Thursday, February 10, 2011

NFL Free Agency 2011 Top Fives: The Best Available Safeties

Nobody knows what the NFL offseason will be like in a month, as the roller coaster that is the media coverage of the CBA negotiations gives us little insight and security in a deal getting done.

That being said, the only way to proceed for us writers is to write as if there will be a free agency and that everything will proceed as normal, which is exactly what I'm doing here.

Over the next month leading up to the ever-important March 4 date that is supposed to be the beginning of the free agent signing period, I'll be taking a look at the best players slated for free agency this offseason.

In this entry, I'll examine the top safeties expected to hit the open market next month, as well as some other notable names at the position.

1. SS Dawan Landry, Baltimore Ravens

The less-heralded brother of Redskins safety LaRon Landry, Dawan has been a starter for the Ravens since being drafted in the fifth round out of Georgia Tech in 2006.

Excluding the 14 games he missed in 2008 due to a spinal cord injury, Landry has appeared in all 64 possible games his other four pro seasons, starting all but two of them.

Often overshadowed by the other stars of the Ravens' elite defense, including fellow safety Ed Reed, Landry has pretty quietly accumulated 362 tackles, five sacks, two forced fumbles, nine interceptions, and 24 pass deflections in just over four full seasons.

Landry is still just 28 and appears to have his injury problems behind him, making him an appealing starting strong safety option on the open market.

2. SS Gerald Sensabaugh, Dallas Cowboys

A fifth-round pick by the Jaguars in 2005, Sensabaugh spent his first three seasons in Jacksonville primarily as a backup before opening 13 of 16 contests in 2009. He totaled 70 tackles and four interceptions in his lone season of starting before becoming a free agent.

Signed to a one-year deal by the Dallas Cowboys in 2009, Sensabaugh battled through numerous injuries to start 15 games, recording 66 tackles and an interception. He was re-signed the following offseason and went on to experience a career year with highs in tackles (71), sacks (2), interceptions (5) and pass deflections (10).

Sensabaugh has proved to be a good run defender from the strong safety position and is above average in coverage as well. His durability is somewhat of a concern, but he's a good all-around player that can play both safety spots and is still just 27 years old.

3. FS Dashon Goldson, San Francisco 49ers

A fourth-round pick out of Washington in 2007, Goldson spent two seasons as a backup safety for the 49ers before replacing Mark Roman as the team's starting free safety in 2009.

Goldson immediately made an impact that year, finishing the year with 94 tackles, two sacks, three forced fumbles, four interceptions, and six pass deflections.

His numbers fell off a bit in 2010, as Goldson recorded 80 tackles and just one interception on the season.
That being said, the 26-year-old Goldson has nice coverage skills and good play-making ability, making him a very appealing addition for any team in need of a starting-caliber free safety.

4. SS Abram Elam, Cleveland Browns

Elam has certainly had a rocky road to becoming an NFL starter, having been kicked out of Notre Dame and being convicted of sexual battery for his part in an alleged gang rape scandal. He spent two seasons out of football before playing one year at Kent State, but subsequently went undrafted in 2005.

After failing to stick with the Miami Dolphins as an undrafted free agent in 2005, Elam spent 2006 as a special-teamer for the Dallas Cowboys and later split time as a starter with the New York Jets in 2007-08.

Acquired by the Browns and reunited with his former Jets coach Eric Mangini in 2009, Elam started all 16 games in his first year with the team and recorded 91 tackles.

Elam's coverage skills developed greatly in 2010 as he started 15 of 16 games and recorded two interceptions and 10 pass deflections in addition to 79 tackles, two sacks, and two forced fumbles.

While Elam does have somewhat of a checkered past and doesn't have a whole lot of experience as a productive starter, his 2010 performance was quite promising.

5. FS Michael Huff, Oakland Raiders

The seventh overall pick out of Texas in 2006, Huff got off to a pretty unimpressive start despite serving as a starter for both of his first two seasons.

Huff was benched for Hiram Eugene partially through the 2008 season, and has reportedly been on the chopping block each of the past few offseasons.

His play has indeed picked up though, as Huff finished 2010 with 94 tackles, four sacks, three forced fumbles, three interceptions, and seven pass deflections on the way to his first All-Pro selection.

Huff has always had the natural talent and has flashed play-making ability at times in the NFL, so he's a very intriguing prospect for a coaching staff that could get him to realize his potential.

Beyond the Top Five

  • SS Atari Bigby, Green Bay Packers — He appeared in only four games in 2010 after an ankle injury landed him on the PUP list before the season, but he was a play-making strong safety in both 2007 and 2009 and still has starting talent.
  • SS Roman Harper, New Orleans Saints — Harper got torched by the Seahawks in the playoffs and coverage is not his strong suit, but he's a good tackling strong safety and forced an incredible six fumbles in 2010. He's still just 28 and has starting ability.
  • FS Danieal Manning, Chicago Bears — A dangerous kickoff returner, Manning has never quite developed into the quality safety the Bears had hoped he'd be when they drafted him in the second round in 2006. He has the physical tools and is still an intriguing prospect at 28.
  • SS Quintin Mikell, Philadelphia Eagles — Mikell has been a solid yet unspectacular starting safety for the Eagles over the past four seasons. At 30 and without any standout abilities, he primarily profiles at a short-term starter or veteran backup.
  • SS Paul Oliver, San Diego Chargers — A supplemental draft pick out of Georgia in 2007, Oliver has seen increased playing time in each of his four pro seasons and continues to get better each year. He started eight games in 2010 and has more growing to come.
  • SS Bernard Pollard, Houston Texans — His whopping 213 tackles over the past two seasons is not all that impressive when you realize the guy is the worst starting safety in the NFL when it comes to coverage. It won't take long for teams to figure it out either, and he probably only has a few more years of starting before the entire league realizes he's just complete enough.
  • FS Brodney Pool, New York Jets — Concussions have always been his big issue, but he's always been a solid safety and did a solid job in Rex Ryan's defense in 2010. He should be able to compete for a starting job elsewhere and still has room to grow.
  • FS Darren Sharper, New Orleans Saints — Talent-wise, Sharper should easily crack the top five mentioned previously in this article. But the long-time playmaker is 35-year-old and missed much of last season with knee issues, making him only a short-term fix for any team.
  • FS Eric Weddle, San Diego Chargers — Weddle offers a good blend of hard-hitting, run-stuffing ability and some decent coverage skills. He's an underrated and versatile safety with the intangibles to get even better.
  • SS Donte Whitner, Buffalo Bills —Whitner racked up a ridiculous 140 tackles in 2010 and was one of the biggest culprits in Buffalo's 24th-ranked defense in 2010. He has never really lived up to where he was drafted and will have to fight for chances to start elsewhere.
  • FS George Wilson, Buffalo Bills — A converted wide receiver, Wilson was relegated to a backup role in 2010 after totaling 103 tackles and four interceptions as a starter the year before. He's worked extensively at both safety spots, but it doesn't bode well for him the team started Whitner over him and Wilson probably profiles more as a backup and special-teamer.

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