Safety Shake-Up Raises More Questions

The San Diego Chargers sent another former first-round pick plummeting down the depth chart when they demoted nickel back Antoine Cason and replaced him with Steve Gregory. How the team decided to give more time to Gregory, a proven liability in coverage, remains a mystery.

There is a lot not to like about Thursday's shake-up of the safety corps.

The demotion of Antoine Cason slaps the word "bust" onto another former first-round pick; if the team deems you to be a bigger liability than Steve Gregory, there may be no recovering from that. Cason will now be lumped in with Buster Davis, the team's 2007 first-round pick who has been tied to the inactive list all season.

It's a tough blow for GM A.J. Smith, who must be frustrated that his first-round picks stopped panning out once Marty Schottenheimer was no longer around to develop their skill-sets. Must be a coincidence.

Gregory, the least dynamic player in San Diego's secondary, is now essentially a member of the starting lineup; the team spends so much time in its nickel alignment, he should be on the field for more than 60 percent of the defensive snaps.

Gregory, to be fair, is a reliable player who usually maintains good positioning in coverage. However, he is undersized (5-foot-11, 195 pounds) and has no closing speed or ball skills.

SS Kevin Ellison
Donald Miralle/Getty
The upside of this shake-up is that Kevin Ellison moves unchallenged into the starting spot at strong safety. Ellison is a physical player and a sure tackler. And although he still needs to make strides in coverage, he has the potential to be much better in that area than Gregory or the recently released Clinton Hart.

Ellison enjoyed a strong game last week against the Denver Broncos, posting seven tackles in his most extensive outing of the season, but he was targeted whenever he lined up one-on-one against TE Tony Scheffler. Other teams with elite pass-catching tight ends -- such as the Oakland Raiders with Zach Miller in Week 8 -- will attack San Diego in the same manner until Ellison proves he can stop it.

The Chargers have some options in case this realigned secondary does not respond as expected. Firstly, Paul Oliver is also taking snaps as the nickel back and could replace Gregory in that position if Gregory struggles. And secondly, undrafted rookie C.J. Spillman is waiting in the wings, ready to step into the rotation for anyone who falters with his new assignment.

If that doesn't work, perhaps the Chargers can re-sign Marlon McCree. Or Bhawoh Jue. Or Hanik Milligan. Or maybe A.J. Smith will just volunteer that he wouldn't know a talented safety if one fell out of the sky and landed on him.

What are fans saying about this surprising development? See in the message boards.

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.

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