Since the Super Bowl, I’ve watched film and talked scheme with about 50 NFL coaches. For the second straight year, the only defensive schemes anyone has truly praised are Chicago’s and Baltimore’s. Ravens conversations have been the most abundant. Roughly two dozen coaches—some close to the team, others only familiar with them from afar—marvel at that Baltimore scheme’s aggression and efficacy. And to a man, these coaches have cited Eric Weddle as the key ingredient.
No one has said Weddle performs at an All-Pro level. At 34, his speed and quickness have diminished, and he’s no longer the soundest tackler. But his IQ is towering and, more importantly, so is his confidence. That has made him the most daring and creative pre-snap disguise artist in football. His willingness to get out of position pre-snap and change his—or a teammate’s—assignment on the fly gives Baltimore’s defense its trademark deceptiveness.
The Ravens tend to play similar six-man matchup-zone coverages from snap-to-snap, but you’re never quite sure who the six zone defenders will be or where they’ll align because you’re never quite sure what to make of Weddle, who moves all over before the snap. This is even truer with Baltimore’s blitz packages.
The Ravens, presumably, believe their defense is strong enough to make them contenders in 2019, even if the offense will be adjusting to developmental second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson. Which makes it all the more surprising that Weddle, it’s key ingredient, would be cut in order to save $6.5 million.
But a deeper look reveals the logic behind the move. The Ravens, who are young in key spots on both sides of the ball, see themselves not just as contenders in 2019, but contenders for years to come. A smart, versatile safety is vital to their scheme, and Weddle, at this point, might have only a year or two left in the tank. This year’s free agent safety class is unusually deep and, more importantly, unusually top heavy.
It might not be coincidental that Weddle’s release came after the Giants officially let Landon Collins hit the market. Tyrann Mathieu and LaMarcus Joyner are also available. Like Weddle, Mathieu and Joyner are versatile enough to play back deep or in the box. And, unlike Weddle, both can slide down and cover the slot. Also, there’s Adrian Amos, who played in a disguise-heavy scheme in Chicago. The physically gifted Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix is also a disguise player (though some of that’s by accident, as he’s mastered the art of wandering out of position—still, Clinton-Dix is talented). There’s also Earl Thomas, who can drop into the box but is more of a pure centerfielder. Stylistically, Thomas is still the closest thing the NFL has had to Ed Reed since Ed Reed himself. One imagines the Ravens, especially, can appreciate that.
By releasing Weddle, most likely the Ravens are not trying to save money at safety, they’re priming to spend money there long-term (not unlike they did when signing Weddle’s sidekick and close friend, Tony Jefferson, two years ago). Any of the safeties listed above can be inked to five-year deals. (Yes, even Thomas, who will only be 30 on Opening Day.) Those safeties will also get up to speed quickly, since they have meaningful NFL experience and will be playing for defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, whom Ravens coaches say is one of the best teachers they’ve ever seen.
As for Weddle himself, the question is, Where will he play in 2019? His weaknesses are now an issue. As several coaches explained, Weddle’s game is built on smoke and mirrors. He wins by playing with crafty leverage. He can no longer survive in man-to-man or be fully trusted in space. Baltimore’s uniquely aggressive scheme hid these flaws while accentuating his strengths. That would not be the case in a traditional scheme.
This might be why Weddle said two months ago, via the Baltimore Sun, “If [the Ravens] want to go in a different direction, I’m not going to play for another team. That’s not where I’m at in my career.” He has since changed his mind.
So where would he play in 2019? The same rich safety free agent class that got him released in Baltimore will suppress his value on the open market. What might help his value is that more and more teams are playing with three safeties instead of just two.
Before joining Baltimore, Weddle reportedly almost signed in New England, and Greg Bedard of the Boston Sports Journal has suggested that would be a good marriage. Contrary to popular belief, New England’s D is not immensely complex or aggressive like Baltimore’s. The Patriots blitz sparingly and their coverage disguises ask players to cover small bits of ground, not large swaths of field. But the Patriots do put their safeties in favorable position, often aligning one in deep centerfield and the other over the middle, where he’s a free help defender or QB-reader. That type of role plays to Weddle’s football IQ and masks his limitations.
Other teams that could use and could fit Weddle include:
Giants: Weddle would be a cheap replacement for Landon Collins. Their defensive coordinator, James Bettcher, is perhaps football’s most aggressive blitz designer, with most of those blitzes being built on disguise.
Bears: The last thing a Super Bowl-caliber defense wants is a glaring hole, which is what the Bears face at safety if Adrian Amos is not re-signed. If new coordinator Chuck Pagano stays close to what predecessor Vic Fangio did, Weddle could be hidden by a scheme that hinges on two-deep match-zone principles, where defensive backs almost always have some sort of help in coverage.
Broncos: Fangio will be running his scheme in Denver (obviously). The Broncos believe their defense alone can make a deep playoff push now—that’s why John Elway hired a 60-year-old head coach and traded for a veteran starting quarterback in Joe Flacco. The biggest key to Fangio’s scheme is the subtly of its coverage disguises. Those disguise tactics aren’t easy to learn… unless you’re Eric Weddle.
Lions: Matt Patricia is running the 200-level version of New England’s scheme. Weddle could help push the D to level 300 or 400.
Bucs: New defensive coordinator Todd Bowles plays the way Bettcher plays with the Giants. Tampa Bay’s incumbent safeties are so-so. Bowles might want more athleticism here, but we’ve seen a hundred coaches in his position before eventually say, “Screw it, just give me a guy who knows what he’s doing.”
Steelers: Because they’re so weak at linebacker, they badly want a dime safety who can play in the box, allowing either Jon Bostic or Vince Williams to leave the field. Ex-Packer Morgan Burnett can be that guy, but injuries made him a week-to-week mystery last year. Weddle isn’t a box player, but second-year safety Terrell Edmunds could slide there, with Weddle playing back deep. Plus, the Steelers wouldn’t mind a veteran who has intimate knowledge of their rival Ravens.
Titans: They’re coached by Weddle’s former Ravens defensive coordinator, Dean Pees, and they’ll be looking for safety help with Jonathan Cyprien soon to be released and Kenny Vaccaro a free agent.
All of these teams need the type of immediate help at safety that Weddle can provide. It will be fascinating to see how this market play out.
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