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Is Nate Allen at Free Safety Charles Woodson's Perfect Sidekick?

Christopher Hansen@ChrisHansenNFLNFL AnalystApril 1, 2015

Nate Allen doing his best Super Man Impression.
Nate Allen doing his best Super Man Impression.Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Oakland Raiders surprised some NFL observers by signing safety Nate Allen to a lucrative free-agent deal. If contract value is any guide, Allen was the team’s third-most important signing of the offseason.

Allen will make $12 million over the first two years of the deal, while fellow safety Charles Woodson will make a maximum of $4.2 million in 2015. Yet Allen is supposed to be some sort of sidekick for the future Hall of Famer.

If that’s the case, Allen might be the perfect sidekick, because he’s the real hero. He’s R2D2 and Woodson is C3PO. He’s Hobbes and Woodson is Calvin.

It’s no disrespect to Woodson. The reality is that he is 38 years old, so whoever was going to play the other safety spot was going to have to pick up some of the slack. Allen is 27, and the Raiders will ask him to do what he does best.

The Raiders discovered that Woodson was best playing in the box last season. After playing mostly free safety in 2013, Woodson played near the line of scrimmage more last year. The former cornerback just seemed more natural inside, where the Raiders could maximize his natural instincts. Opposing teams also couldn’t expose his lack of foot speed as easily in the box as they could when he played more center field.

Free-Agent Safety Comparison
PlayerPFF GradeTotal Contract ValueYearly Average
Nate Allen (FA, Raiders)+3.9$23M$5.8M
Charles Woodson (FA, Raiders)-3.9$4.2M$4.2M
Brandian Ross (RFA, Raiders)-7.6$1.5M$1.5M
Ron Parker (FA, Chiefs)-5.7$25M$5.0M
Pro Football Focus, Over the Cap
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By one objective measure, Pro Football Focus, Allen finished as the 28th-best safety in the league. Woodson finished 68th, which was also behind fellow safety Brandian Ross, who was 55th.

Allen was better last year, particularly when he plays the deep middle rather than lines up in the box or in the slot. That makes him a perfect pairing with Woodson.

New head coach Jack Del Rio also rarely asked his free safety in Denver, Rahim Moore, to play near the line of scrimmage last year. In fact, Moore might have played the deepest free safety in the league. Expect that to continue with Allen, barring injuries.

Coverage

One of the things Allen does well when playing deep is track the ball in the air. All four of his interceptions came when he was playing deep and was able to look into the backfield.

NFL Game Rewind

In this Cover 2 look, Allen is responsible for the tight end should he run a deeper route. In this case, the tight end does exactly that. New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning thinks this will keep Allen glued inside instead of helping over the top of wide receiver Rueben Randle, who wiggled free of the coverage.

Manning let it fly with pressure in his face. Allen read the play immediately and started tracking deep to give his teammate help, but he keeps his eyes on Manning. When the pass is short of the mark, Allen is in great position to make a play on the ball.

We also saw how well Allen played deep pass plays playing the deep middle against the Dallas Cowboys. Quarterback Tony Romo wanted to hit his man on a deep back-shoulder fade on this play, but his receiver failed to break off his route.

NFL Game Rewind

NFL Game Rewind

Even if he did, Allen was tracking Romo’s throw the entire time. When it hung up in the air, it was an easy interception for him because he was in position.

Run Defense

Every safety is going to have to defend the run at some point. Allen isn’t a glorified linebacker, but he’s a generally solid tackler, and he’s usually in the right position. He even demonstrated the ability to shed blocks at times.

On this play against the Seattle Seahawks, Allen saved a touchdown with his run defense. Nine of the 11 defenders bit on the play fake, and the cornerback on Allen’s side was in man coverage and followed his man deep.

NFL Game Rewind

Allen was one-on-one against Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson with nothing but green for many yards in every direction. Allen managed to fight through Wilson’s stiff-arm to bring him down after minimal damage, all things considered.

Even when he is playing in the box, Allen demonstrated solid ability in the run game last year. On this play, Allen fights around a block to tackle Andre Ellington of the Arizona Cardinals.

NFL Game Rewind

NFL Game Rewind

Philadelphia’s line did a poor job slowing Ellington down and he used his speed to get to the edge, but Allen kept tracking him. When Allen got to him, he also got his hand on the ball and spun him down, jarring the ball loose. Allen also recovered the fumble for a key third-quarter turnover.

NFL Game Rewind

Although Allen didn’t get many opportunities to stop the run last year, he wasn’t bad when called into duty. Philadelphia’s front seven was generally good against the run, and the Raiders have made it a point to improve their run defense this year with the addition of defensive tackle Dan Williams and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton.

Final Thoughts

Occasionally, Allen gets caught looking into the backfield and a speedy receiver can get behind the coverage. He generally isn’t as good playing from the slot unless the play is entirely in front of him. If Allen has to flip his hips, he’s at a disadvantage.

NFL Game Rewind

In Week 3 last year, quarterback Kirk Cousins aired a deep pass to DeSean Jackson for an 81-yard touchdown over Allen’s head.  Allen didn’t keep gaining depth when he expected a short pass from Cousins, and there isn’t a safety in the league that could catch Jackson after such a mistake.  

Scott Bair @BairNBCS

Reggie McKenzie on Nate Allen: “In terms of range, instincts and overall athletic ability, he has what our coaching staff wants to use."

He’s not a great safety, but he is a solid one with good instincts, football intelligence and soft hands. He’s definitely better than what the Raiders have had over the past few years at the position and should be a welcome upgrade.

Best of all, Allen’s presence keeps Woodson where he is most comfortable and relegates Ross to a reserve role. For being Woodson’s sidekick, Allen is a good one.

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and all contract date via OvertheCap.

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