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Friday, June 24, 2005

Bates hopes to put safe back into safety



by Bruce
For PackerChatters

Restocking the Safety Cupboard…

Last year the Packers safety play was anything but safe. Sharper and Roman played some of the worst fundamental football you could imagine – it was literally a nightmare. Certainly a degree of this can be attributed to a poor and inconsistent defensive scheme and another degree to Mark Roman & Darren Sharper playing injured throughout much of the season, but the bottom line was poor tackling, poor angles taken, and too much me and not enough TEAM. The level of play had dropped off so significantly that many of us were missing Edwards and Anderson, and sadly Jue may have been our best player at safety last season.

Thankfully that is in the past and Jim Bates first order of business is to restock a depleted Safety cupboard, so let’s take a look at what he has to work with. I guess the fairest place to start would be with the only significant returning safety (here I use the term loosely) from last season’s team:

Mark Roman the good, the bad and the ugly

The good: which isn’t easy to find after last seasons fiasco, starts and ends with his coverage ability. He was an effective starter at Cincinnati and showed the flexibility in coverage to play cornerback as well as safety – maybe we can add flexibility to the good list. At 5-11 200 lbs he is not particularly big, nor is his 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash anything that will leave you in awe, but they are serviceable numbers for a NFL safety.

The bad: after hitting the jackpot of a $700,000 in Free Agency and performing well in the preseason with the Packers, he was quickly dinged up and under-preformed all season, playing in all 16 games and starting 15 of them.

The ugly: He didn't produce a single turnover, allowed 4½ touchdown passes and missed 18 tackles. Roman proved to be an effective blitzer, notching 3½ sacks, but he struggled tackling and he blew coverage’s all season long.

Mark caught a break with the regime change and will be afforded an opportunity to compete for his NFL life in training camp, but the clock is ticking and whether Roman's Packer days are through will be determined in the next couple of months.

Arturo Freeman is a 28-year-old, 6-1, 205 lb free safety signed as a Free Agent just before the April draft. Freeman chose GB for two reasons: opportunity to compete for a starting job and to follow his defensive coordinator Jim Bates from Miami. Freeman, who does not lack confidence, is excited for the chance to play in GB and show the NFL what kind of player he is.

During his tenure at Miami, Freeman flashed moments of brilliance, but his inconsistency resulted in his having a nomadic role on the Dolphins very good defensive secondary. He was a starter at times, and a flexible DB in the nickel and dime package at others. He appeared in 72 games and started 29 of them, and finished his Dolphins career with 199 tackles, five interceptions, two forced fumbles and one recovery. In terms of pass coverage, Freeman is coming off his best season, having tied for the team lead in 2004 with four interceptions, despite only starting the 2nd half of the season.

Arturo is an outstanding athlete who has the tools to be a complete package at safety. He is an aggressive and punishing tackler with the skills to play strong run defense without sacrificing cover skills. Coming out of college there were questions regarding his durability, after he missed the 1998 season with a knee injury and despite rupturing a spleen in the 1999 preseason, Freeman only missed two games and claimed a starting role as a CB as soon as he stepped back on to the field as a Senior on an outstanding South Carolina defense.

He was a four-year starter at South Carolina (1995-97, 1999) who started 39 of 42 games in which he played . He was twice an All-SEC selection his personal season bests were 99 tackles, 6 interceptions and four forced fumbles. He made the All-SEC freshman team in his inaugural season.

Despite the “tough love” he frequently received from Coach Bates, Arturo liked Bates’ system and Bates’ like Arturo enough to bring him into GB with his move to defensive coordinator this off-season. Bates’ has made a couple of things quite clear – it will be an open competition that all will have a fair opportunity to emerge with a job or a one-way ticket out of GB, and that he wants to settle on his starting safeties early in training camp. This, combined with Arturo’s familiarity with Bates’ system, would seem to give Freeman an inside track to one of the starting jobs to begin the season. However, nothing is guaranteed any of the players at this important last line of defense position.

"Of course, mentally wise it helps," Freeman said of knowing Bates' system. "And I wanted to regroup. I'm at a point in my career where I just need to be on football and take off from here. I just need the opportunity to play."

With an eye towards Veteran leadership the Packers followed the signing of Freeman with signing another Safety with starting NFL experience – Earl Little.

Experience and great work habits is what Earl Little, a 32-year-old veteran with 52 starts during his seven-year career, brings to the table in the Green Bay Packers quest to rebuild their broken safety situation.

The 6-foot, 201-pound Little's best years were from 2001-'03, when he average 5 interceptions and averaged 68 tackles per season. He started all but four of the 45 games in that span and developed a reputation as someone who was always around the ball. Earl is a sure tackler with good fundamental football skills. He claims to have not lost any speed and the worst injury he has suffered, he said, was a high-ankle sprain that caused him to miss three games in 2002. In his seven seasons in the league, he has played in all 16 games five times, including four of the last five.
Earl is not a long-term solution, but has a shot at being the guardian a starting safety position until the coaching staff can prepare one of their talented young rookies to bring their knowledge level on to a similar plane to their immense physical talents. (see evaluation of rookies below)

"As I told coach (Mike) Sherman, all I'm asking for is an opportunity, a chance to compete," Little said. "Nothing has been handed to me. I've earned everything I've gotten. Even if they do hand it to me, I still have to fight and keep my position. My goal is to be the starting free safety for the Green Bay Packers and nothing is going to distract me from that."

When the Packers signed Todd Franz during the off-season Packer fans were divided into three categories: those that said, “Todd Who?” those that said, “Todd Franz, I remember hearing that name before?” and those who said, “Todd Franz, I remember him, he was a member of the ‘Breakfast Club.’”

In 2002, Franz was with the Packers throughout training-camp as what most thought would be a role as camp fodder. However, Todd kept making plays and hanging around, he was finally cut in the final roster cuts before the start of the season. He then spent a week on the practice squad before being sent packing again back to Oklahoma.

The week before the Packers were to play the Defending Champion NE Patriots Sharper, McKenzie, and Jue all went down to injuries, adding to an already injury depleted defense. To protect himself, coach Mike Sherman signed Westbrook on Wednesday morning and elevated practice squad defensive backs Franz and Erwin Swiney to the active roster Saturday. All three were active for the game despite the fact Westbrook had three days of practice in the system and Franz, who was in training camp with the team before getting the call that Monday at his Oklahoma home to join the practice squad, and Westbrook was coming in with no prior knowledge of the system.

Franz, Westbrook and Sweeny literally lived with the defensive coaching staff preparing them for this great road game, coming off a short week (having played on Monday night the week before) – which is where the name the breakfast club was birthed. He bounced back to the Practice squad before being elevated and playing again against the Redskins that same season.

With a lineup that looked more like an exhibition game, the “Breakfast Club” defense intercepted Super Bowl champion Tom Brady three times and held the champs to a single, meaningless touchdown late in the 4th quarter. For the game, the defense didn't allow a pass play of more than 18 yards, despite the Patriots running multiple-receiver sets most of the game to force the Packers to play their newcomers – as the Packers thrashed the Patriots 28 to 10 in an improbable road victory that was never as close as the score.

Now 28, the 6 foot 202 lb Franz, who is now a 4 year Vet, spent the last two-plus seasons in Washington where he played in each of the Redskins’ last 32 games. An outstanding special teams player, Todd led the Redskins in special-teams tackles with 21, and added 25 tackles from the line of scrimmage in 2003. Last season, he was outstanding again on special teams and added a key interception in their win vs. Baltimore.

Franz is a long shot to make the Packers’ squad, but it is hard to imagine that Todd has ever known it any other way, as he finds himself fighting to keep his NFL football career alive once again in Green Bay.

Nick Collins was the Packers first of the team's two second-round draft picks this year as the final piece of last season’s trade of Mike McKenzie.

The 5-foot-11, 206-pound Collins is a rare athlete – especially for a safety, running a 4.37 40-yard dash during the NFL Combine and a 4.34 during his campus day. He has a 40-inch vertical leap, and has always been a playmaker, notching 12 interceptions and 25 pass break-ups during his final two years with the Wildcats. Other assets include:
~~· very good overall muscle development,
~~· a cut V-shaped upper torso, broad shoulders and chest,
~~· has quite a pop in his hits, but needs to study and take good angles to fit Bates system,
~~· well above average straight-line speed for a safety,
~~· more than adequate change of direction speed for a safety, which explains why some teams were considering him a corner,
~~· looseness in his hips that NFL scouts look for in DB’s, and can turn fluidly coming out of his backpedal,
~~· acceleration to run ball carriers down, but needs work on fundamentals,
~~· good timing on his jumps to get to the ball at its high point,
~~· natural hands to extend away from the body's frame in order to make the interception,
~~· while he is still a work in progress as a tackler, he does stay low making wrap-up tackles in space...

While no one can doubt that Nick possesses all the measurables but scores of 10 and then 14 on the Wonderlic intelligence test raised red flags in some teams' eyes. To get a better sense of Collins' ability to pick up the Packers' defense, Sherman sent assistant Joe Baker down to get a closer look at him before the draft. "Do we expect him to be a starter? Yes," said Joe Baker, who coaches the team's safeties. "Do we expect him to be a good player in the league? Yes. And I think it will happen sooner than later. I think there's a good chance he'll be a starter this year and maybe right away. A very good chance."

Baker knows a thing or two about safeties having worked with was Donovin Darius in Jacksonville. Darius, the 25th overall pick in 1999, started 14 games as a rookie, and Baker says it isn't a stretch to expect the same from Collins.

Collins who is confident without being cocky says, "My mind-set coming in is to start. I've been a starter all my life and I don't want to change that. I've just got to stay in that book, run, and stay great in shape. And when I come into training camp, be ready to compete."

"He's getting better every day," defensive coordinator Jim Bates said.

Packer fans everywhere are hoping that is the path he continues follow.

Marviel Underwood comes to the NFL having been a three-year starter from San Diego State. At 5-10.2 he is not as long as you would like from a prototype NFL safety, but he packs a wallop in his compacted 205 lb frame. He is strong, pumping 225 19 times at the combine.

Like Collins, Underwood also brings well above average speed to the Safety position – his campus 40 yd dash time was 4.38 seconds. He was one of the fastest defensive backs in the pass happy Mountain West Conference. He had a 39-inch vertical leap in workouts with the Packers’ scouts.

Marviel comes in as a rookie a bit more polished than Collins, but without his incredible upside potential as a playmaker. Underwood is a solid wrap-up tackler, including in the open field where he is able to cover a lot of ground. He is an athlete with quickness as well as speed. He plays very physical in run support and stays low in stance and shows explosion through his hits. Like all college safeties he will need to wrap better rather than rely on his big hits to down players in the NFL.

Underwood is fluid flowing to the ball, has recovery quickness & range, and shows sharpness breaking out of his backpedal.

On the downside, he bites on play action and thinks too much which interferes with his play diagnoses and ball awareness, which results in him not being a good zone safety. He scored a 24 on the Wonderlic and is said to be a good student of the game.

Scouts were mixed on Underwood, some loved him, while others were ho-hum on him. The Packers claim they received many calls complimenting them on their pick right after drafting him.

While he will push and compete for playing time, my take on him is that he will be a valuable special teams player this season while he adjusts his game to the Pro level.

The likely also ran(s) include:

Julius Curry, a 6-0 196 lb Safety out of Michigan. The Packers picked him up on waivers from Detroit and assigned him to the Practice squad last season. He has some skill, but the hiring of Bates who will bring a whole new scheme to the team negated any of the advantage he may have gained by a year with the team. Julius has to be considered a dark horse to make the team.

Wendell Williams is an intriguing prospect, who at 6-1 215 lbs is an undersized LB or a huge safety who has great speed. He is raw, having played for a small school at La-Lafayette. His best shot is to make the developmental squad.

Almost a clone, with more brains but less speed is Chonn Lacey at 6-1 and 217 lbs from Temple. A final long shot is Art Smith a rookie from Northeastern, who is 6-1 204 lbs.
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