2014 NFL Free Agents: Exploring the Safety Market
The NFL offseason marches on, awash in the 24-7 media cycle that keeps the league in the limelight year round.
The NFL Scouting Combine is behind us, giving us pause to ponder free agency anew. This time we look at the safety market, which is ripe with talent should most of the players hit the open market.
Cleveland's T.J. Ward and Buffalo's Jairus Byrd headline this year's free-agent class, but there is plenty of value to be had at the position.
Statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference
Baltimore signed Huff last offseason to help mitigate the loss of Ed Reed, but he simply didn't pan out.
The former Raiders, Ravens and Broncos safety is a shell of his former self, but he could provide some veteran leadership and contribution as a backup for a low price.
The man on the other side of the "Fail Mary" has done little to merit a substantial contract since then.
Young played well in a backup role in Oakland last season. He was actually the 12th-best rated safety in 2012 with the Cleveland Browns, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
At 36 and obviously on the downturn, physically, it's difficult to see many teams chomping at the bit to sign him.
Allen had a decent season in Pittsburgh playing behind Ryan Clark last season, even grading positively over at PFF in limited duty. The 10-year veteran could be a valuable depth signing for many teams.
Speaking of Clark, the 12-year veteran might be getting a bit long in the tooth. At 34, Clark has said he's not ready for retirement, per ESPN.com's Scott Brown. His body might be saying otherwise.
2013 Statistics: 92 total tackles, 1 interception, 8 passes defensed
There have been plenty of loud noises coming from the Miami Dolphins' organization this offseason but nary a peep has been said about incumbent free safety Chris Clemons.
The 28-year-old has had his ups and downs, but he has been serviceable throughout his tenure in South Florida. Clemons has graded out nearly identically—that is to say, positively—over at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) in each of the past two seasons, his first two as a full-time starter.
He may not be in Miami's plans, though, per ESPN.com's James Walker.
I wouldn’t rule out a return for Chris Clemons, but he is not a priority for the Dolphins. Miami would like a more dynamic player to pair with Reshad Jones next season. The Dolphins might be able to find one via the draft or free agency. Clemons is not a game-changer. He's just average. So the Dolphins will not rush to sign Clemons, and won’t lose any sleep if he finds a job elsewhere.
If he hits the market, teams will likely view him as a low-end starter. Durability will help his free-agent stock—he has started all 16 games in each of the past two seasons, missing just nine defensive snaps all of last year.
2013 Statistics: N/A
How quickly a player can be forgotten.
Stevie Brown led all safeties and was second in the league in interceptions for the Giants just two seasons ago. Before that he was mainly a special teams player.
We didn't get a chance to see if that was a fluke or not last season because he missed it with a torn ACL, unfortunate for a player in a contract year.
The 27-year-old safety now hits the open market—if the Giant's don't re-sign him beforehand, that is—the wind having been let out of his sails. He could be a steal in free agency if he can return to form, even if those defensive numbers were a bit inflated.
2013 Statistics: 64 total tackles, 3 interceptions, 9 passes defensed, 2 sacks
One of the early offseason surprises came when the Detroit Lions cut safety Louis Delmas, just one year after signing him to a two-year deal in 2013.
The 26-year-old has battled injuries in the past, but he was a productive and healthy member of an otherwise poor secondary last season. He graded positively over at PFF last season (subscription required), though he was close to the middle of the pack in the end.
Of course, Detroit didn't have a choice—they needed to free up the cap space.
So he is currently a free agent, meeting with teams like the New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers. Delmas is free to sign anywhere before free agency opens up, but he might be biding his time to see how the market shakes out.
2013 Statistics: 99 total tackles, 3 interceptions, 10 passes defensed, 0.5 sacks
He might not be a household name—outside New England, anyway—but Bernard Pollard has been a solid safety throughout his NFL career.
Pollard was among the top 10 strong safeties in tackles and interceptions last season. He also graded positively over at Pro Football Focus (subscription required). There isn't a whole lot of flash here but solid safety play is valuable.
To wit, the Titans would like to re-sign Pollard, per The Tennessean's Jim Wyatt.
2013 Statistics: 100 total tackles, 3 interceptions, 11 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble
The Ravens were supposed to backpedal for a few yards defensively last season after losing the heart and soul of that unit, linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, respectively.
But in stepped James Ihedigbo, who had a pretty good year. He graded positively over at PFF (subscription required), and he had the fourth-most tackles at strong safety last season.
Granted, Ihedigbo played a different position—rookie Matt Elam actually took over Reed's spot at free safety—but the unheralded veteran helped plug a big hole in that secondary.
It wasn't all rainbows and unicorns, though. Ihedigbo led the league in missed tackles, an ignominious distinction. He is also a one-year wonder, breaking through after starting just 15 games combined through the first five years of his career before starting all 16 last season.
2013 Statistics: 82 total tackles, 2 interceptions, 15 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery
The 49ers lost a good safety last year when Dashon Goldson flew southeast to Tampa Bay. They simply couldn't afford him.
They can't afford to lose another good safety this offseason in Donte Whitner, the sixth-best safety in the league over at PFF (subscription required). That is why they are trying to keep him, per The Sacramento Bee's Matt Barrows:
If Whitner, who becomes an unrestricted free agent March 11, moves on to another team, Dahl would become the de facto backup, at least until the draft. However, sources at the combine in Indianapolis said the 49ers are now more optimistic they can re-sign Whitner, one of the veteran leaders in the locker room, than they were before the combine when they figured they would lose the veteran to a team with more salary-cap space. Whitner still could test the free-agent market. But he wants to be back with the 49ers, and there promises to be more room under the salary cap than previously expected.
That Dahl reduced his salary is another indication the 49ers don't envision a big role for him in the upcoming season. The team signed him to a three-year, $5.25 million free-agent deal last year.
2013 Statistics: 48 total tackles, 4 interceptions, 6 passes defensed, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble
Jairus Byrd is so good, he might be headed for his second consecutive franchise tag, per NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal.
NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reports the Bills still want to do a contract with Byrd, but they plan to place the franchise tag on him if that doesn't happen. They won't let Byrd get away for nothing. (A long-term deal before the March 3 franchise-tag deadline sounds unlikely.)
The franchise tag is not intended to be used as a vehicle to make a trade. It's supposed to be a precursor to signing a player long-term. Byrd, who played for new Browns coach Mike Pettine last season in Buffalo, didn't sign his franchise tag with the Bills last year until late August. He didn't suit up until Buffalo's sixth game of the season, and then proceeded to have a fantastic season.
The tag would likely mean Byrd would get 120 percent of his 2013 salary, which would come out at nearly $8 million, per former agent Joel Corry at CBSSports. That's not too shabby, but it doesn't provide the long-term stability free agents crave.
Byrd was injured after getting tagged last season, and he wound up starting just 10 games. Despite that, he still managed to snag four interceptions and grade out as one of the better safeties in the league over at PFF.
2013 Statistics: 112 total tackles, 2 interceptions, 7 passes defensed, 1.5 sacks, 1 fumble recovery, 1 touchdown
Perhaps the best safety option in free agency played for one of the most dysfunctional organizations.
T.J. Ward has been playing at a high level in Cleveland since he came into the league. He was the third-best safety in the league last year, per Pro Football Focus.
Despite the drama in Cleveland, the 27-year-old stud safety still says he wants to stay, per Fox Sports' Ross Jones.
“That’s definitely my goal,” Ward told FOXSports.com in a telephone interview Thursday night. “I want to stay there. I’ve been there from when things were rough and for me to be a part of it when we get on top would be something very special. Hopefully, we can raise that Lombardi Trophy. It would be great for Cleveland. It would be great to bring a championship there and for me to say that I was there when we weren’t good and now we’re on top would be great.”
While the team reportedly plans to find a way to bring back two coveted free agents -- Ward and center Alex Mack -- the 5-foot-10, 200-pound safety is prepared to play for another team next season.
Keeping Ward would be a feat for the Browns after the tumult on Lake Erie this offseason.
Of course, Ward might want to wait things out to see what kind of offers he gets on the open market. If he does wait until free agency opens up, he will be a hot commodity.