A Look Back At The 2011 Free Agent Safety Class

On the day before the free agent frenzy started this year, we took a detailed look here on BTB at the stats for the top 25 free agent safeties.

The Cowboys took their own sweet time until they eventually signed Abram Elam and re-signed Gerald Sensabaugh to fairly modest contracts. Meanwhile, the Cowboys faithful were watching in terror as one fan favorite safety after another was signed to sometimes ludicrous contracts.

Eric Weddle and Michael Huff each re-signed with their teams for $8 million per year, Roman Harper re-upped with the Saints for $7, Quintin Mikell went to the Rams for $7 million per year. Dawan Landry landed in Jacksonville for $5.5 a year and Daniel Manning went to Houston for $5 million.

Yesterday, news reached us that Sensabaugh has inked a long term deal with the Cowboys worth 4.5 million per year, so this is as good a time as any to go back and look at what became of last year's free agent safety class.

I'll use the Pro Football Focus grades again to rank the free agents, because in many cases last year the free agent PFF grades seemed to match their contract numbers pretty well. Those contract numbers are now included in the table below. A brief reminder about the grades:

PFF Grades: PFF look at game tape, assign a grade for every play and then ‘normalize’ the data so that the average player for a given position is graded at zero. The higher the positive grading the better the performance and vice versa.

Also, comparing the 2010 full year with the three quarters of the 2011 year is tricky. The PFF grades are cumulative, if all the players listed below continue their current performance at their current trajectory for the rest of the years, their grades should be 33% higher (and in case of a negative grade: 33% lower) than they currently are.

The table below shows the 2011 free agents, sorted by the size of the contracts they signed prior to the 2011 season. The first column shows where they ranked on PFF's ranking of safeties for the 2010 season, the age is their age per August, 2011. '???' indicates that I haven't found any data.

Rank Name Team Age Contract per year
Years 2010 Overall Grade 2011 Overall Grade
2 Michael Huff OAK 28 $8.0m 4 +13.9 -1.3
3 Eric Weddle SD 26 $8.0m 5 +12.6 +7.2
77 Eric Smith NYJ 28 $7.5m 3 -9.5 -11.9
11 Roman Harper NO 28 $7.1m 4 +7.1 -11.1
1 Quintin Mikell STL 30 $7.0m 4 +17.0 -4.6
4 Dawan Landry JAX 28 $5.5m 5 +10.5 -5.3
7 Danieal Manning HOU 28 $5.0m 4 +9.5 -1.0
53 Donte Whitner BUF 26 $4.0m 3 -3.4 +8.8
10 Gerald Sensabaugh DAL 28 $2.5m 1 +7.4 +3.8
61 Abram Elam DAL 29 $2.5m 1 -4.1 -3.2
57 Dashon Goldson SF 27 $2.0m 1 -3.8 -2.0
70 Bernard Pollard BAL 26 $1.4m 2 -6.1 +2.1
71 Jon McGraw KC 32 $0.8m 1 -6.5 -7.4
17 Jordan Babineaux TEN 28 $0.8m 1 +4.4 -5.4
25 Brodney Pool NYJ 27 $0.7m 1 +2.5 -3.0
55 Reed Doughty WAS 28 $0.7m
3 -3.7 -5.3
49 Deon Grant NYG 32 ??? ??? -2.1 -4.5
25 Tom Zbikowski BAL 26 ??? 1 +2.5 -1.5

What the table shows is that there must be some teams who are not very happy with the contracts they gave those free agent safeties. In fact, most of the players signing contracts for two million or more are performing way below their 2010 level, arguably the level they were paid for. Notable exceptions are Eric Weddle, Donte Whitner, Gerald Sensabaugh and Bernard Pollard.

Abram Elam leads a group of players like Dashon Goldson and Deon Grant whose performance, while not spectacular, has at least remained fairly stable - and they were paid in accordance with that performance.

In the end, this chart tells you two and a half things:

  • One, free agency is always a tricky business. You pay for last year's performance but often get something completely different in return.
  • Two, at 4.5 million a year over 5 years, Gerald Sensabaugh is far from overpaid - unless he, like many free agents before him, is not able to replicate his current performance in future years. But the Cowboys have seen him play for three years now, they should know exaczly what they are getting. Effectively this is a good price for an above average but perhaps not great safety.
  • Two and a half, because this isn't really evident from the table: Everything I've seen and read from the 2012 safety draft class indicates that - like the 2011 class - it's going to be another very weak class. The Cowboys may have made a very shrewd move to remain solid at safety while waiting for better talent to emerge down the line.

Abe Elam could possibly be next on the Cowboys' agenda, perhaps even for the same two and a half reasons.

The Star-Telegram recently wrote that Elam and Sensabaugh are arguably the team's best safety tandem since 2003, which was Darren Woodson's last season on the field and Roy Williams' second season in the league.

"I think they're both very good football players," Cowboys secondary coach Dave Campo said, "and I think both of them complement our scheme because of the things they do."

But the article also highlights the one concern about Sensabaugh: he is not the playcaller you want to have in the secondary:

Elam is the secondary's quarterback, calling out the signals for the defensive backs, and communicating with the linebackers. That has helped turn Sensabaugh into a more productive player.

"We knew that Sensabaugh is a player, and just getting him back was a big thing for us," Campo said. "We know the guy can do what we want him to do and like him to do. But we also knew if he didn't have to handle all the game stuff, if he could concentrate on what he was doing, he would be a better player. The addition of Abe Elam has helped him to do that."

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