Williams and Sensabaugh: Two starters, one spot at safety
What happens when you have too many starters in the secondary? Does a team choose to bump an up-and-coming safety because they have an extra cornerback that could make the position switch? This is the problem the Jaguars face when they look at strong safety for the 2008 season. The Jaguars, without a doubt, suffered from a troubling problem at pass defense. Rashean Mathis struggled all season long, Brian Williams was the best cornerback on the team, despite not being able to cover Reggie Wayne to save his life, and the Jaguars were picked apart by Tom Brady and the Patriots in the playoffs.
To address this, the Jaguars signed Drayton Florence through free agency, and seemed to have handed him the starting job opposite Mathis. Some speculated that Florence would be a nickel cornerback, considering that the Jaguars use nearly 50% three cornerback formations, but 12 million in guaranteed money for a situational player is impossible to justify. No, the Jaguars decided then and there that Florence would be the starting cornerback unless there was a huge shake-up at the position.
Now, there's nothing wrong in having three starting cornerbacks in today's NFL. Passing is king and having guys who can cover the best in the league, which means guys in the AFC, are worth the contracts. The problem comes in finding ways to put the best players on the field at the same time. When you start having your better players on the sidelines but eating up contract space, you're bound to have trouble.
So what do the Jaguars do? The obvious solution is to move Brian Williams to Strong Safety where he has some experience and can still be involved in the pass defense. But then there's Gerald Sensabaugh who despite showing great toughness, missed most of last season with two torn labrums. Now he's healthy and expecting to compete for the starting role. It's a wealth of riches, but a situation that deserves a closer look. Thankfully, once we get to training camp, it'll be a battle that's easy to watch.
Gerald Sensabaugh: The Best Fit
There's some misleading stuff being said about Brian Williams' ability to transition from cornerback to strong safety, particulary in the role of run-stuffing. Vic Ketchman and others have compared Brian to Indianapolis Safety Bob Sanders, a comparison which is both misleading and dangerous.
While their body type might match up, it's setting an unrealistic expectation to assume that Williams can come in and be anywhere near the player that Bob Sanders is to the Colts defense. Brian is best in pass coverage, that's his bread and butter, and expecting him to come right in and put his shoulder down and stop a running back at fill speed with the lack of regard to his body like strong safety should is premature.
Yes, Williams is solid, but that does not make him a safety, yet.
Now, there are plenty of reasons why Brian Williams will start at Safety, but none of them reflect the skills and toughness of Gerald Sensabaugh. While he is less proven, Gerald can do the run stuffing that he's supposed to at the position. His toughness is without question, and now he's facing the biggest challenge of his career.
Unfortunately for Gerald, he's competing against a rough situation.
I intended to write a defense for why Gerald should be the starter, but that's not terribly realistic. Instead, here's what we should expect between the two players. The Jaguars are going to run a whole lot of nickel packages. When they use three cornerbacks, Mathis and Williams go on the outside, Florence covers the slot receiver. Gerald will play strong safety, and Reggie Nelson the free safety. In situations that have the Jaguars in their base 4-3, it will be Mathis and Florence on the edges, with Williams at strong safety next to Nelson.
Now, the nickel defense will be awfully intimidating for quarterbacks in the AFC, especially when Gregg Williams turns players like Reggie Nelson into guided quarterback missiles, and you can do things like that when you have a fleet of cornerbacks.
Gerald Sensabaugh is a free agent next season. This training camp is critical for him to prove that he deserves to be a big part of the Jaguars rotation. The way he becomes the starting strong safety is to prove that he is a 100% of the time tackler in the run game and hope that Williams struggles.
In a lot of ways, the term "starter" is silly to worry about. Maurice Jones-Drew is not technically a starter, yet his importance to the offense is without question. The same goes for Gerald. The odds of him securing a starting spot in the secondary is slim, but he'll still play a huge role in the defense. It feels unfair, of course, that a guy who's put his body on the line loses out on playing time because of something outside his control, but at the same time, this is what the Jaguars defense should be. It's a group of hard working players that know their role and they execute it perfectly. Gerald Sensabaugh will be one of those guys who will miss out on having his name called out during introductions but will play his way onto the field.
The likelyhood of the Jaguars making it the entire season without an injury to a cornerback is very low. Should we lose Drayton or Rashean for a game or two, having a secondary with this much flexiblity is fantastic. Even if it means some players have to sit on the sidelines.
Brian Williams: Best Athlete Available
Brian Williams was signed before the 2006 season from the Minnesota Vikings who drafted him in 2002 in the 4th round. He was their transition player in 2006, which means they received no additional compensation from the Jaguars. He got a $32 million contract with a $10 million signing bonus to be the #2 cornerback, a role he filled admirably for two years. In fact, he was more consistent than Mathis was last season, although Mathis was hampered by injuries most of the year.
Now, Williams is a 29-year old veteran who has had to change his role to suit a more pass-oriented defense. The Jaguars have clearly set their mind to stopping the pass, and moving Williams to SS will do just that. Williams is an excellent tackler, but he's a better corner. I think Sensabaugh has the edge in run stopping, but I'll have to see his two re-constructed shoulders in action first to be sure. I just don't see the comparisons to Bob Smith being accurate; Williams isn't anywhere close to Smith in skill at safety. Smith has been there his whole career, giving him a huge edge. Williams is going to act more like a 3rd DB or a blitzing SS, I just can't see him projected as a line stuffer.
Williams clearly improved from his first year with the Jags in 2006 by netting 3 interceptions and defending 8 passes in 2007. Williams is also known as a devastating hitter for a corner, forcing 8 fumbles in his career. However, it must be noted that tackling a WR is different from taking down a charging RB after shedding his lead blocker's attempt to relocate your head. I see Williams being a liability in the run game, but I must stress that I don't see him being used that way. He'll be on the line mainly when blitzing, or in press coverage, but I expect his main focus will be in the passing game. The Jags tipped their hand slightly when they said they were considering placing the defensive headset in the SS helmet because it would receive less contact. That shows that the SS will be used in pass coverage more than run stopping.
Brian has been seeking advice about his new position from an unlikely source, second year safety Reggie Nelson. Nelson has a strong grasp of the defense and the fact that a 7th year veteran is asking his opinion speaks volumes to how far Nelson has progressed.
Want another sign of Nelson's development?
He has become one of the go-to guys for veteran Brian Williams, who is making the switch from cornerback to safety.
"He's loving it back there," Nelson said. "It's kind of funny because last year, I was asking him questions. Now, he's asking me questions about safety. I'm enjoying it. It's going good."
Donnie Henderson has also provided a new level of insight. His shouting is accompanied by a vast pool of knowledge that he's been able to impart to many in the secondary.
Nelson is enjoying playing for Henderson, who is much more vocal than former defensive backs coach Dave Campo, and in Nelson's words, has been giving the defensive backs more keys to hone in on from opposing offenses than the players have gotten in the past.
Our secondary should be the class of the defense this year; the team clearly sees enough in Gerald Sensabaugh to have kept him around despite him needing multiple surgeries. If he can prove himself in pass coverage, he may eventually supplant Williams for the starting role at SS. I don't see it happening ever, and defiantly not this season. Brian is too skilled against the pass to sit on the bench; he's got a nose for the ball and could easily blanket a TE or slot WR in coverage. One thing's for sure, the days of Sammy Knight getting burned by 260 lb TE's are over.
Brian has only had one off the field issue since joining the Jaguars. He was arrested for a DUI and was accused of going all "George Jefferson" (Brian's words) on the cop. However, it is looking more and more like the cop who filed the report was lying about Williams' rant. During the trial there were numerous witnesses, both from the state and the defense, who corroborated Williams' testimony and destroyed the credibility of the arresting cop and his story.
"If Mr. Williams had been being loud and profane, Officer Thiem certainly would have seen that. I think that brings into question all of Officer Bridges' testimony," Greene said. "The breath test operator also testified that Mr. Williams was completely polite, cooperative."
A Jacksonville police officer who encountered Jaguars defensive back Brian Williams during his 2006 drunken driving arrest testified he heard Williams being loud but didn't hear a profane, sexually charged rant like the arresting officer reported.
A jail officer also described Williams as cooperative and "very polite," according to a transcript of a driver's license hearing a month after the arrest. A copy of the transcript was obtained by the Times-Union.
Cheers to Brian Williams! He's cleared his name, made a position switch, and has entrenched himself as a proven NFL veteran. Look for Williams to make a big impact in 2008; he's got a better coach, no off the field distractions, and an amazing secondary to work with.
We Debate, You decide:
Who wins the "starting battle"? Who starts at cornerback? Will this group do better than last season? These are the questions we'd like you to answer in the comments.