Back in the days of yore, in the glorious days of August 2009, safety looked like one of the strengths of the team, with returning starters Chris Hope and Michael Griffin deemed by people other than Titans fans to be among the best in the league at the position. Both Hope and Griffin are healthy and under contract through 2011, so safety still looks like a great position for the Titans. Right? Right?
Um, wrong. Nick Harper's age showed, the lack of depth at corner was exposed, and the pass rush declined, but I think it's fair to say that shockingly poor play at safety was one of the reasons the Titans' pass defense precipitously declined from among the league's best in 2008 to among the league's worst in 2010.
Particularly surprising was the decline by Michael Griffin. The 2007 first round selection out of Texas was one of the league's best young safeties through his second year, but turned in simply a horrid third season. He gambled when he needed to play conservatively, played conservatively when gambling was wise, bit on play-fakes when lined up 30 yards deep, and had lapses in coverage that brought to mind the days when Lamont Thompson roamed the secondary and opposing receivers roamed the secondary unencumbered by defenders.
His play was surely not aided by a shoulder injury sustained early in the season that clearly bothered him more and more as the year went on, but that should be solved by surgery he had shortly after the conclusion of the season. What was more troubling were the mental lapses. It also came out after the year that Griffin had been going through some personal issues with the birth of his child and a strained relationship with the child's mother back in Austin. As a human, I hope that situation is resolved for the best of all parties, first and foremost the child. As a heartless Titans fan, I hope that even if it isn't, Griffin's focus and concentration can return to where they were in 2008 when he was excellent.
Back opposite Griffin for his fourth year as a Titan is Chris Hope. Hope was infected by the general malaise that affected the rest of the pass defense and his play clearly slipped in 2009. I think I have somewhat of a counter-intuitive opinion of Hope, namely that his play really didn't slip that much in 2009 but he was instead caught trying to do too much, covering for Harper and the other liabilities at corner, Griffin's poor play, and inexperience and age issues with the (outside) linebackers. He'd have to have had the athletic ability of a Reed or Polamalu to do that sort of thing, and, well, he's never that kind of play. He'll turn 30 in the first month of the 2010 season, and his play did slip a little, but a return to form of the rest of the secondary should reveal Hope to still be an above average starter.
Since I have to consider at least one crazy player move every offseason, I'll note that Hope's base salary this year is $5.5 million and it's $6.5 million in 2011. Unless he renegotiates his contract, there's almost no way he's a Titan in 2011, and $5.5 million is a lot of money to pay for an aging player. I think the most likely scenario for the Titans in the first round is a defensive end, but if there's not one they like at the #16 pick, don't be too surprised to see them double up on former Longhorn safeties and grab Earl Thomas, but that's another post for another day.
Should either Hope or Griffin go down for any period of time, Vinny Fuller is the next man up. Fuller has been a capable nickelback for the Titans, and his experience in the system should allow him to step in without too many coverage lapses.
Beyond Fuller, there's the recently re-signed Donnie Nickey. The former Ohio State Buckeye has made his NFL living on special teams, and on special teams he should remain.
Somebody who, unlike Nickey, actually played on defense last year was Kevin Kaesviharn, who appeared in the final thirteen games after being signed before Week 4 thanks to the spate of secondary injuries. Kaesviharn was thankfully mostly relegated to packages with additional defensive backs and special teams work. He's currently scheduled to become a free agent and I've seen no indication the Titans are looking to re-sign them, nor do I think there is any reason they should.
The other safety listed on the roster is Nick Schommer, last year's 7th round pick who spent last season on the practice squad. I don't know if the Titans have any serious plans for his future or not and don't believe I've seen either hide or hair of him since the preseason.
Bottom line: the Titans return their top three safeties from last season. Those players were a strength in 2008 and less of one in 2009. I think safety should return to being a strength in 2010, but there's a serious non-zero chance injury will catch up with Hope or Griffin won't escape his mental funk or will continue to have physical problems. I don't completely trust Fuller, and unless the Titans do, they may look to add a younger play who can be part of the solution going forward.