Is Hamza the top Safety in Denver?
[Editor's Note: John Lynch has left the Broncos to weigh his options. While that changes the fact the Lynch should be listed here, I will leave him for now since Styg's breakdown fit Lynch's proposed role perfectly.]
If you are a fan of defense, particularly if you are into the nuances of the safety position, it is probably safe to say that Denver has been disappointing for years. Its not completely the talent, of course, since no one would argue that Lynch was less than a future Hall of Famer. And it isn't the selection or marketplace, since great safeties have been cropping up fairly regularly around the league, and Denver has had plenty of fair opportunities to go after them.
The thing is, they just haven't.
While not completely ignoring the position, the Broncos have certainly not placed any kind of tremendous priority on it, with the most notable moves in recent history being the signing of Lynch and the recent pickup of Josh Barrett in the draft. And while Lynch was a good pickup, I'm sure that there is no lesson in "NFL GMing 101" that says how wise it is to sign a player recovering from a serious neck injury and going into the second decade of his career. The Broncos put their money on Lynch the person, not Lynch the player, and the bet turned out to be a good one. But guys like Lynch are few and far between. Similarly, Barrett may be one of the best pure talents out of the draft to don Broncos' blue and orange in years, but he slipped to the seventh round for a reason, and the jury is still out.
2008 looks to be the year of the NOW for the safety position. Whether any of the players on the roster will have impacts that resonate deeply for the Broncos for years to come will be an intriguing, and LONG struggle to witness, promising to be one of the final positions to get straightened out in the offseason, and continuing on throughout the regular season as well. Each player brings unique assets and questions to the struggle, and they each bring a dynamic that could make 2008 the beginning of the road, or the end of the road for any of them. Lets take a look at who they are, and what they bring.
2007 was a year that Lynch would probably like to forget on so many levels. The safety position saw him paired with different players three times, his team was utterly uncompetitive more than once, and on top of it all, his body betrayed him, as he missed time in over four games due to injuries. For a competitor of Lynch's degree, such things must have given him nightmares. Follow all this up with a paycut and the consistent mantra coming from the coaches that, regarding playing time, "there are no guarantees," and you have a player who appears on the cusp of radical change.
But will there really be that big of a change? After spending this offseason representing the 1% of Broncos who did NOT participate in the offseason conditioning program, Lynch is in stellar shape regardless, having returned to his traditional conditioning workouts with an ex-navy seal. Long one of the smartest players to ever suit up, there can be no doubt that he will not have lost any of his instinct or intensity on the field. You hear a lot about how he has lost speed, and while he was never one of the fastest safeties in the league, he lost most of his speed between years 5 and 15. From this year to last there won't be a noticeable difference.
But one area that I think is declining for Lynch, that has been his bread and butter for years, is his aggressive hitting in run support. I watched every snap played from the safety position for the Broncos in preparation for an article last January, and in watching Lynch I noticed that he was much more of a force pursuing a play from the backside in run support, and closing from a mid-depth FS zone. When playing from the 4th LB spot, or blitzing on a SS "monster" play he would be swallowed up by the garbage around the line, and as a result his ferocious hitting was neutralized.
Going into 2008 Lynch isn't fighting for a roster spot, he's fighting for a ProBowler's pride. And when the dust settles, he will be expected to play about 50% of snaps from the FS position, both as a primary run support player, but also with the skills needed to play a solid SS zone. He played very well at FS, with heavy coverage responsibilities, through the first part of 2007, and only after getting injured did the position begin to see the flux and indeterminacy that would plague the defensive unit as a whole.
If reports are correct at this point, Lynch will be released from the Broncos to better pursue his goals, whether those are on field or off. When Lynch initially took the paycut, he mentioned at the time that he felt there were some in the organization who did not want him back, and he singled out Bowlen and Shanahan as two guys who absolutely DID want him back. I thought then, and I think now that he was talking about Slowik. Whether he was or not, one can certainly sympathize with a defensive coordinator who would face a PR nightmare for benching one of the most popular players to wear a Broncos' uniform in recent years, and yet probably felt like said player was a major tell for his defensive tendencies. Slowik was in a tough position with Lynch in the mix, and if all parties have resolved to move on, then there is certainly a silver lining to this outcome. I just hope that anything to come is carried out with the class and integrity that both Lynch and the Broncos have come to stand for.
UPDATE -- Lynch has decided to leave the Broncos, ending a wonderful tenure after 4 years. Personally, I wish Lynch the best and feel thankful for what he did for the Broncos on and off the field.
2007 Season Notes:Lynch played 13 games (12 starts) for Denver, ranking fifth on the team with 62 tackles (48 solo) while adding one sack (11 yds.) and three pass breakups. Selected to play in the Pro Bowl as an alternate after an injury to the Colts’ Bob Sanders, increasing his career Pro Bowl total to nine to mark the second-most selections at the safety position in NFL history (Pro Football Hall of Famer Ken Houston has 10). Also went to the Pro Bowl for the fourth year in a row (all with Denver) to move into third in Pro Bowl selections (4) by a Broncos safety. Contributed three tackles and one sack (11 yds.) in the opener at Buf. (9/9). Posted a pair of solo tackles before leaving with a groin injury in the second quarter vs. Jac. (9/23), which was his 50th game as a Bronco. Declared inactive at Ind. (9/30) with the groin injury. Returned to the lineup and contributed six tackles (5 solo) vs. S.D. (10/7). Added a pair of solo tackles before leaving in the first quarter vs. G.B. (10/29) with a neck injury that forced him to be declared inactive at Det. (11/4) and at K.C. (11/11). Led the secondary with six tackles (5 solo) at Oak. (12/2). Added six stops (4 solo) and one pass defensed at Hou. (12/13), entering the game as a reserve for the first time in his Denver career. Led the club with nine tackles (6 solo) vs. Min. (12/30).
Hamza came on strong last year, battling back from early season injuries to take Ferguson's SS spot on the roster, but closed out the season looking worn down and struggling to execute fundamental technique. The result was poor tackling and missed assignments. An incomplete finish to an incomplete season.
Going into his fourth year in the league, Hamza is facing a make or break season in my eyes. He has the starting experience, he is having a healthy camp, and he has the opportunity, so he needs to put it together in his fourth year, just as he did at Washington State, where he was a late bloomer derailed early by injuries. The reports out of camp have him running as a full time first team coverage safety. He may or may not be termed a SS, as in Denver's, and many team's, schemes the FS is the "free-er" safety, the one with the most options, and the position tends to be reserved for the more experienced, and thus knowledgable player. Either position may have responsibilities for deep "safety" coverage.
He is not a terribly fast player, lacks acceleration if he gets caught peeking into the backfield for too long, and isn't terribly strong, though he is a hard hitter. Signs from last year indicate that he is learning to read plays as they develop, arguably a safeties most important job, and the fact that he is getting so many reps in camp speak to the coaches confidence in him, but like Lynch, Hamza is a player best suited to playing up in the box.
Regardless of his shortcomings, Hamza is a dependable player, both on the field and off who has shown in the past an ability to raise his level of play with experience. He is a solid all around safety who should be serviceable in coverage, and an above average run support guy for years to come, and he should lend a lot of stability to the safety position as this defense re-establishes itself.
2007 Season Notes:Abdullah played 11 games (8 starts) for Denver, assuming the starting strong safety position for the last half of the season, and finished with a career-high 48 tackles (40 solo), one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and seven passes defensed. Also assisted on one special-teams tackle. Did not record any stats vs. Oak. (9/16) before leaving with a hip injury that forced him to be inactive for the next five weeks. Returned to action and played extensively at Det. (11/4), leading the secondary with seven tackles (5 solo). Made nine solo tackles and broke up two passes, including one intercepted by Karl Paymah, in his first career start at K.C. (11/11). Led the secondary with eight tackles (6 solo) on Monday Night Football vs. Ten. (11/19). Led the secondary with seven solo tackles and had one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and one pass breakup at Chi. (11/25).
McCree looks like a short term solution for the Broncos in an effort to add more range to their defensive backfield, especially in nickle situations. He has spent the first days of camp relieving Lynch in passing situations, which projects to about 55% of snaps from the FS position.
McCree has above average hands for a safety, with explosiveness and average speed, but the experience to translate that speed into good range. In San Diego he benefited from a stellar defensive line stocked with probowlers, and was able to play a high energy aggressive ball hawking style. Lacking the athleticism to stay on the SD roster in the offseason, he chose Denver as a team desperate for versatile coverage safeties.
For Denver the attraction had to be the added range, for sure, but also the chance to gain some insight into the Chargers, and to add a player to the roster who has seen some recent playoff experience. For the fans, the attraction might not be there at all. McCree has bounced around the league some, being waived by the Jaguars and Texans, and being signed away from Carolina by the Charger's to be part of their already stellar defense.
He has come out in camp as a steady contributor, reliable when called upon. If Lynch moves on, the next test for McCree will be to show his versatility and durability, both areas of his game that really came into their own when he played for San Diego. Let's hope he can keep the momentum going.
And while most fans will be disheartened to remember that it was McCree who didn't protect the interception in last year's playoff loss to NE, having it stripped away giving the Patriots a chance to win the game, they should be somewhat enamored of the fact that some of McCree's best efforts have come at the expense of the Colts, in particular Marvin Harrison. Every little bit helps.
2007 Season Notes:McCree started all 16 games for the second time in his career for San Diego and totaled 75 tackles (51 solo), three interceptions (20 yds.), six passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. Helped the Chargers lead the NFL in opponent passer rating (70.0). Finished with two special-teams tackles. Added nine tackles (7 solo), one pass defensed and one fumble recovery in three playoff games (3 starts). Recovered a fumble to set up the game-tying score in an AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Ind. (1/22). Added two solo tackles in the AFC Championship Game at N.E. (1/20). Intercepted a pass in the season opener vs. Chi. (9/9). Posted 10 stops (6 solo) on Sunday Night Football at N.E. (9/16). Accounted for two turnovers at Den. (10/7) with one interception and one forced fumble.
Manuel is a player expected to provide veteran backup experience, having compiled 41 starts in a 6 year career. Denver will be his fifth team in that time span, and what they desperately are looking for in him is a solid guy who can bring it on special teams, where he was active in 16 games for Carolina last year.
With average strength and speed, he will need to overachieve in a big way if he wants to force the Broncos to keep six safeties, or to beat out either Barrett or Rogers below.
2007 Season Notes:Manuel played 16 games (2 starts) for Carolina, totaling 14 tackles (9 solo), one interception (4 yds.), one sack (11 yds.), one pass breakup and five special-teams tackles. Added one forced fumble on special teams. Joined the Panthers on Sept. 3 after competing in training camp with Green Bay. Started at free safety and produced one tackle on both defense and special teams at Atl. (9/23). Forced a fumble on punt coverage (recovered by Carolina) and had one special-teams tackle at Ten. (11/4). Posted one sack and one interception vs. S.F. (12/2), marking the first such outing of his career. Sack also was his first as a pro. Started in place of an injured Chris Harris at strong safety and collected a season-high six tackles at T.B. (12/30).
I have to admit to all of you that I am pulling for Rogers not because I see any kind of sleeper talent here, but just because I would like to see his speed equate to some elite range in our backfield. And I have to admit to myself that speed is not the only component of range, which is as much about technique and a good first step as anything.
The latter two points are the make or break issues for Rogers, though it is debatable whether or not that is an issue for this year or next, as he is still eligible for the practice squad. He was a very raw player coming out of Wisconsin, and ever so slightly underweight, in my opinion, but that can easily be overlooked. What he did have was very good instincts for attacking the ball in coverage, something he was able to prove while ranking fourth in the Big10 for passes defensed. Going forward he continues to be an interesting prospect who needs to show tremendous strides in game study and fundamental technique in order to keep a possible roster spot in his sights. Unless injuries plague the safeties this year, it is unlikely that 2008 will be the year of the Badger.
2007 Season Notes:Rogers, who entered the NFL as a college free agent with Denver on May 2, played in the final two games of the season with the Broncos. Spent the first 15 weeks of the season on the Broncos’ practice squad before he was signed to their active roster on Dec. 18. Made his pro debut on Monday Night Football at S.D. (12/24) and saw time vs. Min. (12/30) in the season finale.
Save the best for last right? One of the best safeties to ever suit up for the Arizona State Sun Devils, Barrett brings an infusion of much needed pure athletic skill to the Broncos. He has speed, exceptional range, and the kind of size and build that looks like the mold for a "standard issue elite safety" action figure. So why did he fall to the seventh round? Injuries his senior year, including a knee injury are part of it, but the big issue was the question of why his awesome workout measurements didn't translate consistently to his onfield performance. "Looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane." This is the exact opposite phenomenon of a player who may not measure well, but is considered "a football player." You can see why I wasn't 100% behind the pick.
But the good news is that he is having an awesome camp. This is the best thing we can hear coming from his corner. It doesn't matter if we hear that he is a playmaker, or that he is one of the most explosive defensive players, or that he takes perfect angles and hits like a truck. I like hearing that he gets in a receiver's hip pocket and can't be shaken out, or that he is absorbing the playbook and looking instinctual on the field. But none of that matters, because for Barrett those are the things that are in the bank. Lock it up, the kid is an athlete, and a good one. What matters the most with Barrett is that he keep up the intensity, the drive to keep getting better, to keep pushing for success. What matters is that he is still looking good when camp is thirty days old, not three. That when the dog days have started to take their toll, he is still there and still impressive. He has what it takes to separate himself from the rest of his peers. The question has always been, will he do it?
2007 College Notes:Barrett played 11 games (8 starts) as a senior at Arizona State, finishing the year with 38 tackles (25 solo), one sack (9 yds.), one interception, a career-high seven pass breakups and one fumble recovery. Missed three games early in the year due to injuries. Received ASU’s Cecil Abono Team Captain Award. Posted seven tackles vs. California (10/27) and intercepted a pass at UCLA (11/10).