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How Tre Boston Fits Into the Plan at Free Safety

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The coupon god strikes again. Los Angeles Chargers general manager Tom Telesco has been hard at work addressing the team’s lack of depth and production in the back end of its defense and, as luck would have it, a gift fell into his lap when the Carolina Panthers cut free safety Tre Boston the week after the draft. Telesco, who has been collecting safeties like baseball cards in recent weeks, wasted no time in courting and signing Boston after he visited Los Angeles, Buffalo and Pittsburgh.

In Tre Boston the Chargers have added a 24-year old free safety with 16 games of starting experience coming off of his best NFL season. He shows very good route recognition, the instincts to jump and undercut routes and the natural ball skills to make plays on the football. He comes with his shortcomings as a run defender and tackler, but his age and skill sets suggest ample room remains for growth. In a nutshell, the Chargers got better.

The depth chart at free safety is currently comprised of the following five players: Boston, Dwight Lowery, Desmond King, Darrell Stuckey and Adrian McDonald. In advance of training camp and preseason game, the safe money is likely on Tre, Dwight and Desmond making the 53-man roster out of camp for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. That leaves Stuckey and McDonald on the proverbial chopping block for different reasons.

The way I see it, Boston and King are both locks to make this roster barring horrific preseason performances or, god forbid, catastrophic injury. Boston is self-explanatory, but I’m steeled in my confidence in King both because he’s a very good player and because I know the Chargers considered him as early as the second round of the draft (assuming Forrest Lamp failed to make it to them at 39). As for Lowery, he’s the elder statesman in a pretty young secondary and I think the team will value his experience and leadership as the coaches install a new defensive scheme.

I can’t imagine the Chargers digging in on their $3.3M commitment to Darrell Stuckey with younger, cheaper and more athletic options capable of contributing on defense and special teams creeping up behind him on the depth chart and, unfortunately, the numbers simply don’t favor Adrian McDonald for the second year in a row. There is the chance McDonald could force Anthony Lynn and Gus Bradley into a difficult decision on Dwight Lowery at the end of camp, but it’s fairly miniscule. We allhope it happens, it just isn’t likely.

Should things play out as outlined above with Boston, Lowery and King breaking camp as the team’s free safety triumvirate, I suspect things may not play out exactly as most think it will with Boston being named the starter and earning the bulk of the snaps (at least not right away). Didn’t see that coming, did you? Allow me to explain before you shoot the messenger.

While there is reason to be excited about Boston’s arrival, I don’t think the team views him as a one-stop-shop for all that ails them at the position – and they shouldn’t. That is precisely why I think the Chargers coaches will look to field a three-headed monster at free safety, with Boston, Lowery and King essentially being asked to be something greater than the sum of their parts by using their individual skill sets to form a complete player.

At 31 year old Dwight Lowery has seen pretty much everything an opposing offense can throw at the younger safeties, he knows where everyone needs to be and is one of the better tackling safeties on the roster. That’s why I think Bradley will keep him as the starting free safety and use him primarily on first down, as well as second and short, where he can provide reliable run support and help getting the defense aligned. This role would play to his strengths while helping to keep him fresh, which I think was a key factor in the decision to sign Boston.

Boston is the instinctive, rangy, gambling free safety. He recognizes route combinations, has a knack for undercutting routes between the hash marks, and flashes above average ball skills. That said, he takes awful angles in the run game, is slow to diagnose running plays, and generally looks to avoid blockers and ball carriers as a run defender. Doesn’t sound like someone you want on the field in the base defense, does it? That’s why I suspect he will mainly play in sub packages (second and long, third and long), where he can focus on doing what he does best without putting him in a position to hurt the team with the things he doesn’t do well.

As for King, he’s the Swiss army knife. He will make his living in sub packages, where we will see him in the slot, taking half the field as a safety, and probably some at deep safety, as well. The idea here is to put King in a position where he can read the quarterback and attack everything in his “zone”, which is exactly what he excels at. It also means not asking him to turn and chase bigger, faster receivers down the field as the primary defender, which is the one thing you don’t want him doing in coverage.

I can see where the plan outlined above may not be what you wanted to hear, or that it might even seem a little far-fetched to some, so let me put your minds at ease. Believe it or not, evaluating players and having a plan for developing them is what coaching in the NFL is all about. I know it’s hard to believe after watching Mike McCoy spend the last four years adrift in the NFL with no discernable plan and no sense of what his players could or couldn’t do, but it’s true. This is what NFL coaches are supposed to look like, how they’re supposedto approach their rosters.

In fact, I’ll take it one step further – this is how every Chargers fan should want things to play out at free safety. Why? Because it means the coaching staff is properly evaluating its players and setting them up for success. This isn’t about force-fitting players into a particular system…cough, cough Mike McCoy…it’s about adapting the system to fit the talent, which should lead to more wins.

Signing Tre Boston was an astute football move, but it only works if he’s used properly. That means asking the other free safeties on the roster, likely Dwight Lowery and Desmond King, to complement him by filling the gaps in his game and vice versa. While that probably means the Chargers will hang onto Lowery one year longer than they should, which is never ideal, it should mean increased production and legitimate depth through out the depth chart at free safety, which is what the team really needs. Like I said above, the coupon god struck again; the big difference between this signing and others of its kind is he finally has the coaches in place to make it count.