NFL1000: Free-Agency Rankings for the 2017 FS Market

NFL1000 ScoutsFeatured ColumnistMarch 1, 2017

NFL1000: Free-Agency Rankings for the 2017 FS Market

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    Welcome to Bleacher Report's NFL1000 free-agency preview, a series where we'll use the power of the 17-man NFL1000 scouting department to bring you in-depth analysis of every NFL free agent this offseason. In this installment, lead scout Doug Farrar and safety scout Mark Bullock dive into the free safety class.  

    Of all the positions affected by the NFL's recent turn to specialization, none has been more impacted than the safety position. Once strictly the domain of specifically delineated free and strong safeties (10 years ago, the concept of interchangeable free/strong guys was considered radical), the position has split like Microsoft stock in the 1990s, leading to entirely new positions and responsibilities. 

    Most prominent among these new positions is the "Moneybacker"—the linebacker/safety hybrid who doesn't do much in the way of deep coverage but can add serious thump underneath in nickel and dime packages. And with those packages becoming the new normal as base defenses, this is incredibly important. Players like Mark Barron, Landon Collins and Deone Bucannon make their pay this way.

    The Super Bowl champion Patriots have learned to love the big nickel package, with three safeties roaming the field. Last season, this had Duron Harmon patrolling the deep areas, Devin McCourty bracketing top receivers and Patrick Chung essentially playing linebacker underneath. Three different types of players, all attuned to their parts in a scheme.

    Some teams, like the Seahawks and Falcons, have a more old-school approach in which the strong safety is the underneath enforcer and the free safety is the killer athlete patrolling deep. But this was tested in Seattle when free safety Earl Thomas was injured late in the season, and the Seahawks struggled mightily to replace him. It's no surprise that they did—replacing a rare player like Thomas without scheme adjustments is a near-impossibility.

    The 2017 class of free safeties is a list of different types of players, but in today's NFL, there's never been a better time to be a specialist at this position.


    Previous Installments

    NFL1000 Free-Agent Quarterback Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Tight End Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Fullback Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Kicker/Punter Rankings
    FL1000 Free-Agent Left Tackle Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Offensive Guard Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Center Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Right Tackle Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Inside Linebacker Rankings

12. Dashon Goldson

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Incomplete: Dashon Goldson did not play enough in 2016 to receive full grading. 


    NFL1000 safety scout Mark Bullock

    Goldson was once part of one of the top safety combinations in the NFL. In San Francisco, he and Donte Whitner paired up to form a fearsome duo. But that was some time ago. Since then, Whitner moved on to the Browns before spending time in Washington this season. Goldson, meanwhile, signed a big contract with the Buccaneers but was traded to Washington in 2015, just two years into the deal. The 2015 season with Washington was the last time he saw the field as a starter.

    He struggled there, lacking the range he once had in San Francisco. He was released after one year in the nation's capital and was only signed to the Falcons late in training camp due to an injury to Keanu Neal. Goldson played a total of five snaps for the Falcons this year and finds himself a free agent again.

    While he is only 32, and other safeties have been solid playing well into their mid-30s, with a lack of interest last offseason and then only playing five snaps, he's unlikely to have changed any minds on the direction of his career. Expect him to consider retirement, unless a team that suffers an injury late in training camp or early in the season is desperate for depth at safety.                


    Doug's Quick Take: Sadly, Goldson hasn't been a true multidimensional player in half a decade, and his snaps have diminished severely in three of the last four seasons. If he sticks and stays in the NFL, it will be as a veteran backup box safety. Retirement seems a likely option.


    Potential Suitors: Retirement

11. Michael Griffin

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Coverage: 19.2/30
    Recovery: 19.3/30
    Slot: 5.7/10
    Tackling: 15.3/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 67.5/100
    2016 NFL1000 FS Rank: 47/50


    NFL1000 safety scout Mark Bullock

    Michael Griffin spent the 2016 offseason with the Minnesota Vikings but was placed on injured reserve in early September and then released a few days later. The Carolina Panthers signed him off the street a few weeks into the season when it became apparent they needed a backup safety.

    Griffin played fewer than 300 snaps throughout the season, most of which came in two games as Kurt Coleman missed Week 13 and Tre Boston missed Week 17. The rest of his playing time came in spot reps to rest Boston or Coleman, or occasionally in a three-safety sub-package.

    In those two contests, the 32-year-old Griffin showed more age than experience. Filling in for Coleman against the Seahawks, he missed five tackles. He missed two on wide receiver Tyler Lockett on bubble screens, the second of which resulted in a touchdown.

    Against the run, he missed tackles on Thomas Rawls in the hole and at times got caught out of position. In the first quarter, he overpursued a run to the edge, failing to account for a potential cutback. Later, he chased down a run from the back side but got himself caught on the same block that Boston was already caught on as Rawls ran past for a touchdown.

    In coverage, Griffin performed slightly better but still not up to the standard of a starting free safety. He did manage to stay on top of a few deep shots, mostly down the seams, taking them away and forcing the opposing quarterback to look elsewhere.

    He also read play-action fakes and misdirections well, making sure not to bite on them and keep with his coverage assignment. His reads in general appeared to be solid, but he doesn't have the burst he once had to help him react to those reads in time to make the play.

    Griffin is on the downslope of his career and may consider retirement after 10 years in the NFL. He isn't someone teams will rush out to sign. He might not even be on a team come training camp, where franchises prefer to give younger guys a chance to show potential and earn a spot. Griffin may have to wait for a similar situation to this past season, where a squad suffers a few injuries and needs a player who can pick up a system in a pinch and provide a veteran presence in the defensive backfield.    


    Doug's Quick Take: In pass coverage last season, Griffin allowed a perfect passer rating of 158.3—five receptions on six targets for 82 yards and a touchdown. He might have a future in the NFL as a Patrick Chung-style linebacker/safety hybrid, but it's just as possible that teams will look to younger, more athletic options. This is not a player you want in intermediate to deep coverage. 


    Potential Suitors: Retirement, New York Giants, Baltimore Ravens

10. Robert Blanton

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Coverage: 19.6/30
    Recovery: 19.7/30
    Slot: 5.6/10
    Tackling: 15/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 67.9/100
    2016 NFL1000 FS Rank: 44/50


    NFL1000 safety scout Mark Bullock

    Robert Blanton was very much a backup for the Buffalo Bills this season. He spent most of the year behind starter Corey Graham, occasionally seeing the field in dime packages as the third safety. He had to fill in during an injury crisis in the secondary, playing most of his snaps in Weeks 7 to 11. But his performances in those games left a lot to be desired, and the Bills looked for other options.

    In Week 7, he saw 34 snaps against the Dolphins, most coming as a deep safety. After the Dolphins scored a touchdown in the third quarter, they went for a two-point conversion. Blanton lined up over wide receiver Jarvis Landry in the slot and was caught in traffic on a rub route, leaving Landry open for an easy conversion. Then in the fourth quarter, he made a good read from deep to attack the line of scrimmage and fill in on a run play, only for running back Jay Ajayi to run over him on his way to a 53-yard gain.

    Then in Week 9 against the Seahawks, Blanton struggled again. He initially bit down on a play-action fake, then broke out toward the sideline, despite a lack of receivers in the area. He vacated the deep middle of the field, leaving his corner one-on-one on the outside against Doug Baldwin, who made a 50-yard catch over the top.

    Later, the Seahawks matched him up against Jimmy Graham on the goal line. Graham is one of the tougher players to defend there, but Blanton was beaten quickly on a fade route. He attempted to hold back Graham's arm as a last-ditch effort to save the touchdown, but the tight end made a one-handed catch anyway.

    Blanton's value comes as a backup who can contribute on special teams. At 27, he's younger than some other free agents out there and still offers some athleticism. He did fill in at a number of spots, including time in the slot, where he was OK in zone coverage. That versatility adds value to a backup who might be needed to fill in at various spots.


    Doug's Quick Take: Blanton was charted as allowing nine receptions on 10 targets in 192 coverage snaps, a ratio of opponent success (90 percent) that is simply unacceptable. He's OK in the slot, but he's best served as a special teamer. Most likely, if he's on the field in your defense, you are dealing with a lot of injuries or depth issues. 


    Potential Suitors: Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints

9. Michael Thomas

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Coverage: 19.6/30
    Recovery: 19.4/30
    Slot: 5.4/10
    Tackling: 15.3/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 67.6/100
    2016 NFL1000 FS Rank: 46/50


    NFL1000 safety scout Mark Bullock

    Michael Thomas started the year as a clear backup for the Miami Dolphins behind Reshad Jones and Isa Abdul-Quddus. But after multiple injuries in the secondary, including a significant one to Jones, Thomas was forced into more playing time. He displayed versatility, filling in as the nickel corner at times, particularly early in the season.

    He then split time between both the strong and free safety spots down the stretch as Abdul-Quddus was also injured and Bacarri Rambo was signed off the street to play alongside him.

    Showing a willingness to shift to various positions in the secondary is a plus, but he didn't excel in any of them. When rotating down over the slot or in man coverage against tight ends, he struggled with eye discipline.

    In Week 5, the Titans beat him with a stick-and-nod double move. The tight end he was matched up against sold a simple stick route with a head fake to the outside before quickly bursting back up the seam. But Thomas bit heavily on the fake, shifting his eyes from the tight end to the backfield, in an effort to locate the ball. As he did that, he lost the tight end cutting past him and couldn't recover in time to save a touchdown.

    His range as a deep safety is average, but without eye discipline, that range means nothing. He was too often fooled by play-action fakes or misdirection when playing deep, leading to him stray out of position.

    He needs to do a better job of reading his keys to diagnose the play. In obvious passing situations, where play action and misdirection is often a non-factor, Thomas did a good job of staying on top of deep routes and providing a security blanket for his corners.

    At 26, he has age on his side. His willingness to fill in wherever needed proves versatility, which is likely his best role. He can be a solid backup safety with the ability to fill in at either spot or even slot corner in a primarily zone-based system. He's also a good special teams contributor, which adds another string to his bow.


    Doug's Quick Take: Thomas was targeted a lot last season, and he gave up a lot of receptions—14 catches in 17 targets. The fact that he hasn't yet aligned field discipline with his athleticism likely means that it'll never happen. He's an OK depth player underneath. 


    Potential Suitors: Miami Dolphins, Arizona Cardinals

8. Rashad Johnson

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Coverage: 20.1/30
    Recovery: 19.9/30
    Slot: 5.3/10
    Tackling: 15.4/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 68.6/100
    2016 NFL1000 FS Rank: 39/50


    NFL1000 safety scout Mark Bullock

    At 31, Rashad Johnson's best years are likely behind him. Johnson has been in the NFL for eight seasons, mostly with the Arizona Cardinals, but he has only played a full 16-game season as a starter once. That stat and his age mean Johnson isn't someone teams can rely on to be a starter heading into next season.

    But experience in the secondary, especially at free safety, can be valuable.

    There is plenty of value in having a leader who can organize the secondary and make sure everyone is on the same page and lined up properly. The best guy to do that is the free safety, who is normally the defender farthest off the line of scrimmage and therefore can see everything in front of him.

    As for what a team can expect from Johnson in terms of on-field performance, he doesn't offer a great deal of run support. He missed a number of tackles when working down to help defend the run. Back in Week 3, Johnson took a poor angle down to a running back who was on the edge. He couldn't recover and missed the tackle, leading to the back's making it to the edge and turning up the field on his way to a 30-yard gain.

    Then, two weeks later, Jay Ayaji ran over Johnson. The back burst through his tackle attempt to score a touchdown that should have been prevented.

    In coverage, Johnson can still play deep in Tampa 2 and quarters schemes, or underneath in Cover 3. But his range and recovery ability have shown signs of aging. He isn't someone a team should feel comfortable rotating down to the slot or against a tight end. At this point, Johnson isn't a full-time starter, but he's a backup capable of mentoring a younger safety, as he did with Kevin Byard in Tennessee.


    Doug's Quick Take: Johnson isn't the athlete he used to be, but he was really valuable in short and intermediate coverage last season, allowing catches on just five of 12 targets, and an opposing passer rating of 49.3. That should be good for a veteran-minimum deal of one or two years, and some starting potential on a few teams. 


    Potential Suitors: Tennessee Titans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

7. Steven Terrell

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Coverage: 20.9/30
    Recovery: 21.3/30
    Slot: 4.7/10
    Tackling: 15.3/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 70.1/100
    2016 NFL1000 FS Rank: 30/50


    NFL1000 safety scout Mark Bullock

    After going undrafted in 2013 and spending time with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans, Steven Terrell finally landed with the Seattle Seahawks, where he has developed behind Earl Thomas. But this year, Terrell was forced into a starting role after Thomas suffered a gruesome broken leg in Week 13. While Terrell displayed good athleticism, flashing his range in particular, he's not Thomas, and it's unfair to compare the two.

    Unfortunately, that is the situation Terrell faced.

    He made a few impressive plays where he managed to get from the middle of the field to the sideline in little time to stay on top of a couple of deep shots. But while he has good range, he doesn't have the same instincts as Thomas, who takes away more than just about any other free safety in the league.

    The Seahawks defense is used to Thomas, and the scheme is tailored specifically around his skill set. Terrell never stood a chance of filling his shoes down the stretch.

    Terrell will still draw interest from teams. He's only 26 and has good athleticism, which often buys a player multiple opportunities. As a restricted free agent, he's likely to stay with the Seahawks, where they may still need a backup who can start some of the season while Thomas fully recovers from his injury.

    Other teams with Seahawks connections could also be interested in giving Terrell a shot should a deal with Seattle not materialize. The Chargers hired former Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley this offseason to serve in the same role and could use safety help, while Washington also has a need at free safety and has a Seattle connection from general manager Scot McCloughan.


    Doug's Quick Take: Terrell's primary problem in 2016 was that he was asked to replace a player who is irreplaceable, on a team that didn't do a lot schematically to adjust to Thomas' absence. He's a good slot defender and underneath safety who can deal with deep coverage on the boundary. He's average in space, and becomes vulnerable in the deep third, but his rough spots for the Seahawks don't rule him out for a starting spot as a slot-to-outside defender, as long as he isn't tested upfield too often.


    Potential Suitors: Seattle Seahawks, San Diego Chargers, Washington Redskins

6. Bradley McDougald

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores

    Coverage: 20.1/30
    Recovery: 20.7/30
    Slot: 5.5/10
    Tackling: 15.1/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 69.5/100
    2016 NFL1000 FS Rank: 34/50


    NFL1000 safety scout Mark Bullock

    After going undrafted in 2013, Bradley McDougald has fought his way into the NFL. He initially signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, spending part of his rookie season there before being cut and signing with the Buccaneers.

    In Tampa, he worked his way up the ranks, showing the required discipline to play in Lovie Smith's Tampa 2 system. He earned a starting role in 2015 and kept it despite Smith's being replaced. At 6'1", 209 pounds, he has good size for a safety. He is average athletically, meaning he won't blow you away with his speed or change of direction, but he won't be easily beaten because of it either.

    McDougald is primarily a Tampa 2 guy. He sits in deep-half zones for the majority of the game, staying disciplined and not getting beat over the top often. While that is what's required of the scheme, it's not particularly flashy and restricts the safety from trying aggressive things like jumping routes.

    He reads the run well and is quick to get down to the line of scrimmage, but he does occasionally miss tackles. Those misses appeared to be misjudged angles, as he would break down to a ball-carrier and then miss as his opponent cut past him.

    The Buccaneers played more Cover 3 this year than they have in the past, which forced McDougald to shift into the middle of the field. While he could stay on top of seam and post routes, he doesn't have the range to do a great deal more than that.

    He's not someone I would ask to play as the single high safety for the majority of the game. McDougald has found a role he can play well in the Tampa 2 scheme. He's proved he can be an average starter in the NFL, but his limitations are visible. Staying in the Tampa 2 scheme may be key for McDougald to remain a starter; otherwise, he might find himself relegated to a sub-package third-safety role.


    Doug's Quick Take: McDougald will give up receptions underneath—that's the nature of the scheme Tampa Bay plays—but he's good at limiting the damage, and he can stop plays in space from time to time. He's a good starting cornerback in a zone scheme, though his lack of reps in press coverage may limit his options. 


    Potential Suitors: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys

5. Ricardo Allen

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Coverage: 21.4/30
    Recovery: 21.4/30
    Slot: 5.2/10
    Tackling: 14.8/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 70.8/100
    2016 NFL1000 FS Rank: 25/50


    NFL1000 safety scout Mark Bullock

    Ricardo Allen had a rough start to the season, but like most of the young Atlanta Falcons defense, he improved dramatically as the campaign progressed. After his Week 4 performance against the Panthers, where Allen missed tackles going for big hits and struggled to react quickly enough in coverage, he bounced back with his best NFL1000 grade of the season in Week 5 and then found his groove. He never had an overall grade under 70 for the rest of the regular season.

    In Dan Quinn's defense, Allen plays the Earl Thomas role, sitting in the deep middle of the field as the single high safety for the vast majority of the game. He has good range that allows him to cover a lot of ground and stay on top of routes. But Allen's instincts were letting him down early in the season, as he was biting on routes that he didn't need to or trying to make a tone-setting hit instead of just wrapping up.

    Once rookie Keanu Neal was fully over his offseason injury and took over the role of tone-setter in the defensive backfield, Allen started to play more responsibly. That is reflected in his overall grade, which averages out to 74.3 if you discount the first four games. That would put Allen in the top 10 of free safeties graded this season.

    Allen and Neal have begun to form a solid partnership in the secondary. It's perhaps premature to call them the next Thomas and Kam Chancellor combination, but they've both displayed plenty of promise. The Falcons won't allow Allen to leave.

    He might only want a short-term contract to give himself another year or two to prove his development is real and get an opportunity to earn a bigger payday down the road. But whether it's a short- or long-term pact, I'd be shocked if it's not with the Falcons.


    Doug's Quick Take: Allen certainly did get religion in the second half of the season, when he turned into one of the best deep-coverage safeties in the league and fully integrated his skills into Quinn's aggressive Cover 3 concepts.

    From Week 9 through the Super Bowl, he allowed just six catches on 13 targets for 61 yards, zero touchdowns, three interceptions and an opponent passer rating of 20.5. At least one of those picks was a gift on an errant deep throw from Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs, but Allen's tape matches the stats for the most part, and he should be welcomed back to Atlanta with open arms. Quinn's schemes require a high-quality center field safety, and in Allen, the Falcons have one.


    Potential Suitors: Atlanta Falcons

4. Darius Butler

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Incomplete: Darius Butler did not play enough at free safety in 2016 to receive full grading. 


    NFL1000 safety scout Mark Bullock

    Butler is the wild card of this group because there's no guarantee he'll be a free safety next season. He's a cornerback by trade, but he filled in at free safety after injuries in the Colts secondary. He graded out poorly at corner but performed well at safety. He took to the position remarkably well and looked like a natural. He quickly gained the trust of the coaches as they allowed him to play as the single deep safety, meaning Mike Adams could be deployed closer to the line of scrimmage in his more natural role.

    He showed good instincts for the position, reading route combinations well and knowing when to stay on top of deep shots and when he could abandon his deep assignment to break down on a dig or over route in front of him. He also displayed good range, allowing him to get from the middle of the field to just outside of the numbers on a deep shot.

    This was particularly evident against the Steelers, when Ben Roethlisberger pump-faked to his right only to work back to Antonio Brown up the seam to his left. Butler initially worked to the fake, but he quickly recovered and got back on top of Brown's route, getting to the ball before the receiver and nearly grabbing an interception in the end zone.

    He plays with plenty of aggression, too. There are corners who have converted to safety in the past and been passive in the run game. But Butler displayed a willingness to charge up to the line of scrimmage and try to land a hit whenever he could. His tackling was mostly fine, but he does still have to adjust to the different angles of pursuit from the safety position.

    But is he a viable option long term? He'll be 31 in March, which would suggest he doesn't necessarily have an extended future in the game.

    That being said, there are a number of safeties who still play a role at age 35. If Butler can be convinced to switch to free safety full time, then signing him to a three- or four-year deal could prove to be a shrewd piece of business for a team lacking a true free safety.


    Doug's Quick Take: Butler has indeed said he's open to a full-time safety transition, per's Nat Newell, which should be good for his career lifeline. Butler has always been a fast, quick player, and he was able to use those skills smartly in space and deep coverage. Tackling will be an issue, but as long as he can cover deep and play the slot well, teams with hybrid needs will be all over him. 


    Potential Suitors: Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, San Diego Chargers

3. Duron Harmon

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Coverage: 21.6/30
    Recovery: 21.3/30
    Slot: 5/10
    Tackling: 15.8/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 71.6/100
    2016 NFL1000 FS Rank: 19/50


    NFL1000 safety scout Mark Bullock

    Duron Harmon is perhaps the purest free safety of this entire group in terms of the role he plays. Though he wasn't a starter, he played in nickel and dime sub-packages for the New England Patriots almost exclusively as the single deep safety. The Patriots trusted him in a typical deep-safety role, as he stayed farther back than the deepest receiver from the middle of the field.

    Harmon's primary role is to stay on top of everything and prevent plays from escalating into bigger gains or even touchdowns. He does that job well, as he's always aware of opposing route combinations and what the biggest threat is to the defense.

    He's also a solid tackler, which is often an underrated aspect of the free safety position. Harmon won't land the flashy, highlight-reel hits, but he can wrap up and make a good open-field tackle when he needs to. While other guys will go for the big hits and miss, Harmon will make the tackle and keep the gain to a minimum.

    Having him on the field has allowed the Patriots to free up Devin McCourty for specialized assignments. McCourty is typically the free safety in base packages, but when Harmon enters the game, McCourty will shift down to a specific assignment. That will vary from simply shadowing receiving tight ends in man coverage to bracketing the opposition's No. 1 receiver, as he did against Antonio Brown and the Steelers.

    That structure for the Patriots proved successful last season. That would make them a prime candidate to bring Harmon back, as they can trust him as the deep safety and make the most of McCourty's versatility. But that will also limit his playing time, meaning Harmon may want to move away from the team that drafted him in the third round back in 2013.

    There is a lack of pure free safeties who are willing to sit in the deep middle of the field for the vast majority of the game, meaning Harmon could be in demand. But there is always a concern with players leaving the Patriots. Not many have left New England and managed to replicate the success they had there.


    Doug's Quick Take: Harmon was the force multiplier when the Patriots wanted to go to their big nickel (three-safety) package, because he could run either way up top while McCourty helped bracket top receivers and Patrick Chung cleaned up underneath. Losing him would be a hit to New England's defense, and he's a perfect fit there. Other teams will come calling, because a talented deep safety is a crucial addition to any roster.


    Potential Suitors: New England Patriots, San Diego Chargers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Washington

2. J.J. Wilcox

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Coverage: 21.5/30
    Recovery: 20.7/30
    Slot: 5.3/10
    Tackling: 15.5/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 71/100
    2016 NFL1000 FS Rank: 24/50


    NFL1000 safety scout Mark Bullock

    J.J. Wilcox has been a reliable backup for the Dallas Cowboys over the past few seasons, but that backup status doesn't mean he hasn't seen plenty of snaps. He was used as the third safety in nickel and dime sub-packages and filled in for starters Barry Church and Byron Jones whenever needed. He's a nice, versatile piece in the secondary, as he's able to switch between free and strong safety easily.

    Wilcox plays with the aggressive attitude that a lot of modern safeties now employ. That can lead to big, tone-setting, highlight-reel hits, but it can also lead to missed tackles. Those missed tackles sometimes only cost and extra yard or two, but as the last line of defense as the free safety, it could cost a touchdown. For the most part, though, Wilcox times his aggressive hits well and makes the tackle.

    He's more suited to a Tampa 2 team than a Cover 1 or Cover 3 squad. Most of his time playing deep was as part of a two-deep coverage scheme. He did play single-high safety on occasion, but he doesn't have the range to stay on top of everything from that spot.

    He rarely spent much time covering the slot or tight ends, but the Cowboys have Jones for that role. Wilcox is more of a zone defender, be it the deep half of Tampa 2 or underneath in curl-flat zones in Cover 3. At 26, Wilcox still has time on his side and room to grow. Being caught behind two very good safeties in Church and Jones has restricted his development somewhat, but he offers enough potential in free agency that could allow him to flourish in a starting role elsewhere.


    Doug's Quick Take: Dallas' safety trio was one of the underreported stories of the team's recent resurgence, and Wilcox is a big part of that. He can track receivers everywhere from linebacker depth to the deep third, and he can slip inside to the slot in a pinch. Any team with heavy dime coverage, or three-safety packages, will find him to be an appealing option.


    Potential Suitors: Cleveland Browns, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Chicago Bears

1. D.J. Swearinger

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Coverage: 21.8/30
    Recovery: 21.9/30
    Slot: 5.5/10
    Tackling: 15.3/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 72.5/100
    2016 NFL1000 FS Rank: 14/50


    NFL1000 safety scout Mark Bullock

    D.J. Swearinger is one of the more interesting free safeties on the market. The former second-round pick of the Texans had been labeled a bust after having been cut by both the Texans and Buccaneers. But after landing with the Arizona Cardinals, Swearinger has performed well, helping restore some faith in the potential he showed during his college career.

    The Cardinals were forced to play Swearinger at free safety due to injuries, even though he entered the league as more of an in-the-box strong safety. Known for his big hits, Swearinger was often reckless and went for highlight plays earlier in his career. But taking him further away from the line of scrimmage appears to have had a positive impact.

    He still plays with aggression and isn't afraid to trust his reads and abandon his deep assignment to attack routes underneath, but he did a better job choosing when to do that and when to stick to his responsibilities.

    His athleticism combined with his aggression enabled him to contest throws like dig routes and deep over routes that typically are completed in front of the deep safety. He also provides flexibility to rotate down into the box if needed, as he had to do late on during the season as the Cardinals suffered more injuries to the secondary.

    There is still a considerable risk in signing Swearinger. Playing on a talented defense like the Cardinals could have gone a long way to hide his flaws and display his strengths. There's a risk in his signing with a team with considerably less talent in the secondary, which could see Swearinger revert back to the same player the Texans and Bucs cut.

    But if his time with the Cardinals has helped put him on the right track, then he could be a signing with good upside. At 25, he is still young and has plenty of time to improve.


    Doug's Quick Take: Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher has proved to be quite adept at fitting players into specific aspects of his overall scheme. That's why Swearinger worked so well in 2016: The Cardinals took his aggressive tendencies and turned them into assets by allowing him to charge to the ball as he prefers.

    He's probably less of an asset in a traditional zone defense where his assignments are more passive—he's a better fit for a hybrid defense in which he can freelance a bit. He seems to respond to that kind of freedom with more attention to detail.


    Potential Suitors: Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys

    Advanced stats provided by Pro Football Focus.


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