2012 Dallas Cowboys Free Agent Safety Primer: Limited Options

After looking at cornerbacks yesterday, we continue our leisurely stroll through this year's crop of NFL free agents by taking a look at the available safeties.

The Cowboys have signed Gerald Sensabaugh to a contract extension, but have not renewed Abram Elam's contract, making Elam a free agent. The Cowboys still have Danny McCray and Barry Church on the roster, but as rabblerousr wrote, those two "are probably career special teamers (albeit darned good ones)." And recent practice squad signee Justin Taplin-Ross probably isn't the long-term answer at safety either.

The good news though is that Sensabaugh gives the Cowboys a little flexibility in their personnel choices, as he can play both free and strong safety. However, as we look at possible free agent additions at safety, keep in mind that the Cowboys spent $5 million last year on their starting safeties combined. Sensabaugh's contract pays him an average of $4.5 million per year, so it's unlikely the Cowboys are going to go after the top names in free agency this year. Look for the Cowboys to go after a lesser known and cheaper guy in free agency and/or shore up the position via the draft.

After the break, we look at 20 free agent safeties, how they held up in pass coverage, against the run and how they ultimately graded out.

Establishing a price range

The table below shows a sample of last year's 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.

The table is divided into two tiers. Tier one free agents commanded upwards of five million dollars per year last year, while the tier two players came in at between one and two million dollars on average. Note also the fairly strong correlation between the Overall Grade from Pro Football Focus and the contract figures (a similar correlation was observed by Brian Burke at Advanced NFL Stats), which is one reason why we'll focus on the PFF grades again this year as we evaluate the free agent safety class.

2010 Saftey Free Agent Class
Rank Name Team Age Contract per year
Years 2010 Overall Grade 2011 Overall Grade
2 Michael Huff OAK 28 $8.0m 4 +13.9 -3.2
3 Eric Weddle SD 26 $8.0m 5 +12.6 +12.9
11 Roman Harper NO 28 $7.1m 4 +7.1 -14.6
1 Quintin Mikell STL 30 $7.0m 4 +17.0 -2.8
4 Dawan Landry JAX 28 $5.5m 5 +10.5 -4.9
7 Danieal Manning HOU 28 $5.0m 4 +9.5 -2.1
53 Donte Whitner BUF 26 $4.0m 3 -3.4 +8.4
10 Gerald Sensabaugh DAL 28 $2.5m 1 +7.4 +0.2
61 Abram Elam DAL 29 $2.5m 1 -4.1 -5.3
57 Dashon Goldson SF 27 $2.0m 1 -3.8 -8.1
70 Bernard Pollard BAL 26 $1.4m 2 -6.1 +5.3
71 Jon McGraw KC 32 $0.8m 1 -6.5 -6.8
17 Jordan Babineaux TEN 28 $0.8m 1 +4.4 -7.4
25 Brodney Pool NYJ 27 $0.7m 1 +2.5 -0.4
55 Reed Doughty WAS 28 $0.7m
3 -3.7 -14.3

Free agent safeties in pass coverage

We'll use the same stats we used for the corners yesterday, here are the definitions:

Burn rate: number of catches a defensive back allows versus the number of balls thrown at the receiver he is covering. For example, a burn rate of 80% would mean that opponents have completed eight of ten passes thrown at the receiver the cornerback is covering. The lower the number the better.

Defensive Passer Rating (DPR): uses the same data and formula used for the passer rating for the quarterback (i.e. completion percentage, yard per attempt, touchdowns and interceptions), but applies them to a defender, where they become completion percentage allowed (aka 'burn rate'), yards per attempt allowed, touchdowns allowed and interceptions made. The lower the number the better

NFL rank: DPR ranking among 86 safeties who played on at least 25% of their teams' snaps in 2010.

Name
Team Snaps Targets Receptions Yards TDs INTs Burn Rate DPR NFL Rank
Mike Adams CLV 847 21 11 147 1 3 52.4 51.2 5
Jim Leonhard* NYJ 798 20 11 138 0 1 55.0 55.8 7
Brodney Pool NYJ 561 17 11 118 0 1 64.7 60.4 10
Reggie Nelson CIN 1,049 33 21 275 2 4 63.6 70.5 19
Jon McGraw KC 496 26 19 220 1 2 73.1 79.0 25
Tyrell Johnson** MIN 335 14 8 123 0 0 57.1 86.3 36
Bryan Scott BUF 587 63 42 393 3 2 66.7 86.3 37
Tyvon Branch OAK 1,167 63 36 412 4 1 57.1 91.5 44
Thomas DeCoud ATL 965 35 24 368 3 4 68.6 92.0 45
Michael Griffin TEN 1,141 38 23 241 4 2 60.5 92.1 46
Dashon Goldson SF 866 43 29 458 4 6 67.4 94.1 50
Steve Gregory SD 782 30 19 335 1 1 63.3 98.6 55
Abram Elam DAL 1,050 33 23 253 1 0 69.7 102.2 58
Chris Harris DET 400 18 9 194 3 1 50.0 105.1 60
Craig Steltz CHI 419 16 9 76 2 0 56.3 108.3 66
LaRon Landry*** WAS 513 21 15 159 1 0 71.4 109.0 67
Brandon Meriweather CHI 425 16 11 227 1 0 68.8 132.3 81
Husain Abdullah**** MIN 588 23 16 322 4 1 69.6 133.6 83
James Sanders ATL 462 21 14 228 2 0 66.7 134.6 84
Sean Jones TB 1,011 31 18 374 4 0 58.1 140.3 86
* torn patella tendon, future unclear, ** torn hamstring, *** recovering from Achilles surgery, **** considering retiring due to concussions

While there are more free agents available, these are the 21 that have seen significant playing time in 2011.

Defensive Stops

Again, just to get the definitions right:

Stops: The number of solo defensive tackles that constitute an offensive failure (defined as 45% of needed yards on first down, 60% of needed yards on second down, and 100% of needed yards on third or fourth down)

Stop percentage: Percentage of total solo tackles that are stops.

NFL rank: Stop percentage ranked against 86 safeties who played on at least 25% of their teams' snaps in 2010.

Name Team Age Snaps Tackles Assists Missed Tackles
Stops Stops in % NFL Rank
LaRon Landry *** WAS 27 513 43 4 5 21 48.8% 3
Craig Steltz CHI 25 419 31 8 2 14 45.2% 7
Bryan Scott BUF 30 587 52 5 7 23 44.2% 8
Jon McGraw KC 32 496 36 5 11 15 41.7% 10
Tyvon Branch OAK 25 1,167 83 19 6 32 38.6% 19
Reggie Nelson CIN 28 1,049 64 16 8 24 37.5% 22
Michael Griffin TEN 27 1,141 62 7 10 21 33.9% 30
Husain Abdullah **** MIN 26 588 49 2 4 16 32.7% 33
Chris Harris DET 29 400 16 2 6 5 31.3% 35
Brodney Pool NYJ 27 561 29 3 7 9 31.0% 37
Abram Elam DAL 30 1,050 58 8 5 16 27.6% 46
Jim Leonhard * NYJ 29 798 39 3 9 10 25.6% 51
Steve Gregory SD 29 782 58 9 8 14 24.1% 56
Sean Jones TB 29 1,011 75 9 16 18 24.0% 57
Thomas DeCoud ATL 26 965 76 9 10 17 22.4% 64
James Sanders ATL 28 462 35 4 6 7 20.0% 70
Mike Adams CLV 30 847 47 10 6 9 19.1% 74
Brandon Meriweather CHI 27 425 22 5 5 4 18.2% 75
Dashon Goldson SF 27 866 57 9 8 8 14.0% 82
Tyrell Johnson** MIN 26 335 18 6 3 1 5.6% 86

Overall 2011 Safety Grades:

We'll use the Pro Football Focus grades for this last exercise.

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.

However, these grades are cumulative. Say you have two players who consistently are graded with a +1.0 per game. However, one is injured after eight games, the other plays the full 16 games. The result: one player gets a +8.0 for the season, while the other gets a +16.0 although they basically played the exactly the same.

Name
Team Age Snaps Overall Grade Pass Rush Coverage vs. Run Penalties NFL rank
Craig Steltz CHI 25 419 +4.8 +1.2 +1.1 +1.9 +0.6 12
Michael Griffin TEN 27 1,141 +4.7 -0.5 +2.7 +2.3 +0.2 13
Jim Leonhard * NYJ 29 798 +2.9 -1.9 +5.7 -0.1 -0.8 17
LaRon Landry *** WAS 27 513 +2.3 -1.4 -0.1 +3.5 +0.3 18
Tyvon Branch OAK 25 1,167 +1.7 -6.8 -1.8 +9.0 +0.6 20
Mike Adams CLV 30 847 +1.5 -0.7 +5.6 -4.4 +1.0 21
Husain Abdullah **** MIN 26 588 +1.0 -0.4 -1.7 +2.2 +0.9 24
Reggie Nelson CIN 28 1,049 +0.4 +1.7 +2.3 -2.2 -1.4 28
Brodney Pool NYJ 27 561 -0.4 +0.2 -0.4 +0.7 -0.9 30
Thomas DeCoud ATL 26 965 -0.9 -0.4 -6.4 +4.4 +1.5 32
Brandon Meriweather CHI 27 425 -3.2 -0.3 -2.2 -0.3 -0.4 46
Abram Elam DAL 30 1,050 -5.3 -2.3 -5.8 +2.2 +0.6 55
Jon McGraw KC 32 496 -6.8 -1.1 -3.2 -2.2 -0.3 59
James Sanders ATL 28 462 -6.9 -2.2 -4.0 -1.4 +0.7 60
Chris Harris DET 29 400 -7.3 -0.2 -8.0 +0.3 +0.6 64
Tyrell Johnson** MIN 26 335 -7.3 -0.1 -4.4 -2.1 -0.7 64
Dashon Goldson SF 27 866 -8.1 -0.8 -5.7 +0.5 -2.1 69
Bryan Scott BUF 30 587 -8.8 -1.1 +1.4 -9.1 0.0 72
Steve Gregory SD 29 782 -11.3 -0.8 -7.6 -1.7 -1.2 74
Sean Jones TB 29 1,011 -14.7 +1.7 -12.2 -3.7 -0.5 82

Injury, age or simple not-good-enough-ism make this a very, very weak free agent safety class. On the plus side, we're not likely to see the number of large contracts we saw last year. On the downside, the Cowboys may be hard pressed to find an upgrade over Abe Elam and may actually end up re-signing Elam to another one-year deal

The Cowboys have limited options considering this safety class. They may decide to roll the dice with a short, "prove-it" deal for one of the free agents here like LaRon Landry or Michael Griffin, but they'd be well advised to look for a longer term solution at safety in this year's draft or even via trade.

Who do you think should play the safety spot next to Gerald Sensabaugh in 2012?

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