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Previewing 2020 free agents: safety

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Getting some help for Landon Collins

Carolina Panthers v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The Redskins have safeties. Landon Collins is locked in for the foreseeable future by the aggressive free agent contract he signed in the 2019 off-season. For better or worse, he is the Redskins’ strong safety for the next few seasons.

The Redskins have decent depth, with Montae Nicholson, Troy Apke, and special teams aces Deshazor Everett and Jeremy Reaves all under contract for 2020.

Neither Everett nor Reaves is a starting NFL safety; the question is whether either the inconsistent Nicholson or the slowly-developing Apke is good enough, or if the Redskins need to upgrade the free safety position.

If they’re looking to upgrade, they could certainly look to the draft, but with a number of priority needs and (currently) only two picks in the top-100 (#2, #66), it’s hard to see Washington feeling confident that they could come out of the draft with an upgrade over the veterans currently on the roster.


Click here to read: Washington Redskins 2020 Draft Profiles: Shyheim Carter, S, Alabama

Click here to read: An early look at the top 100 veteran free agents of 2020

Click here for more Redskins 2020 Free Agency coverage and profiles


That leaves veteran free agency as an option for the Redskins.

I started out with the idea that the Redskins didn’t need depth at the position, they need improved quality of play at the free safety position. For this reason, I limited my initial list of free agents to players who appear on NFL Trade Rumors Top-100 list of 2020 Free Agents.

Here’s the group of players I took from that list, along with some overview information about each one.

Nine players is too many to consider in an article like this one, so I set about the task of paring down the list of free agents to a more manageable number.

Salary Cap
My first consideration was salary — with Landon Collins locked in at $14m per year on a 6-year deal, the Redskins can’t justify a second high-dollar safety contract. I took Justin Simmons and Anthony Harris off the list.

Age
Younger is better, so I struck Devin McCourty off the list, who was, in any event, a borderline call on Salary Cap.

Free Safety focus
While there is often not a clear distinction between free safety and strong safety in the NFL, some players are more one than the other. Landon Collins is clearly more of a “box” safety, so any complementary player signed should be more of a free safety. The only player on the list who is predominately a box safety is Tavon Wilson, who is borderline due to age anyway (29 years old) and is the lowest rated by NFLTR. I took him off the list.

I was left with five players to highlight as potential free agent targets.

Prioritizing the five remaining free agent safeties

OTC Valuation
Over the Cap has a valuation tool that attempts to put an annual contract dollar value on (i) each player’s performance based on his play at his position, and (ii) overall value to the team (which includes factors like special teams contributions). OTC’s primary focus is on comparing the valuation to the player’s actual contract to identify if the player is under-performing or out-performing his contract. The results for a group of players can be aggregated to evaluate the productivity of a team’s roster.

  • OTC gives Montae Nicholson a positional value of $5.0m and overall value of $5.1m, which makes him +$4.3m versus his actual contract.
  • Special teamer Troy Apke gets a positional value at safety of just $2.3m but an overall value of $4.1m, which brings him in at +$3.37m versus his actual contract.

Since my goal is to look for a player in free agency who is likely to be an upgrade to Nicholson and/or Apke, I looked at the OTC valuations for the remaining players on my list.

  • Tre Boston at $8.9m is the only remaining player who is clearly above the current Redskins options.
  • Jimmie Ward, at $4.58m appears to have a similar valuation to the current Redskins options.
  • Damarious Randall, Vonn Bell and Karl Joseph are all valued at $2.4m or less, indicating at a glance that they are not likely to be clear upgrades to Nicholson and Apke.

In this article, then, I’ll take a more detailed look at Tre Bostona player I discussed briefly a couple of weeks ago — and I’ll take a fairly long look at Jimmie Ward. I will limit the discussion on the other three players — Randall, Bell and Joseph — to a few general comments.

2019 grades from PFF

For reference, I am including the overall 2019 defensive grades given by PFF for these five players, along with those for Nicholson and Apke, ranked from highest to lowest:

  • Jimmie Ward 84.2
  • Tre Boston 76.4
  • Troy Apke 74.1
  • Karl Joseph 69.9
  • Damarious Randall 69.3
  • Von Bell 64.6
  • Montae Nicholson 51.6

For reference, here is the top of the list of NFL safeties, in order of annual average salary, as per OverTheCap:

Here is the current expected Redskins depth chart for the 2020 season based on current players under contract:

  1. Landon Collins
  2. Montae Nicholson
  3. Troy Apke
  4. Jeremy Reaves/Deshazor Everett

Free agency begins in earnest on 16 March when teams can begin negotiating with players’ agents, and players can sign new contracts from 4pm on 18 March.

Tre Boston, Panthers

Washington Redskins v Carolina Panthers Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The obvious and immediate argument for Tre Boston to the Redskins is that there are so many points of congruence.

With Ron Rivera taking over as the “single voice” of the Redskins, his connection to Tre Boston can’t be overlooked. It was Rivera’s Panthers who drafted Boston in the 4th round of the 2014 draft.

After leaving in free agency and spending two seasons with the Chargers and Cardinals, Boston returned to the Rivera-coached Panthers in 2019, where he appeared in all 16 games, racking up a career-high 11 passes defended, with three interceptions and 56 tackles.

Since being hired by Dan Snyder, Ron Rivera has signaled, with his coaching hires and with the front office moves, that he is bringing in people with whom he is familiar to help him mold the Redskins into the team he envisions. It’s hard to imagine that Boston was re-signed by the Panthers in 2019 without Rivera’s approval, which could signal Riverboat Ron’s openness to bringing the free safety to DC to help him with the reformation of Redskins team culture and defensive scheme.

Boston is primarily a free safety (lining up in that position on 86% of his 2019 snaps), with a strong PFF coverage grade of 90.6 for the 2019 season (78.2 w/Cardinals in ‘18 and 89.0 w/Chargers in ‘17).

While London Collins sees himself as an all-round safety, he is clearly at his best in run defense and playing ‘in the box’. In 2019, Collins took twice as many snaps lined up in the box as he did lined up at free safety (500:250) and PFF graded his 2019 run defense at 77.3, while giving him a coverage grade of 60.6.

Apke’s coverage grade for this past season was 74.4; Nicholson’s was 51.4.

While PFF grades are hardly gospel, neither are they completely arbitrary, and comparisons between players with grades of 90, 74, 60, and 51 are likely indicative of identifiable differences in coverage skills demonstrated on the field of play.

Tre Boston - career statistics

Tre Boston has missed only three games since 2015. In the past three seasons, with three different teams, he has had at least 53 tackles, 8 passes defended, and 3 interceptions per season.

The only real mystery is why he hasn’t been in greater demand, and why he hasn’t stayed longer at any of his stops.

The Panthers originally let him walk at the end of Year 3 of his rookie contract — almost unheard of in today’s salary cap environment with low CBA-mandated salaries for four years for drafted players. In free agency, he seems to have been forced to accept a series of three one-year “prove it” contracts with three different teams, with values of $1.5m, $900,000, and $1.9m respectively.

If — and “if” appears to be a very real condition with Tre Boston — Ron Rivera believes he has proved it, then the 27 y.o. safety might finally be able to find a home and sign a meaningful multi-year free agent contract with the Redskins this season. Remember that his agent will be dealing with Rob Rodgers — the same guy who would have inked Boston’s 2019 deal in Carolina.

What kind of contract should we expect with Tre Boston?

To be honest, in any of the past three free agent seasons that Boston has been a part of, I would have wildly overestimated his value in the market. In fact, in 2018, I used the 3-year, $13.5m contract D.J. Swearinger had signed with the Redskins as my proxy for a Tre Boston contract, projecting his value to be approximately $4.5m per season. He went on to sign his $900k one-year deal with the Chargers a few months later.

Last year at this time, I once again talked about Boston’s similarity to Swearinger, using that to benchmark what I saw as his potential to ink a 4-year deal at safety, but, having missed so badly a year earlier, I hedged my bet a little:

[W]hile Tre Boston will be looking to get paid, there are 32 NFL teams, at least 13 quality free agent safeties, and the NFL draft in April. He may find the market for his services (monetarily speaking) as cool this off-season as it was for most safeties last off-season.

He, of course, ended up signing a one-year deal with Carolina for $1.9m.

Estimated contract value in 2020

The similarities between Swearinger and Boston have continued. In 2019 Boston returned to his former team in Carolina, while Swearinger ended up playing with his former team in Arizona. Swearinger continued his seeming inability to cement a home for himself, getting cut by the Cardinals after 4 games, then having a cup of coffee with the Raiders before again being cut and ending up with the Saints, his sixth different team in a 7-year career.

I think that Boston, by contrast, is settling down. He is ranked as the 4th-best free agent safety available in 2020 by NFL Draft Rumors. He had the 5th-highest PFF coverage grade among all safeties in 2019, and was ranked 22nd overall among NFL safeties this season.

But for some reason, NFL front offices have proven resistant to paying Boston what would appear to be a market value contract for his production. I can only imagine that he has developed a troubling reputation related to something off-the-field, but I have no idea what it is.

So, with the caveat that Tre Boston has proven in three consecutive off-seasons that his ‘real’ value to NFL front offices is less than the value projected by sites like Spotrac or bloggers like me, I’m going back to the well again — probably only to prove that I am stubborn and consistently wrong. I’m also going to assume that if Rodgers and Rivera are willing to sign him, they know exactly what they are getting into, and are satisfied that Tre Boston is their man.

OTC valuation vs. Spotrac “Market Value”

As I briefly described above, Over the Cap has a new feature that they launched this season in which they use graded on-field performance to place a value on each player, which they then compare to that player’s actual contract as a method for assessing how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ that contract is for the team.

Spotrac has, for some time, annually projected the value of top veteran free agents, but with some significant differences.

Firstly, Spotrac’s model compares player measurables to other players with known contracts, calculating a degree of similarity, and then, using the 4 known contracts as data points, projects a player’s contract value in free agency.

This differs a bit in approach from the OTC model that tries to put a dollar value on measured statistics — OTC feel sort of like a criteria-based grade.

The Spotrac model, however, reminds me more of grading on a bell-curve, where the most important determiner of value is where a player is in age, time and performance relative to others at his position.

In other words, OTC is trying to say what a player’s intrinsic value is, while Spotrac is simply trying to project what NFL teams are willing to pay.

The second difference is that — while OTC applies their algorithm to every player in the NFL — Spotrac focuses only on the top free agents each off-season, so it’s not possible to compare the results of each method head-to-head on more than a handful of players.

Looking at the nine free agent safeties on my original list, only 2 of them have “market value” estimates from Spotrac: Justin Simmons and Anthony Harris. In both cases, the Spotrac estimate exceeds the OTC valuation.

When I looked at the question of how much the difference is, I found that the Spotrac estimate exceeded the OTC calculation by around 15% for Simmons and 14% for Harris. This is an admittedly tiny sample size, but I decided to adopt a 14.5% escalator for estimating a player’s likely contract value, using OTC’s calculated value as the base.

OTC values Tre Boston at $8.9m APY. When I inflate that by 14.5%, I get a contract value of $10.2m per year.

The past three seasons tell me that Tre Boston’s actual contracts signed have been only about 14 of the value that I have tried to assign to him through comparison to other safeties. If that continues to be the case, then Tre Boston will likely sign another one-year deal with some NFL team for around $2.5m APY.

However, my estimate is that, if he signs with the Redskins, with Rivera and Rodgers already having gotten their one-year ‘prove it’ deal from him in 2019, then the projected value of that contract would be 3-years and $30.6m. I would expect it to be roughly 35-40% guaranteed, with a limited signing bonus, and the ability to get out after Year 2 for a total payment to Boston in 2020-21 of around $19m ($9.5m per year).

Spending a combined $23m per year on the safety position through 2022 would be a significant investment for the Redskins, but with so many offensive skill players on rookie contracts for the next three seasons, it’s likely an investment that the Redskins can afford to make... if they are convinced that Boston is the right guy.

Nobody should know the answer to that better than Ron Rivera.

Jimmie Ward, 49ers

San Francisco 49ers v Washington Redskins Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

With Jimmie Ward, obvious questions jump out:

  • Why would the Niners let him leave?
  • Why would Ward want to leave SF?

As to the first question, the 49ers, coming off a very successful 2019 season, may need to make some difficult salary cap decisions. Over the Cap estimates that SF will enter the 2020 season with around $15m in cap space, and 49 players under contract.

After you take out roughly $4m for the rookie pool to pay draft picks, and set aside a further $5m as a ‘contingency’ fund for injury during the season, the Niners front office is likely to enter free agency with a war chest of only about $6m in cap space.

With Emmanuel Sanders, Jimmie Ward, Jason Verrett, Garrett Celek, and Arik Armstead all destined for free agency, and with 3 of the top 4 cap hits (and 4 of the top 6) going to defensive players, some quality athletes may find themselves headed to the open market simply because John Lynch won’t have enough dollars available to keep them all.

This was addressed by Chris Biderman of the Sacramento Bee late in the season:

[S]afety Jimmie Ward is tied for the league lead at his position with seven pass breakups, according to Pro Football Focus. Being the free safety on the NFL’s best pass defense is a nice thing to put on your resume. Ward has been outstanding this year. So far, it’s been his first healthy season since 2015.

Ward could command a yearly salary between $8 and $10 million, which would put him in the upper echelon at the position. Which, again, doesn’t seem like something San Francisco can afford at the moment.

But here’s the thing: the 49ers frontloaded many of their contracts with guaranteed money up front. Players such as Jimmy Garoppolo, center Weston Richburg and linebacker Kwon Alexander could have money in their contracts moved around to clear up space because the guarantees were pushed toward the first seasons of their respective deals.

Plus the team could clear more room by releasing players like Marquise Goodwin and Jerick McKinnon.

A key question becomes, are there any other starters the 49ers might want to get off the books? Could Jaquiski Tartt, who has one season left on his contract, be replaced by a draft pick? Would another team be willing trade for him to help clear some $5 million off the cap sheet? Could the team attach a draft pick to Solomon Thomas in a trade to get his guaranteed $9 million out of the way?

While Jimmie Ward is clearly the Niners’ best safety, his backup is Tarvarius Moore, who was drafted in the 3rd round of the ‘18 draft and who played over 200 defensive snaps at safety in 2019, so the cupboard isn’t bare.

Still, Ward is the clear #1 safety on a team that is going to the Super Bowl — a team that is led by its defense, with a young coach and a bright future.

One would expect Jimmie Ward to try to stay in San Francisco if he can. It would probably take a very appealing offer to get him to leave willingly.

Ward’s big problem, of course, is his ability — uh... that is... durability and availability. Ward has played in 64 games in his 6-year career (less than 11 games per season on average) and has only played a full season once, in 2015.

His list of injuries has been long:

  • Nov 2014 - foot (IR)
  • Sep 2016 - quad (out 3 wks)
  • Dec 2016 - clavicle (IR)
  • Aug 2017 - hamstring
  • Oct 2017 - fractured forearm (IR)
  • Nov 2018 - broken forearm (IR)

He did manage to start and finish the final 13 games of the 2019 season, but was forced to settle for a one-year, $4.5m deal in 2019, after playing the 2018 season on the 5th year option at $8.5m

Estimateded contract

The question of Ward’s value largely comes down to the question of how teams view his injury history. There’s no question he is versatile (he has played both CB and safety in the NFL) and skilled (84.2 defensive grade from PFF in 2019 ranked him #10 among all NFL safeties). But a reputation for being ‘fragile’ does a lot to mitigate a player’s value in the eyes of NFL front-office types.

OTC projects his value at $4.58m — applying the 14.5% “Spotrac escalator” would increase his expected contract APY to $5.25m per year, but a quick look at the list of NFL safeties pasted above shows that this would put him in the 25th spot, tied with Eric Weddle, as measured by contract APY, just below Kenny Vaccaro ($6m), and far below, for example, Malcom Jenkins ($8.5m).

Without considering the impact of injuries, Ward could probably command $9 - $10m per year — after all, the Niners already gave him an $8.5m contract in 2018.

But, taking his injury history into account, the most likely answer to the question of his contract value would seem to come in the form of a base contract of around $5-$6m, with around $4m per year in incentives/bonues based on being active and playing well.

With the right structure, the Niners can probably hold onto Ward in 2020 and beyond — probably with a contract structured with multiple annual options designed to avoid issues with the 30% rule.

It’s hard to imagine Ward wanting to leave the Niners given their current success and expectations for the future, but he might be lured away by a team that can offer him more security in a more standard multi-year contract. I’m not sure that the salary-cap and injury history fit with the Redskins would be ideal, but Jimmie Ward is probably one of the two safeties currently scheduled to hit free agency in March who would likely offer a strong upgrade on the field over Montae Nicholson.

Damarious Randall, Browns

Cleveland Browns v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Damarious Randall was drafted by the Packers in the first round of the 2015 draft.

He was traded to the Browns for QB Deshone Kizer and a swap of 5th round picks.

He’s a capable safety who notched up 9 passes defended and 4 interceptions in each of ‘17 and ‘18 seasons. In 2018, his first season with the Browns, he broke out with 72 tackles.

In 2019, he played in just 11 games, with attendant drops in tackles and passes defended, and failed to intercept a pass for the first time in his career.

Pro Football Rumors has him rated as the 5th-best free agent safety available this off-season, but OverTheCap’s valuation method puts him 8th (out of 9). His 2019 PFF rating of 69.3 ranks him 59th among all NFL safeties.

Estimated contract

Randall played the 2019 season on the 5th year option that came with his first-round draft position. Given the stark fall-off in play, his games missed to injury, and his ejection from a late season game for his hit on Steelers receiver Diontae Johnson, it seems unlikely that Randall can command premium money this off-season.

With an entirely new coaching staff and, apparently, a new GM, I doubt whether the new powers-that-be in Cleveland find Randall worth the effort to keep. Here’s some recent commentary about Randall from Dawgs by Nature, the Cleveland Browns’ SB Nation site:

The good: Finished the season with Cleveland’s top tackling grade (79.8 per Pro Football Focus) and was fourth on the Browns with 60 tackles. The bad: Missed two games early in the season with a concussion that may not have been a concussion, three games in the middle of the season with a hamstring injury, and the second game against the Pittsburgh Steelers after being left home for undisclosed reasons. Randall is fine when he is on the field, but a new coaching staff may not believe he is worth the hassle. You hate to see the Browns create more holes, but this could be a case of addition by subtraction.

I don’t see Randall as a clear upgrade to what the Redskins have in Nicholson and Apke, but he is a former first-round pick by the Packers, who tend not to be careless with draft picks. Maybe there’s more talent here than I realize, and likely available at a reasonable contract price.

Vonn Bell, Saints

Wild Card Round - Minnesota Vikings v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

New Orleans and Vonn Bell reminds me a bit of how I described the Niners/Jimmie Ward situation above:

  • Good team in annual playoff contention
  • Starting safety
  • Limited cap space (and Drew Brees not under contract)

The Saints are going to need to make some hard salary cap decisions again this year (remember when they traded away Jimmy Graham?).

Bell has been steady if unspectacular for the Saints, with 14 passes defended and one interception in a 4 year career, but averaging 84 tackles per year.

Vonn Bell was a 2nd round draft pick of the Saints in the 2016 draft, and he has been an on-and-off starter in his four years with the team.

With an overall grade of 64.6 from PFF in 2019, but a coverage grade of just 51.9, Bell doesn’t appear to be a great fit for the Redskins’ need for a cover safety to match with Landon Collins.

ProFootball Rumors has Bell ranked as the #6 available safety among the 9 safeties they list in their top-100 free agents of 2020. The valuation from OTC would put him #7 on the list.

I don’t see much evidence to convince me that Bell would provide a clear upgrade to Nicholson or Apke for the Redskins.

Karl Joseph, Raiders

Chicago Bears v Oakland Raiders Photo by Jack Thomas/Getty Images

The Raiders did not exercise the 5th year option on Joseph, whom they selected in the first round of the 2016 draft.

He started the first nine games of 2019 before suffering a foot injury in Week 10 and being placed on injured reserve, ending his season.

A glance at Joseph’s career stats shows that he has missed 15 games in his career, averages 59 tackles and less than 4 passes defended per season, with 4 interceptions in 4 years.

It’s hard to see anything that suggests that the 26-year-old free agent safety would provide an upgrade to Nicholson and Apke.

Poll

What should the Redskins do at the safety position this off-season?

This poll is closed

  • 13%
    Stand pat with the current roster; use the salary cap and draft capital to address higher priority positions.
    (62 votes)
  • 15%
    Focus on the draft for enhancing the position.
    (69 votes)
  • 70%
    Focus on veteran free agency for enhancing this position.
    (314 votes)
445 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Of the players highlighted in this article, when you take into consideration history, talent, age, likely contract, and so on, which one would you most want the Redskins front office to prioritize if they signed a veteran free agent S this off season?

This poll is closed

  • 77%
    Tre Boston
    (406 votes)
  • 7%
    Jimmie Ward
    (39 votes)
  • 2%
    Damarious Randall
    (15 votes)
  • 1%
    Vonn Bell
    (7 votes)
  • 2%
    Karl Joseph
    (15 votes)
  • 3%
    None of these: go for a top-tier free agent like Justin Simmons or Anthony Harris
    (16 votes)
  • 5%
    I didn’t see a player named in this article that I would want the Redskins to sign
    (27 votes)
525 votes total Vote Now