When Roman Harper was named as a Pro Bowl fill-in instead of fellow alternate Earl Thomas, I was confused. It was the free safety position (not the strong safety, Harper's position) that had been vacated, so I figured Thomas should have been next in line. Plus, Thomas wasn't the one to lay a massive egg in Qwest Field last January.
But then I remembered that the NFL doesn't distinguish between free safeties and strong safeties. Only certain teams, like those that run Tampa 2 defenses, make that distinction. So Harper got it. Oh well. Thomas' day isn't far off.
But about the distinction: free safeties are the purer coverage guys, the roaming, rangy, instinctive QB duelers. Strong safeties are usually bigger, heavier, and slower because they're intended more as run support. Seattle's safeties are divided pretty cleanly into these two groups, so don't be alarmed if a deficiency is mentioned. It's about scheme.
Earl Thomas, FS
The former Texas safety worried some folks when he seemed to falter down the stretch last year. He certainly got a baptism by fire from QB's, as expected. But not to worry. Remember that Thomas was drafted very young (age 20) after only two college seasons, each of which was shorter than an NFL season. Developing the endurance and fortitude needed for a full NFL regular season is just part of the rookie wall.
Thomas showed some great things last year, but has work to do. Right now, his range and quickness are still covering up for his developing instincts and QB-reading, rather than serving them, but they are covering up well. He left so many interceptions on the field. He's a hard-hitting run defender, but also racked up 12 missed tackles last year, including a glaring slide-off of Brian Westbrook that led to a touchdown. The entire defense was terrible at tackling last year. Part of that being that they were on the field all the time, which is a vicious cycle interconnected with, but not necessarily fully caused by, poor tackling.
A second year as a starter should see a big uptick in Thomas's play. He's got all the tools he needs to get there. We might even get to see more pass-rushing, something he's shown flashes of. It says a ton that he almost got a Pro Bowl nomination last year as a rookie. Expectations are high.
Kam Chancellor, SS
The second-year safety needs to be one of training camp's success stories, and so far he has been. He's looking fast, strong, savvy, and most of all confident. Like Lawyer Milloy and Deon Grant before him, Chancellor's coverage is a bit sluggish and makes him more of an in-the-box run supporter and disrupter. He's served well here by the fact that he's built more like a linebacker, and could probably play one in a pinch. That versatility helps because Carroll runs a Cover-2 that mixes and matches all over the place, like this "Bandit" defense we keep hearing about.
Seattle could have let Milloy go after 2009, but they kept him around to start in 2010. That move looks more and more like a development shelter for Chancellor, keeping him free of pressure to start right away. Seattle has tried this "slow development" strategy at a handful of positions, and here it may pay off well. I don't see anyone knocking off Chancellor at starting strong safety in base defense. He needs to pick up the experience (and to justify the draft pick that was obtained in trade for Rob Sims).
Atari Bigby, SS
Bigby is a solid player when he's not injured or committing "what the heck were you thinking" type penalties. Unfortunately, he's been so buried by those bugaboos that he convinced Green Bay to release him. Nobody is projecting Bigby to take over the starting position, and he provides excellent depth and experience to those otherwise very young secondary.
Mark Legree, FS
Legree is another one of those guys with the vague "playmaking" aura that Carroll values, even though it's impossible to measure. Legree is known for tremendous hitting and prolific ballhawking, but that may not translate to the NFL. He racked up his 22-interception count against bad opposition, and he has average athleticism and instincts. He should get a fair shot at backup free safety over Pinkard.
Josh Pinkard, CB/S
Was a hybrid experiment in the vein of Jordan Babineaux for a while. He's gained notoriety with sharp-eyed fans for one big blown coverage against San Diego last week (the one where Kelly Jennings had no safety help), and honestly has never made himself visible at any time in Seattle. It's a crowded position and Pinkard is on the outside looking in.
Jeron Johnson, S
The local kid made a couple of timely plays against San Diego's third-stringers and could land himself on the practice squad with concerted effort.