James Ihedigbo, Glover Quin
Key Backups: Isa Abdul-Quddus, Don Carey
The Lions have one of the better pairings of safeties in the NFL, let alone the NFC North. One could question whether or not either of these two safeties could be considered an elite player in their own right, but they work well together. The biggest problem facing the Lions is that Quin is currently 29 and Ihedigbo is 31, so they have to start to wonder how many good years they will have with both players together.
Even though Ihedigbo is considered to be the strong safety in the Lions defensive backfield, he still has the ability to be a playmaker. He is more than a player who steps up in the box as a run stopper. Last year he showed that he could be a contributor in the passing game as both a pass rusher and in coverage – recording 71 tackles, two sacks, three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, four interceptions and eight passes defensed.
It was Ihedigbo’s first season with the Lions and his first season in the NFC. Before that, he spent time with the New York Jets, New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens. This is going to be the second year of the two-year deal he signed, so look for him to be playing hard and trying to prove he deserves an extension.
Quin had arguably his best season of his NFL career and it ended with his first appearance in the Pro Bowl and being awarded Second-Team All-Pro honors. A big part for receiving the kind of attention he did was because he was able to improve the amount of interceptions (seven) he was able to haul in during the season.
Over the course of his career, Quin has only missed one game and that was back in his rookie season. That sort of consistency deep down the field is important for any defense to have. The Lions are going to need that kind of consistency this season after losing Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in free agency.
Harrison Smith, Robert Blanton
Key Backups: Andrew Sendejo, Antone Exum Jr.
The Vikings have a player on their roster that could possibly be considered the best up-and-coming safety in the NFL, and that player is Smith. He had shown that he is an instinctual player with plenty of talent in his first two seasons, but Smith seemed to take his game to a whole new level last year when Mike Zimmer took over as Vikings head coach.
Since Zimmer arrived in Minnesota, he always talks about how he likes to work with versatile players and he showed that with Smith. The safety was able to make an impact in all areas of the defense, recording 93 tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble, five interceptions – one returned for a touchdown – and nine passes defensed. Smith is only entering into his fourth year in the NFL, and as he continues to develop he soon could be considered one of the best safeties in the league.
The problem for the Vikings is that they do not seem to have a safety they feel comfortable putting in next to Smith. Last season, Blanton won the starting job in the preseason and training camp, but he never seemed to live up to the potential he showed come the regular season. He played well as a run defender, recording 106 tackles, but he struggled at times in pass coverage.
Blanton injured in ankle late in the season, and even when he recovered from his injury, the Vikings chose to go with Sendejo over him, which speaks to the confidence they have in him. Sendejo also had a problem staying healthy during his limited play, injuring his wrist.
The other player that appears to be in competition for the starting safety job opposite Smith is Exum. He was a sixth-round draft pick by the Vikings a year ago and general manager Rick Spielman has already spoken about how they are happy with the progression Exum has made this offseason.
Morgan Burnett, HaHa Clinton-Dix,
Key Backups: Sean Richardson, Micah Hyde
Even though he missed a game during the regular season, Burnett was still able to lead the Packers in tackles with 129. He is the classic strong safety where he makes a much bigger impact in the running game than he does in the passing game, which showed with him recording 1½ sacks and one interception to go along with his tackles.
At the age of 26, Burnett is still a young player and should be in the prime of his career. Since the Packers had already signed him to an extension, he should be able to play with the team for many more years, giving them consistency in the defensive backfield.
Clinton-Dix is the free safety lined up next to Burnett and is another young player that the Packers hope they can keep around for a while. He was their first-round draft pick in 2014 and even though he had an up and down rookie season, he did show flashes that he could one day be a good player. Most rookies take a year or two adjusting to the speed of the NFL and all the new concepts they are expected to learn, and if he can continue to progress he could one day be a ball-hawking safety teams will have to look out for.
In his rookie season, Clinton-Dix recorded just one interception and six passes defensed during the regular season. That is not a stat that you want to see when you draft a player to be a pass defender, but everything seemed to change in the postseason.
In the Packers’ two playoff games, Clinton-Dix recorded 11 tackles, two interceptions and three passes defensed. If he is able to continue to improve and the Packers can keep both of these safeties, they could have a dangerous tandem for years to come.
Antrel Rolle, Brock Vereen
Key Backups: Ryan Mundy, Adrian Amos
Rolle has had a very successful career playing for the Arizona Cardinals and New York Giants. Now the Bears are hoping he can continue to play at a high level and help out their secondary. The safety has made a name for himself as being a hard hitter, which takes a toll on the body, and at the age of 32 you have to start to wonder how much gas is left in the tank.
Last season, Rolle recorded 87 tackles, one forced fumble and three interceptions in 16 games. The Bears are hoping he can bring that same production and stability to a defense that struggled during the 2014 season.
Another reason why the Bears might have chosen to bring Rolle in is to help mentor young safety Vereen. He was the team’s fourth-round draft pick a year ago, and even though he played in all 16 games last year it was on a limited basis. But with Chris Conte departing to Tampa Bay it is expected that Vereen will now take a full-time starting role.
Vereen attended the University of Minnesota and while there he played both safety and cornerback. Because he got time in at cornerback he should be able to help the Bears out in the passing game. The only problem is that, at 5-11, 199 pounds, he is a little undersized for a safety and could struggle against some of the taller NFL receivers.
If Vereen is able to step up and have a good season in his first year as a full-time starter, and with the addition of Rolle, the Bears’ safeties could be much improved from a year ago. The only problem is that the rest of the defense might not be as improved, which could make it hard to see the strides at the safety position.
Vikings vs. NFC North: Safeties
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