2009 Denver Broncos - Breaking Down the Roster – Safeties

Consider this.  You own a store, and one of the items that you sell in your store is pencils.  Let us say that you buy a pencil for 99 cents, and sell it for a dollar.  The wholesale cost is .99 and the retail cost is $1.00, and so you make one shiny penny every time you sell a pencil.

You don't make much money on that pencil, do you?  You make very little profit on the pencil, but folks come to your store to buy pencils and (while they are there) they buy other things with a higher profit margin.  No big deal so far.

But let us say that someone shoplifts a pencil.  There is little doubt that the offender will claim that it was "only a pencil", and costs a "big store" like yours next to nothing.  Really?  How much money has your store just lost?  One cent?  Ninety nine cents?  A dollar?  No.  One hundred dollars.

Why is this?  And what does this have to do with the safety position in football?  I'm glad that you asked.  Read on, Dear Reader...

As the store owner, you'll have to turn around and buy 99 pencils and sell them in order to buy (replace) the stolen pencil.  That is ninety-nine pencils, each with a one-dollar value in retail price.  You have to buy and sell one more (the one hundredth) in order to recover the profit you would have made.  That is one-hundred dollars in total.  Still, the cost never really gets recovered since the original pencil is never truly replaced.

We can go in many directions here.  We can talk about the German legal system, which doesn't assess damages for running over a chicken by the value of the chicken, but the value of the potential earnings the owner could have made (eggs, offspring, etc).  We could go on to extrapolate how much a store loses to theft when (not just pencils and candy bars) higher-value items are stolen with different profit margins.  But we're here to talk football, so let us turn our attention to a much more erstwhile topic, while bearing the pencil analogy in mind.

When a football defense gives up a yard, how much have they "really" given up?  Well, 1/10th of a potential first down is a very good answer.  But whether the defense gives up a first down or not, the team's offense will have to go back and recover that yard, as well as the punt distance the opposing team garners.  And every yard isn't created equally!

Beginning chess players may know the relative value of chess pieces (pawn = 1, knights and bishops each = 3, rook = 5, queen = 9, king = infinite).  Intermediate players know that values are not static - a pawn that has advanced far enough to be a queening threat is worth more than "one", and a centered knight in a "closed" (cramped) position is worth more than a bishop.  Advanced players go a step further, throwing out the values altogether in favor of pure positional analysis instead of calculating moves ahead.

My point is that a yard given up near the goal line is even more precious than the yard given up eighty yards earlier.  When an opposing player gets past the front seven defensive players, each additional yard he gains is worse than the previous yard.  Enter Brian Dawkins and associates.

Just like the store owner who employs private "loss prevention" agents to protect the store from the killer concept known as "stock loss", we as football coaches hire "safeties" to protect the critical yards when all else has failed.  Sure, the battle starts at the line of scrimmage, and the other players fight hard to keep the opposing team from advancing.  But just like in the opening scenes of Mad Max (where the Australian cops are getting killed trying to pursue some bad guys until Mel Gibson gets the go ahead to take over the pursuit), the SWAT team of any defense is the safety position.  When the offense gets past our defense, we call out the safeties to protect the critical yards.

Read here about the safety positions.

SAFETIES - Overview

Josh Barrett - a fan favorite at MHR, a lot of folks are pulling for Barrett to become a starter someday.

David Bruton - A fourth-round pick, this kid has all the tools to grow into something special. 

Brian Dawkins - Arguably the greatest safety of all-time.

Vernon Fox - Fans remember that when his number was called, he forced a key fumble to help Denver.

Renaldo Hill - Comes to Denver off a very good year in Miami.

Darcel McBath - A second-round pick that is perhaps a steal; he's a ball-hawking machine.

ANALYSIS

The first thing you'll notice about the list is that there are too many names.  Assuming (as I do) that Denver keeps 4 players for safety, 1/3 of the list is gone.  "Breaking Down the Roster", who is going to stay or go?

Let's start with the lock for one of the two starting safety positions. Brian Dawkins is not only the best safety to ever play football, he revolutionized the position.  Read here for why Dawkins is superhuman.  The key question is, do we start him at free or strong safety?  This is one of the tougher puzzles going into camp.  Dawkins is natural at FS, and this is where the "prime" safety goes in most cases.  Age could pull him to SS, but just last year he had yet another stellar performance that has him playing like most guys (well, better) in their mid-twenties.  There is no doubt that Dawkins will make the team and start, and no doubt the defense improves because of his play and presence (leader, mentor, teacher, enforcer, etc).

But Denver is lucky to have many good names behind the future Hall of Famer.  An early favorite to line up with The Living Legend is Renaldo Hill.  I like Hill a lot.  He can do what strong safeties are often called upon to do (cover TEs, both fast and big) and is a known quality, having played very well for upstart Miami last year.  Miami is quickly becoming a "farm team" in this sense - SD steals WR Chambers to become an offensive juggernaut (a prediction I was proud to make), then in 2009 Denver steals safety Hill and CB Goodman.

Going into camp, Hill has nothing to prove.  He can cover his zone better than most players (better than both players we had last year), and can also stop the run.  His only knock is age.  He can give us a few years of great service, but he won't be a so-called "safety of the future" with our young stable behind him.  He's too good to play a backup role, and should start.  I expect Hill is a safe bet to make the cut, and (along with Dawkins) should start.

Next, you don't draft a guy in the second round and kick him to the curb.  McBath will make the cut, and will compete for a starting position.  If Dawkins is at FS, McBath is likely a backup.  If Hill is at FS, McBath will likely learn as a backup and compete for the role on a weekly basis.  If McBath works out for Denver, he'll be the long-term solution at safety that Denver needs.  McBath is a natural FS with the extra gift of "hands", and has potential to be a star.

From an earlier MHR article that I wrote:

His deep cover skills are excellent: 

  • He keeps the play in front of him,
  • tackles well in open space, and
  • reads the play

Those are all of the skills I look for in my favorite position on the football field.  He also has what I have written many times is the "frosting on the cake" for a safety.  He has good hands, and gets interceptions.  If you read MHR University, you know that fans want good hands at safety, but defensive coordinators are more concerned with the other three skills I just described.  But to have those 3 skills AND good hands?

Jackpot.

From NFL.com:

"It's easy to understand how a defensive player can fly under the radar when he plays for a team with one of the most prolific offenses in the nation.

That didn't stop Darcel McBath from being one of the best playmakers in the Big 12. Having to practice against a top offense -- namely sophomore WR Michael Crabtree -- is sure to help any defensive back hone their coverage skills. McBath, a former cornerback, was the Red Raiders' secondary anchor at the demanding free safety position since shifting there as a sophomore, going on to start his final 39 games.

The opposition, often playing from behind and passing on most every day, challenged the middle of Tech's defense last season. McBath more than stood up to the challenge, pulling in seven interceptions that included a school season-record tying two returns for touchdowns. Six of his seven pass deflections came on third-down plays."

A safety that anchors the defense, instead of a left cornerback?  7 interceptions in a season?

In my thinking, the real position battle is going to be between 4th-round pick Bruton and fan favorite Barrett for the last spot.  Barrett has the speed, intensity, and drive to be a future starter for the team (along with McBath), and had flashes of great playmaking ability despite being used inconsistently by Denver in '08.  He is more of a known quality than Bruton.  His only knock is that he wasn't properly used by the defense last year, and this hurts his evaluation.  He'll need a good showing in camp.  If chosen, I think a future tandem of McBath and Barrett could be elite.  Had Barrett started last year, and had he been used correctly, I think he could have been a starter this year.  But "IF" didn't happen.

But don't count out Bruton.  He was a 4th-round pick, and that counts for something.  He has all of the raw tools needed to be developed into a good safety, and would be an immediate impact on special teams.  Bruton would benefit from going to the practice squad until either Dawkins or Hill moves on, but do we do that with a fourth-round pick?  We are overloaded at safety, but I think Dawkins, Hill, and McBath are our first tier.  Bruton and Barrett will have to fight it out for the fourth spot.

This leaves us with Fox.  Fox has a lot of heart.  When given the chance to play, he caused a crucial fumble that Denver fans will not soon forget.  Unfortunately for Fox, we didn't get too see too much of him.  He would have to have a stellar camp to knock off a future Hall of Famer, a proven veteran, a second-round powerhouse, a proven (but still young) veteran, or a fourth-round project.  Sadly, I think Fox will have to use his talent for another team.

Projections

Nothing scientific, sacred, or set in stone.  Just my opinions:

Dawkins - 100% that he will start / 100% that he makes the cut 

60% chance at FS, 40% chance at SS (If Hill also starts)

85% chance at SS, 15% at FS (If McBath also starts)

Hill - 80% that he will start / 100% that he makes the cut

If he starts, he'll play opposite Dawkins.  If not, he'll be the first backup to both positions, regardless of which position he lists at on the roster.

McBath - 20% that he will start / 100% that he makes the cut

If he starts, he will likely play at FS while Dawkins starts at SS.  Dawkins is the better player (typically a variable to start at FS), but is also more versatile than McBath.  McBath would start at FS because that is also the position I would project him at long term, and Dawkins can handle TEs and runs better than McBath at this point.

Barrett - Will not start / in competition with Bruton for the final roster spot

If he makes the team -

  • If Dawkins is FS and Hill is SS, Barrett will be backup SS.
  • If Hill is FS and Dawkins is SS, Barrett will also be backup SS.
  • If McBath beats out Hill, Hill will back up both postions, and Barrett will back up behind Hill.  In such a case, I project that Hill would be listed as FS, and Barrett would be listed at SS.

If he doesn't make the cut, he will play for another team in '09.

Bruton - Will not start / in competition with Barrett for the final roster spot

If he makes the team he'll follow the track for Barrett above.  If he doesn't make the team, he has a very strong chance of making the practice squad.

Fox - Will not make the team

CONCLUSION

This is the best safety roster that Denver has ever had, including the Atwater era.  Dawkins alone would be terrific, but Denver has two things in addition to the superstar - depth, and a mix of solid veterans and young, upcoming talent.

In '09, I expect Denver to struggle with changes in coaches, systems, and player turnover.  The front seven may be in turmoil, and the CBs (though excellent) may have problems if the front seven can't pressure the offenses they'll encounter.  But there is no reason to fear for the safeties, now or in the foreseeable future.

The only negative I can come up with is that Denver is so stacked at safety, that a couple of good players are not going to make the cut.  That's a nice negative to have to deal with.

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