NFL

Most Intriguing Battles – Safety

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Two of the most memorable players during the recent history of the league have now both hung up their cleats. Of course we’re talking about Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu.

The AFC North will never be the same, but both teams are still looking for the right guys to fill in those spots.

Meanwhile, the Falcons and Cardinals are in dire need to revamp their secondary.

With OTAs here and training camp around the corner, let’s take a look at these highly contested position battles.

Pittsburgh Steelers – The 2014 season wasn’t one to cherish for the Steelers defense to say the least. If you want to get specific, I’m referring to Pittsburgh’s secondary, which ranked 27th, allowing 253 yards in the air per game to go along with 30 touchdowns.

Future Hall of Fame safety Troy Polamalu called it quits just a couple of months ago, which came as no surprise. The 34-year-old met father time and it was apparent as he lost the explosion we’ve come accustom to seeing from the ‘Head and Shoulders’ poster boy.

With OTA’s here and training camp just around the corner, it’s time for Pittsburgh to prep for life without Polamalu. When Polamalu missed the last two games of the 2014 season, head coach Mike Tomlin elected to go with the veteran Will Allen over prodigy Shamarko Thomas.

The decision makes logical sense considering Pittsburgh was still in the playoff picture.

While Thomas has more athleticism and upside, it just wasn’t an ideal time to go through a learning curve.

Things are a little different now as most expect Thomas to finally get his time to shine, including Troy Polamalu himself.

The two stay in touch quite frequently.

“I definitely am closer to him than I am to anybody. My second year, I went to him in the offseason and said that I want to be great, and he just told me that being great isn’t just about being a great football player. It’s putting God first and your family, and everything else will fall into place.”

However, don’t expect Allen to go down without a fight.

Baltimore Ravens – Just like Polamalu, there’s no replacing Ed Reed, but Baltimore is trying to do the best they can.

Former Houston Texan Kendrick Lewis is expected to start at free safety. 

“When you see Baltimore Ravens, you see the philosophy,” Lewis said. “You see that their team is made up on defense and me being a defensive guy, me being a safety, that’s what I wanted to be a part of.”

Who’ll be playing opposite of Lewis is the main question in Baltimore.

The two candidates are former Florida Gator teammates Matt Elam and Will Hill, who came into the league two completely different ways.

Elam was a first round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, while Hill was an undrafted free agent. Up unto this point, Elam has been unable to prove himself as a legitimate starter.

General manager Ozzie Newsome isn’t shy about sharing his thoughts on Elam through two seasons.

“Matt Elam has to be a better football player for us next year.”

Just maybe, the third time will be a charm.

“I lost five percent body fat, I got myself stronger than I’ve ever been,” Elam said. “I’m just ready go go to and break out this season. The offseason went well. I’m ready to start the season. I’m ready to play ball again.”

Hill is trying to prove he’s reliable not only on the field, but off it as well. Last year, Hill was suspended for the first six games for testing positive for marijuana.

Head coach John Harbaugh is pleased with Hill’s progression thus far.

“I almost say light-years ahead of where he was last year,” the Ravens head coach said. “Came in kind of late and under challenging circumstances that he was in and missed six weeks [last season] to start with, which is hard. You’re off the field for six weeks, and a lot of rust builds up, especially a guy just learning the system. Here he is.

“He has been here every single day in the offseason that I’m aware of. Heck, he brought his family in here to work out with him when he was on his own. I see him pushing the stroller with his wife and his baby down the street here in Owings Mills. I just think he has really dug in to have a great season, and we’ll see how it goes for him. But right now, he looks the part.”

This competition is truly anyone’s ball game. The only guarantee is that a former Florida Gator will be the starter this fall.

Arizona Cardinals – After years of hard work and relentless dedication, 29-year-old Rashad Johnson started in all 16 games last season for Arizona. Johnson led the team with 4 interceptions and was second in tackles (92).

With all of that into account, it’ll be hard to imagine Johnson not starting in 2015, but don’t be surprised if Tyrann Mathieu has something to say about that.

Mathieu, also known as the ‘Honey Badger’, is entering his third season. The former LSU product showed great promise during his rookie season, but he took a giant step backwards last season, as his tackle total dropped from 63 to 39. A major reason for the fall off was his health.

Near the end of his rookie campaign, Mathieu tore his ACL and LCL, which he didn’t seem to fully recover from during his sophomore season. However, Mathieu appears ready to go now.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been healthy,” Mathieu said. “Last year I felt like I took a back seat. I played well my rookie year and then last year it was kind of, eh, I was there but I wasn’t there. This (year) is more important for me because I really want to let everyone know I’m back and I can still make some plays.”

Based on how Johnson performed last year, he’s the favorite to be the starter at free safety, while Mathieu should see plenty of time as the nickel cornerback.

Arizona ranked 29th in pass defense in 2014.

Atlanta Falcons – When it comes to pass coverage, no one was worse statistically than the Atlanta Falcons. The unit ranked dead last in 2014.

Atlanta elected not to re-sign Dwight Lowery, which leaves them with a gaping hole at free safety. However, all signs point to Charles Godfrey as being the guy.

“(I have the) ability to get to the ball and to make plays when I get to the ball,” Godfrey said. “Also, my ability to see the whole field. I have a long ways to go; I’m far from there … I don’t let myself get complacent,” he added. “Yeah, I’m motivated.”

With that being said, new Falcons head coach Dan Quinn expects Kemal Ishmael and Ricardo Allen to compete for the starting job.

Ishmael led the team with four interceptions and was second in tackles with 97.

Allen on the other hand is a long shot. The second year player was released by Atlanta but signed back to it’s practice squad. When Robert Alford was placed on injured reserve in mid-December, Allen was immediately activated.

While Allen didn’t accumulate any stats, the experience of going up against the likes of Roddy White and Julio Jones in practice everyday was vital.

“You have to develop a routine,” he said. “The days get long and the weeks get long, but you have to perfect your craft.”


About Mark Gunnels

Mark Gunnels

Mark Gunnels is an NFL columnist for Football Insiders. He has several years of experience covering the NFL and NCAA football. He's the radio color commentator for Lincoln University football. Mark's work has been featured on Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports and Yard Barker.