Brandon Taylor: Savior or Stopgap? (Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE)
The answer to this question basically comes down to the answer to one of two questions. The first is: Did the Chargers find a player in Atari Bigby that, despite his age and inability to hold down or earn previous starting safety gigs, can fit into the Chargers defensive system nicely and exceed expectations? The second is: Did the Chargers draft a player in Brandon Taylor that, despite being a rookie who is adjusting to the league and not being a high draft pick, can fit into the Chargers defensive system and exceed expectations? The upside of course to Taylor being the starter is that perhaps a year of experience, even one where he struggles, could be the learning experience he needs to become an above average safety in the coming years. I think that may be why a lot of Chargers fans will root for Taylor to be the guy. Bigby is looked at as a placeholder, Taylor is seen as the promising future. Fans can live with the rookie's struggles if they can also hold on to hop that he'll be answer down the line.
Of course, that answer has been long coming. The Chargers issues at safety are something that has lingered for close to a decade. In 1994 the Chargers used a 5th round draft pick on a virtual unknown safety from Western Illinois. He was a backup his first couple of years and watched the Chargers go to the Super Bowl his rookie season and also make the playoffs as a wild card in 1995 (only to lose to a battered Colts team that ended up being a Hail Mary toss from a Super Bowl). He also had 5 interceptions in a reserve role in 1995. In 1996, Rodney Harrison was promoted to starting Strong Safety. He finished with 105 tackles, second to only Junior Seau that season. He matched his 5 interceptions that year as well. In 1998 he had his first Pro Bowl and All Pro teams. An injury limited him in 1999, but basically from 1996 through 2001 he was an elite contributor to the Chargers defense. In 2002, an injury held him back including costing him 3 games and the Chargers decided that his contract was too big a burden. He was released and went on to excel for the Patriots.
The Chargers used free agency and the draft to try and replace Harrison initially. Kwame Lassiter was brough in through free agency to try to fill the void and Terrence Kiel was drafted in the 2nd round. Lassiter would play 10 games for the Chargers with Kiel taking over midseason. Kiel would hold on to the job from 2004 through 2006. Providing adequate, but unspectacular play. The other safety position was held down by Jerry Wilson. A journeyman who stuck around for two years at the position. His play was sometimes less than adequate and certainly unspectacular.
The next candidate to come on down was Bhawoh Jue. A free agent acquistion who had started some games for the Green Bay Packers, but was never a full time starter. He was expected to be versatile and play either FS or CB, but got the job over the aforementioned Jerry Wilson. He lasted a year. Next up was Marlon McCree who was a free agent signing as well. He'd been an above average starter for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans and Carolina Panthers. With the Chargers he lasted two years before being deemed replaceable and too expensive. He's most famous for almost clinching the 2007 divisional playoff game between the Chargers and Patriots with an interception, only to fumble it away and give the Patriots the opportunity they needed to complete their comeback against the Bolts.
The 2007 Chargers had to replace Terrence Kiel and did so internally with Clinton Hart. Hart had been on the team for a couple of years as a backup after getting let go by the Philadelphia Eagles. Also on that team was Eric Weddle, who would take McCree's spot in 2008 and start alongside Hart. Weddle would hold down a safety spot with aplomb for years to come. But, one spot was still left to be filled. Hart would play the position in 2007 and 2008 and despite moments of promise he never broke out beyond that. In 2009 a couple of guys would step up to replace him in Kevin Ellison and Steve Gregory. Ellison was a surprised contributer; a player the Chargers took a flyer on in the 7th round, but for reasons not entirely related to football couldn't hang with the team past that season. Gregory had his limitations, but was able to contribute at the position in various fashions from that 2009 season through 2011. Paul Oliver, a supplemental 2nd round pick, would also contribute and even got released and returned. He was forced to return because former All Pro Bob Sanders was signed on a one year, make-good deal for 2011, but once again succumbed to injury and left the team scrambled.
Now, Sanders, Oliver and Gregory have moved on in various fashions and the carousel keeps moving. Weddle still provides his high level of play, but a partner would make the defensive secondary special. Most would agree that Atari Bibgy is another one of these guys that will be year for a year or two. Another Bhawoh Jue or Kwame Lassister, if you will. I'm sure at some point he'll have to start a game or two and most likely the team will hold their collective nose as he does. Brandon Taylor is the bigger question. Is he another Terrence Kiel and will hold down the job adequately for a few years? Is he another Clinton Hart or Steve Gregory who will get the starting gig, but will leave the team searching for the next guy? Or can he be more? And more interestingly, can he flash the fans and team signs in 2012 that he'll be something more in the years to come.