The San Francisco 49ers declined using the franchise tag on safety Dashon Goldson Monday, leaving the 2012 All-Pro a likely opportunity to hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent.
His worth once he gets there will be debatable.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, one NFL team official said Goldson is "seeking" $8 million a year in his next deal. Finding such a contract would make Goldson one of the NFL's highest-paid safeties.
Former NFL safety LeRoy Butler was highly complimentary of the 28-year-old to the Journal-Sentinel, also predicting his looming deal won't come cheap.
"He has good size, good instincts, runs well and he'll hit you," Butler said. "He's one of the most complete safeties right now. But again, it's definitely going to cost you some money."
Goldson was a candidate to receive the franchise tag for the second straight season, but the 49ers appear ready again to let him test the open market.
Back in 2010, Goldson received very little interest during his first run as an unrestricted free agent. He returned to San Francisco on a one-year deal, played well in 2011 and was then handed the one-year franchise tag last season.
Teamed with Donte Whitner at the back end of the 49ers' secondary, Goldson put together a 2012 season that included both Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections. He intercepted three passes and recovered two fumbles over 16 starts.
Now, Goldson wants to get paid like a top safety.
Other deals around the league have helped establish his asking price.
San Diego Chargers safety Eric Weddle signed a five-year, $40 million deal with $19 million guaranteed in 2011, and Goldson's request of $8 million a year appears to sync up with Weddle's deal.
The six-year, $60 million deal for Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry remains the highest average salary at the position, with Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers coming in second at $9.125 million. Polamalu signed a four-year, $36.5 million deal in 2011, when he was still considered the best safety in the game.
Oakland Raiders safety Michael Huff also averages $8 million a year, having signed a four-year, $32 million deal with $16 million guaranteed two seasons ago.
How Goldson stacks up to Weddle and Polamalu as individual players is questionable, but he's at least as effective as a safety like Huff, who's already cashed in. Even Antrel Rolle ($7.4 million average) and Michael Griffin ($7 million)—the fifth and sixth highest-paid safeties, respectively—probably can't stand up alone to Goldson.
However, a deep and highly-respected safety class in the 2013 NFL draft could dilute how much teams want to spend on a veteran like Goldson.
NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock thinks it may be one of the best in years, according to the Bills' official site:
It’s a great safety class – best safety class I’ve seen in years. Maybe not with a bunch of first-round guys that you’re going to run around and say, ‘That’s my guy,’ but there’s depth with this class.
Kenny Vaccaro (Texas), Johnathan Cyprien (Florida International), Matt Elam (Florida), Eric Reid (LSU), Shamarko Thomas (Syracuse), D.J. Swearinger (South Carolina), Tony Jefferson (Oklahoma) and Bacarri Rambo (Georgia) are all safeties that have the potential of going within the first three of four rounds of April's NFL draft.
With that much talent available in the first handful of rounds, teams might not be as willing to spend a big chunk of change on Goldson. The 49ers, who may have as many as 15 picks in April's draft, could spend one of the 15 on a top safety and still save a considerable amount of money.
The possibility also exists that Goldson's contributions to an otherwise elite defense are somewhat overrated.
According to Pro Football Focus, Goldon graded out as the NFL's 20th-best safety last season (+6.5). His overall grade was hurt by a position-high six penalties and just 17 total "stops"—or tackles that constitute a negative play for the offense.
In comparison, Weddle ranked as the top overall safety (+27.8), and Polamalu finished 13th (+8.4), despite missing a number of games.
Goldson also struggled at times during the postseason, mostly in pass coverage. The Atlanta Falcons, for example, threw for almost 100 yards and a score when targeting Goldson in the NFC Championship Game.
The 49ers and other prospective teams on the open market can point to those performances (especially versus Atlanta) when attempting to negotiate Goldson down from $8 million a year.
In normal negotiations, free agents typically set an asking price that's above the likely signing rate. Teams then counter with offers below the eventual deal. The two sides come together somewhere in the middle, and a contract is completed.
Goldson is setting his bar at $8 million, but he's unlikely to get such a deal, especially from the 49ers.
Given his pedigree as an All-Pro safety, but also the reality of a deep safety class and analytic stats, Goldson's worth is likely somewhere in the $6-7 million range.