old mother hubbard: the safeties

>> 2.02.2009

Finally, we come the last installment of my roster evaluation--defensively speaking, anyway. The Safeties are supposed to be the last line of defense, yet far too often the Lions safeties were the only line of defense.

Daniel Bullocks: Bullocks was a second-round pick in the 2006 draft; the 6'-0", 212-pounder had starred at Nebraska, manning the safety position his twin brother Josh. Bullocks came out hot his rookie year--in his first start (Week 2 @ GB), he racked up 12 tackles (8 solo) and two passes defensed. He finished the year with 74 tackles, a sack, and 3 passes defensed--this in 15 games and 7 starts! Bullocks looked like he was set to be a fixture at safety for the Lions for a long, long time. However, in the third preseason game of 2007, he blew out his knee, and was lost for the year. His intense rehab efforts and successful comeback for the 2008 preseason earned him the Lions' Ed Block Courage Award. Coming into the 2008 regular season, we didn't know how much Bullocks would or could contribute--well, the answer was "a lot". Despite the presence of free agent signee Dwight Smith, as well as (for a while) 2007 rookie standout Gerald Alexander, Bullocks had a great statistical year. Finishing third on the team with 121 tackles (74 solo), Bullocks established himself as an energetic force. He's althetic enough to play either spot--but he loves to hit, so he's a slightly more natural strong safety. However, due to the emergence of Kalvin Pearson, he finished the season starting at the free safety spot. Bullocks showed no signs of being slowed by the knee injury, even while playing more in coverage, and with his 2008 performance he solidified his position as one of the few defensive building blocks the Lions have. Bottom line: Bullocks is a talenteed young safety who plays with athleticism, but likes to get his nose in the pile. Should be an asset for years to come.

Gerald Alexander: The third of three 2007 Lions second-round picks, Gerald Alexander was one of the vaunted Boise State Broncos who took out Oklahoma in the '06-'07 Fiesta Bowl. A giant-killer, yes, but no dwarf at 6'-0", 204, Alexander was pressed into starting duty when Daniel Bullocks' knee imploded. Alexander quickly found confidence: in Week 2 against Minnesota, he garnered 5 solo tackles, two passes defensed, and a interception, which he returned for 34 yards. He started the rest of the way after that, ending up with 81 tackles (59 solo), 2 sacks, and two INTs. Alexander's precocious field awareness and obvious athletcism made it look like the Lions had their free safety of the future in hand. With the ancipated return of Daniel Bullocks, it seemed like the Lions were set for 2008 and beyond at the safety position. However, in the 2008 preseason, something was obviously wrong. Alexander looked tentative, hesitant. Instead of making plays, he was a step (or two, or three) late. He whiffed on tackles. He looked nothing like the star-in-the-making we'd seen in 2007. He started the first preseason game, but was benched in favor of the fully-healed Daniel Bullocks. He made some appearances in rotation, but had just seven tackles in five games. He suffered a neck injury in the 4th quarter against Minnesota which would require surgery. He was placed on IR, ending his season. Bottom Line: Alexander is either a talented young free safety who, along with Bullocks, will be be a feared element of the Lions defense--or not. Only time will tell.

Kalvin Pearson: Brought in as a special teams standout, and Tampa 2 "system" depth (as Bullocks was still recovering), Pearson almost immediately shamed himself, and the Lions organization, by getting arrested for choking a woman pregnant with his child. Many fans, including myself, wanted this guy immediately released from the team. He was released--on bond--and attended minicamps as if nothing had ever happened. The felony charges were eventually dropped (possible interpretation: the woman was paid enough money to shut up), and Pearson was instead indicted with misdemeanor charges of 'obstructing or resisting a police office without violence', the hearing for which he was not required to even attend.

. . . I'm sure that's all on the up-and-up.

Anyway, Pearson, as both a probable scumbag and another of Marinelli's mass import of Tampa castoffs, had a long way to go to endear himself to Lions fans. At first, behind Bullocks, Alexander, and Dwight Smith, Pearson rarely saw the field when there weren't kickers or punters out there with him. However, as the painfully thin Lions secondary got thinner with the injury to Keith Smith, Pearson started to play nickel corner. His stout build (5'-10", 200 lbs.), great tackling ability, and good short-zone coverage skills made him a better T2 nickel than any of the other corners. When Smith got hurt, Pearson became the starting strong safety, and Bullocks slid over to free. In Week 9, his second as the starter, Pearson had a monster game, posting 10 solo tackles. Much to my chagrin, Pearson continued to be a rare and valuable playmaker on the Lions'd D, finishing with 83 tackles, 1 sack, 4 forced fumbles and 4 passes defensed. This in just 10 starts as a strong safety. Pearson is limited athletically, but as a strong safety he's an undeniable asset to the roster. Bottom line: Pearson is a great special-teamer and was suprisingly effective as a strong safety. He's not a long-term top-flite starter, but on this roster he's no worse than a valuable rotational guy. Still, a nasty injury to, or the unexpected release of, this jerk wouldn't be the worst news I ever heard.

Dwight Smith: Smith was another Tampa 2 system guy, one who'd been an important cog in those early-aughts Bucs defenses. Most recently, however, Smith played for the franchise where the "Tampa" 2 actually originated--Minnesota. In 14 games (13 starts) in Mike Tomlin's Tampa 2 system, Smith did his ballhawking thing, intercepting four passes (returning one 93 yards for a TD), and defending 9 others. It was hoped that Smith could rotate in with Bullocks and Alexander, play some nickel corner, and generate some turnovers--as well as provide needed veteran depth and leadership. However, partly due to Alexander's failures at free safety, Smith ended up starting Week 1 at strong safety. He was fairly productive at first, but by the time he injured his foot against Houston, he wasn't making much impact. Kalvin Pearson took over, and by the time Smith came back he was relegated to the bench. Bottom line: Smith was expected to be a playmaker in rotation, but instead he was an unremarkable starter. Pearson made him irrelevant, and he will likely be released in the offseason.

Stuart Schweigert: One of the more interesting street free agents I've ever seen. Schweiger hails from Saginaw, and played college ball at Purdue. The Raiders drafted him in the third round of the 2004 draft, and he immediately saw time. By 2005, he was starting, and his 6'-2", 205 lb. frame got 87 tackles (70 solo), 2 INTs, and 7 passes defensed that year. He started all of 2006, racking up a career-high 107 tackles, and then in 2007 . . . he started off at his usual pace, and then got hurt. Schweigert played only part time the rest of the way. He went throught he offseason with the Raiders, only to see the writing on the wall when the Raiders drafted Michael Huff. Scheweigert sounds off about it here. I don't understand how a 27-year-old, former third-round-pick safety who's played at a high level gets cut, then gets no interest until the 0-10 Lions are desperate for a warm body. Schweigert was only got on the field for the Lions in Week 12, and then played only sparingly. At this point, we have no idea what he can do. Bottom line: Schweigert is a young veteran, a local boy, and a total enigma. If Smith and/or Pearson are cut loose, keep an eye on Schweigert as a rotational guy.

Lamarcus Hicks (bottom line): second-year guy who spent 2008 on and off the practice squad. Doesn't look to have much impact for 2009.

SUMMARY: Safety is another enigma position for the Lions. The ideal situation is that Gerald Alexander recovers his 2007 form, and he mans the free safety spot while Bullocks holds down the strong side. That would give the Lions two young, athletic, experienced safeties for years to come. However, if Alexander cannot return to that level of play, he'll be backing up Bullocks at the free spot instead. I have to assume that Dwight Smith and his $2.3M cap number will be hitting the road. That leaves Pearson and Schweigert to battle it out for the strongside spot--and while they each have some upside, I'd much rather see a healthy Schweigert play up to his potential. While there are some question marks here, this is the area of the defense that needs the least help. If the Lions drafted safety, I would want to see a Sunday pick (rounds 4-6) with some serious speed and kick return credentials.


Steve,  February 4, 2009 at 1:03 PM  

As scary as it is to admit, this is likely one of the stronger position groups on the Lions roster.

As evidenced during the recent NFL playoffs, none of these guys are playmakers on par with the kind of safety playmaking that winning franchises possess.

Bullocks very well could become a player a rung or two below players like Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu, Brian Dawkins, Adrian Wilson, or Bob Sanders.

Alexander will provide depth and Pearson is a viscious hitter whose versatility and special teams contributions may warrant his return. Schweigert could yet emerge, too.

In my opinion, the Lions would have taken USC's Taylor Mays first overall, had he not returned to school. With that in mind, it is apparent that the Lions are not entirely happy with the production they have received here, even if their corner situation is 10 times more dire.

Ty,  February 4, 2009 at 1:33 PM  

First, just because Bullocks is not Reed or Polamalu doesn't mean we can't win games with him back there. If he's the next best thing to Adrian Wilson or Bob Sanders, then he is a definite asset, and could well be part of a tough, effective defense. Alexander I really hope isn't just "depth", though he would be a vaulable backup on either side . . .

As far as Taylor Mays goes, any time the Lions have a chance to add an elite playmaker to the the defense, I think they'll take it. I think the corners are much more dire, but there are very few corners who can play well from Day One--CB is the defensive mirror of WR, it usually takes a year or two to learn all the tricks and polish technique. Mays could have stepped in next to Bullocks and flown around and made a big impact right away. I don't think any of the corners, linebackers, ends, or tackles are going to be as good as fast as Mays would have been, so Mays would have been a good pick, even if safety wasn't the most pressing need.

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