Will NFL Safeties Actually Get Paid in Free Agency This Year?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMarch 7, 2019

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - DECEMBER 02:  Landon Collins #21 of the New York Giants reacts after being called for pass interference during the first quarter against the Chicago Bears at MetLife Stadium on December 02, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

Dating back to 2014, NFL teams have used the franchise tag 37 times. But a safety was hit with the tag on only two of those occasions, which seems odd because the tag price at that position isn't overly expensive.

Per Albert Breer of The MMQB, safety, running back, tight end and kicker/punter are the only positions that cost less than $12 million for a first-time tag in 2019.

Several big-shot safeties with expiring contracts were tag candidates. And yet Landon Collins, Adrian Amos, Lamarcus Joyner, Tyrann Mathieu and Earl Thomas will all apparently hit the open market next week. When that happens, they'll join Eric Weddle, who was released by the Baltimore Ravens despite making three Pro Bowls in as many seasons there.

The relationship between Thomas and the Seattle Seahawks was probably beyond repair, Mathieu wasn't likely to be tagged because the Houston Texans had good reason to prioritize Jadeveon Clowney, and Joyner would have cost the Los Angeles Rams extra cash since he was also tagged in 2018.

But why no love for Collins and Amos? The former finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting just two seasons ago, while the latter is widely considered one of the best young coverage safeties in football (and he has the Pro Football Focus grades to back it up).

Both are just 25 years old.

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SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 23:  Adrian Amos Jr. #38 of the Chicago Bears looks on during the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi Stadium on December 23, 2018 in Santa Clara, CA. The Bears defeated the 49ers 14-9.  (Photo by Rob Leiter/Getty Image
Rob Leiter/Getty Images

Maybe the New York Giants and Chicago Bears figure the deep pool of free-agent safeties will make it easier to replace Collins and Amos, respectively, or that it'll make it possible to bring them back at more favorable rates. But it's not as though the $11.2 million tag price would have broken the bank.

Instead, those decisions might be a reflection of last year's lack of interest in high-quality safeties on the free-agent market.

In 2018, safeties other than Joyner received a collective slap in the face from the NFL's 32 teams:

  • Longtime Green Bay Packers starter Morgan Burnett landed a modest three-year, $14.4 million deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
  • Mathieu had to settle for a one-year, prove-it deal worth $7 million with the Houston Texans.
  • Tre Boston had to wait until July to land a one-year, $1.5 million deal with the Arizona Cardinals.
  • Kenny Vaccaro didn't sign anywhere until the Tennessee Titans gave him a one-year, $1.5 million deal in August.
  • Eric Reid had to wait until September to be signed to a cheap deal by the Carolina Panthers, although it's possible that delay was related to his role in Colin Kaepernick-led protests during the national anthem.
  • Tyvon Branch was never signed.

Those are all solid, starting-caliber players with strong resumes. Burnett was a 29-year-old Super Bowl champion with over 100 starts under his belt; the 25-year-old Mathieu had an All-Pro season on his record; Boston was coming off a five-interception season for the Los Angeles Chargers; Vaccaro was coming off a three-pick campaign with the New Orleans Saints; and Reid was a 26-year-old 2013 first-round pick who had been to a Pro Bowl.

But they were afterthoughts in free agency.

It got so bad that Boston suggested to The Ringer's Robert Mays that teams were colluding against the entire free-agent safety class so Reid wouldn't be singled out as someone who'd been blackballed.

"How did we get to a point where this is what we were worth?" Boston said. "You can put my stats up against some of the best of them you're gonna get me in the $7 million-plus range. It's crazy that people aren't really talking about how we managed to get paid less than $2 million."

This group of pending free-agent safeties is undoubtedly stronger, and if they all strike it big, it could give credence to Boston's theory. After all, Reid is not on the market after re-signing with the Panthers.

But it's also possible the position has been devalued as a result of modifications to the sport itself. Few would dispute that rule changes in recent years have made the game less physical, and safety is not usually a finesse position.

As hockey teams are losing the need for enforcers, football teams are understandably giving less priority to big-hitting defenders. The focus, more than ever, is on quarterbacks, those who protect quarterbacks, those who try to clobber quarterbacks, those to whom quarterbacks throw and those who are responsible for covering those to whom quarterbacks throw. Running backs, interior defensive linemen who can't rush the passer, run-defending linebackers and box safeties just aren't very cool anymore, while the fullback position is practically dead.

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 28: Lamarcus Joyner #20 of the Los Angeles Rams in action during the game against the Green Bay Packers at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on October 28, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. The Rams won 29-27. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Ge
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

It's worth pointing out that Joyner was tagged in 2018 after a strong season in pass coverage, while Burnett, Reid, Vaccaro and Collins are all vulnerable in that area. Does that explain why the Giants appear to be letting Collins walk? And could it mean that strong cover guys Amos and Thomas will be the biggest winners at that position this offseason?

"I think the game has gotten to the point now where it's athletes in the back in the secondary," Cleveland Browns general manager John Dorsey told Mays in reference to the free safety position. It's hard to disagree that there's a strong need for speed based on the increased emphasis on horizontal concepts (motion, jet sweeps, crossing patterns) within all of the NFL offenses that are generally considered progressive.

The franchise-tag value for safeties has barely moved from $10.8 million in 2016 to $11.2 million in 2019, while the tag values have grown by more than $2 million at cornerback, wide receiver and quarterback and by at least $1 million at every other position except running back, offensive line and kicker/punter.

But that didn't stop the Minnesota Vikings from handing Harrison Smith a market-setting five-year, $51.3 million extension in 2016. It didn't scare the Kansas City Chiefs away from breaking through the roof with a six-year, $78 million deal for Eric Berry the next offseason.

JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 10: Safety Earl Thomas #29 of the Seattle Seahawks on the sideline with a Gatorade Towel wrapped around his head during the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field on December 10, 2017 in Jacksonville, Florida.
Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Maybe Thomas—despite his age and recent problems with injuries—will land a deal worth more than Berry's and help get safeties back in the money. Or maybe Amos will strike gold with a team that hopes to capture a player on an emerging trajectory. Maybe last year's lull was more about the players available, or Reid's protests, or the fact that the draft was loaded with talent at the position.

Maybe it was all of the above.

Or maybe teams will again be scared away by aforementioned changes at the position, as well as the fact that neither Thomas nor Berry delivered consistently after signing big-money deals in recent years.

As former Washington Redskins salary-cap analyst J.I. Halsell told ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler last year, "Maybe safety is the new running back."

If that's the case, don't be surprised if this highly touted group also gets shortchanged on the open market.

             

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.