Ranking the 2014 Free Agents: Safeties
You’ve been reading along with our Projected Lineups series on a daily basis and have checked the PFF Free Agent Tracker more times than you can count, so you’ll be happy to see that we’re now ranking the top free agents available — the potential answers to the holes apparent on those team-by-team charts. We’ll be taking on a couple positions a day this week and discussing our Top 10 at each.
It’s more than just looking at our grades, but factoring in longevity, age, injuries and so much more in order to tell you who we think are the best gets out there.
Marching through our ‘Ranking the 2014 Free Agents’ series we’ve been through the QBs, RBs, WRs, OTs , and guards on the offensive side and the LBs, edge rushers, interior D-linemen, and CBs for the defense, and now we wrap up that side of the ball wih the safeties.
1. Jairus Byrd – Signs with New Orleans
2013 Grade: +9.9
2013 Snaps: 646
Summary: After receiving the franchise tag a year ago, Byrd reluctantly played the 2013 season without a long-term contract. Buffalo was forced to tag him after the two sides couldn’t reach a deal and although that decision didn’t seem to work for either side, it is once again a possibility this year. A training camp holdout, Byrd didn’t crack the starting lineup for the Bills until Week 8 because of a foot injury and there was some doubt about his dedication to the team. However, once inserted into the lineup he missed just 16 defensive snaps between Week 8 and Week 16.
Byrd is a playmaking safety and is as steady as they come. He has graded in the red (-1.0 or worse) just four times since the start of 2010 and not once in 2013. Finishing eighth in overall safety grade and seventh in coverage, Byrd missed just four tackles on the year. In 2012, he also missed just four tackles despite playing 400 more snaps and led all safeties with a +20.0 coverage grade.
With the emphasis on pass catching tight ends and multiple wide receiver formations growing, players like Byrd will be in high demand. Last year he made roughly $6.9 million under the franchise designation, but if he hits the open market this year he will be looking at a contract closer to the $10 million a year that the highest-paid safeties are getting.
2. T.J. Ward – Signs with Denver
2013 Grade: +14.5
2013 Snaps: 1124
Summary: There might not be a player who was helped more during the Seahawks’ championship run than Cleveland safety, T.J. Ward. Being the ultimate “copycat” league, teams will be trying to replicate the way Seattle plays defense and at the top of that list will be finding intimidating safeties. Ward fits that mold perfectly and is as complete of a safety as you will find. He has been the highest-graded among his position mates against the run for the last two seasons and is no slouch against the pass either. He was credited with 29 stops on running plays, five more than any other safety in 2013. To further display his strong all-around play, quarterbacks had just a 61.3 rating when throwing his direction. The most underutilized part of Ward’s game is his ability to blitz. He generated five pressures and two sacks on just 20 pass rushing opportunities last year.
The 27-year-old Ward is just entering his prime years and will be highly sought after in free agency. With all the unrest in Cleveland, there is still a possibility that Ward doesn’t hit the market, but he is in line for a big pay day somewhere.
3. Donte Whitner – Signs with Cleveland
2013 Grade: +11.5
2013 Snaps: 1033
Summary: It feels like Whitner has been around forever, but he will be just 29 years old at the start of the 2014 season and is an extremely talented player. He has been up and down the past few seasons, tallying positive grades in 2011 (+11.4) and 2013 (+11.5), but slight negatives in 2010 (-0.7) and 2012 (-1.7). Most of the focus will be on his 2013 season in which he was very good across the board. Whitner finished sixth in overall safety grade and fifth in coverage where he had six passes defensed, second most among safeties, despite being thrown at just 48 times.
The former eighth overall pick will be looking for one final big contract and there figures to be plenty of interested teams. A deal similar to what Dashon Goldson received from Tampa Bay last year is probably what Whitner can expect.
4. Chris Clemons
2013 Grade: +4.1
2013 Snaps: 1158
Summary: Clemons made this same list last year, but after a stellar season he jumped five spots from the ninth-best free agent safety, to No. 4. Last year, with no big offers on the table, he returned to Miami on a one-year deal hoping to increase his value. The former fifth-round pick is now ready to cash in with a long-term deal, and while most will view him as a drop-off from the top three names, he might be a better value. Clemons was our 19th-ranked safety and excelled in coverage — his +7.2 grade in that department was ninth among safeties and he allowed just 0.20 yards per coverage snap, best in the league. However, his run defense grade dipped from +4.4 in 2012 to -3.6 in 2013 and his 14 missed tackles were 13th most of all safeties. Clemons will surely garner more interest than he did last year and be an asset to a team seeking a coverage-minded safety.
5. Louis Delmas – Signs with Miami
2013 Grade: +2.0
2013 Snaps: 1058
Summary: Déjà vu for Delmas who was No. 8 on this same list last year. After being a surprise salary dump in Detroit just one year into a two-year deal, Delmas was a late addition to the free agent class. Making his release more confusing is that he had a good year for the Lions and certainly was worth what they were paying him; finishing as the 26th-ranked safety overall and 11th in coverage grade. Delmas allowed a reception every 42.4 snaps that he was in coverage for the third best rate in the league and a league-low 43.8% of the passes thrown into his coverage were completed. Concerns with his play are that he has a tendency to take chances and takes poor angles leading to big plays. Another player who will be just 27 years old on opening day, that has had some very productive seasons already, Delmas will be searching for the long-term deal that eluded him last year and he should have suitors.
6. Bernard Pollard – Re-signs with Tennessee
2013 Grade: +3.4
2013 Snaps: 1077
Summary: The veteran safety will potentially be playing for his fifth team when he enters his ninth year in the league come this September. Pollard is reliable and brings plenty of leadership, including knowledge gained during his championship run with Baltimore in 2012. In 2013 with the Titans, Pollard was the 21st-ranked overall safety and was sixth-best against the run. He missed just eight tackles all season and ranked 12th in Tackling Efficiency, missing a tackle every 12.6 attempts. In coverage, though, he allowed a QB rating of 100.1 on passes thrown his direction and defensed just four passes all year. If teams are searching for an athletic, flashy player then they will likely pass on Pollard — he is a safe option for teams looking for a veteran presence, but not the exciting signing that the other safety options would be.
7. Antoine Bethea – Signs with San Francisco
2013 Grade: -2.9
2013 Snaps: 1048
Summary: Bethea will be 30 years old by the time the 2014 season begins and after back-to-back negatively-graded seasons, he will be seeking a fresh start to the second phase of his career. Since being drafted in the sixth round by the Colts in 2006, Bethea has been a pleasant surprise. His poor grade in 2013 was largely impacted by a four-game stretch in the middle of the year where he failed to record a grade higher than -1.4. Most of his struggles this year were in coverage, his -4.9 coverage grade was the 17th-worst among safeties and quarterbacks had a QB rating of 103.1 when throwing at Bethea. On the positive side, he has been a rock for the Colts and certainly fills the intimidating safety mold that will be a hot commodity this offseason. He participated in 99.5% of the Colts defensive snaps in 2012 and 97.5% in 2013, proving he is as reliable as they come. His best fit could be staying with the Colts, but he will test the market and see if there are any lucrative deals out there.
8. Malcolm Jenkins – Signs with Philadelphia
2013 Grade: -6.0
2013 Snaps: 830
Summary: For most, tallying a -6.0 overall grade and ranking 65th out of 86 safeties would be considered a terrible year and a low point, but for this former first-round pick it was actually an improvement from his 2012 performance when he ranked dead last in overall grade. So, why is a guy who hasn’t finished in the Top 65 in his position making the Top 10 list? The answer is potential and versatility. After starting his career as a highly touted cornerback, Jenkins has made the transition to safety and can fill the dual role that is desired in today’s NFL. He can cover slot receivers and proved to be an asset in Rob Ryan’s exotic defensive schemes. He led all safeties in Pass Rushing Productivity, generating nine pressures and three sacks on just 35 rushes. At just 26 years old, there is still opportunity for growth for a player who has increased his tackle total each of the last four seasons. This could be the definition of a boom-or-bust signing for a team looking to take a chance on a supremely athletic player that hasn’t come close to reaching his full potential yet, but just might never get there.
9. Ryan Clark
2013 Grade: -1.5
2013 Snaps: 1084
Summary: Ironically, Clark follows Delmas on the list, with the Steelers already expressing interest in replacing Clark with Delmas. Unlike most of the list, Clark’s best years are behind him and his best asset to a team is leadership. However, that doesn’t mean that he still can’t play and help a team on the field, too. Last year Clark was average across the board, he ranked 45th out of 86 qualifying safeties and ranked similarly in most statistics. He finished 30th in Tackling Efficiency despite missing 13 tackles, which is a testament to how many plays he was in the middle of. After spending many days working for ESPN this offseason, there is some speculation that Clark might retire and go into the broadcasting business, but if he does continue his career, he can certainly be an asset to a team looking for a veteran leader.
10. Mike Mitchell – Signs with Pittsburgh
2013 Grade: +0.5
2013 Snaps: 920
Summary: Yet another member of the 2009 draft class, Mitchell is an intriguing player who can certainly help a team. Despite being a second-round pick, he didn’t become a full-time starter until this past season. In 2013 he displayed some very positive strengths and some glaring weaknesses. He was one of the best blitzing safeties in the league, generating 11 pressures and four sacks on just 23 pass rushes — whoever signs him will surely want to tap into his obvious blitzing ability. His +3.5 coverage grade proves that he can hold his own in the passing game too. Where there are major questions with Mitchell is against the run. His -6.2 grade against the run was the ninth-worst in the league and no safety missed more tackles than his 18. He will obviously need to clean that up if he will ever reach the next level, but he should generate plenty of interest in free agency from teams in need of a safety that won’t overpay for the upper-echelon names.
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