It’s easy to forget about safeties in the NFL. They’re not on the TV screen as often as other players, and plenty of times when you do see them it’s because they’ve done something wrong. Similarly, it might be easy to forget about this free agent class of safeties.
No one on the list is a household name, and none had an excellent 2011 season. However, there are very few teams who wouldn’t benefit from having one of these players on the roster. There are only five teams that have two safeties currently under contract with positive overall ratings in 2011.
As the league becomes even more pass-happy, the coverage skills of the safeties have become more important. However, there is still a need for the run-stuffing safety, and we find more of those available. There could be plenty of movement, so now it’s time to find out who these mystery men are.
1) Tyvon Branch, Oakland Raiders
Age (as of September 1st, 2012): 25
2011 Grade: +1.7
Key Stat: Branch had the sixth most stops for safeties (32).
Behind the numbers: For the last three years, Branch has been starting at safety for Oakland and has seen his play evolve. He emerged as the highest-rated safety in terms of run defense in the league this past year thanks to positive run D ratings in each of the last 10 games of the season. In 2010, his coverage skills were a liability, but all of his metrics improved in 2011. Given his combination of youth, three years of starting experience, and potential, he was clearly the best choice to top this list. His pass rush rating greatly hurt his overall rating in 2011, but he led safeties in that department the year before.
2) Thomas DeCoud, Atlanta Falcons
2011 Grade: -0.7
Key Stat: Allowed 26 receiving yards from Week 11 on, compared to 341 in the first 10 weeks.
Behind the numbers: Similar to Branch, DeCoud is a 2008 draft pick who has started the last three years. He also is a strong force against the run, but missed tackles in general hurt his rating with 11 on the season. He improved as the season went on, not only in the run game, but the pass game too, helping his case. If he can continue the play he showed late in the season, he could be a solid addition.
3) Reggie Nelson, Cincinnati Bengals
2011 Grade: -3.1
Key Stat: Had the fourth-highest Pass Rushing Productivity for safeties at 19.1.
Behind the numbers: After some disappointing years in Jacksonville, Nelson picked his play up in Cincinnati, evening out as an average safety. In the majority of his games, he allowed either no catches or a very short catch, but found room to give up a few big plays. He started the season strong with 12 stops in the first four games, but finished with just 13 in the last 13 games. He has shown signs of being a worthy safety (and signs of falling apart). May be worth the risk.
4) Michael Griffin, Tennessee Titans
2011 Grade: +4.7
Key Stat: He never allowed more than 36 yards receiving all season.
Behind the numbers: Like Nelson, Griffin is a 2007 first round pick whose play has fallen close to the average in recent years. While Griffin allows a lower percentage of catches and fewer yards per catch than most safeties, he also gave up four touchdowns to go with just two interceptions. He has improved greatly in recent years in coverage, but still hasn’t played up to his first-round billing. He has performed solidly in the run game, but rarely offers a big performance. He is another player whose potential appears limited, but could max out at a respectable level.
5) Brodney Pool, New York Jets
2011 Grade: -0.4
Key Stat: He had a -3.6 coverage rating from Week 1 to Week 12, but improved to a +3.2 in Weeks 13 to 17.
Behind the numbers: After starting for the Jets and playing great football in their playoff run in 2010, New York decided to go with Eric Smith and Jim Leonhard as the starters while still using Pool significantly. He rarely was involved in the run game, but only allowed 11 catches during his 326 plays in coverage. He has been around a little longer than the men ranked above him which takes his relative value down a notch, but based on his play these last two years, he can still be a starter in this league.
6) Dashon Goldson, San Francisco 49ers
2011 Grade: -8.4
Key Stat: Had the second-most interceptions by a safety (six).
Behind the numbers: For the last three years, Goldson has been starting in San Francisco with mixed results. He typically allows a high percentage of passes thrown his way for a high yards per catch, but in 2011 he countered with some big plays. He hasn’t made much of an impact in the run game, but hasn’t been a liability there. Goldson doesn’t have the numbers that others have, but he has experience and no major injury history.
7) LaRon Landry, Washington Redskins
2011 Grade: +2.7
Key Stat: Had the second-highest Run Stop Percentage for safeties at 7.8%.
Behind the numbers: The start of Landry’s career went well, and it looked like he would live up to being the sixth overall pick of the 2007 draft. However, in 2009 his play in coverage was abysmal, and his last two seasons have been derailed by injury. While his recent injury history should be a big concern, on a per-play basis, he played very well in run D in 2011, including an eight-stop game against the Dolphins.
8 ) Dwight Lowery, Jacksonville Jaguars
2011 Grade: -1.3
Key Stat: Prior to a late season injury, he had passes defended in his last three full games.
Behind the numbers: After two years as a slot cornerback for the Jets, Lowery moved to safety and seemed to have more success. Right before the season he was traded to the Jaguars, and played fairly well; allowing only 54.3% of passes thrown his way to be caught. He had a great game against the Saints early on in the season, but outside of that, was a slightly below average safety. His age is a benefit as he has more time to learn the position.
9) Jim Leonhard, New York Jets
2011 Grade: +2.9
Key Stat: He had the sixth-lowest Yards per Play in Coverage at 0.34.
Behind the numbers: At one point in time, Leonhard was one of the best safeties in the league. He has consistently allowed a low percentage of passes thrown his way to be completed, and has had many more interceptions and passes defended than touchdowns allowed. The problems are that he hasn’t been able to finish the last two seasons thanks to injury, and he is older than the other available safeties.
10) Craig Stelz, Chicago Bears
2011 Grade: +4.8
Key Stat: Was one of nine safeties to play 25% of their team’s snaps and not miss a tackle on passing plays.
Behind the numbers: So far everyone on this list has had at least a season of starts under their belt, with most having multiple years of being a starter. Steltz, on the other hand, has had just seven starts; most coming late in the 2011 season. He emerged thanks to injuries and players ahead of him not playing well, and looked good in the last few weeks. He played the majority of snaps in the last five weeks of the season, and didn’t allow a pass for more than 7 yards while logging 13 stops over that time. He might be the biggest wild card of the group.