Safety First

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October 30, 2003
Safety First
by Warren DeLuca

Charged with building a team from scratch, Texans General Manager Charley Casserly has had to prioritize the team’s needs when deciding which direction to go with the franchise’s draft picks and salary cap space. The quarterback position received immediate attention, while free safety appears to be at or near the bottom of Casserly’s “must have” list.

The Texans made it through their inaugural season with expansion draftee Matt Stevens as their starting free safety. Casserly made some attempts to upgrade the position during this past offseason by cutting Stevens and pursuing free agents Keion Carpenter, Cory Hall, and Damien Robinson. Each of those three ended up elsewhere (although only Hall signed a deal at least comparable to the one that the Texans gave to strong safety Eric Brown), so Casserly brought back Stevens at a lower price. The team also signed street free agents Travares Tillman, who had NFL starting experience but did not play in 2002, and Brandon Jennings, as well as drafting Curry Burns in the seventh round. In training camp, Tillman broke his wrist, Jennings and Curry washed out, and an experimental move of cornerback Jason Simmons failed, so Stevens held on to his job despite his play continuing to decline. The Texans claimed former Jacksonville Jaguar Marlon McCree off waivers in mid-September, but McCree has yet to show that he is the long-term answer at free safety after two starts for Houston.

Would Casserly be willing to change his philosophy in 2004 and spend a high draft choice on a free safety? Only four safeties have been selected in the top ten picks in any draft in the last 15 years: Miami’s Bennie Blades (third to the Lions in 1988), Southern Cal’s Mark Carrier (sixth to the Bears in 1990), UCLA’s Eric Turner (second to the Browns in 1991), and Oklahoma’s Roy Williams (eighth to the Cowboys in 2002). While it may be too early to fully evaluate Williams (although reports thus far have been positive), each of the other three proved to be, at a minimum, a sound investment, as each started in the NFL for at least nine seasons (including at least six for the team that drafted him), and each made at least one Pro Bowl.

A safety must be a bona fide impact player, capable of dominating and changing the game, in order to merit selection that early in the draft. Florida State coach Bobby Bowden described such an impact player a few weeks ago: “It was obvious we could not throw long. You can’t hang the ball up for Number 26. I haven’t seen a safety that good in a long time. He hits as well as he covers.” The “Number 26” to whom Bowden referred was not Stevens, but Miami free safety Sean Taylor.

At 6’2”, 230 lbs., Taylor is capable of running a sub-4.4 40. Unlike most safeties with these kind of numbers, who hit like linebackers and cover like…linebackers, Taylor is capable of doing the job in either man or zone coverage. While he has the size and speed to play bump-and-run against big receivers, Taylor is probably at his best in zone coverage when he can use his great closing speed to break on the ball. Against Florida State, Taylor picked off two Seminole passes (including one that he returned for a touchdown) and narrowly missed intercepting three more.

While many of the highly touted safeties, such as Williams when he was at Oklahoma, play up in the box so much that they should be classified as linebackers, Taylor plays a true free safety position. The Hurricanes always line Taylor up on the wide side of the field to take maximum advantage of his superior range, and usually hand him responsibility for half of the deep zone as Miami plays a great deal of Cover 2.

Although he will occasionally overrun a ballcarrier, Taylor is generally a solid tackler. Late in the game, the Florida State receivers seemed to be very cognizant of Taylor roaming the secondary and appeared at time to be looking for him instead of concentrating on the passes coming their way. When the Miami defense calls for him to blitz, Taylor is also able to make plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. He could be an effective weapon as a surprise pass rusher in the Texans’ zone blitz scheme. Taylor has become one of the vocal leaders of the Miami defense and shows the confident swagger of the great Hurricane defenders.

Taylor missed Miami’s last game, against Temple, after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder but is expected to be ready for Virginia Tech on Saturday. The shoulder must be able to withstand the rigors of the season and the poking and prodding of the NFL medical staffs at the scouting combine if Taylor is to carry a high first-round grade. Taylor, a junior, is not a given to enter the 2004 draft, but most expect that he will come out early.

Taylor has the potential to turn the weakest position on the Texan’s defense (unless McCree comes on) into the strongest within a few years. He would immediately add some much-needed speed to that side of the ball. Even though they may be able to find a competent free safety later in the draft, the Texans have to consider bringing Taylor into the fold if they have an opportunity to select him.

WAR ROOM NOTES: Maybe it wasn’t just John Mackovic. Arizona Wildcats interim head coach Mike Hankwitz dismissed Top 50 running back prospect Clarence Farmer from the team on Tuesday. Farmer has a history of disciplinary problems at Arizona and Hankwitz said Farmer’s failure to show up on time for Tuesday’s practice was the last straw.

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