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2011 Tennessee Titans preseason positional analysis: S

Our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position preseason continues with a look at the safeties.

Way back in 2008, when the Titans had a great defense and made the postseason, you could credibly think the Titans had the league’s best pair of safeties.  That certainly seems like a long time ago, as Michael Griffin had a poor 2009 and both safeties struggled at times in 2010.  As Drexel pointed out, the Titans’ top two safeties ranked second and third on the team in tackles.  That speaks to failings by other parts of the defense as well, but that’s entirely too much of the safeties on tape.

Both starters return, but the depth behind them is unsettled. Will the Titans’ safeties improve in 2011?

Michael Griffin enters his fifth season in the NFL, and the final year of his rookie contract.  He started mid-way through his rookie season, played great in 2008, was pretty bad in 2009, and had a sort of bounceback year in 2010.  I’ve already said I think part of the reason Griffin had a better year in 2010 is the Titans schemed more around his weaknesses.  Heading into the season free agency, he’s at a crossroads.  If he can recover his 2008 form, he’s likely in line for big money from the Titans.  If he can’t, he might end up like Stephen Tulloch, forced to accept a deal from another team for less money than he thinks he’s worth.  The model I’d like to see him follow is fellow former Texas Longhorn Michael Huff, who like Griffin struggled at times the first couple years of his career before having a very good season in 2010 and earning a big contract extension from the Oakland Raiders.

Chris Hope is also in the last year of his contract, the 6-year deal he signed with the Titans as a free agent way back in 2006.  Due a base salary of $6.5 million and with his play slipping as he ages, there was plenty of speculation he might not be back in 2011.  He returns, though, and is still listed as a starter.  To be better on defense this season, the Titans will need to do a better job than they’ve done the past couple years of putting him in situations where he can be successful.

Part of the reason Hope is still starting and with the Titans is the depth behind him and Griffin was judged and found wanting.  Out went Vincent Fuller, Nick Schommer, and Robert Johnson (though he’s still around on the practice squad), and in from free agency came Jordan Babineaux.  The former Seattle Seahawk is best known for his versatility, as he’s played cornerback and both strong and free safety in his career.  He’s not an elite player and is only a marginal starter, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him in some nickel and particularly dime packages.  Even though he’s officially listed as Hope’s backup, I’d expect him to play if Griffin goes down.

Anthony Smith is officially Michael Griffin’s backup.  My first reaction when the Titans signed him was “huh? why”, and I was surprised to see him eventually end up on the roster.  Your relevant point of comparison is noted NFL scrub safety Brian Russell.  Babineaux beat him out for a job in Seattle.  Smith lost out to him for a job in Jacksonville.  From what I’ve watched of him, I don’t think much of his coverage or overall ability, but I guess he provides veteran presence.

As with the cornerback grouping, I feel relatively comfortable with the Titans’ top three at the safety position, but depth behind them is questionable at best.  Even more than the cornerback position, though, the future of the safety position is in flux.  Hope and Griffin are in the final years of their long deals, and my understanding is Babineaux only signed a one-year deal.  After 2011, the Titans’ safeties could be entirely new, but that will depend on how the Titans’ safeties, particularly Michael Griffin, perform in 2011.