Mitchell's easily the most consistent safety Carolina had on roster this year. He only missed one game all season, and took over for an injured Charles Godfrey at the Free Safety position in week 3. The injury to Godfrey could have boded catastrophe in the secondary, as he was the only guaranteed starter at ANY of the positions in the secondary to start the season off. With the heavy competition at Strong Safety, Mitchell and Mikell appeared to be set to split reps prior to week 3. Godfrey was the only prototypical Free Safety while almost every other healthy safety on roster was more fit to play the Strong Safety position. However, thankfully Mike Mitchell locked down the free safety spot for the remainder of a wonderful defensive season.
Mitchell was a fantastic presence at free safety, picking off 4 passes and forcing 2 fumbles. In addition, Mitchell logged 3.5 sacks on safety blitzes and consistently made opposing receivers pay for catching the ball in his territory. He also brought with him a swagger and presence to the secondary, who all adopted the chip-on-your-shoulder "we get no respect" personality. And it worked wonders for this patchwork secondary. Mitchell was not without his faults, as he did give up a few deep passes and there were a lot of "blown coverages" by the cornerbacks that upon further review showed to be the safeties' (collectively) fault. But I'd be shocked if Mitchell wasn't brought back for 2014. He enjoyed his best season as a pro and we definitely need some continuity with Carolina likely losing at least two other starters in the secondary. My hope is that Carolina finds a more serviceable free safety and moves Mitchell to his more natural strong safety position. This will better utilize his talents and allow him to play closer to the line of scrimmage.
Mikell was brought in late in the preseason, and quickly tied up the strong safety position after Mitchell was kicked to free safety. Mikell's veteran presence was definitely needed in the secondary, and at the price this was a great signing. Mikell's pass coverage skills are definitely sub-par at this point in his career. But that's really what most of us should have expected, as he did exactly the same thing in St. Louis last season. He was able to play the run pretty well and he was often able to make plays at or behind the line. He also did a good job rushing the passer, even if his numbers don't show it. He was able to tip a pass by Sam Bradford that resulted in a Pick Six to start the game, and made a couple of good plays at the line going after the quarterback. He also logged 3 sacks, nearly matching Mitchell's mark.
This is pretty much what we expected from Mikell. Solid production from a low cost-high reward signing. He was a bit of a liability in coverage, and I fully expect Mitchell to take the spot next year barring a complete absence of thought from our GM. I don't expect Mikell back next year, but I'm glad we had him this year.
Lester was a pleasant surprise at the strong safety spot this season. He wasn't expected to see much playing time with two more than capable veterans also competing for playing time at the spot. But his opportunity came as Mikell missed the third game of the season while Godfrey's season was over. Lester responded with a five tackle and two turnover performance, showing he could be a bit of a ball hawk. Lester's 3 interceptions in only four starts out of 12 games played is quite impressive, and if any of you remember correctly, Lester could have easily had at least 5 on the season. He's a bright young guy and is definitely a talent to watch. He doesn't come without his flaws, but that tends to happen with rookies.
I'll be the first to admit I really hated the idea of Lester starting for Carolina. I didn't like his awareness in college, and he often had sloppy tackling form at times. But he definitely proved me wrong, and I'm glad we have him as depth (at the very least) at a position that is far from tied up. As a UFA signing, I'd call this a slam dunk on Gettleman's part.
I think a lot of you know that I am very high on Colin Jones as a special teams player. He's often at least in the frame of a punt return, makes solid tackles and doesn't make a whole lot of mistakes. He's a true special teams ace and someone to definitely keep around. In the preseason he showed he may have a future as a depth safety, if he continues to show improvement he's likely a familiar face for many years. To me, he was well worth the 7th rounder we gave up for him, and he's shown we can count on him to come in for the pinch times.
Defensive Grade: Incomplete Special Teams Grade: A+
I really liked Godfrey as a free safety. It's his most natural position and he possesses the speed and ball skills to be a pretty darn good free safety. It's a shame he got hurt, and it's a shame his cap figure is so high given his lack of impact on this season. I'd really like to see him restructured and brought back, but that's a pipe dream at this point.
This position group is not without it's flaws, but if Carolina can bring back Mike Mitchell and some form of an FA signing/draft pick to start as the free safety, this position group is a lot better off than the cornerbacks. Who do you guys think should start at each position?