(This is the sixth in a multi-part series by Ty Schalter evaluating and discerning Detroit's off-season needs. Ty has penned "Old Mother Hubbard" the last few years, an idiom to restocking a franchise that was once left bare - ed.)
OMH Series: DT's | DE's | MLB | OLB | CB
Throughout the OMH series I’ve been waiting to get to this one; I’ve got a really cool data visualization thing I wanna do with each complete unit. So, the safeties:
The top-graded safety is Philadelphia’s Quintin Mikell, who absolutely murdered the coverage and run-stopping grades. Despite below-average blitzing, and being called for four flags, Mikell’s performance still made him the highest-graded safety, by far. In fact, only four safeties cracked positive double digits. 50 of the 85 safeties were within plus 5.0 and minus 5.0. Just as with OLBs, though, I wonder if this is a manifestation of the way PFF grades, or if it reveals something innate about the game of football. Safeties are very difficult to grade from TV broadcast footage—but perhaps the safeties simply don’t impact the game as often as other positions?
There’s no question who the Lions—and their fans—view as their top safety, or even top defensive back. Louis Delmas was a player who exploded onto the scene out of Western Michigan in 2009—and while we knew he gambled a bit, and missed almost as often as he hit, he made some flat-out incredible plays his rookie year. I think, though, most of us had a sense throughout this year that while he wasn’t making obvious mistakes, he wasn’t making many highlight-reel plays, either. He seemed to be toned down, the edge taken off.
Was that maturation, or regression?
Delmas took 940 snaps, and his overall grade matched the NFL average to within three tenths of a point. He was a full notch below average in coverage (minus-3.9), but a shade above average in run defense. However, he was an impressive plus-4 in pass rush; the fifth-best blitzer in the NFL! These numbers, however, reveal an overall regression from 2009, when Delmas played almost exactly the same number of snaps, and was a bit above-average in every dimension.
Last August, I wrote a piece called “Something’s Rotten in Delmas,” a slightly over-the-top look at the rumors about Delmas’s injured groin. Pro Football Talk had sources telling them Delmas might be lost for the year, while every Detroit scribe’s sources were pounding the table in denial. The truth, I guessed, was somewhere in between:
"The Lions and Delmas are absolutely right to be cautious with the injury. Further, if the specialist Delmas saw didn’t recommend surgery as a first course of action, then why do it unnecessarily? But this is clearly more serious than “a short-term thing.” I don’t believe that limited practice reps are going to seriously harm Delmas’s play in 2010—but if going full-speed sporadically isn’t “restful” enough for the groin to completely heal before the season starts, Delmas may not be able to go at full speed all year."
For the first nine weeks of the year, Delmas appeared to be his usual self -- sans a minus-0.8 against Philly, entirely due to a minus-1.6 coverage grade (likely a single mistake) -- and he was graded neutral or positive in every single game. Then, after a very nice plus-2.6 against the Jets, something happened. He went six straight weeks without a positive grade, including three awful ones against the Cowboys, Pats, and Bucs (minus 1.9, minus 3.8, and minus 2.9, respectively). He missed week 16 with a concussion, then turned in a great final game, earning an impressive plus-2.7 run defense grade against Adrian Peterson
and the Vikes.
I can only speculate [Ed. Note: SPECULATE] that Delmas aggravated the groin injury, or suffered some other malady, in between his great performance against the Jets, and his weakly negative one against the Bills. Seriously, he turned in a plus-1.9 coverage grade against Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes, but minus-1.2 against Steve Johnson and Lee Evans? Delmas had groin surgery immediately after the season, which jibes perfectly with my theory. If Delmas is taking the time to fully recover, he should be full-speed for 2011—and back to being “Da Missile” we saw in 2009, two and a half years wiser.
Bottom Line: Louis Delmas is an athletic, hard-hitting safety who can make big plays against the run and the pass. Despite being limited by injury, he proved extremely effective on the blitz this year. If he can go full speed, he should be one of the best safeties in the NFL next season.
The good news, and bad news, is that Amari Spievey -- not Delmas -- was the Lions’ top-graded safety in 2010. The third-round draft pick, who we’d hoped would step in and start at cornerback, instead struggled and switched to safety. Learning the new position slowed him down some more, but he saw spot duty in weeks 3, 5, 6, and 8. Finally, he got his first full workload against the Jets, and he played the game of his career to date: a plus-3.3 overall graded, 7-tackle performance. He was average or better in every category, and a very strong plus-2.9 against the run.
Unfortunately, Spievey hit a rough patch immediately after: three straight negative games against Buffalo, Dallas, and New England, struggling against the run and the pass. Then, he tightened it up against Chicago, Green Bay, and Miami; his grades in every dimension (and therefore overall) were flatly average. He finished off the season with a very strong plus-2.6, boosted by his only positive coverage grade of the year, a plus-1.9.
Looking at the stats, Spievey's a sure tackler. I added tackles and assists, and divided by missed tackles, and Spievey's rate of 7 tackles per miss is below the league average of 8.2. I am a ding-dong. I interpreted this stat exactly backwards. Spievey missed tackles a little more frequently than average. Thanks to reader Laimbrane for spotting this! Interestingly, both Spievey and Delmas were thrown at a little less than the NFL average safety—but Spievey forced a lower passer rating, 82.5 to Delmas’s 89.2. Again, Spievey was just better than the NFL average of 85.7.
Seeing a pattern? The PFF stats paint a slightly rosier picture of Spievey’s coverage than the grades do—and while normally I’d trust the grades more, safety play is very difficult to grade from TV footage. Overall, it’s safe to say Spievey played just below average in coverage, and a bit above average against the run, and on the blitz. He definitely had trouble focusing, and gave up some big plays, but showed the resiliency to shake it off and minimize his mistakes.
Bottom Line: Spievey is a talented, hardworking kid with the raw ability to be a very good safety. He struggled with consistency and mental mistakes in his first season, and this offseason will be crucial in finding out if he’s a long-term starter or medium-term rotational player.
As for the rest? Well, C.C. Brown is not likely to return. Interestingly, C.C. covered well enough but was a disaster against the run. He graded out at minus-6.5 and missed 10 tackles to just 32 made. UDFA Randy Philips flashed some promise in camp, but “spit the bit” as Tom Kowalski likes to say. He didn’t do well with a heavier preseason workload, and moved up and down off the practice squad. He got only 13 reps of live action. Paul Pratt got just one rep at safety; I believe they see him as a corner. John Wendling got 59 reps, but is clearly a special team's specialist. Erik Coleman was signed as a street free agent after being released from Atlanta.
SHOPPING LIST: The Lions are set at one safety position with Louis Delmas, who played admirably despite fighting through injuries. Amari Spievey showed enough promise to be considered a future starter, but will have to fight off FA signee Erik Coleman. Coleman has limitations, but will be a nice veteran insurance policy for both young safeties. Wendling and Philips will likely fight it out for the fourth safety spot. If the Lions want to make this a position of emphasis, they could acquire a clear-cut upgrade over Spievey, but my guess is they think they’re set here.
About The Author
Ty Schalter is a professional geek and family man. He regularly converts his undying fandom into words and numbers both for RoarReport.com, and his Detroit Lions blog, "The Lions in Winter."