Philadelphia Eagles: Ranking Top 10 Free-Agent Safeties Team Should Target
Everyone who follows the Philadelphia Eagles knows the team needs desperately to upgrade its safety corps this offseason. The organization has made a handful of futile attempts since allowing both Brian Dawkins and Quintin Mikell to leave in free agency, but to no avail.
Whether it has been a veteran free agent (Marlin Jackson or O.J. Atogwe) or a draft pick (Nate Allen or Macho Harris, to name a few), the team hasn't been able to fill the void left by a pair of Pro Bowlers. First-year defensive coordinator Billy Davis did a remarkable job with a limited group of players on his side of the ball last year, all the while transitioning to a 3-4 defense.
It is high time Davis gets himself a bona fide playmaking safety in the secondary. The draft will allow the Eagles the opportunity to grab either Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or Louisville's Calvin Pryor in the first round. Even so, general manager Howie Roseman will need to strongly think about signing a safety in the free-agent market.
Ranked in reverse order, here are 10 plausible players the team could sign to fill the void at safety.
10. James Ihedigbo
James Ihedigbo is the Cary Williams of NFL safeties. He's serviceable and will probably be overpaid because that's the way the league works for proven players.
Ihedigbo played well as a stopgap for the Baltimore Ravens in 2013, starting all 16 games for the third straight year (second with the Ravens). He intercepted three passes, recorded 11 passes defensed, recovered two fumbles and added 62 tackles.
He's 30 years old and coming off a season in which he was rated by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) as the 16th-best safety in the league. In stopping the run, he was the second-most efficient player (although that may be negated by the fact that he tied for the lead at his position with 18 missed tackles).
Simply put, Ihedigbo is a solid option as a stopgap. He's not the long-term answer at all, but he's certainly better than Nate Allen or Patrick Chung. Per Jeff Zrebiec of The Baltimore Sun, the Ravens are unlikely to retain Ihedigbo. The Eagles could grab him as an immediate starter in their secondary.
Projected Deal: Two years, $10 million
9. Ryan Clark
Ryan Clark is a former Pro Bowl player with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he's not much more than a very short-term option at this point. Clark is 34 years old, although durability isn't a question. He started all 16 games last season and has missed just one contest in the past four years.
Clark is coming off a subpar campaign in which his age started to show; he allowed a 101.4 passer rating when in coverage. Per Pro Football Focus, he previously rated as the 19th-best overall safety in the NFL in 2011. In 2012, he was the ninth-best. Last year, Clark slipped to 45th.
He's probably not the best option for the Eagles given his age, but what he does offer is veteran leadership and experience at the position, likely on a one-year deal.
Projected Deal: One year, $4 million
8. Antoine Bethea
Back in the day, Antoine Bethea was a little-known player who managed to make two Pro Bowls. He's still a fairly productive player, and he probably won't generate a big buzz in free agency.
Bethea is the only safety in the league to have started every game for the last six seasons. He is a durable veteran, but that's about all he is.
Since 2011, Bethea has started all 48 games, yet 74 different safeties have more total interceptions than him (2). He has just three sacks, two fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles during that span. He doesn't make many plays, and the Eagles can get a lack of big plays from Patrick Chung at a far lesser price.
Projected Deal: Three years, $19 million
7. Stevie Brown
Remember when Stevie Brown shocked the NFL with a league-high eight interceptions in 2012? That was a magnificent season for him, and it pretty much came out of nowhere.
A former seventh-round pick, Brown entered that season with one career start under his belt. He lit it up to the tune of eight picks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries, becoming just the fifth safety in NFL history to pull off that achievement.
Last year, Brown missed the whole season with a torn ACL, but the New York Giants quietly got a breakout performance from Will Hill. He's hitting free agency as seemingly a one-year wonder, and the Eagles could take a gamble on him that he really is the playmaker from '12.
Projected Deal: Three years, $16 million
6. Mike Mitchell
The Carolina Panthers' Mike Mitchell put together one of the better campaigns by a safety. He played in 15 games, intercepting four passes, forcing two fumbles and recording four sacks. He was just the 12th safety in league history to record four picks and four sacks in the same season, and the first to do it in seven years.
Per Joseph Person of The Charlotte Observer, the Panthers will definitely try to re-sign Mitchell. That seems to make sense; he was a steal on a one-year, $1 million deal, and he was formerly a second-round pick for a reason. It's unlikely the Eagles will be able to obtain Mitchell, but if they are able to outbid Carolina, he's a solid option.
Projected Deal: Four years, $21 million
5. Bernard Pollard
I highlighted Bernard Pollard as one of six under-the-radar free agents the Eagles should consider signing this offseason. Pollard has bounced around the league recently—to the tune of four teams in six years—but he's played well wherever he's gone.
Last year for the Tennessee Titans, Pollard started all 16 games, recording three interceptions and 77 tackles. He's a fearsome hard-hitter who can set a tone for a defense. Because he's managed to escape long-term deals his whole career, he may be a player the Eagles can get surprisingly cheap.
Pollard is still just 29 years old. He has little injury history, having missed just seven contests in his eight-year NFL career. A two-year deal for Pollard would be an underrated offseason move for Howie Roseman, and if the Titans re-sign cornerback Alterraun Verner to a long-term extension, they may not have the cap room for Pollard too.
Projected Deal: Three years, $17 million
4. Donte Whitner
The Eagles should be notably cautious about signing Donte Whitner, namely because he comes from the San Francisco 49ers. Playing behind that front seven is bound to help any safety, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got a disappointing first season from Dashon Goldson after they paid him big money in free agency.
Still, Whitner has several things going for him. He's just 28 years old and could probably play effectively for the duration of a new contract (three or four years). Whitner has made the last two Pro Bowls. He's started 47 of the last 48 NFL games. He is a devastating hard-hitter and rated as Pro Football Focus' sixth overall safety in the league in 2013.
The Niners are going to have to extend Colin Kaepernick this offseason. They're looking to re-sign Anquan Boldin, according to CSN Bay Area. And they're going to have to offer long-term extensions to Mike Iupati, Michael Crabtree and Aldon Smith next offseason. That means there probably won't be room to bring back Whitner, especially since the team just spent a first-round pick on LSU's Eric Reid.
Projected Deal: Four years, $27 million
3. Louis Delmas
A second-round pick in 2009, Delmas has struggled with injuries during his NFL career, but he put it all together last year. Delmas started all 16 games, picking off three passes while recording two sacks. Pro Football Focus rated Delmas as the 11th-best coverage safety in the league, and he surrendered the lowest completion percentage (43.8 percent) of any safety in the game.
It's looking like the Lions will still try to bring back Delmas on a cheaper deal, but he will undoubtedly be willing to test offers from other teams. He's already been hosted by Pittsburgh, according to Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk, and the Eagles should be next to try to grab him.
Projected Deal: Four years, $22 million
2. Jairus Byrd
In terms of talent, Jairus Byrd is the best safety on the open market. He's just 27 years old and has made three Pro Bowls in his five-year NFL career. He has to be on Chip Kelly's radar, given his sheer success at a huge position of need for the Eagles.
What keeps Byrd from ranking first on the list is that he will command by far the largest contract. Byrd has publicly declared he wants to be the highest-paid safety in the game, per WGRZ's Adam Benigni, and he has played well enough to warrant that claim.
Dashon Goldson got a five-year, $42.5 million deal last offseason. That means Byrd may get close to five years, $50 million total. He was rated by Pro Football Focus as the ninth-best safety in the NFL in 2013. The year before, he was second. The year before that, he was third.
Simply put, he's as good as it gets for safeties (outside of Earl Thomas), and whichever team gets him has a bona fide playmaker and a huge dent in its salary cap.
Projected Deal: Five years, $51 million
1. T.J. Ward
The Eagles absolutely have to sign free-agent safety T.J. Ward. Ward is a Pro Bowler who would be a tremendous addition to the defense. He's just 27 years old and coming off his career-best season in which he started all 16 games, recorded two interceptions and racked up 75 tackles.
Ward has ties that could make the Eagles very interested in him, as he attended the University of Oregon previously. He's not going to command Jairus Byrd money, but he's still a top-six or -seven safety in the league. Ward should be the top player the organization targets in free agency simply because he's going to cost less than Byrd and is still a Pro Bowler.
Projected Deal: Five years, $35 million
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