The safety position could be one of the most interesting ones on the free agent market this year, or it could be very low-key. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' interest in restocking that position could be minimal or it could suddenly be quite keen. Those two issues should swing one way or the other in the next few weeks.
The potential pool of safeties, the list as it appears in mid-February, is absolutely loaded; however, it might look quite different by March 12. More on that below. As for Tampa Bay, its need at the position will be determined in large part by the decision iconic Buccaneer Ronde Barber makes regarding his playing future. Barber just finished his first season at safety after 15 years at cornerback, but he was undecided at the end of 2012 as to whether or not it was the final chapter in his remarkable career.
The Buccaneers already invested a significant asset in the position just 10 months ago when they drafted Alabama's Mark Barron with the seventh overall pick. The team is in the process of remaking its defense as it did in the 1990s, building a youthful core of talent in search of sustained success. Barron is part of that foundation, along with Gerald McCoy, Adrian Clayborn, Da'Quan Bowers, Lavonte David, Mason Foster and several others. Barber was a valuable mentor for Barron in his first season and the Buccaneers have made it clear that they would welcome him back for a 17th campaign.
Whether or not the Bucs have Barber on board in 2013, they may be drawn to the free agency market if it remains as strong three weeks from now as it is today. Thus, as we continue our position-by-position look at the upcoming free agency period and the Buccaneers' own needs and possibilities, we turn to the centerfield position on defense. As we do at each position in our free agency primers, we will consider five questions as we work our way through the depth chart:
- How might the Buccaneers' own list of pending free agents affect the position?
- What level of talent will potentially be available at that position on the open market?
- How effectively could a need at that position be addressed in the early rounds of the draft instead?
- What is the Buccaneers history in free agency at that position?
- How did that position perform for the Buccaneers in 2012?
As always, player evaluations and other points of conjecture are not meant to reflect the opinion of the Buccaneers' coaches or player personnel staff. We now look at the safety position after previously addressing the defensive line and wide receivers.
Positional Free Agency Primer: Safety
- Tampa Bay's own pending free agents
There is just one player on that list: Barber.
Barber is free to sign with any team, just like every other pending unrestricted free agent. The general belief, however, is that he is deciding between retiring and playing another year for the Buccaneers. Barber has spent his entire 16-year career with Tampa Bay, earning five Pro Bowl nods and generally putting up numbers (the only player in league history with at least 40 interceptions and at least 25 sacks) that will make it difficult for Canton to keep him out.
Otherwise, there were six other safeties on the Bucs' roster (including the practice squad) at the end of the season, and all six are signed for 2013. Five of the six are also signed through 2014, the only exception being Cody Grimm. Other than Grimm, the Bucs don't have a pending unrestricted free agent at the position currently on the roster until 2016.
- The potential free agent market
This is where it gets tricky. Here are the nine safeties that were either originally selected or later added as replacements to the 2013 Pro Bowl, between the AFC and NFC combined (listed alphabetically):
- Eric Berry (KC)
- Jairus Byrd (BUF)
- Thomas DeCoud (ATL)
- Dashon Goldson (SF)
- Laron Landry (NYJ)
- William Moore (ATL)
- Ed Reed (BAL)
- Earl Thomas (SEA)
- Donte Whitner (SF)
Of those nine, a whopping five were on the last years of their respective contracts in 2012 and could theoretically be unrestricted free agents in March: Byrd, Goldson, Landry, Moore and Reed.
We say "theoretically" because it's not likely that list will look the same by March 12. There has been significant speculation that at least three of those players will get franchise tags before the start of free agency: Byrd, Goldson and Moore. This theory is bolstered by the fact that transition tag at the safety position carries a significantly lower salary demand than many other positions. This is the same reason that, to the befuddlement of many fans, placing franchise tags on punters and kickers has become common in recent seasons. When a team has a standout player at a position that carries a lower franchise tag dollar figure, it often makes financial sense to use that tag.
Of the three, Byrd seems the surest to get the tag from Buffalo. San Francisco has some salary cap issues to work out in regards to using their tag and whether or not they keep or trade QB Alex Smith, and the Falcons have to sort through a handful of options for their tag.
As for the rest, Reed certainly has the most recognizable name, and a well-deserved reputation as one of the best players of his generation. He is 35 years old, however, which means a lucrative long-term deal is unlikely and he is generally not considered one of the top couple dozen available free agents. It would be unwise to bet against Reed, however, so there will likely be some suitors for his services, teams that are hoping for one or maybe two more strong years from the future Hall of Famer.
Detroit's Louis Delmas did not make the Pro Bowl this year, but he was an alternate in each of the past two seasons and is considered one of the league's best young safeties. He, too, could get a franchise tag, but the Lions also have to worry about losing DE Cliff Avril. Buffalo had to release their other starting safety, George Wilson, for cap reasons, so he is already getting looked at by several teams. Others on the potential free agency list include Landry, Kenny Phillips, Chris Clemons, Glover Quin, Yeremiah Bell and Pat Chung. Quin, a former cornerback, is an intriguing option and the Dolphins' Bell and the Giants' Phillips are established NFL starters. Phillips is quite a bit younger than Bell but has had some injury problems.
There's a very good chance the safety aisle on the free agency market will be significantly picked over before March 12 arrives. However, even if that occurs, there is still a reasonable amount of depth among the second tier of players at that position, so several shopping teams should be able to find some help.
- Is the top of the draft a better option?
It might be, but it will probably be even better for teams looking to address the position a little later in the draft, rather than at the very top. That has generally been Tampa Bay's approach, in fact. Barron was the first safety the team ever drafted in the first round, while such stars as John Lynch, Dwight Smith and Dexter Jackson have come in the third round or later.
The Texas Longhorns' Kenny Vaccaro is generally the only safety showing up in the top half of the first round in any of the current mock drafts (such as this collection on NFL.com). Others who may crack the opening round, if today's analysis is to be believed, including LSU's Eric Reid and Florida's Matt Elam. Vaccaro is considered the most complete safety of the bunch, potentially able to excel in both pass coverage and run support.
Overall, the position is considered relatively deep, with the likes of Fresno State's Phillip Thomas, Oklahoma's Tony Jefferson, Notre Dame's Zeke Motta and Florida International's Johnathan Cyprien likely to get middle-round consideration.
In recent years, the Buccaneers have used later-round picks to add depth to the back end of their defensive backfield, having good luck with the likes of Cody Grimm (a seventh-rounder), Ahmad Black (fifth) and Keith Tandy (sixth). If depth ends up being the team's goal again at that position in the 2013 offseason then, yes, the draft might end up as a better option than free agency.
- Tampa Bay's free agent history
For most of the Buccaneers' nearly four decades of play, their safeties have been primarily of the homegrown variety. The Bucs did dip into free agency for Sean Jones in 2010, and he started every game for the next two years, but beyond that the position has been dominated by Tampa Bay draft picks. For instance, the team did not re-sign Jones after the 2011 campaign and immediately turned to the draft to replace him, picking Mark Barron in the first round last year. To replace the departed Tanard Jackson at free safety, the Bucs converted long-time star cornerback (and 1997 draft pick) Ronde Barber to that spot. Their main backups during the 2012 season were Ahmad Black, Keith Tandy and Cody Grimm, all recent Buccaneer draft picks.
In fact, of all the primary starters of the past 15 years, only Jones and Charles Mincy (25 starts from 1996-98) was not Tampa Bay draftees. The team hit quite frequently on the position through the past decade and a half, beginning with John Lynch and passing through the likes of Dwight Smith (though he began as a cornerback), Dexter Jackson, Will Allen, Tanard Jackson, Jermaine Phillips and, more recently, Grimm, Barron and Black.
The Bucs did find themselves with a need at the position in the very first few years of free agency. The Bucs appeared to draft their safety tandem of the future in 1991 with Tony Covington and Marty Carter, but injuries shortened Covington's career and Carter faded out after four seasons. John Lynch was established by that point, but the team delved into free agency to try to find him a complement with the likes of Joe King, Barney Bussey, Jerry Gray and Thomas Everett. The results were mixed.
Tampa Bay also imported former Cowboys safety Kenny Gant in the mid-90s, but that was primarily due to his special teams prowess. Gant, known as "The Shark," was a popular figure in Tampa for several years as he continued to excel in the kicking game. That type of consideration could play a part in the Bucs' free agency evaluation at safety if they take a look at the second and third tiers of players at the position.
- 2012 Performance
The Buccaneers' raw pass defense numbers in 2012 were not good, and certainly the safeties share some of that responsibility, but the reviews were generally positive regarding the starting tandem of Barron and Barber.
Barber took to the new position quite well and was a Pro Bowl alternate despite playing in his 16th NFL season. The future Hall of Famer led the team with four interceptions, scored yet another touchdown to add to his incredible career totals, finished third on the team with 91 tackles and broke up 13 passes. Barron added 89 tackles, one interception, four tackles for loss and 10 passes defensed and had flash moments in both pass coverage and run support. Considered a very strong run-defending safety leaving college, Barron certainly was part of the team's unprecedented turnaround in rush defense, from last in the league in 2011 to first in 2012.
Second-year player Ahmad Black also saw an expanded role and was able to contribute 32 tackles and two interceptions. The Buccaneers used a variety of different DB packages, some of them taking advantage of Barber's long history as a slot cover man in nickel and dime formations, and that led to Black getting a significant amount of snaps at free safety.
Again, the Buccaneers must address their pass-defense issues, but few expect that to take the form of an overhaul at safety. Barron is obviously entrenched for the long haul and Black and Tandy have shown promise providing depth. The wild card, of course, is Barber and whether he will choose to return for another season.
Summary: The period during which NFL teams can utilize their franchise tags for 2013 began on Monday and will continue through March 4. Thus, in the next two weeks we will find out just how robust the safety position will be in free agency this year. The Buccaneers wouldn't appear to be major shoppers in that area, but that will be impacted somewhat by the decision Ronde Barber makes in the coming weeks. Tampa Bay has not chosen to address the safety position in free agency very often, finding very good value later in the draft instead, but there should be an opportunity to build depth this year if the team so desires.