We are to the final defensive position on the roster as we look at which positions have improved from last season and which have not. And last, but certainly not least, we get to literally the last line of defense, the safeties.
This position begins with the stalwart strong safety Tyvon Branch and has a complete overhaul after that. Keeping Branch around despite his expensive contract was an absolute must. His return is key to the progress of this defense. That was an offer the team didn't extend to Michael Huff who had an equally high salary.
Though Huff has been the longtime free safety alongside Branch, he spent most of last season at cornerback as an injury replacement. It left the free safety position in the hands of Matt Giordano - and the result was not good. Giordano was regularly burnt and out of position and it seemed each time he was embarrassed the most, he would then get hurt. The team didn't bring him back this year as expected.
The team didn't waste time in filling the free safety spot by signing Usama Young who played under Dennis Allen on the Saints' 2009 Super Bowl team. Young alone would have been a big upgrade over Giordano and a much better value than Huff, but the team was still not done upgrading the position.
After initially the Raiders were not a team Charles Woodson would consider signing with (he wanted to go to a contender), once he didn't receive the offers he had hoped for as a free agent, he opened up his options and Reggie McKenzie brought him in. Now he returns to Oakland just a season removed from being named Defensive Player of the Year. At 36-years old, he has shifted to safety from cornerback which is a natural transition for players looking to extend their career. He was injured much of last season but even if he gets injured again, there is the aforementioned Usama Young giving the position two great options.
Backing up Branch at strong safety was Mike Mitchell for the past few years. He is replaced by Reggie Smith. Mitchell was always a very solid tackler and the team used him almost like a linebacker in nickel packages and liked his versatility for use in red zone and goal line situations. Reggie Smith was out of football last season after being among the final cuts for the Panthers. He started seven games for the 49ers in 2010 and was once thought of as a possible future starter. Hard to say if he is an upgrade over Mitchell but it doesn't appear so.
Brandian Ross spent last season primarily as a cornerback where he showed great potential. He moves to safety and will add depth and competition which is always integral. Can't really expect everyone to stay healthy and having him on the roster strengthens an already very strong position group.