Written by Jason Feiner
1. Eric Reid, San Francisco 49ers, (26)
Eric Reid is a versatile, multi-tool weapon with significant experience at both safety positions, in the slot, or playing as a linebacker in the box. With the offensive side of the ball receiving most of the attention after Jimmy Garoppolo signed a record-breaking contract, the defense still presents a problem for their long-term plans. The 49ers weak link remains in their secondary, though the Richard Sherman signing will undoubtedly help in that particular area. Although the 49ers have prepared for Reid’s possible departure with the likes of Jaquiski Tartt, they still have roughly $63 million (projected after the Richard Sherman deal) in cap space to secure Reid long term, as he is still only 26 years of age. Reid will have plenty of other suitors when he reaches the open market.
Over the past weekend, John Dorsey has begun to bare his claws and attack. With roughly 80 million left in cap space, Cleveland has plenty of ammunition to steal one of the more talented and versatile safeties from an up and coming team that needs urgent help in their secondary. After all, Cleveland may be the place to sign for the upper-tier of this year’s free agency class.
2. Morgan Burnett, Green Bay Packers, (29)
Green Bay had a disappointing season this past year as injuries marred their 2017 campaign. Morgan Burnett is the top free agent from the Packers roster heading to the open market. Burnett, now 29 years old, is expected to leave the Packers defensive backfield after missing four games with nagging injuries. The Packers prepared for Burnett’s departure, as they drafted Josh Jones in the second round of the 2017 draft. Jones had a very productive rookie year accumulating 71 tackles, two sacks and one interception while playing 731 defensive snaps (third on the team); the Packers seem ready to move on from the hard-hitting safety.
By no means has Burnett lost a step. However, he has not completed a 16 game season since his 2012 campaign, and based on his injury history his price tag may drop on the open market. Burnett is reliable in coverage and a sure tackler in the box, but will need to stay on the field, a risk that a team must be willing to take. After losing Barry Church and JJ. Wilcox during the 2017 offseason, the Dallas Cowboys are in desperate need of help. They need to solidify the back end of their defense and could use the experience and leadership to help lead a young Cowboys team with high expectations entering the 2018 season.
The Steelers could jump at the sight of Burnett too. There are rumbles that Pittsburgh will be releasing Mike Mitchell and the need for a strong safety will escalate. Pittsburgh will need to take some chances this offseason with their championship window closing, and Burnett may be a quality signing to fill a glaring need. Burnett’s age and inability to stay healthy may affect some teams’ interests, but he is one of the top safeties on the market and could provide excellent production if he avoids injury or setbacks.
3. Kenny Vaccaro, New Orleans Saints, (27)
Vaccaro will have the opportunity to test the free agent market for the first time in his five-year career. He possesses the potential to be one of the most dominant safeties in the game, but he has yet to show the anticipated production that once made him a first-round selection. Vaccaro has been injured in four of his five years in the NFL but has showcased his talent while dominating the field when healthy. He secured three interceptions this past season while only playing in twelve games. The Saints safety was also plagued with off the field issues- he was suspended for four games due to PED use during the 2016 season. As much talent and potential Vaccaro may have, there are glaring issues that will push his price tag down, as each risk is very prevalent. The Saints showed an interest in moving on from the talented, but troubled and injury-prone, safety as rumors swirled at the trade deadline. In February the Saints signed Kurt Coleman, allowing Vaccaro to leave New Orleans.
Vaccaro could assist many defensive backfields, and he will garner attention once the new league year begins on March 14th. The Colts have the cap to spend and glaring holes throughout their defense. By pairing Vaccaro with their talented 2017 first round pick Malik Hooker (who is recovering from a torn ACL) the Colts secondary may be worth monitoring. They need help all over their roster, and taking the risk and signing a talented player like Vaccaro could prove wonders for a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since the infamous 2014 AFC championship game.
With the possibility of Kirk cousins entering their division, the Detroit Lions may want additional help in their secondary. Adding Vaccaro to a backfield that already includes Glover Quin and Darius Slay could be the finishing touches to a defense that retained Ezekiel Ansah (franchise tagged) and added the maniacal genius Matt Patricia as their head coach.
4. Tre Boston, Los Angeles Chargers, (26)
It is no secret who the hottest team was by seasons end; if a tiebreaker didn’t knock the Chargers out of contention who knows how far their playoff run could have gone. The Chargers won six of their last seven games on the heels of a tremendous defensive effort and the play of star receiver Keenan Allen. Trey Boston, still only 26 years old, will enter free agency next week and test his market value. Boston played exceptionally well down the stretch of the season, and he embodies the role of a centerfield ball-hawking safety. Boston came away with five interceptions and 71 tackles this past year to lift the Chargers to the postseason, but the team’s hopes never came to fruition.
The Chargers have just over 22 million in cap space and Philip Rivers getting any younger. With a talented roster throughout their lineup, the Chargers are in a win now state and should attempt to keep their 2017 team together, while adding quality contributors in free agency and the draft. Tre Boston had an excellent season as LA’s centerfielder and would be wise to re-sign with the Chargers. They are a young team ready to make a playoff push.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers could also pose as a viable option. The Buc’s have desperately needed a ball-hawking centerfielder for the past few years and held one of the worst secondary ratings in the league. If the Buccaneers can secure Tre Boston and add youth to their aging group, it may prove to be one of the better free agent signings of the offseason.
5. T.J. Ward, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, (31)
After getting cut from the Broncos before the 2017 season began, the Buccaneers pounced on the pro-bowl safety and signed him to a one-year deal. Unfortunately, Ward didn’t pan out in Tampa Bay and will once again test the market. However, at the un-friendly age of 31 and the down season he had with the Buccaneers his value may take a significant dip. TJ Ward struggled with sloppy play and injuries throughout a forgettable season in Tampa and will look to rebound after getting arrested following the season with the possession of Marijuana. Ward should still have a strong market, all while his contract will most likely be a one-year prove it deal with less than his $4 million salary he made with the Buccaneers.
Ward still has some ability left in the tank. He has made a career of nasty hits and reliable coverage as one of the most feared strong safeties in the game. He will excel in run support if used in the box as an extra linebacker and assist in a zone coverage scheme. His age and injury concerns will drastically lower his price tag and his upside with greatly outway the risks of a low-end veteran contract (2.5–3.5 Million). The Cowboys need help in their secondary, and the small price tag and potential the three-time pro-bowler presents should intrigue Jerry Jones. He would act as an enforcer on their defense and could slot in right next to Jeff Heath as the third safety in Dallas. By playing as the third safety on the depth chart, he would maximize his potential and prevent more chance of injury.
Another option could revolve around another Texas team. With Marcus Gilchrist now in the picture in Houston this marriage seems less likely; however, Ward would provide a much-needed presence as a run stopper in which he has developed his game around. Ward is a more established player and could slot in as the third safety on the roster with the opportunity to play for a starting job. The Texans have roughly 65 million in cap space, and Ward would be a cheap option who could provide aid to their defense and secondary. Ward has his limitations in coverage, but he has been reliable throughout his career in that aspect. Wherever he signs, Ward will provide a run-stopping safety in which he has built his game around.