is a 3rd safety that is also a hybrid linebacker. When the offense brings it in close and shows the run, The Big Nickel needs to drop into the front 7 and be able to play the run as a linebacker. When a tight end splits out wide, The Big Nickel needs to be able to split out with him and play man coverage, or a bracket coverage in most cases. Just throwing a regular linebacker out on the tight end usually results in a mismatch in favor of the offense, but The Big Nickel could be the recipe for success against an offense like the Patriots'. It looks like LaRon would be our Big Nickel this year, but there is a problem. What happens with LaRon gets injured. I say when instead of if, because it's almost assured that an injury will plague him at some point. Who else has the skill to be the Big Nickel? It's not Bell or Smith, so it would have to be one of the two rookies. My money is on Allen stepping up if needed.
The Big Nickel has all the makings of a decent counter to the Patriots offense. There are limitations though, mainly with keeping the personnel needed, healthy. Our safety core is so thin that 1 injury would pretty much bring us back to where we were last year. In the years to come, Rex and Tanny will need to find some long term options. The Big Nickel should be hereto stay, but the current guys running it probably won't. I can see Bell, Landry and Smith being gone next year. Luckily for us, the 2013 draft should be full of exceptional safety talent. If we do go that rout, the type of safeties we should be looking at are guys that can play both safety positions. The more flexible to different schemes, the better. The more guys that we can rotate into The Big Nickel spot, could make a big difference. The characteristics of this type of safety is someone who is preferably 6' tall or taller, good ball instincts, great tackler, and very physical. Some candidates are T.J. McDonald (USC), Eric Reid (LSU), Kenny Vaccaro (Texas), Ray Ray Armstrong (Miami), Bacarri Rambo (Georgia), and Dexter McCoil (Tulsa). Right now there are still a lot of questions about how our safeties will fare this year. With a lot more Big Nickel in-store for us, our future is looking bright.