Leading up to free agency, I will be listing and analyzing the top five players available at each position, beginning with safety and working my way through defense and offense, ending with quarterback on the eve of free agency.
(Note: This series of lists only includes unrestricted free agents, as those are the only type that can be signed without giving up compensation. Restricted free agents—especially the best ones—will cost valuable draft picks.)
1. Darren Sharper, New Orleans Saints
Sharper is still as much a playmaker as ever at age 34, leading the Saints in interceptions with nine, scoring three touchdowns on defense, and setting a new career high with 15 pass deflections.
An unrestricted free agent this offseason after signing a one-year deal with New Orleans, Sharper's age will prevent him from getting anything more than a two-year deal anywhere. The guy can still play though, and there are a lot of teams that could use him.
2. Jermaine Phillips, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Phillips' career has taken a sharp downturn in recent years, including a move from safety to outside linebacker in 2008, a broken thumb two games into the 2009 season, and an arrest for domestic battery in January.
Talent-wise, however, Phillips is certainly one of the better players in an overall weak free-agent position. The versatile Phillips can play both safety positions and linebacker. He also played very well between the 2006 and 2007 seasons, totaling 187 tackles, two sacks, six interceptions, and eight forced fumbles.
3. Sean Jones, Philadelphia Eagles
The signing of Sean Jones and move to free safety was predictably a failure for Philadelphia, as the prototypical strong safety started only nine of 15 games played and struggled heavily in pass coverage.
Still just 27 years old, Jones was been an above average strong safety at times with Cleveland, and could help someone at that position at a fairly inexpensive price.
4. Ryan Clark, Pittsburgh Steelers
Despite suffering the emergency removal of his spleen and gallbladder during the 2007 season, Clark has continued to be a solid NFL safety, starting 29 games for the Steelers over the past two seasons.
The 30-year-old had 89 tackles and three interceptions in 2009, and can help someone as a short-term starter or top backup for at least a few years.
5. Mark Roman, San Francisco 49ers
A veteran with experience at both safety positions who lost his starting job this season due to the emergence of Dashon Goldson, Roman still managed to record 51 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, and an interception this past season, despite only starting one game.
Roman's starting days are likely numbered and his presence in this top-five list is really more a reflection of the position's lack of talent than his talent, but he's been a solid player before and can still make the occasional positive contribution to the team.
Beyond the Top Five
- Will Allen, Tampa Bay Buccaneers — A dissapointment since being drafted in the fourth round of the 2004 NFL Draft, Allen has started just two games since 2006. He's still only 27 and has some potential, but he can't be counted on as a starter.
- Mike Brown, Kansas City Chiefs — The one-time Pro Bowler doesn't have much left in the tank at age 31, and was awful during his first season with the Chiefs.
- Brian Russell, Minnesota Vikings — It was a quick fall from his sophomore season in 2003 when he had nine interceptions with the Minnesota Vikings. Russell has started many games since, and teams have finally realized he's simply no longer effective on defense.
- Roy Williams, Cincinnati Bengals — Only able to play in four games in 2009 due to an arm injury, Williams is rapidly approaching the washed-up status, if he's not already there. The former eighth overall pick is a liability in both coverage and against the run, and his starting days are almost certainly numbered.
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