Eric Reid’s collusion grievance has been in the news, but Reid’s specific situation has overshadowed a rather curious offseason phenomenon involving him and his entire position group: NFL teams aren’t keen on signing free-agent safeties.
Six of the first 60 names on NFL.com’s list of the top 101 free agents remain unsigned. One is cornerback Bashaud Breeland (No. 15), who failed a physical after coming to terms with the Panthers at the start of free agency. Another is wideout Dez Bryant (No. 16), whose production slipped last year before he became a cap casualty with the Cowboys. A third is defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins (No. 35), a run-stuffer who no longer fit the Colts’ new defensive scheme and was cut after free agency’s musical chairs began. The other three are safeties: Kenny Vaccaro (No. 25), Reid (No. 26), and Tre Boston (No. 60). There hasn’t been much of a market for any of them, though Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reported this morning that Boston is scheduled to visit the Colts. What gives? Jeremy Fowler of ESPN took a stab at explaining this on Thursday, but allow me to dig into it, too.
The circumstances in Reid’s case are obvious. Teams don’t want much to do with Reid because of his outspokenness on behalf of his friend and former 49ers teammate, Colin Kaepernick, in addition to his consistent willingness last season to follow Kaepernick’s lead by protesting during the national anthem. That the Bengals reportedly told Reid last month during a free-agent visit that they would prohibit any protests certainly gives some juice to Reid’s grievance case, even if his collusion allegation might ultimately make for a harder sell.
Also, as For The Win noted last week, Vaccaro demonstrated during the anthem at least once last season, and Boston had once tried to organize some kind of team protest after the 2016 shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott by Charlotte police, when Boston was still with the Panthers. But the NFL isn’t blackballing every player who took a knee during the anthem at one point or another, and there are additional complicating factors here for all three players, too.
Vaccaro and Reid, in particular, thrive better as box safeties who do best playing closer to the line of scrimmage to contain the run, or to slide into a weakside inside linebacker (WILL) spot in nickel and dime packages. Strong safeties are typically less valuable to teams because they’re not as versatile in coverage downfield—an important distinction in a league where teams typically use three-or-more receiver sets and increasingly line up running backs as receivers.
A number of NFL teams also like their safeties to be interchangeable to help disguise coverages. This is where things get tricky for Boston. He’s coming off a season with the Chargers in which he had eight pass break-ups and five interceptions, both career highs. But, as Boston told Sporting News’ Alex Marvez back in March, talks between his camp and the Chargers hit a wall because “they think I’m more of a strong safety-type of player.” And Pro Football Focus ranked Boston 42nd among safeties in tackle efficiency. The general feeling—Reid’s prominent status as a protestor notwithstanding—is that this isn’t an elite-level group.
“I think it may have something to do with the caliber of players available,” Joel Corry, a former agent who now analyzes contracts and the salary cap for CBSSports.com, told me. “I suspect free safeties would have fared better because of the coverage ability.”
It’s not known exactly what Vaccaro, Reid, and Boston have demanded from teams, but Boston gave some indication of what he might be seeking in his interview with Marvez: “We’re closer to veteran minimum than we are to the $7-, $8-, $9 million players we wanted to be two months ago or even eight months ago,” Boston said. Depending on each player’s specific asking price, they could be overinflating their value.
Consider: Kurt Coleman, who turns 30 in July, signed with the Saints before the start of free agency for a max of three years, with an average annual value of $5.45 million, and $6.2 million in guarantees. Soon after free agency began, Tyrann Mathieu, age 26, signed with the Texans for just one year and $7 million, with $4.5 million guaranteed. Then, one week into free agency, 29-year-old Morgan Burnett inked a deal with the Steelers—who will likely drop him down to play WILL on passing downs, to replace Ryan Shazier—with a three-year max, $4.8 million in AAV, and $4.25 million guaranteed. Now look at the deals some of the league’s premiere hybrid safety-linebackers have gotten: The Rams’ Mark Barron, age 29, is due to earn $10 million this season, on a deal he signed in 2016; and the Cardinals’ Deone Bucannon, age 25, had his fifth-year option picked up for 2018, at a price of $8.718 million.
Like Bucannon, Reid (27 years old) and Vaccaro (26) are former first-round picks. They both played last season on their fifth-year options, which earned them $5.676 million. Boston, 25, was a fourth-round pick who was cut after 2016 and made $900,000 last year on a one-year prove-it deal. But this year’s market set the bar for all three of them much lower.
The Giants weren’t going to pursue ex-Dolphins safety Michael Thomas in free agency, even after they hired ex-Dolphins defensive backs coach Lou Anarumo. Then the market came in soft, and they got Thomas at two years max with $1.5 million in guarantees.
Thomas is more of a free safety who can be paired next to Landon Collins, an impactful strong safety. Also, Thomas demonstrated during the anthem throughout the 2017 season. Yet that didn’t keep the Giants from signing him, albeit for far less than what Vaccaro, Reid, and Boston likely want.
Last Tuesday was the deadline for any free agents who sign with other teams to count as part of next year’s formula for compensatory draft picks. That, too, could have contributed to the delay some teams may have had in signing Vaccaro, Reid, and Boston. But none have signed in the days since the deadline came and went, either.
Jason Fitzgerald, the founder of overthecap.com, told me the league may have overinvested at safety, which created fewer opportunities for Vaccaro, Reid, and Boston to sell themselves. “In looking at the market there are 25 safeties who make $5 million or more (annually), and that covers 19 teams,” Fitzgerald said. “Nineteen of those deals were signed in 2016 or 2017, so maybe the destinations just were not there.”
NFL teams notoriously want to control costs, and this year’s draft class was well-stocked at safety, with eight safeties going in the first three rounds. That’s eight young players with up to four years of cost certainty (because of the rookie wage scale), and possibly five years for the three first-rounders, who all have fifth-year team options.
The player who best stood a chance at re-setting the market was Rams free safety Lamarcus Joyner. But on March 6, the last day teams had a chance to do so, the Rams placed the franchise tag on Joyner. He will earn $11.287 million fully guaranteed this season. The rest of the safety market just never materialized from there.
Boston’s flirtation with the Colts could portend a thaw in what’s been a frozen market for free-agent safeties. Reid’s is a unique case, given the circumstances. But it still seems likely Vaccaro and Boston will land somewhere eventually, just for way less money than they’d probably hoped.