In the mountains of mid-western Pennsylvania, the temperatures climb into the 80s this week, which means summer is officially here for just about everyone. That time is often known as the brief “dead period” in the NFL, but we’re here to bridge the gap for you with plenty of summer content, including a new series looking at three to five 2016 starters at each position around the NFL that could be replaced in the lineup this season.
Traditionally such projects begin with quarterbacks, but I’m bucking the trend and starting on defense. Today the focus is specifically on five starting safeties whose best days, at least in their current roles, have run their course and superior talent is ready and waiting behind them. Keep in mind that with three-safety looks becoming more common in today’s NFL, a few of these players might still see the field, even if it is for far less snaps than they’ve had in the past.
Reggie Nelson, Oakland Raiders
Nelson struggled last year in Oakland, moving from the two-high heavy scheme in Cincinnati to a lot of single-high looks with the Raiders. His ball skills were diminished by his lack of range and closing burst, and it is clear that at 34 (in September) his best days are behind him.
Karl Joseph and this year’s second-round pick, Obi Melifonwu, will be the Raiders’ new starting duo in the secondary, but Nelson still could have a role in some three-safety looks with Melifonwu or Joseph playing in the slot and the veteran manning a spot in deep coverage on the back end.
Calvin Pryor, New York Jets
I really don’t think Pryor has been as bad as advertised since coming to New York, and I still expect him to have a dime safety, in-the-box role that could suit him really well in 2017. But the Jets spent their first two picks on safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye, which could significantly limit the number of snaps Pryor sees this season.
The Louisville product’s limited range and ball skills keep him from being really effective in high zone coverages, and he doesn’t have the fluidity to win most matchups in man coverage. Adams and Maye are both more well-rounded, but Todd Bowles loves three-safety looks, so expect Pryor to compete with Rontez Miles for time there.
Dwight Lowery, Los Angeles Chargers
Lowery has hit the jackpot in landing spots over the past three seasons. Not many players can play for three teams in as many years, yet start every game they’ve appeared in but one. Lowery is one of those players who you never prefer to start, but if called upon, he’ll perform admirably enough to keep you satisfied. He has never been the most athletic or rangy athlete, and the newly acquired Rayshawn Jenkins and Desmond King should push him out of a starting spot early on in camp.
Jahleel Addae was signed to a four-year deal this offseason as the team’s starting strong safety, but it remains to be seen if new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley will keep to a Cover 3 heavy scheme and who will be the single-high safety in that look. Amid the competition Lowery might be on the outside looking in for a roster spots, as Addae, Jenkins, King and Tre Boston all look to earn playing time over him.
Da’Norris Searcy, Tennessee Titans
Searcy is another Lowery type — well-rounded enough to have started almost every game over the past three seasons for the Bills or Titans, yet not good enough in any one area to really be a desirable starter. Dick Lebeau has been a Cover 3 heavy defensive coordinator during his career, and Jonathan Cyprien was brought in to play strong safety in that starting unit, Searcy’s best spot.
As a big fan of Kevin Byard’s game coming out of college, I think he’ll get a shot to play some single-high in his second season, though I prefer him in split-safety shells. Even if Byard struggles, that isn’t the role for Searcy, so expect him to stay on the outside looking in unless an injury happens.
Harold Jones-Quartey, Chicago Bears
Who? I’ll have you know Jones-Quartey toiled in starting obscurity in Chicago this past season, struggling in coverage from strong safety. The Bears aren’t exactly loaded at safety, but Adrian Amos could move to strong safety this season or play in the slot more (where he played a lot at Penn State), while rookie Eddie Jackson takes over at free safety. Deon Bush and DeAndre Houston-Carson are two second year players vying for more playing time as well, which could ultimately push HJQ out of a roster spot if he doesn’t have a strong camp.