Interior DBs toward bottom of food chain
Safeties, John Lynch being an exception, are not coveted commodities in free agency.
Even after being kicked to the curb by the Tampa Bay Bucs, having devoted 11 seasons to the team and served as one of the catalysts for the turnaround of the onetime moribund franchise, John Lynch is one of the lucky ones.
At least, once he completes his ongoing visits with suitors, Lynch knows that he will have some options. Most important, he will have a new address, and is all but guaranteed a place to finish his stellar career and probably a respectable salary.
In a league that has made obsolete the adage safety first, however, Lynch is a rarity. As usual in free agency, the safety position has lagged behind the pace of signings at other spots, and interior secondary defenders are again struggling in a market that has dramatically ebbed after the initial flurry at the outset.
A five-time Pro Bowl performer, and high-character veteran, Lynch has made four trips this week alone. For some of his peers leaguewide, rattled by the sound of silence in free agency, mobility has been limited to backing the car out of the driveway. Frustrated by the inertia of the market, safeties are logging frequent walker miles, circling the block as they attempt to mentally contend with the anxiety of the unknown.
Yep, once again, safeties seem to be last on the free agency priority pecking order.
"It's maddening, really, staring at the phone and waiting even for an inquiry about my guy," said the agent for one safety who has been a starter for the past three seasons but who has garnered scant interest. "You've just got some positions, like guard or tight end or fullback, where teams are just looking to fill in with competent bodies. And now safety is viewed, it seems, that same way."
Years ago, a veteran Hall of Fame selector, explaining why he refused to vote for all-time NFL interceptions leader Paul Krause for induction into the football shrine, noted that a safety is nothing more than a cornerback who couldn't run. That isn't the case, of course, but the perception that safeties don't make plays, and that cornerback has become one of the game's most premium positions, is pervasive now.
Given the design of many defenses, in which the safety plays more like a linebacker and is being asked to do less in coverage, the position has regressed in some cases. There is a sense, even with the significance Rodney Harrison had in the New England defense in 2003, that safeties are simply interchangeable parts. Teams don't choose safeties high in the draft, don't pay them well, and usually look at the safety position first when they need some salary cap relief.
The upshot is that, for another spring, there are starting-caliber safeties in limbo.
Both of Cincinnati's starting safeties from 2003, Rogers Beckett and Mark Roman, are still on the market. Ditto Sam Garnes, former first-round draft pick Antuan Edwards and Reggie Tongue. There are also some younger safeties who might add depth, play in some "nickel" situations and contribute on special teams. But the market is stagnant from an interest and dollars standpoint, and some of the safeties currently unemployed will be fortunate to land jobs even at a modest price.
Arguably the best safety in the unrestricted free agent market, Deon Grant, went from Carolina to Jacksonville on a three-year, $7.25 million contract. There were six corners, by comparison, who received $7 million or more in signing bonuses alone on new deals early in the free agent signing period. Safety Mike Logan, who started every game for Pittsburgh in 2003, signed a new, three-year deal with the Steelers on Thursday that reportedly averages only a little more than $1 million per year. And that's coming off the best season of his career.
When they line up in the secondary, safeties and cornerbacks are separated by perhaps just seven or 10 yards. The financial gap, though, is light-years. Put Rodney Dangerfield in a football uniform, turn back the clock about 60 years, and he would be a safety.
"There's definitely a lack of respect for the position," said Edwards, whose productivity during five seasons with the Green Bay Packers often was affected by injuries. "They ask you to do a lot of things, you know, in a game. But they kind of forget about you when it comes time to pay up."
Just two positions of the 11 designated by the collective bargaining agreement, tight end ($2.612 million) and kicker/punter ($1.611 million), have lower "franchise" tag numbers than safety ($4.113 million), and that is indicative of how safeties are viewed. In time, as teams fill out their roster quotas after the draft, the safeties will get some play in the free agency market. By then, though, cap room will be scarce and offers modest.
Which is why, even in his current situation, John Lynch is the envy of virtually every other safety still looking for work.
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Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.