2011 was a magical season, not just because of Tim Tebow, but because of the improved play of the Broncos’ defense, particularly Brian Dawkins, who despite closing in on nearly 20 years at the safety position in the NFL, was playing at one of the highest levels in his 16-season career.
A six-game winning streak was snapped in the middle of the regular season with a loss to the New England Patriots. In that same game, Dawkins suffered a possible career-threatening neck injury. In his absence, the ineptitude of rookie safeties Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter were exposed.
Moore was eventually benched, but Carter stepped up forcing a couple of turnovers in the Broncos’ two playoff games. With uncertainty regarding Dawkins’ future and the Broncos’ now pressing need for talent at the safety position, Denver needs to acquire more talent both in the draft and through free agency. Here are five of the many safeties that will be available in this year’s free-agency signing period.
This list is just a small representation of what's available during this season's free-agency period. A complete list can be found here.
Never heard of them? That doesn’t matter because Jack Del Rio has. Given his new position as defensive coordinator with the Broncos, don’t be surprised if, like John Fox, he will bring in talent and faces that he has worked with in the past. Both Jaguars safeties will most likely be on the free-agent market soon, so don’t be surprised if one (if not both) of these players come to Denver.
Both Brown and Greene have put up average, if not mediocre numbers while in the NFL, but what matters to both Fox and Del Rio is bringing in players who can easily fit into and learn the defensive scheme that will be key for the Broncos going into 2012.
Another important key here is to amp up the competition for the likes of Quinton Carter and Rahim Moore, who will be going into their second seasons as pros.
Any Broncos fan can agree with taking a weapon away from the Raiders and dressing him in Orange and Blue. Branch has proved to be a valuable pick for the Raiders, having been selected in the fourth round in the 2008 NFL Draft and becoming a full-time starter in 2009.
Branch brings the same skill that Brian Dawkins has been admired for across the league during his 16-year career, and that is sure tackling. Since becoming a starter, Branch has posted 100-plus tackles in three straight seasons to lead the Raiders. He also secured a sack and an interception in 2011.
A tackler like Tyvon Branch would be welcome in John Fox and Jack Del Rio’s defensive schemes, especially considering the Broncos’ need for improvement in stopping the run.
Like Tyvon Branch, Washington Redskins strong safety LaRon Landry has reached the end of his rookie contract, and will likely be another free-agent candidate, automatically placing him in a pool of players the Broncos should pursue.
Landry has recently garnered media attention based on photos posted of his buff physique, but still carries injury concerns having suffered hamstring, groin and Achilles injuries in 2011. The Achilles injury effectively ended his 2011 season.
Injuries aside, Landry has been a solid strong safety throughout his career, amassing 383 tackles, 5.5 sacks, four interceptions, and six forced fumbles in five seasons with the Redskins.
If the Broncos have any leverage in coming to a deal with Landry, it’s that the team now has some kind of connection via new defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. Del Rio coached LaRon’s older brother, Dawan Landry, while with the Jaguars.
Like many of the other safeties on this list, Brandon Meriweather has played less than six years in the NFL. This means that like the others, Meriweather could provide a more long-term solution at the safety position for the Broncos.
The talent is there in Meriweather, as he achieved Pro Bowl selections with the Patriots in 2009 and 2010.
Despite being a first-round pick and two-time Pro-Bowler for the Patriots, his one-year stint with the Bears just “didn’t work out.” Meriweathers’ statistics dropped in every category in 2011, and he also had several other off the field concerns.
But if Meriweather can overcome both his drop in production and off-the-field incidents, the Broncos could get potential Pro Bowl talent on the cheap.
The most highly targeted potential free-agent safety this offseason will most assuredly be Dashon Goldson, who is currently still on the 49ers roster. I say potential free agent because given Goldson’s performance during the 2011 season, the 49ers would be foolish not to put the franchise tag on Goldson, or at the very least offer him a generous contract extension.
Goldson was a huge part of the 49ers' return to prominence and the playoffs in 2011. This past season was a breakout year for Goldson, earning his first Pro Bowl selection with career highs in interceptions (six) and pass deflections (nine). A key interception in the divisional round of the 2011 NFL Playoffs set up the 49er offense to take a 14-0 lead in that game.
If the Broncos are smart, they should already be in contact with Goldson’s agent, because he fits the team’s pressing needs at the safety position. Whether Dawkins retires next season or not, Goldson would provide a veteran presence and skill set that the Broncos will need over the next few years while they continue to rebuild the team.