Urban Meyer was not impressed. It was winter 2003, and Meyer, then the head coach at Utah, sat in a living room in Rancho Cucamonga, California, where his defensive coordinator had dragged him, for reasons he couldn’t understand. Looking at the 5-foot-11, 185-pound high school senior seated on the other side of the guacamole, Meyer saw nothing remarkable, nothing that said he belonged in major college football. “There were probably 200 other guys at his high school that looked just like him,” says Kyle Whittingham, the defensive coordinator at the time and now Utah's head coach. As they made their way back to the car, Meyer turned to Whittingham and asked one question: “Are you sure?” Whittingham was.
That fall, as a freshman, Eric Weddle started nine games for Utah. By his junior year, he was the best defensive player in the Mountain West. And by the time Weddle was a senior, he was nearly a consensus All-American. But no matter how he has played, it seems like Meyer’s initial doubts have followed Weddle everywhere he has gone. Four safeties were taken before him in the 2007 draft, and even after he was named All-Pro two years ago, Weddle’s peers didn’t consider him one of the best 100 players in football when the NFL Network’s latest player poll was released earlier this year.
“Honestly, I’m used to it,” Weddle says. “I’m not saying I haven’t been recognized, but it was the same thing in high school, the same thing in college.” For a long time, being a great safety meant big hits and interceptions, but for the past two years, Weddle has shown what type of middle-of-the-field defensive player can thrive in the NFL’s new era of player safety. Gone are the “blow-up shots,” as he calls them, replaced by sure tackling and elite coverage in the back half of a defense. There aren’t many highlight reels of overthrown passes or open-field tackles, but these days, it’s all most people see (or don’t see) from Weddle, who’s been nothing less than the best safety in the NFL.
When first-year players arrive at Utah, their initial task involves a series of tests — both athletic and football-centric. Those tests were all Whittingham needed to realize how right he’d been. “[We knew] from the first practice,” Whittingham says. “It was very apparent. He was by far the best at essentially every drill we did. He could have been an All–Mountain West receiver, a running back. We felt there were so many positions he could’ve played.” That ability is part of the reason Weddle didn’t receive much attention from Division I programs. Much of the early interest was for his talents as an offensive player at Alta Loma High School, and though many of his offers were to play wide receiver, they fell away when he shifted to quarterback as a senior.
For Whittingham, Weddle was a defensive back from the start, and it wasn’t long before he was one of the best in the country. At the end of Weddle’s junior season, Utah was set to play Georgia Tech in that year’s Emerald Bowl. Recently, Georgia Tech’s offense has been an option-based, run-heavy attack, but that season, the Yellow Jackets happened to have a 6-foot-5, 230-pound wide receiver named Calvin Johnson. “He was matched up with him one-on-one, man coverage, essentially the entire game,” Whittingham says. Johnson finished the game with just two catches for 19 yards.
It was around that time, the end of Weddle’s junior season, that his expectations changed. “I never, ever dreamed that I’d play in the NFL,” Weddle says. “It seemed so far-fetched. They were physical gods.” As a senior, Weddle was every bit the type of player who belongs alongside those gods on Sunday. He was a bit of everything for Utah — his excellent brand of safety, running back, quarterback in the Wildcat, punt returner. Wyoming’s head coach said that Weddle deserved the Heisman Trophy.
The 2007 draft was filled with top-shelf safety prospects, including top-five pick LaRon Landry, Michael Griffin, Reggie Nelson, and Brandon Meriweather. The first three were off the board by the time New England was set to pick at 24. The Patriots had expressed interest in Weddle before the draft, but when they chose Meriweather, it meant Weddle represented a need for one less team. There was hope with San Diego, another team Weddle knew had interest, with the 30th overall pick, but when they took LSU’s Buster Davis, Weddle figured the Chargers were out too. He’d never last until their next pick at 62. And he didn’t have to. Seven picks after selecting Davis, San Diego traded its own second-round pick, a third-round pick, a fifth-round pick, and a third-round pick the following year to move up 25 spots and take Weddle 37th overall. It was the best day of Weddle’s life, but not because he realized a relatively young NFL dream, or because he would get to play two hours from his home. Earlier that day, Weddle’s wife had told him she was pregnant with their first child.
For the past two seasons, Ron Milus has watched Weddle longingly, from afar. As Denver’s defensive backs coach, Milus got to see Weddle twice a year, including a game last season in which he took an interception back for a touchdown. Now, in Milus's first season as the Chargers’ secondary coach, he has a much closer view, one that has shown him that although Weddle lacks size, he’s got a surplus of speed. “People don't recognize his athletic ability,” Milus says. “Everyone knows he’s a smart football player, everyone knows he’s able to make a play or two, but he’s more athletic than people give him credit for.”
Because Weddle is something of a defensive Wes Welker, there’s a tendency to ascribe to him the qualities of a player without high-level physical skills, but really, Weddle isn’t short on those, either. He ran a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash coming out of Utah, and he still has the NFL combine record for the 10-yard split at his position. Weddle is on a similarly freakish athletic plane as his NFL peers.
There are plenty of safeties that excel in either the run or pass game, but few are able to have the success in both that Weddle had last season. According to Pro Football Focus, when Weddle was in primary coverage, he only gave up .25 yards per play. That was good for the fourth-best figure in the league. Teams rarely test Weddle in coverage these days. Where Weddle is best, though, is against the run, with the highest stop percentage of any safety in football, particularly when lining up eight yards or less from the line of scrimmage.
In the fourth quarter of a game against Cleveland last season, Weddle crept toward the line of scrimmage on a second-and-5 just inside Chargers territory. As the ball was snapped, and Brandon Weeden turned to hand off to Montario Hardesty, Weddle played down the line of scrimmage and managed to jar the ball loose while making the tackle a yard deep in the backfield. These are the moments Weddle is proudest of. “That irritates me the most — missing tackles,” Weddle says. “In a 16-game schedule, I made more than 115 tackles last year and had less than 15 missed tackles. If I can reach that goal I know I'm playing well.” Both Milus and defensive coordinator John Pagano noted, without prompting, that in watching last year’s film, they noticed an inordinate number of touchdown-saving tackles Weddle made at the back of the Chargers defense.
Pagano took over as the Chargers’ defensive coordinator before the 2011 season, and he says it’s plays like this that inspire him when he designs the San Diego defense. “He’s a playmaker!” Pagano says. “You have to find ways to get him involved.”
Weddle’s athletic ability has always been constant, but he says it’s the way he came to understand the NFL game that has allowed him to become the player he’s been for the past three seasons. “Now,” Weddle says, “it honestly feels like high school or college all over again. You’re comfortable, you see the game. You’ve seen a lot of ups and downs, a lot of good plays and bad plays. They’re all in the back of your head. It’s all just experience over the years. There are guys that play well as rookies, but it’s hard.”
Weddle points to two favorite plays from last season, each a product of his elevated understanding of exactly what opposing offenses want to do.
The first is from the Chargers’ Week 4 game against Kansas City. Just before this GIF begins, the Chiefs had motioned an H-back from right to left. In this formation, with that motion, Weddle knew that if the backside tight end blocked, the inside receiver on the play side would be running a seam while the outside receiver broke to the sideline. “[The tight end] ended up blocking, so I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna get him.’ So I tried to just act like I was working the seam, and I’ll bail out to the underneath route. It all came together because I remembered it all.” As he details the play, Weddle looks off into the distance, focusing on a random point on the wall behind him. He diagrams it in the air with his finger. Even now, he can still see it.
The second is from San Diego’s Week 12 loss to Baltimore, and it’s an indication of the freedom Weddle has earned in the Chargers defense. Here, Joe Flacco checks to an audible at the line of scrimmage, and based on the formation, Weddle knew exactly what would follow. On a de facto blitz, he takes down Ray Rice two yards deep in the backfield.
Making a freelance decision like that works only when Weddle understands that his choice won’t affect the other parts of the defense. Pagano says that his favorite Weddle moments are in their conversations on the sideline following a given series. Weddle is able to not only describe what he’s seeing, but also to give Pagano the in-game end zone view of the entire defense. If a lineman is out of a gap, or a certain run fit isn’t working, Pagano knows before the photos from the game film are even processed.
Sitting in his living room, Weddle is playing catch with his 3-year-old son. In a few minutes, he’ll join his wife in the kitchen as they interview prospective nannies. “I always try to remind myself, when it’s tough, when your body’s sore, and you’re hurting, I try to sit back and tell myself, ‘Would you rather be doing anything else in the world at this moment?’” Weddle says. “A lot of guys forget about that. They forget that this is the best job in the world.”
In many ways, Weddle seems like a mild-mannered family man, but when the topic of recognition throughout the league comes up, it’s easy to see that he does pay attention. Earlier this offseason, Weddle was watching ESPN when Darren Woodson listed his five best safeties in the NFL. When Weddle wasn’t among them, he took a photo of the TV screen, a photo he keeps on his phone and looks at every day. “You can’t honestly think there are four guys, five guys better than me in this league,” Weddle says. “If you do, come down, let’s watch everyone’s film, and you show me. I honestly think if you put on film of me and everyone else in the whole game, your opinion of me would change dramatically.”
He stresses that his football life, like his real one, is simple and contained. He doesn’t have any opinions on Tim Tebow, he doesn’t like getting slapped on the helmet before a game. His energy is elsewhere, focused on what he can actually control.
“I feel like I’m one of the most, if not the most complete safety,” Weddle says. “I don’t feel like there’s a weakness in my game. Some guys may be faster, but no one can make open-field tackles, blitz, stop a running back in the hole, cover wideouts like me. That’s where I think I separate myself.”
When preparing each week, Weddle isn’t just focused on his opponents. He’s focused on his peers, too. He has made a point to watch players like Jairus Byrd, Eric Berry, and Earl Thomas. “There are a lot of good players, a lot of good young guys,” Weddle says. “It’s good that safeties are getting recognition, and not just the two guys it was for so long. Troy [Polamalu] and Ed [Reed] were what you wanted to be. Not saying that they’re going down, but guys are rising up."
Weddle knows there are young players nipping at his heels now. The younger crowd is coming for him just as he chased down the league’s best years ago. “I always think it’s my turn next,” Weddle says, laughing. “You can’t take it for granted." Pagano does the same sort of studying, and to him, there’s only one answer for who belongs at the top right now. “Where does he stack up?” Pagano asks. “He’s the best.”