Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Time Has Come: Al Harris to Safety

As the Packer offseason chugs vaguely again towards the draft, few moves have been made in free agency by General Manager Ted Thompson…to no one’s surprise. This has been his M.O. since he arrived in Green Bay, and his consistent belief in both his ability to find gems in the draft and to develop the talent presently on the roster has garnered him praise, particularly in the wake of a Cinderella season that brought the team to the brink of the Super Bowl.

However, with the unexpected salary cap bonus offered through Brett Favre’s retirement, the pressure will go up a notch for Thompson this year to insure the development of the team without the presence (and salary cap figure) that often served as a lightning rod for Thompson’s fans. With a team seemingly on the brink of greatness, the pressure goes up a bit. Drafting 30th, Thompson will find less and less options for quality trade-downs, and the fizzle of Justin Harrell and Brandon Jackson last season means that this offseason needs to count.

The timing is important: the team established itself as an unexpected power in the NFC, and needs to keep that momentum going. With the most salary cap flexibility in Thompson’s tenure, it’s time to fill holes and solidify this team to continue to play up to expectations.

So, I offer my free, unsolicited piece of professional advice to Thompson, a guy who has focused on defense since he arrived: finish the defense and get a top flight free safety.

Knowing that Thompson likes to keep out of the high-stakes cesspool that is free agency, this is easier said than done, but the importance should be lost. Thompson has seemingly valued hard-hitting safeties since he’s been here, bringing in Mark Roman, Nick Collins, Marquand Manuel, and Atari Bigby to be the enforcers. Yet, for all of their great hits, they have struggled in coverage and help over the top. Aaron Rouse, a linebacker pretending to play safety, is in the same mold.

Our passing defense has indeed improved from the embarrassment it was in the Manuel years to a middle-of-the-pack squad in 2007. But, despite the accolades that our cornerbacks team of Charles Woodson and Al Harris were among the best in the league, both are over 30 years old and will likely never get any better.

In particular, Al Harris, despite making the Pro Bowl, looked slow and frustrated as Plaxico Burress abused him in the NFL Championship game. At 33 years old, it isn’t unlikely that he is about to follow the same career slide that Antonio Freeman did in the late 2000’s.

Like Freeman, Harris isn’t blessed with blazing speed, but has always compensated with smarts and effort. But every player hits that fateful season when they lose a step, and in Freeman’s case, that step was simply too much for him to make up with effort. Freeman’s career in Green Bay ended with a whimper because he simply couldn’t get from point A to point B fast enough to use his smarts and skills.

Harris has compensated for his lack of speed by excelling at bump coverage, but an athletic receiver like Burress showed us a glimpse of what is possibly the near future, and when a cornerback can’t keep up with a receiver, his career is effectively over.

So, we find ourselves in the market for a cornerback. Since that appears to be on the forefront of our wish lists (and, amazingly, last on the draft lists the past few years), let’s imagine 2008 and how Harris, who is still under contract and would cost $1.2 million to cut, can still fit in: as our new free safety.

This is nothing against Nick Collins, who has struggled to replicate his rookie season success, or Atari Bigby, who generated excitement with his big hits and excellent playoff game against Seattle. But, the point still stands that both players struggle both in coverage and haven’t been able to run the defense like a quarterback.

Like a quarterback, you ask? Perhaps one of the finest strong safeties in recent memory, LeRoy Butler, hit his strongest stretch of his career in the 1996 and 1997 seasons, making All-Pro three years in a row in those seasons and in 1998. While many factors aligned in those seasons for the Green Bay Packers, Butler’s 13.5 sacks in those three seasons marked a tremendous difference from any other season he had, when he only had one season with more than one sack. The difference?

Eugene Robinson. The free agent free safety brought a level of control to the defense that seemingly transformed the entire squad. Not only did it allow the Packer defense to be ranked #1 overall in those two seasons, but allowed LeRoy Butler freedom, to play closer to the line. This was possible because Robinson was able to direct the defense from the backfield, had enough speed and range to help out in coverage, but most of all, was smart.

Oh, and by the way, he was 33 when he played with the Packers in 1996, the same age as Al Harris.

The question is three-fold. First: Would Mike McCarthy be willing to move Harris to safety? Both Collins and Bigby are somewhat established, even though they both tend to play the same kind of position: the hard-hitting run stopper. Harris and Woodson are revered as a tandem of bump and run corners.

Second: Would Harris, a proud cornerback, be able or willing to make a switch to safety? Harris, while never resorting to Mike McKenzie-esque shenanigans, has withheld his offseason services in the past when he wasn’t happy with his contract. Would he see being asked to move to free safety as an insult or a way to extend his career?

Third: Is Ted Thompson, then, going to make the investment for a prime cornerback, which are traditionally more expensive than safeties? DeAngelo Hall just signed a Raider contract that will pay him Favre-esque numbers. Is getting a guy who can play opposite of Woodson without a drop-off from Harris going to be possible? Is such a guy out there an available, and if so, would he fit into Thompson’s philosophy of finances? The draft position makes finding the next DeAngelo Hall difficult, and the best corners are already off the free agent market.

Three hard questions that, in all likelihood, will have Al Harris lining up at cornerback next season. Simply put, I don't see Ted Thompson shelling out for a top-flight cornerback, and I don't know if Harris would accept a change at this point.

But it still stands that this defense has operated for years without the smooth free safety it has needed, a position that relies on smarts, discipline, and coverage instead of hard hits and speed. It's more important for a free safety to know where to rotate his coverage and take the right angle than it is for him to hit hard or have blazing speed. Al Harris deserves a chance to continue to be a great contributor for the Packers for many seasons to come, and this change would give him the chance to not only to that, but make this pass defense into a Super Bowl defense.


Anonymous said...

I love the sentiment of moving Al to safety. There is only one problem. Harris' biggest weakness is how poorly he plays zone. I just don't see him being able to pull it off.

His size isn't ideal for safety either.

LosAngelis said...

Actually, my preference would be to move Woodson to safety, but I think that Harris is going to be the bigger liability sooner as he is older. Who knows.

Once again, though, we would still need a solid corner in replacement for either.

Thanks for the comment!