In 2008, there is no doubt that the Denver Broncos possessed the worst group of safeties in the National Football League, possibly in team history.
For a franchise that has been graced with the likes of Steve Atwater, Dennis Smith, and John Lynch, last season's group that included Marlon McCree, Marquand Manuel, and Calvin Lowery was among the most embarrassing Mike Shanahan could have possibly assembled.
To rectify this problem, head coach Josh McDaniels brought in four new safeties to compete for roster spots with the Broncos, and to help create turnovers for a secondary that has been likened to Swiss cheese in recent years.
I will admit, the safety positions are some I had difficulty assessing. What constitutes a "free" safety?
Any casual NFL fan knows that the free safety can be favorably compared to a center fielder in baseball.
Still, I was unsure of which safeties on the roster should be considered the free safeties, so I consulted the ever reliable website Wikipedia for a definition, and here is what I came up with:
The free safety tends to be smaller and faster than the strong safety. His job tends to be to stay back a bit, watch the play unfold, and follow the ball. On pass plays, the free safety is expected to close down the receiver by the time the ball gets to him.
Offenses tend to call play-action passes, specifically to make the free safety expect a run play, which would draw him closer to the line of scrimmage and reduce his effectiveness as a pass defender.
If the offense puts a receiver in the slot, then the free safety may be called upon to cover that receiver.
Free safeties occasionally blitz as well. When this happens, the pressure is often very severe since a blitz by a defensive back is not usually anticipated.
Thanks to this definition, I have come to a conclusion as to which three safeties of the six on Denver's roster should be labeled "free".
One of the first moves the Broncos made this off-season was to sign former Miami Dolphins safety Renaldo Hill to a four year, $10 million contract, which is extremely modest considering Hill is fully expected to be the opening day starter.
Hill joins the Broncos after spending three years in Miami where he undoubtedly revived his career.
In three seasons with the Dolphins, Hill recorded 195 tackles and six interceptions, three in 2008.
Hill is a ninth year player out of Michigan State who has played virtually every position in the defensive backfield, including cornerback, which is the main reason I believe he will be the Broncos' starting "free" safety.
He has more speed than his safety counterpart in Brian Dawkins, and probably is not as good of a tackler, although Hill is no slouch in that area.
Hill has only started all 16 games in a season once in his career, so the Broncos decided insurance was needed.
To spell Hill at free safety as well as eventually take over as the full-time starter, Denver used one of three second round draft choices on former Texas Tech All-American Darcel McBath.
McBath measures out at 6'1" 198 pounds, so he has the ideal size and speed combination to excel at this position.
In his 45 games as a Red Raider, McBath recorded 214 tackles and 12 interceptions, including seven as a senior in 2008.
McBath gives the Broncos a playmaker and ball-hawk at the free safety position. He does not have blazing speed, but he has a nose for the ball and his two interceptions for touchdowns last season prove that he knows what to do once he has the ball in his hands.
Providing depth along with McBath is eighth-year veteran Vernon Fox, who was acquired in 2008 as a free agent.
Fox had arguably the most exciting defensive play for a Bronco in 2009 when he recovered a fumble against the New York Jets and returned it 23 yards for a score, the first of his career.
There is really nothing that Fox is great at, but he does everything well, which is probably why he has played in 96 career games.
For a position that severely lacked in 2008, Josh McDaniels has definitely given fans a hope for the present and future by making very smart acquisitions at this position over the course of the off-season.