As the eve of the league’s new legal “tampering” period is upon us, it’s time to look at the final spot on the roster that the Falcons could address in free agency: safety.
The big priority for the Falcons at this position probably won’t revolve around adding a new player, but locking down a current one. William Moore is a free agent, and is interested in testing the market. At this point, I believe this preemptive negotiation period will aid the Falcons in their endeavors to re-up with Moore. If he gets away, the Falcons have a fairly large hole here.
They might try and plug it with Charles Mitchell, but it would be a tall order for him to replace Moore, who is arguably the team’s third or fourth best defensive player. Instead, if Moore departs, the Falcons probably will need to scramble to find a suitable replacement on the market.
Three strong safeties stand out on the open market: Kenny Phillips (Giants), Patrick Chung (Patriots), and LaRon Landry (Jets).
Like Moore, all three have struggled with injuries over the years. Moore has missed a combined 8 games over the past two seasons due to injury. Phillips missed 9 this past year, not long after a 2009 season where he missed 14 games. Both Chung and Landry missed 8 games in 2011, while Chung missed four more this past year.
And as in the case of Moore, those durability concerns will likely drive down their prices. None of those players are good bets to make it through a full 16-game slate healthy.
Landry is probably the most Moore-like in his playing style. He’s a physical, hard-hitting run defender that is as big as a house. He’s versed in both the 4-3 and 3-4 defenses and has played both safety positions. But besides his durability issues, Landry has struggled with inconsistency. When he’s on his game, he’s potentially as good as any safety in the league. But he can also be a liability at times with missed tackles and blown assignments. He is also a half-year older than Moore, and thus has more wear on the tires.
Eighteen months younger than Moore, Kenny Phillips is probably the best of the trio of candidates. He’s more of a finesse safety than Moore, not being an overly physical run defender but is still capable. He might be slightly superior to Moore in coverage, but doesn’t make quite as many big plays as Moore does. He is a good all-around safety that doesn’t particularly excel at anything but is also not weak anywhere.
Chung is the youngest of the group, as he’ll turn 26 this summer. He’s not as big as the others and it is one of the reasons why he’s struggled to stay healthy. He’s been a nice asset for the Patriots over the years, and their secondary was usually better when he was in the lineup. He’s an active player that has decent range and is willing to throw his body around. But again, he’s not as consistent a tackler due to his lack of size and doesn’t make it up for with his coverage abilities.
Yeremiah Bell (Jets) could be a quick and dirty stopgap solution because he’s familiar with Nolan from their shared days in Miami. Bell is a physical player that adds value in the locker room, but he’s limited in coverage and is 35 years old. He won’t offer much of anything in terms of potential as a starter. George Wilson (Bills) is a smart, veteran player that could be a decent option. But Wilson turns 32 next week and is better suited to be a third safety and backup than starter at this point in his career.
Charles Woodson (Packers), Ed Reed (Ravens), and Ronde Barber (Buccaneers) are three big name veteran free safeties on the open market. Woodson and Barber are converted corners that can add value in the nickel because they can play the slot and defend the run. But both are past their primes, and even if they decided to suit up this year for a team, it would likely be their last. Reed is also close to retirement. He would be a great subpackage player due to his superior coverage instincts, but he’s got a limited shelf life going forward. In 2012 he had a decent year, but started to show that the end is near for him.
I talked before in the cornerback discussion that the Falcons might want to look into adding a dime back to the mix. One of the inspirations for the type of player the Falcons could be looking for in that role was Houston Texans safety Glover Quin, who is also hitting the market. Quin moved to safety after an abysmal 2011 season as a corner. The Texans’ 3-4 scheme doesn’t use nickel, but instead uses dime. During which they put another safety on the field to man centerfield, and bring Quin down into the box as an extra linebacker. Quin’s coverage abilities and toughness as a run defender make him an ideal fit for that role. While he’s likely to earn a nice contract on the open market, the Falcons could tinker with the idea of adding him if they lose Moore. He’d definitely be an upgrade in coverage, although he’s not nearly the physical enforcer that Moore is in the secondary.
Another name to keep your eye on would be Rashad Johnson (Cardinals). Johnson is a similar player to current Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud. Neither are great run defenders due to subpar size, but are fast, rangy players that can cover a lot of ground. Johnson has good instincts and flashes excellent ball skills when he can sit back in zone and read the quarterback in centerfield. While not a candidate to replace Moore, the Falcons might think about adding Johnson to supplement him. With Chris Hope likely departing as the team’s No. 3 safety, Johnson could potentially slide into that role. Thus in dime situations, Johnson could play deep coverage opposite DeCoud, while Moore moves up into the box to fill a Quin-like role.
Mitchell could also potentially project into that role due to good range and run-stopping skills, and thus if the Falcons are looking for a role player they shouldn’t look to spend much in case Mitchell does earn the job in camp.
The key for Atlanta will be retaining Moore. Moore’s durability issues mean that the Falcons don’t want to break the bank for him, since he may only have a handful of fruitful and healthy seasons left. But he’s the best option available to the Falcons. He brings a physicality to the position the few available free agents possess. He also should be the most comfortable option in Nolan’s scheme because he now has a full year in it.