The “official” start of the 2018 NFL offseason begins March 14. We conclude our free-agent positional look around the league with the game’s best safeties.
Super Bowl LII was highly entertaining. But believe it or not, the start of the 2018 fiscal year for the NFL is already less than a month away. But all 32 teams are already making crucial decisions when it comes to their rosters. In terms of free agency, which standout performers could get the somewhat-dreaded franchise tag? And which players will be asked to take a pay cut or be released due to salary-cap reasons?
With March 14 not far away, the talented staff at FanSided has been looking at the top performers at the specific positions who could hit the open market. There have already been previews for quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and both the offensive and defensive lines. There have also been previews for the linebackers and cornerbacks. So here’s a wrap on this series with a glance at the best safeties who could become unrestricted free agents in mid-March.
5. Tyvon Branch, Arizona Cardinals
On Pro Football Focus’ ranking of NFL safeties, veteran Tyvon Branch has the same grade (88.5) as Seattle’s Kam Chancellor and the New York Giants’ Landon Collins. Now consider that the 10-year pro missed the final seven games of 2017 and you get an idea of how well he was playing before being lost for the season.
Despite that lost time, the 31-year-old defender finished fourth on the club with 66 total tackles. He also knocked down six passes and managed to force a fumble. The versatile pro has spent the past two seasons with the Cardinals but has been limited to a combined 15 games. But he can line up at a variety of positions in the secondary, as was the case with Arizona the last few years.
Does Branch fit into the plans of new Cardinals’ head coach Steve Wilks? His experience in the league could be a big plus for a team looking to transition to a new regime.
4. Eric Reid, San Francisco 49ers
Veteran safety Eric Reid has been one of those players who has not been shy when it comes to voicing his personal opinions via his protests during the national anthem. It’s something he’s been doing for well over a year dating back to his days with teammate Colin Kaepernick’s. Now slated to become an unrestricted free agent on March 14, will his stance have an impact on where he may or may not land in 2018?
“I would say that I understand that that’s a possibility,” said Reid to Cam Inman of the Mercury News late last year. “And I’m completely fine with that. The things that I’ve done, I stand by and I’ve done that for my own personal beliefs. There are probably teams that won’t want to talk to me because of it. I’m hopeful that I will be on a team next year, but if not, that’s OK with me.”
On the field, the 2013 first-round pick was an Eric-of-all-trades this past season. Reid made the transition from free to string safety and even spent some time at linebacker under defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. The 6’1”, 213-pound performer played in just 13 games and made 12 starts. But he still managed to finish third on the club with 66 tackles. And in a pair of interceptions and a fumble recovery and it was a solid but far from spectacular year for the five-year pro.
Over the past few weeks, the San Francisco 49ers have been busy re-signing some of their own potential free agents. Could Reid be the next player on that list?
3. Tre Boston, Los Angeles Chargers
It may be a little bit of a case of buyer beware when it comes to free safety Tre Boston. According to Pro Football Focus, only eight safeties in the NFL own a higher grade when it comes to pass coverage. That makes perfect sense considering the 25-year-old performer led the Los Angeles Chargers with five interceptions and finished third on the club with eight passes defensed this past year.
But it also shows that Boston has his issues when it comes to stopping the run. Yes, he finished second on the club with 79 tackles. However, only the Washington Redskins (134.1 yards per game) gave up more rushing yards per outing than the Bolts (131.1 yards per game) this past season.
Still, the four-year pro is an attractive prospect for a team looking to add a playmaker to its secondary. Originally a fourth-round pick by the Carolina Panthers in 2014, Boston made his presence felt for Ron Rivera’s club and also played in a total of five postseason games for the club his first two seasons in the league. But he was released by the club in May of 2017 and latched on with Anthony Lynn’s club. Under defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, the former North Carolina Tar Heel blossomed thanks to a career-best 15 starts.
It would hardly be a surprise to see Boston return to Los Angeles. That may sound like a clever pun of sorts. But the talented player may have found the ideal home on a Chargers’ team that may be going places (no pun intended) in 2018.
2. Kenny Vaccaro, New Orleans Saints
University of Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro was the 15th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft by the New Orleans Saints. When healthy, he’s been a starter for five seasons and has built a pretty respectable resume. This past season, he was part of a revived defensive unit that bounced back from a miserable 0-2 start. But he was also limited to only 12 contests and missed the final two weeks of the regular season and the playoffs with a wrist injury. He also dealt with another injury as well and underwent surgery in late December, as originally reported by NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.
In 2017, he finished sixth on the club with 60 tackles, to go along with 1.5 sacks, three interceptions, one fumble recovery and seven passes defensed. He was part of a secondary that included a pair of standout rookies in cornerback Marshon Lattimore and free safety Marcus Williams. But playing with injuries a big part of the year certainly affected his performance. Just ask the folks at Pro Football Focus as his grade plummeted from each of the previous two seasons.
So is this franchise ready to move on from the five-year pro? It’s safe to assume Vaccaro would have numerous suitors. The Advocate’s Nick Underhill recently reminded many that the Dallas Cowboys were interested in obtaining the former Longhorn a year ago. Now he could hit the open market on the afternoon on March 14, unless the Saints opt to bring back the productive defender.
1. Lamarcus Joyner, Los Angeles Rams
It was quite the transition year for cornerback/turned free safety Lamarcus Joyner. Then again, it was quite the reversal of fortune for the Los Angeles Rams. Under first-time NFL head coach Sean McVay, the club finished 11-5, posted its first winning campaign since 2003 and won the NFC West. The team also reached the playoffs for the first time since ’04. And Joyner and his defensive cohorts deserve their share of credit for the turnaround as well.
The former Florida State product played and started 12 games at his new position. He finished sixth on the club with 48 tackles, racked up three interceptions (1 returned for a touchdown) and a forced fumble and totaled nine passes defensed. In the team’s NFC Wild Card Playoff loss to the Atlanta Falcons, the 41st overall picked in the 2014 NFL Draft totaled a team-high 11 tackles – 10 of the solo variety.
What made Joyner’s 2017 showing even more impressive is that during his first three seasons in the league, he played a total of 40 regular-season contests and failed to pick off a pass. He totaled four sacks and a combined 13 passes defensed. But he wound up being a better fit at free safety under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and his natural coverage skills proved to be a big plus.
The Rams have their share of decisions to make in the defensive backfield. Joyner and cornerbacks Trumaine Johnson and Nickell Robey-Coleman are also slated to become free agents next month.