For a team that could potentially return starters at all 22 positions in 2004, the Green Bay Packers' signing of fifth-year NFL veteran Mark Roman last week was undeniably significant.
Although the re-signing of starting left tackle Chad Clifton is the most important move the Packers have made in free agency this offseason, the acquisition of Roman is the most monumental move involving a player not on the roster in 2003.
But when it comes to the Packers' strong safety position, which has seen three different starters over the past two seasons, Roman's arrival doesn't necessarily end the search for stability so much as it upgrades the Packers' options.
On hand as Roman formally met with the Wisconsin media for the first time since signing his contract, March 24, defensive coordinator Bob Slowik made it clear that the starting position opposite Darren Sharper is still up for grabs.
"Time will tell," Slowik said, when asked if Roman would be granted a starting job in 2004. "He's going to be in competition with Marques Anderson. We're still talking about the possibility of having (unrestricted free agent) Antuan Edwards back. So it will be a heated competition, and competition makes you better."
The last time the Packers didn't have competition at the strong safety position was during LeRoy Butler's decade-long tenure in the role from 1992-2001. Since injury ended Butler's career three seasons ago, Anderson, Edwards, Bhawoh Jue and Matt Bowen each enjoyed starting stints at his vacated spot.
But if the signing of Roman is evidence that the Packers are looking to upgrade the secondary, Slowik said it's not a sign that they've lost confidence in Anderson, who matched a team rookie record by returning two interceptions for touchdowns in 2002.
"I think Marques has made tremendous improvement," said Slowik, who estimated that Anderson reduced his number of missed tackles by more than half last season compared to his rookie campaign. "He's got to just continue to work, and work on his coverage skills. He's still in there fighting. He won't come down easy, if he does."
Whoever lines up at strong safety for the Packers next season, what Slowik is most looking for is excellence in pass coverage.
With NFL teams increasingly going to three-receiver sets, Slowik wants the Packers to have the versatility to match whatever formation the opposing offense gives them. That's one of the reasons that the Packers were intent on signing Roman, who predominantly played cornerback his first three seasons in the league.
"The run (defense) part of the safety position has not been a problem for us," Slowik said. "If we were really missing what you guys like to say is a blow-up type of safety, we'd put in another linebacker, to be honest with you, and have no problems.
"But you need to have somebody that is capable of also playing man-to-man, because the game has changed. There aren't a whole lot of times where we go out there and the opponent lines up and is just trying to run the ball down your throats."
By solidifying the strong safety position, Slowik believes it will give the Packers versatility to better utilize Sharper, either in coverage or as a pass rusher. Sharper's career-high nine interceptions came alongside Butler in 2000.
The Packers could potentially add to their depth in the secondary through the NFL Draft, but Slowik said that with Roman in the fold and Michael Hawthorne re-signed the existing unit, which includes returning cornerbacks Al Harris and Mike McKenzie, is as strong as its ever been as he enters his fifth season with the team.
Outlining the Packers' other key needs defensively, Slowik said he hoped the team would be able to acquire another pass rusher in addition to a power end to help the team on run downs.
"It's not that we don't have people at these spots right now that are capable," Slowik said, "but the more competition we have here right in our own locker room, the better we're going to be able to play and the better the guys are going to perform."
As the 2004 season approaches, the competition at strong safety could be as fierce as ever.