Friday, February 3, 2012

2012 Free Agency Top Fives: Safety

Over the next month leading up to the free-agent signing period on March 13, 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.  Michael Griffin, Tennessee Titans

The 19th overall pick out of Texas in 2007, Griffin has had a largely up and down career with some very good seasons and a few bad ones. He's earned two Bowl selections and set a career-high with seven interceptions in 2008. Most recently, Griffin totaled 75 tackles, two interceptions and seven pass deflections while grading out positively in coverage and as the No. 13 overall safety by Pro Football Focus.

2. Jim Leonhard, New York Jets

A former undrafted free agent out of Buffalo in 2005, Leonhard (5-8, 188) has put together a pretty nice career as a starter for the Ravens in 2008 and for the Jets over the past three years. Although he has only six interceptions in the past five seasons, he's strong in coverage and plays the run well, with his lack of ideal size not really hindering his productivity.

3. Tyvon Branch, Oakland Raiders

Starting all 48 games over the past three seasons, Branch is your typical in-the-box safety despite only being 6-feet and 205 pounds. He has just three career interceptions in four pro seasons, but he's amassed over 100 tackles each of the past three years and grades out as the league's best run-stopping safety, making him a valuable asset despite his one-dimensionality.

4. LaRon Landry, Washington Redskins

Landry was selected sixth overall in 2007 and became an immediate starter for the Redskins. He missed just one game over his first three seasons, topping 90 tackles in both 2007 and 2009. However, injuries have taken their toll on Landry and he has played in just 17 games over the past two seasons. When he is on the field, however, Landry is a great run-stopped and can hold his own in coverage, so he could certainly help someone for years to come if healthy.

5. Reggie Nelson, Cincinnati Bengals

Nelson struggled with consistency after being taken in the first round by the Jaguars back in 2007, following up a strong rookie campaign with two sub-par seasons that saw him eventually get traded to the Bengals. He had a bit of a rebound in Cincinnati in 2011 and still has potential to be a solid coverage safety.

Beyond the Top Five

  • Jordan Babineaux, Tennessee Titans — 2011 was Babineaux's first year with the Titans and just his second season as a full-time starter in eight pro seasons. He totaled 93 tackles and an interception while being serviceable in coverage, but he's a liability against the run and is probably more of a veteran backup to multiple positions.
  • Atari Bigby, Seattle Seahawks — It wasn't long ago that the former undrafted free agent was a quality starter for the Packers, but injuries have derailed his career. Bigby graded out well in only 155 defensive snaps in 2011, so perhaps someone will take a flier on him and he can rejuvenate his career.
  • Thomas DeCoud, Atlanta Falcons — A third-round pick in 2008, DeCoud set new career highs with 86 tackles, six pass deflections and four interceptions, but he graded out positively only against the run while struggling in coverage. He still has some potential starting ability, but his lack of production against the pass is a concern.
  • Abram Elam, Dallas Cowboys — Elam struggled heavily in his return to Dallas, failing to notch a single interception or pass deflection. Although he was solid against he run, Elam is a pretty one-dimensional safety and his days as a starter might be nearing an end.
  • Dashon Goldson, San Francisco 49ers — A year ago, Goldson was the No. 3 player in my top free agent safeties article. Although he set a career-high with six interceptions, Goldson struggled against the run and was actually a pretty regular liability in coverage, allowing 66.7 percent of passes thrown his way and five touchdowns.
  • Deon Grant, New York Giants — He may have started nine of 16 games for the NFC Champions, but Grant doesn't really offer much play-making ability and doesn't stand out as more than average in any area. He's a serviceable veteran starter and some teams might look to him as a stopgap, but he's not going to win you games.
  • James Ihedigbo, New England Patriots — Forced into starting 12 games for the Patriots in 2011, Ihedigbo was one of many reasons the Patriots' defense struggled as badly as it did. Ihedigbo possesses no play-making ability and is purely a special-teamer.
  • Sean Jones, Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Injuries hampered Jones early in his career, but he had some pretty strong seasons in Cleveland in the early part of the last decade. Those days appear to be long behind him, however, as Jones was worse cover safeties in all of football in 2011. With a league-worst opposing passer rating of 140.3 this past season, Jones is clearly an in-the-box safety and really shouldn't be starting for anyone.
  • Dwight Lowery, Jacksonville Jaguars —  A former Jets draft pick, Lowery actually had a pretty solid season in Jacksonville. He can play both safety and corner and could make a serviceable starter for someone.
  • Brandon Meriweather, Chicago Bears — A former first-round pick of the Patriots, Meriweather's issues were masked by a good New England team, but there is no question they were unhappy with him. The Bears rolled the dice and lost big time, as Meriweather ended up being benched after Week 5. Some team might game on a player with his college history, be he appeared destined to remain in the bust category.
  • Brodney Pool, New York Jets — A fairly average safety, Pool doesn't get burned in coverage or run over in the running game, but he doesn't make many big plays and isn't always consistent. He's a serviceable yet unspectacular starter with a worrisome concussion history.
  • Bob Sanders, San Diego Chargers — It was another lost year for Sanders, who played just three games for the Chargers before a knee injury landed him back on injured reserve. The former defensive player of the year has played more than six games in just eight years and has appeared in 11 contests over the past four seasons. Now 30 years old, it might be time for Sanders to call it quits as no team could ever risk relying on him to start.
  • Bryan Scott, Buffalo Bills — Scott has been an on-and-off starter for the past five seasons, but he lacks play-making ability and is horrendous in run defense. The 30-year-old is probably nearing the point where he'll have a hard time landing a consistent job.
  • Madieu Williams, San Francisco 49ers — Williams spent the 2011 season with the 49ers as a backup safety, playing defense in just four games during the season. Williams was a free-agent bust for the Vikings before landing in San Francisco and is probably done as a starter at age 30.
  • Tom Zbikowski, Baltimore Ravens — Better known for his boxing escapades, Zbikowski has failed to develop into a reliable starter in four pro seasons. He does have special-teams ace potential and could be a reliable backup safety, but starting upside doesn't appear to be there.

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