2020 Free Agency Primer: Safety

There is a long and intriguing list of potential free agent safeties this spring, but will the Buccaneers choose to focus on their own young talent at that position?

The NFL's 2020 calendar year begins on Wednesday, March 18, with the free agent market opening at 4:00 p.m. ET. That's an important date for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who can't help but be players in free agency, if only due to their own expiring contracts and an interesting salary cap situation. The Buccaneers currently have 19 players who could become unrestricted free agents on that mid-March Wednesday, and they have more than $90 million of estimated cap space, pending any re-signings in the interim.

Nine weeks remain before that 2020 kickoff, which is the amount of time the Buccaneers and their 31 fellow NFL teams have to devise a strategy for free agency and potentially reduce their own list of free agents before the market opens. As free agency approaches we're taking a position-by-position look at what the Bucs have, who they could lose and who they could look at from other teams on the open market. Our 2020 Free Agency Primers continues this week with the safety position.

January 15: Offensive Line

January 22: Safety

January 29: Running Back

February 5: Cornerback

February 12: Tight End

February 19: Linebacker

February 26: Wide Receiver

March 4: Defensive Line

March 11: Quarterback

March 18: Outside Linebacker

2019 Output: Specifically, Tampa Bay's safeties in 2019 combined to contribute 167 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, one sack, three quarterback hits, two interceptions, 19 passes defensed, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. Safeties Jordan Whitehead, Andrew Adams and Mike Edwards all ranked among the team's top seven tacklers on the season, but they actually produced fewer interceptions than did the Bucs' linebacker position.

Collectively, the Bucs' safeties were part of a secondary that struggled in the first half of the season but affected a remarkable turnaround in the second half. Tampa Bay's defense led the NFL in passes defensed over the final eight weeks of the season and, after allowing a combined passer rating of 100.4 in the first half pared that all the way down to 79.9 in the second half.

The Buccaneers' most common starting safety tandem was Jordan Whitehead and Andrew Adams. Whitehead started every game until a hamstring injury landed him on injured reserve for the last two weeks. The 2018 fourth-round pick finished third on the team in both tackles (68) and passes defensed (nine). Adams, who left Tampa last March to sign with the Lions, returned to the Bucs in September after he was waived by Detroit and ended up with a large role in the defense for the second year in a row. Edwards, a rookie third-rounder, was a starter early in the season but saw his playing time fluctuate from October on. He also started one game as a cornerback, covering the slot.

Under Contract for 2020: The Buccaneers have one safety from each of the last three drafts who is under contract for next year: Whitehead, Evans and 2017 second-round pick Justin Evans. Evans never got on the field in his third NFL campaign as he dealt with persistent foot injuries and was on injured reserve by Week Two. Asked about the former starter's timeline for a return to the field in 2020, Head Coach Bruce Arians said in late December that it was "too early to tell." Arians did say that Evans had another successful surgery and that his return was a few months away.

There are two other safeties who will be returning from injuries that also erased their 2019 seasons: D'Cota Dixon. Dixon was an undrafted rookie out of Wisconsin who was having an eye-opening training camp last summer before he was taken down by a shoulder ailment. Stewart came to Tampa last spring after a stint in the short-lived AAF but also saw his 2019 opportunity clipped by a knee injury in August. Tampa Bay also added one more safety to the 2020 roster in January when it signed former Bear and Eagle Deiondre' Hall to a reserve/future contract. Hall has played in 23 regular-season games over three seasons in Chicago and Philadelphia but he was not on an NFL roster last fall.

Buccaneers' Pending Free Agents: The Buccaneers have only two safeties who are due to become unrestricted free agents in March, as most of their depth at that position is made up of relative newcomers to the NFL. However, one of those two is Adams who, as noted above, emerged as one of the primary starters last season. He played in 14 games after re-signing with the team on September 10 and started the last 11.

Tampa Bay's other pending free agent at safety is veteran Darian Stewart, by far the most experienced player at that position on the Bucs' 2019 roster. Stewart played nine seasons for the Rams, Ravens and Broncos and went to the Pro Bowl for Denver in 2016. He brought 130 games and 91 starts to Tampa when he was signed midway through the preseason as a response to the aforementioned training camp injuries at the position. As it turned out, Stewart spent most of his season with the Buccaneers as an experienced reserve who wasn't needed too frequently until Whitehead's injury in December. Stewart started and played 62 snaps in the season opener but then logged just 12 more over the next 12 games.

Potentially Available Free Agents: Though the list may shrink significantly by March 18 as teams try to lock up their own young playmakers, there is currently a long and intriguing list of safeties set to hit the market in 2020. That list is topped by two players who had very well-timed breakout seasons in 2019: Denver's Justin Simmons and Minnesota's Anthony Harris.

Harris's breakout actually began in 2018, as the former undrafted free agent secured a more significant role in the Vikings' defense and started to make a string of plays on the ball, including three interceptions. This year, Harris was a full-time starter and simply one of the best players on a strong Minnesota defense, as he doubled his interception total to six and broke up 11 passes. Harris is a sure tackler and a playmaker and should draw quite a bit of interest if he hits the market.

Simmons, a third-round pick in 2016, had been solid for his first three seasons in Denver, most of it as a starter, but his breakout came in 2019 with a huge increase in his plays on the football. He had 15 pass breakups this past fall after combining for 13 in the previous three years. Simmons also notched a career-best four interceptions and continued to display a good all-around skill set, recording 93 tackles after making 97 the year before. He, too, would be one of the biggest names at any position if he makes it to free agency.

There are plenty of other potential options for safety-needy teams even if the Vikings and Broncos lock up their emerging star safeties, and they come in a wide variety of packages. Want a 33-year-old with 155 career starts who is still a playmaker and rarely makes mistakes? That's New England's Devin McCourty, who last year had his highest interception total (five) since 2012. Want a pure free safety type who may not be an elite tackler but who has 11 picks over the last three seasons? Try Tre Boston, who has played for three different teams the last three years. Want more of an in-the-box safety who racks up the tackles but doesn't have a lot of interceptions or pass break-ups in his stat line? Karl Joseph could be the answer if he leaves Las Vegas.

One of the most talented safeties who could possibly hit the market in March still has one more opportunity to showcase his talents: San Francisco's Jimmie Ward. Ward has had some injury issues the last three seasons, including at the beginning of 2019, but he returned to start the 49ers' last 15 games (including playoffs) and have a very good season on an elite defense. Ward's interception totals – just two in 64 career games – don't impress but he's a very versatile defender who could be employed all over a defense.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, a former first-rounder, went from a 2016 Pro Bowl nod in Green Bay to a midseason trade out of town in 2018. However, he landed in Chicago this past fall and started all 16 games, producing 78 tackles and two picks. Will it be enough to convince the Bears or another team that he still has star potential? The market this spring should provide the answer. Cleveland's Damarious Randall is another former first-rounder who should draw interest, and the Saints' Vonn Bell should get some attention, too. Detroit's Tavon Wilson got the most significant playing time of his eight-year career and played well enough down the stretch to draw potential interest in free agency.

One of the more interesting options is the Chargers' Adrian Phillips. He had a strong 2018 season with nine passes defensed and 94 tackles but was limited to seven games this past fall due to a broken arm. Still, he played well before and after the injury and also offers added value on special teams. Phillips was the first-team AP All-Pro choice as a special-teamer in 2018. Some younger and potentially more affordable options at the position include Minnesota's Jayron Kearse and Cleveland's Eric Murray and Juston Burris. None of those three has ever opened more than nine games in a season but all could be the type of free agent that is looking for an opportunity to start more regularly with a new team.

Bucs' Interest Level: Moderate to low.

The Buccaneers have had a lot of upheaval at the two safety spots in recent years, in large part due to injuries, but they do have a good amount of young talent to start with in 2020. The biggest question mark is Justin Evans, who looked a potential playmaker as a rookie in 2017 but has not had a chance to play for Arians and the Bucs' new staff yet. Assuming all the candidates return to full health, the Bucs could be sorting through such young options as Evans, Whitehead, Edwards and Dixon throughout the offseason and training camp.

Arians was asked about the safety position at his final press conference in 2019 and, after initially suggesting the Bucs may be searching for more options at the position, eventually indicated that the answers might already be in-house.

"I think we could still look at a safety," said the coach. "But I loved D'Cota Dixon and he was possibly going to be our starting strong safety until he knocked out his shoulder, so getting him back – hopefully getting Justin Evans back – I'm not sure we do [have a need]. We're fine at corner. But again, if there's somebody on the board and he's the best player on the board at that position we'll take him."

Arians' mention of "the board" is in reference to the draft, which seems like an indication that if the Buccaneers do decide to add some more talent at safety they'll wait until they can do so from the rookie pool, rather than diving into free agency. Still, with as many options there could be on the open market, there are some potential bargains worth exploring.

The Buccaneers definitely have some work to do this spring on their defense, whether that comes in the form of re-signing their own potential free agents or finding someone to replace them. However, most of that attention will likely be on the front seven, not the secondary, with Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh and Carl Nassib all due to become unrestricted free agents.

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