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About Washington’s free safety position

How do we fill the current hole in the depth chart?

Washington Football Team v New York Giants Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

Overview of the Commanders’ free safety position

I have to say, I came out of Week 18 expecting Bobby McCain to be a front office target for a contract extension, and I’ve read several reports that Ron Rivera is interested in bringing him back, but with free agency just over two weeks’ distant, I guess it’s time to consider some other options.

Washington’s depth at the position is paper thin, with McCain hitting free agency and Deshazor Everett unlikely to be on a football field in 2022 following the fatal car crash that resulted in the death of his passenger and a charge of involuntary manslaughter against Everett.

That leaves Jeremy Reaves, a fan favorite who joined the Redskins in 2018 as an udrafted free agent out of South Alabama who had a cup of coffee with the Eagles during training camp. Reaves has spent his 4-year NFL career bouncing between Washington’s practice squad and regular roster. I’ve lost count of how many times he has moved between the two, but he’s never been active for more than 9 games in any season, and, while a number of fans see him as a high-level backup or potential starting free safety, it seems significant that no other team has ever “poached” him from the Washington practice squad.

McCain’s cap number in Miami in 2019 and 2020 was over $6m per year. The Washington Football Team signed him for less than $1.5m because he was cut late in the offseason and had few options for getting on a roster where he could play. I imagine he’s hoping to get back to the $6m+ contract in 2022, which would put him in the middle of the pack for all safeties (in the 20th - 24th highest paid range).

(As an aside, I noticed in looking at safety salaries just now, that Landon Collins’ $14m per year deal is 8th on the list, which is topped by Jamal Adams at $17.5m APY.)

The team clearly needs help at the free safety position, and, while I don’t think it’s time to count Bobby McCain out, with free agency just 18 days away, it seems like a good time to at least consider what the front office will be thinking about in terms of fleshing out the defensive secondary.

Let’s start, though, by thinking about a different position, and the other side of the ball because I think it has a huge impact on every decision that will be made this offseason, in both free agency and the draft.

Who will play quarterback?

I think that all of the free agent extensions (aside, obviously, from Charles Leno) will be impacted by Washington’s current search for a quarterback. If the team acquires a high-priced veteran signal caller, then it may need all its available cap resources to get him in the building. Taking on, say, a Russel-Wilson-sized contract at the QB spot may force the team to rely on Jeremy Reaves ($965,000 in 2022 per Over the Cap) instead of paying $6m or $16m for a different proven veteran.

For the Commanders to be active in the free agent market on March 16th when the most in-demand, top-dollar free agents are signed, they will need to be relying on (a) Taylor Heinicke or Kyle Allen, (b) a drafted rookie, or (c) a low-cost vet like Mitch Trubisky.

Acquiring a guy with an expensive contract like Watson ($35m fully guaranteed), Cousins ($35m), Rodgers ($27.5m), Garoppolo ($25.6m), Wilson ($24m), or Wentz ($22m), would not only eat up draft capital in trade, but would also cut deep into the team’s estimated $31.8m in 2022 cap space (all figures per Over the Cap).

Washington’s offseason plan is totally contingent on and revolves around the decision the team makes at quarterback. If free agency were the solar system, the QB position would be the sun; free safety would be more like Mars. If the analogy were to the household budget, then the QB is the mortgage payment, while free safety would be the wireless internet service.

Until we know what the plan is at quarterback, it’s hard to really understand what Washington can do in free agency to address free safety (or linebacker or tight end for that matter).

That said, let’s get familiar with a few guys (this is not a comprehensive list) who look like they’ll be available on 16 March.

Marcus Williams, Saints

New Orleans Saints v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Williams was a 2nd round pick of the New Orleans Saints in 2017. They like him — enough that they used the franchise tag on him in 2021 — and I imagine they’d like to keep him, but the Saints have the absolute worst salary cap position in the NFL at the moment. The GM, Mickey Loomis, is busy restructuring contracts of existing players to get cap compliant by 16 March. It’s hard to see the team having the cap space to keep Marcus Williams in-house. He made $10.6m last season, so he’d be up to at least $12.7m this year (the cost of a 2nd tag).

Given the Commanders’ heavy investment in Landon Collins, it’s hard to see the front office spending the money on a guy like Williams.

I know it’s been popular among the fan base to say that Collins will or should be cut this season, but I’ve never believed it would happen. The difference between keeping Landon Collins and cutting Landon Collins is $6.5m. He would need to be replaced on the roster, and his replacement would have to earn less than $6m for the team to realize any real savings. It seems as if replacing Collins with a veteran who makes less than $6m per year would be a step backwards, or, at best, treading water. Personally, I think that Collins will be back and should be back. Even restructuring Collins seems like a ‘last resort’ kind of move to afford a high-dollar quarterback, but a restructure is much more likely that a release of Collins.

So I don’t really see Marcus Williams as a legitimate target for the Commanders this offseason, but for shits & giggles, lets look briefly at who he is.

Here’s an excerpt from a Canal Street Chronicles article about Williams from October:

The safety position is a tough one to evaluate, unless you’re watching all-22 tape regularly, due to the fact that you’re only highlighted when the ball is thrown your way or if you come into the screen view to make a tackle.

All of the big plays that safeties prevent by closing off throwing lanes are pretty much impossible to analyze while watching live and this is probably what Williams does best.

The fifth-year starter has only been targeted a mere four times so far this year, according to PFF and he’s only allowed two of those targets to be caught for a grand total of 16 yards.

He also has two pass breakups and two interceptions, which don’t get added as targets in PFF’s database, for whatever reason.

So basically, what the numbers tell you are that quarterbacks rarely throw the ball in Marcus Williams’ vicinity. When they do, they often pay for it. The 20.8 passer rating QB’s have when they throw in his radius this season is worse than they would have simply throwing the ball in the dirt every play.

Williams started 16 games in 2021, with 74 tackles, 8 passes defensed, 2 interceptions, and a forced fumble. He spent a lot of time covering the deep middle. His defensive average depth of target was a staggering 17 yards.

It’s not surprising, then, that he gave up some yards (401 on 43 targets) and a few touchdowns. But throwing on Williams wasn’t a particularly efficient way for opposing quarterbacks to do business. They completed just 48.8% of passes thrown his way for an 85.5 rating.

Spotrac estimates Williams contract value at $15m per year, which would put him in 4th place among safeties, behind Jamal Adams, Harrison Smith and Justin Simmons. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him squeeze a few more dollars out of this contract to nose in front of Smith and/or Simmons.

Suffice to say, if money were no object, Marcus Williams would be at the top of my shopping list, but, personally, it’s hard for me to see the Commanders paying that kind of money for a free safety this year.

Tyrann Mathieu, Chiefs

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Pittsburgh Steelers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

The 30-year-old Mathieu is at the end of a 3-year contract worth $14m per year that he signed with the Chiefs at the same time Washington signed Landon Collins to his deal.

He’s not gonna get any cheaper on what is likely to be his last big contract in the NFL.

Here’s what ProFootballNetwork has to say about Mathieu:

Mathieu had a stellar season in pass coverage and as a run-stopper in 2021. Following his strong campaign, the Chiefs named him the team’s Most Valuable Player once again. He earned the Derrick Thomas team MVP for the first time in 2019.

A two-time Pro Bowl selection and two-time All-Pro, Mathieu had 76 tackles (60 solo), 2 tackles for losses, 3 interceptions, and 6 pass deflections last season. He returned an interception for a touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens to boot.

Mathieu had multiple NFL teams interested in his services the last time he was a free agent. The former LSU star figures to have plenty of interest if he hits free agency this offseason.

Mathieu would be a great addition to the Commanders defense, but for all the same reasons that I don’t believe Washington is in play for Williams, I don’t think they’ll be in play for Mathieu.

There are other options at the position like Jesse Bates of the Bengals (who seems a good candidate for the franchise tag) and Quandre Diggs (Seahawks) that will be attractive targets, though I think the same issue of salary cap will be an impediment.

Maybe it’s time to look at some options that are likely to fit into a more economy-class model of free safety.

Tracy Walker, Lions

Green Bay Packers v Detroit Lions Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

Let me start this one by saying that I think Walker, who is at the end of his rookie contract, is most likely to re-sign with the Lions, but if he hits the free agent market on March 16th, he could be just the kind of player the Commanders are looking for — that is, he’ll be available at a price that is far below the premium that guys like Jesse Bates, Marcus Williams and Tyrann Mathieu will get. Walker is likely to be tiered with the Bobby McCains of the 2022 offseason.

This would be a good time to add Walker to the roster. He is just 24 years old (he’ll be 25 next month), and he has accumulated lots of playing time in his 4 seasons in Detroit. Let’s look at the breakdown of his snap counts per PFF:

You can see that his role shifted from being primarily a free safety in his rookie season, to being more of a strong safety/slot cover guy by 2020, and his PFF grades dropped as that happened.

In 2021, under a new coaching staff, Walker returned to playing primarily as a free safety, and his PFF grade rebounded.

Walker is definitely NOT a top-tier, Pro Bowl type free safety. Instead, he is an experienced, mid-level free safety with 34 NFL starts and a history of staying healthy, who is versatile enough to help a defense, and who shouldn’t break the bank in free agency.

Honestly, if the cost were the same, I’d prefer to re-sign Bobby McCain, but in a free agent class that boasts a lot of free safety talent, if the Lions don’t bring him back, Walker might end up being a guy who could be signed on a low-cost deal and provide adequate play in the Commanders defense.

Marcus Maye, Jets

New York Jets v New England Patriots Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images

I actually highlighted Marcus Maye in a different article about free agency, so I’ll just touch on a few key points here.

Maye is entering his 6th season in the NFL, having spent his entire 5-year career with the Jets after being drafted in the 2nd round in 2017. The team liked him well enough to use the franchise tag on him a year ago to keep him in New York for his 5th NFL season at a cost of $10.6m.


Related:

Four possibilities for the Commanders’ first-ever free agent class in 2022


Unlike Marcus Williams, who was also tagged last season, things didn’t go so well for Maye in 2021. He played well enough when he was healthy, but he ruptured his Achilles tendon in Week 9, and made headlines in New York and across the national sports pages due to an off-the-field issue. In February 2021, Maye was involved in a car crash and was charged with, among other things, DUI. Apparently, the Jets were not aware of the incident until October, when he was scheduled for a court appearance.

Williams is 28 years old and coming off a major injury and an off the field incident that puts his maturity and decision-making in question. All of this adds up to a guy who needs to get on a roster where he can play to prove he his healthy and capable, and a coach who will help him rehabilitate his public image.

If Maye is healthy enough to play, a 1-year low cost marriage arrangement between him and the Commanders might be just what the doctor ordered, for both parties.

Kareem Jackson, Broncos

Washington Football Team v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Tafoya/Getty Images

When I tell you that Kareem Jackson is 34 years old, the first thing you’re likely to say is: no thanks!

But look at his career production and you’ll see that the former 2010 first-round pick is still producing at a high level.


While he’s seen a fall off in passes defended over the past couple of seasons, his other measurable production numbers have stayed pretty consistent with his career production. His career AV (approximate value) numbers have ranged between 5 and 7; the steady AV of 6 over the past four seasons is an indication that his play has not declined (much) with age.

In Denver, Jackson has been paired with Justin Simmons. I found this description fairly interesting:

Jackson helps Simmons have a bit more freedom in coverage, but also gives Vic Fangio a versatile weapon in coverage because he can line up all over. While Jackson played over 600 snaps as a two-high safety, he also saw 200-plus down in the box and over 150 as a nickel cornerback. That gave Denver a lot of ways to attack opposing offenses.

I’m not sure that Jackson is the pure free safety/center fielder that many fans would probably like to see added to improve Washington’s pass coverage, but a trio of similarly skilled safeties in Kareem Jackson, Landon Collins and Kam Curl would probably provide a huge amount of positional flexibility and toughness at the safety position overall, and no free agent is likely to offer more value per contract dollar than Jackson.

While he carried a cap hit of $13.8m as recently as 2020, Jackson will find it increasingly difficult to generate top-money offers as he approaches the end of his playing career. Perhaps the opportunity to see the field a lot in roles similar to those he played in Denver could be appealing to both Jackson and Jack Del Rio.

Poll

When you consider everything — including likely contract $ — what approach to free safety do you think the Commanders should prioritize in March?

This poll is closed

  • 27%
    Re-sign Bobby McCain
    (256 votes)
  • 7%
    Go big or go home — Marcus Williams from the Saints
    (67 votes)
  • 4%
    It’s never too late — Tyrann Mathieu from the Chiefs
    (45 votes)
  • 16%
    Still young, not expensive — Tracy Walker from the Lions
    (150 votes)
  • 8%
    One year ‘prove it’ deal after injury and off-field issue — Marcus Maye from the Jets
    (81 votes)
  • 1%
    12-year veteran, 34-yr-old Kareem Jackson from the Broncos
    (13 votes)
  • 1%
    I want a veteran free agent — but not any of these guys
    (12 votes)
  • 12%
    No veteran free agents needed — draft a stud free safety in the 2nd round
    (119 votes)
  • 2%
    We’ve got Jeremy Reaves so we don’t need anyone else
    (20 votes)
  • 17%
    Think laterally — move Kendall Fuller to safety/slot and let BSJ replace him at boundary CB, or just let Kam Curl play FS
    (165 votes)
928 votes total Vote Now