It's one of the worst-kept secrets of the 2018 NFL offseason: At a time when the position is more varied and important than it's ever been, the market for veteran professional safeties is unusually soft.
After the Arizona Cardinals cut him in mid-March, Tyrann Mathieu (who has been so versatile through his career that you could call him a cornerback or safety and get away with it) signed a one-year, $7 million deal with the Houston Texans. Former Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett signed a three-year, $14.35 million deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers and ex-Carolina Panthers safety Kurt Coleman signed a three-year, $16.35 million deal with the New Orleans Saints. A far cry from the megadeals given to the likes of Eric Berry, Earl Thomas, Harrison Smith and Reshad Jones over the last few seasons.
Moreover, some of the game's better safeties are still out of work in mid-July. Eric Reid, last of the San Francisco 49ers, former Saint Kenny Vaccaro and ex-Los Angeles Chargers safety Tre Boston are all looking to find NFL teams in what appears to be an increasingly tough game of musical chairs.
For Reid, it's entirely possible his support of Colin Kaepernick and his own protests during the national anthem are standing in his way. Vaccaro is a gifted but undisciplined player; he can fit in multiple spots but has not yet defined himself in any particular one.
But the fact that Boston is still on the open market makes little sense. After three years in the Panthers secondary, Boston signed a one-year, $690,000 deal to play in Gus Bradley's Chargers defense and set about making himself one of the league's better bargains. He set career highs in interceptions (five), tackles (56) and assists (23) while playing free safety for his new team on over 900 snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
And the kind of free safety Boston played most of the time is perhaps the most difficult kind of safety play. In Los Angeles' defense, where Cover-1 and Cover-3 base schemes are the order of the day, the free safety is tasked to play the deep third of the defense. He must move to either side of the field quickly if the ball's going that way. If the ball's going deep down the middle on a seam or post pattern, he's the man in charge of making sure there are no breakdowns at the top of the route.
The best deep safeties are able to do these things and more—they can rush up to the line when they diagnose a run play. They can come down to the box at linebacker depth to help with short and intermediate coverage concepts. They can blitz from the edge, and they can play slot defender when asked.
That Boston did most of these things (he wasn't asked to play the run all that much, and the Chargers preferred him deep as opposed to the slot) at a very high level makes his current employment status a mystery. A couple of his interceptions were gifts from opponents—a Blake Bortles overthrow here, a decision to start Nathan Peterman over Tyrod Taylor there—but that could be said for nearly every defensive back with a high interception total, and Boston did more than his share of outstanding deep coverage to reimburse the gods for whatever good fortune he had.
Still, in a passing league where a deep safety is supposed to be worth his weight in gold, Boston is visiting teams who see him as little more than a replaceable cog. The Chargers have apparently decided to move on. In March, Boston told SiriusXM NFL Radio's Alex Marvez (via Sporting News) that the team now sees him as more of a strong safety type—a curious designation given how well Boston played the free position in 2017. Then, the Chargers selected Florida State defensive back Derwin James in the first round of the 2018 draft, ostensibly to replace what Boston was able to do.
Boston has visited with several teams, but the offers have not been what he imagined, and he's boxed out by the market at this point unless he wants to accept another veteran's minimum deal.
"It's kind of unbelievable to me," Boston told Marvez. "We're talking about a position that's needed more and more on the field in today's game. There are about five or six valuable starting safeties in free agency right now. But I guess it's just trying to get us to take peanuts like the rest of them have. That's just the business of the game."
This interception of a Derek Carr pass to receiver Johnny Holton in Week 17 is an excellent example of how well Boston can extend coverage to the deepest parts of the field.
Holton (No. 16) is lined up in the right slot, with safety Jahleel Addae (no. 37) over him in coverage.
At the snap, Addae hands Holton off to help cornerback Casey Hayward (No. 26) cover Amari Cooper (No. 89), and Holton runs his deep over route with no tight coverage to restrain him.
Linebacker Korey Toomer (No. 56) covers Holton admirably through the final third of his route, but it's Boston who makes this play by backpedaling seamlessly, flipping his hips quickly to the defensive right side of the field and cutting off the route for the interception.
And while Boston is far more than just a strong safety (as he proved last season), he's able to roam from the deep part of the defense to linebacker depth in an instant, limiting yards after the catch on shorter passes with well-timed hits. His combination of closing speed and tackling accuracy on pass plays makes him a valuable defender.
Here, against Washington in Week 14, Boston is the deep left-side safety, and Addae is covering deep to the right. Receiver Jamison Crowder (No. 80) is in the right slot, covered by cornerback Desmond King (No. 20).
At the snap, King hands Crowder off to the midfield defenders, leaving Crowder to catch an easy crossing route in the empty space of the zone.
However, Crowder is about to get a rude awakening, because Boston zeroes in from his deep spot and poleaxes him, ending the play.
When you have a player who has shown marked improvement in just about every facet of his game over his professional career, and his position is crucial to the success of any modern defense, you'd think he'd get snapped up a lot sooner than he has been. Hopefully for Tre Boston, as training camps start and teams become even more aware of the need for top-level safety talent, he'll get a deal commensurate with what he's shown on the field.
Because in that soft safety market, he's the best talent of the bunch.