With each passing year, the question comes up more often: At what point do the Broncos consider moving Champ Bailey, their incomparable defensive back, from corner to safety?
Rod Woodson was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a defensive back in 2009. The 10th overall pick of the 1987 draft out of Purdue, Woodson played 15 seasons in the NFL, the first 10 as a cornerback. He was named to seven Pro Bowls in that role.
In 1999, the year he turned 34, Woodson transitioned to safety, extending his career another five years. He was named to four more Pro Bowls in that role. After intercepting 47 passes in 10 seasons at cornerback, Woodson picked off 24 more in five seasons at safety.
Charles Woodson (no relation) is another elite defensive back. He was the fourth overall selection of the 1998 draft out of Michigan. After 14 seasons at cornerback, including eight Pro Bowls, the Packers moved him to safety in training camp this summer. Woodson is 35.
“They said, ‘Hey, you’re playing safety. Get back there,'”Woodson told the Chicago Tribune. “That’s what I did.”
Part of the reason is that Woodson has lost a step, which is more evident when he’s matched up in man coverage on the outside with the game’s elite pass receivers, many of them much younger than he is.
But the Packers, who struggled on defense last season, also want to give one of their best defenders more freedom to roam. This is a player with 54 career interceptions, including seven last season at age 34.
“I think something that’s been very evident for Charles, number one throughout his career, he’s been a playmaker, whether he’s played the corner or the inside position,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy told the Tribune.
“In our particular defense, we feel that he is a lot more valuable to us the closer he is to the ball because of the different positions he can play, the number of different things that we’re able to do with him. So that’s really part of the thinking of trying to get him closer to the ball and more involved because of his instincts. He plays the game a lot like a quarterback does from the defensive side.”
At least in training camp’s early days, Woodson says he’s enjoying the switch.
“It’s different from corner, where you’re usually worried about a particular receiver and how he can threaten you as a corner,” Charles Woodson said. “As a safety, you get to move around a little bit more and show different looks and not have that responsibility of just having one guy. It will be fun to play more safety. I’m getting a lot more of the calls as a safety. I’m used to being out at corner and seeing plays from that angle. To be able to play at safety and really, really, really understand the play even more, I think will play to my advantage.”
Bailey entered the league one year after Charles Woodson and, coincidentally, the same year Rod Woodson moved from corner to safety. He was the seventh overall pick of the 1999 draft out of Georgia. He turned 34 in June.
Bailey has played 13 seasons at cornerback for the Redskins and Broncos and been named to a record 11 Pro Bowls. He is arguably as good a cover corner as the league has ever seen.
He is not only the best player on the Broncos defense, he is also the smartest. Unfortunately, that means he gets few opportunities to add to his career total of 50 interceptions. Opposing quarterbacks generally choose to throw to receivers not being covered by Champ Bailey.
That’s one argument for eventually moving him to safety: He might see more balls there. And, for the first time in his nine years in Denver, the Broncos might have enough cover guys to be able to spare him. With newly-acquired veterans Tracy Porter and Drayton Florence to go with youngsters Chris Harris, Omar Bolden and Syd’Quan Thompson, they have reasonable depth at cornerback.
Of course, with veteran Mike Adams joining Rahim Moore, Quinton Carter and David Bruton, they are reasonably deep at safety, too, at least before the games — and injuries — begin.
So I mentioned to Bailey that we get the corner/safety question quite a bit on the radio show and asked if he’s thought much about it.
“This is my take on it,” he said. “Don’t move me until I can’t do it anymore, or it makes sense for our defense.
“There’s no reason for me to move if I’m still locking up on the No. 1 guy every week or I’m still making sure nobody’s making big plays on me. I don’t see any sense in me moving. It doesn’t make sense to me. So I’m going to keep playing corner until I can’t anymore.”
Bailey may have lost a step over the years, but he’s made up for it with knowledge and experience, reading receivers and anticipating where they’re going. One day it might be time for him to make the switch the two Woodsons made before him. But watching him take on young receiver Demaryius Thomas in training camp with the enthusiasm of a kid, it looks as though that time has not yet arrived.