I like Eric Weddle. A lot. I may even have a bit of a mancrush on the guy, but who can blame me. Coming out of college we heard the most glorious things about him. That he was unbelievably smart, had the best instincts on the field and although he was small he had the skills to be a prolific CB, FS or SS. His first year with the team did nothing to dash those hopes. He played in specialized situations. He was the blitzing strong safety or the guy to stick with your small/quick/smart WR as a CB. Not only did he create pressure almost every time he blitzed, he would occasionally shut down a tough WR that was giving other CBs, safeties and LBs fits. He also had one of the most crucial plays of 2007 with his one-handed interception that was made while he was being blocked by the Colts' pro bowl center Jeff Saturday.
Everyone was on board last offseason when the team decided to let Marlon McCree leave via free agency and give Weddle more time on the field. Even though he was young, he was smart and a natural "ballhawk". It had to yield great results. It didn't.
Now, here's where things get a little negative and also a little broader. In the last few weeks I've rewatched every Chargers game in their entirety, keeping an eye on the players fulfilling their assignments rather than simply watching the ball and hoping for a touchdown. It had really opened my eyes as to the talent level of some of the players on our team. For instance, Stephen Cooper is REALLY good. I thought he was a good ILB, but he may be the best 3-4 ILB I've ever watched. Unbelievable instincts, power and speed. Also, for some reason Igor Olshansky is a better NT than a DE (even in the 3-4). I now have mini-reviews of each player on the team that tells me what they're good at, what they're bad at and if they should be replaced. Let's start with Weddle.
Eric Weddle is limited only by his own body. The same way Wes Welker can never be Randy Moss, Eric Weddle can never be Ed Reed. (This is where I have to state that Reed is not being declared as the best safety in the league, just like Moss is not longer the best WR in the league. It's just a better analogy this way.) For this reason, Weddle serves as a potential weakness on our defense regardless of his position but an even larger weakness as our free safety.
For those that may not know the difference between the two safeties, the free safety plays deeper than the other safety to offer help "over the top" and prevent big pass plays. The strong safety plays "down" or closer to the line of scrimmage and is usually responsible for covering TEs, RBs and occasionally blitzing. Ed Reed is a good idea of someone who's a pure FS, while Rodney Harrison is probably the prototype for SS. Brian Dawkins and Troy Polamalu have (or had) the skills to play both positions and sometimes switch back and forth depending on the rest of the talent on the team. Eric Weddle was drafted to be similar to Dawkins or Polamalu, but falls short in several different categories. Let's go through them as a way to analyze Weddle as a player:
Tackling/Run Defense - Weddle ranks as a good tackler. He certainly has the numbers. In his first full year as a starter he collected 103 tackles and another 22 tackle assists. He always seems to be around the play and has fantastic technique. He almost always wraps up the legs and spins to the ground. While he's never been flat-out embarassed, he has a real problem with taking down power RBs head-on. Using his smart, he typically tries to hold them up while waiting for a LB or D-lineman to finish the job. Basically, he's a great tackling CB, an average tackling FS and a below-average tackler for the SS position.
Tackling/Blitzing - He's definitely one of the best blitzers on the team. I'd go so far to say he's a close 3rd behind Phillips. He's just too quick and slippery to be blocked by a lineman or a fullback. Considering most RBs aren't the best pass blockers, he does a great job at going around them too. In 2008 he wasn't utilized nearly enough in this role, mostly because of how afraid the coaches were to put Hart out there as the deep safety. Weddle wasn't that much better...
Pass Coverage (zone) - Here is Weddle's biggest weakness. Granted, he has only been a starter for one year, but towards the end of that year when the rest of the team was progressing Weddle seemed to be regressing in his zone coverage schemes. He is always late with his "over the top" coverage unless he plays ridiculously far back. In our playoff game against the Colts he was atrocious. After being beat with the deep ball twice in the first half (and once that should've been an easy TD for Wayne but was an inaccurate throw) Weddle began playing 20 yards off the ball, which lead to Manning hitting wide-open underneath routes for a couple of big drives (including two converted third downs). After a while Weddle was moved to SS and was effective on the blitz, but Gregory struggled to do any better in coverage. When the Colts were in the red zone I saw at least two plays where Jammer and Cason double-covered a receiver (both Wayne and Gonzalez got the treatment), with Jammer playing as the "over the top" safety and Cason playing underneath. They were much more effective.
Pass Coverage (man) - Kindof a mixed bag. Once again, Weddle is limited by his own body. He struggles against big TEs and can be beaten deep by some "deep threat" slot receivers (ala Nate Washington). He does a very good job against RBs in coverage and is sometimes better than Cason (or Cromatie this year) at lining up against shifty receivers (Welker, Anthony Gonzalez, Eddie Royal). The more tape I watch of him, the more I realize that this is Weddle's game. One-on-one, man-on-man. He can outsmart you, outquick you and outhustle you. Put him in a zone and force him to read the QB and see the play before it's happening and he's not as good.
Here's the point where I start making everyone angry. I don't think Weddle has a future as a starting FS in this league. His weaknesses (fighting for jump balls, reading QBs, top speed) make him much better suited for other positions. Now trust me, I want to keep Weddle around and keep him on the field....but I think keeping him as FS keeps a large hole in our defense.
Now, this all means nothing, it's not like AJ or Norv are reading BftB and taking our advice. But if you were in their shoes, what would you do? Personally, I think he's a poor FS, an good SS (although a dynamic one. polamalu can't cover big TEs either) and a very good nickel corner. Logic says he doesn't get moved to nickel corner because we like all 3 of our corners and don't want to risk screwing that up. However, I think when we're looking at the draft we should be looking at free safeties (and cornerbacks that can be moved, ala Michael Griffin) with the idea of moving Weddle to SS. It's where he fits better, because it allows him to play close to the line and blitz regularly. This would certainly open up the possibility of TEs being covered semi-frequently by a LB while Weddle tries to sneak through the line. For the record, I believe the only reason Weddle didn't play SS this past year is because Clinton Hart an even worse FS than he is a SS.
So let's open it up. Where do you want to see Weddle next year? Who still likes the idea of moving a corner to safety? Make a choice in the poll or in the comments, but make sure you leave an idea for who should fill the holes made by your choice.