Free Agent Focus: SafetiesThe Falcons have two free agents that they have to decide whether to keep or let test the market: starting free safety Thomas DeCoud and utility backup James Sanders. In a perfect world the Falcons probably manage to hang onto both, but given other priorities, it’s possible one or both players slip through the cracks.
DeCoud has been up and down as a Falcon, but he’s generally been solid as the team’s free safety. Sanders was a nice late summer addition because he can play either safety spot, filling in that depth role vacated by Erik Coleman. There was some hope that when Sanders was signed, he could give the Falcons cause to let DeCoud walk if need be. But Sanders did not quite play at that level this year. He was serviceable when asked to fill in, but was not a significant upgrade when he was on the field versus when DeCoud suited up.
New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will have to make a decision on whether he thinks DeCoud or Sanders can potentially be the quarterback of the secondary in this new scheme. Or he will have to find another option.
One obvious alternative choice would be DaShon Goldson, a player that Nolan drafted in San Francisco. Goldson is coming off a breakout season where he had 6 interceptions. The concern with Goldson is that up until this year, he really was not anything more than an above average player. And any team that is going to pay him will have to determine if his emergence was due to his natural progression and development, or simply because of the introduction of a new scheme by Vic Fangio. If it’s the latter, then there is a buyer’s beware on him.
Outside Goldson, there are few free safeties that jump out for the Falcons to sign. Jim Leonhard (Jets) has a bit of the intangibles that the Falcons probably would want as leader in their secondary, but he’s finished his second straight season on injured reserve and will be 30 in October. His teammate Brodney Pool is a ballhawk, but a bit too one-dimensional as he’s a suspect run defender.
Reggie Nelson is known by head coach Mike Smith, and played well as a rookie in 2007. But in the ensuing years after Smith’s departure, his play dropped off significantly. But he had a nice bounce-back season this past year in Cincinnati. But the issue with Nelson is whether you can count on him to maintain that level of play.
One other player near the top of the list is Tennessee’s Michael Griffin. Griffin has not quite developed into the elite safety the Titans envisioned when they made him their top pick in 2007. But he is a fast, athletic safety that at least offers some upside.
But in truth, there are no obvious upgrades over a player such as DeCoud on the market. When examining their entire bodies of work, nobody’s really stands out above his. This is the classic sort of free agent market where mid-level starting safeties get overpaid. If the Falcons can re-up with DeCoud on a hometown discount, that probably makes the most sense.
If the Falcons lose Sanders and are looking for more of a utility backup, one option out there is Jordan Babineaux, younger brother of Jonathan. Babineaux can play either safety spot as well as nickel cornerback, giving the team options there. But in the end, the Falcons should probably try and keep both DeCoud and Sanders. If they were to prioritize one over the other, then DeCoud is probably the better choice. But if the Falcons are going to want to find a player that is a significant upgrade at free safety, they will need to focus on finding him in the draft.