Cowboys Free Agent Prospects: The Safety Valve (Part One)

Safeties like this are not easy to get anymore. If the Dallas Cowboys could ever land a safety like Ed Reed, this defense would take it to the next level.

The Dallas Cowboys have had a rough time trying to replace Darren Woodson. Woodson was one of the all time greats at his position, and he changed the game with his hybrid style. It's now 2012, and the Cowboys are still looking to add that missing piece of the puzzle. We have not seen premier safety play on the Cowboys in a very long time. 2011 was the best safety play the Cowboys have had in recent memory, and that's a pretty low bar to hurdle. Gerald Sensabaugh and Abram Elam didn't lose us any games, but they didn't win us any either. I have always valued the safeties on a good defense because they are one of the most important players on the field.

Even though the Cowboys are missing a premier safety in their secondary, they are not the only team looking to fill out that position. In the college ranks, the quality of the safety prospects entering the NFL has been watered down. The Ed Reed's and Troy Polamalu's are just not coming out of college football anymore. The lack of safety talent entering the league leads to NFL teams placing a higher value on premier safeties already in the league. This may be the reason general managers are willing to hand out lucrative contracts to solid safeties.

There are two directions that the Cowboys can go, one would be to spend money in free agency on a proven commodity. Jerry Jones has been burned before by the big time safety contract, and he may be reluctant to give out another big deal. The second option would be to spend a high draft pick on the position.

In part one of this series, we will take a closer look at five safeties that will be available in free agency this year. If the Cowboys want to shore up this position in free agency, these are the names that may be of interest to the front office. In the second part of the series, we will take a closer look at the safety prospects that the Cowboys should be interested in the 2012 NFL Draft.

Abram Elam

Last year, the Cowboys signed former Cleveland Brown Abram Elam at a reasonable $2.5 million. The big question this year is, will the Cowboys bring him back? I think Elam brings some stability to the Cowboys secondary. Last summer I begged for the Cowboys to sign him. He looked like an upgrade over what we already had on the roster and Elam was familiar with Rob Ryan's defense.

His statistics did take a hit in 2011. Elam went from 2 interceptions and 10 passes defended in 2010, to zero in each category in 2011. I thought that he was going to bring us more production in the stat department, but for whatever reason that just never materialized.

One of the added benefits of bringing him back for another season is his versatility. Rob Ryan likes his safeties to be interchangeable, and Elam can play both the free and strong safety positions. At 6-0, 212 pounds, Elam has the size to play strong safety and contribute against the run. His speed is average and his ball skills are decent at free safety. Elam also has a firm grip on Ryan's system, and he makes the secondary calls. Bringing back a safety who already has experience in our system would be a safe route for the Cowboys to take.

The Cowboys will need to make a decision on whether to bring back Elam for another campaign in 2012. If the Cowboys decide to go in another direction, it will be Elam's lack of turnovers. With Elam you know what you are getting and he is a relatively frugal option.

Michael Griffin

Michael Griffin is the safety on the market that is the most appealing to me. The former Texas Longhorn was the 19th overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft. Griffin is in the mold of a true free safety that can ball hawk the center of the field. He is a great athlete that tested very well at the NFL Combine and his Texas Pro Day. At the combine he ran a 4.45 40 yard dash and he had a 36 inch vertical jump. At his Texas Pro Day, Griffin ran a 4.40 40 yard dash and had a 39 1/2 inch vertical jump. Texas is infamous for their doctored Pro Day numbers, so the combine results are more likely closer to the truth.

In five NFL seasons, he has registered 17 career interceptions and 7 forced fumbles. Griffin is exactly the type of play maker this secondary needs. The question is, how much money will it cost to land a safety of this quality? There have been rumblings that the Tennessee Titans are willing to franchise Griffin at $6.2 million. The Titans also have another potential Cowboys free agent target, cornerback Cortland Finnegan. Tennessee may not be able to afford both, so there will be a difficult decision to be made on which player to keep.

Griffin would be a great fit for the Cowboys. If Jerry Jones is serious about upgrading this secondary, then it may be wise to start by adding a athletic talent like Michael Griffin. We have not had a free safety of this caliber, and that has cost team dearly the past few seasons. Griffin would be a major upgrade at free safety position, and we would finally have a ball hawk roaming the secondary.

LaRon Landry

LaRon Landry is perhaps the most controversial free agent safety on the market. First off, he has spent his entire five year career with our rival, the Washington Redskins. Landry also has some serious durability concerns after being placed on injured reserve the last two seasons due to his ongoing issues with his left Achilles tendon. Due to those injury concerns, Landry may be one of the biggest bargains in all of free agency. A team may sign him to a incentive laden contract or a one year deal. Teams may not be wiling to give him a long term contract, but they may be willing to take a short term chance on him

There should be some interest from the Cowboys front office concerning Landry. They were very interested in Landry back in the 2007 NFL Draft, but he was the 6th overall pick, and the Cowboys never had a chance at drafting him. Landry was a force to be reckoned with during his career at LSU. He racked up 315 career tackles and 12 interceptions at LSU.

At the 2007 NFL Combine, Landry opened some scouts eyes in the individual workouts. He displayed a combination of size, strength and speed. In the 40 yard dash, he ran a 4.35 40 yard dash, and he had a 37 1/2 inch vertical jump. With good production in one of the best conferences in college football, the SEC, and his combine workout, Landry solidified himself as a top ten pick on draft day.

His NFL career has been an up and down affair though. In his rookie season, Landry was comfortable in his role at strong safety. When the Redskins lost Sean Taylor to a tragic incident, they decided to move him over to free safety. He was just never the same player he was at strong safety, and struggled with the position change. When the Redskins decided to move from the 4-3 defense to the 3-4 defense, they moved him back to strong safety. Landry looks more comfortable as a strong safety in the 3-4 scheme, but he is a versatile player that can play both safety positions.

As we all know, Rob Ryan likes his safeties to be versatile and interchangeable. Landry has the size (6-0, 220) to play strong safety, but he also possesses the athleticism to be a ball hawking free safety. Signing Landry is a risky proposition for the Cowboys. The big concern here is his health, we will have to wait and see if he checks out medically. Jerry Jones has been burned by big time contracts at the safety position, but this may be the type of flashy athlete Jerry would be willing to take a chance on.

Tyvon Branch

Tyvon Branch may be one of the more underrated strong safeties in the NFL. His background is interesting because in college, he played at cornerback. At Connecticut, Branch was a really good athlete that stood out at cornerback where he had 224 career tackles, 3 interceptions and 18 pass deflections. He also achieved success as a kick returner, where he returned 2 kick return touchdowns in 2007.

Branch was one of the more intriguing cornerbacks who worked out at the 2008 NFL Combine. He ran a blazing 4.31 40 yard dash, and he had a 34 inch vertical jump. In his NFL.com Combine page, they describe his stiff hips being the main reason for a potential position change.

"Despite his impressive 40 time and success as a kick returner, Branch struggles changing directions. An instinctive, physical defensive back, Branch is best suited to playing cornerback in a two-deep scheme or making the transition to free safety. A team leader, Branch was responsible for the secondary calls from his cornerback position - a role usually reserved for safeties."

Due to his stiff hips and lack of fluidity, the Oakland Raiders moved him to safety. I can see why the Raiders liked him to begin with, besides the Raiders love for speed, Branch also has leadership skills that are important for strong safeties. With Gerald Sensabaugh announcing his displeasure for making the secondary calls, having a safety like Branch who can lead the secondary would be ideal.

Branch would be a strong safety in our system and he is well built at 6-0, and 205 pounds, but his combination of athleticism and leadership would bring a unique skill set to our secondary. At just 25 years old, he would be a young player with three years of starter experience. Branch only has 3 career interceptions, but his tackling numbers are always very high, and being a sure tackler would be a welcomed sight in Dallas. There will be heavy interest on Branch in free agency, young and athletic safeties with leadership qualities are hard to find.

Mike Adams

Cleveland Browns safety Mike Adams will be a name associated with the Cowboys this off season. With the hiring of Jerome Henderson, it is possible that the Cowboys look to bring him in on Henderson's recommendation. Adams has had an interesting career in the NFL. He took the same UDFA route that our very own Tony Romo and Miles Austin have taken. Adams went undrafted out of Delaware in 2004, and was signed by the San Francisco 49ers. In 2007, the Browns signed him in free agency, and he has spent five seasons with them.

Adams finally got his chance to be a full time starter next to T.J. Ward when the Cowboys signed Abram Elam in 2011. He responded with the best play of his career and he had 64 tackles, 3 interceptions, 6 passes defended, 1 forced fumble and 1 fumble recovery. Adams has good size (5-11, 200) and athleticism to play the safety position.

He is one of the more unknown free agent safeties on the market, and he only has one full season of starting experience, despite making spot starts throughout his career as a backup. He has played under Jerome Henderson and Rob Ryan, so his familiarity with their defense would be a benefit of bringing him in. Adams most likely would be a bargain for the Cowboys in free agency, especially if they are looking at adding a solid contributor for a reasonable price.

Safeties in pass coverage (DPR= Defensive Passer Rating)

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
Tyvon Branch OAK 1,167 63 36 412 4 1 57.1 91.5 44
Michael Griffin TEN 1,141 38 23 241 4 2 60.5 92.1 46
Abram Elam DAL 1,050 33 23 253 1 0 69.7 102.2 58
LaRon Landry WAS 513 21 15 159 1 0 71.4 109.0 67

The Defensive Passer Rating table above gives a detailed look at the statistics the safeties put up in pass coverage. This is a great tool to see how a defensive back is performing against their competition in coverage. You can also see how many times a safety was targeted, and how he performed against those targets. The Burn Rate is an important statistic when evaluating safety play because it takes into account how many times a safety was beaten.

PFF grades

Name
Team Age Snaps Overall Grade Pass Rush Coverage vs. Run Penalties NFL rank
Michael Griffin TEN 27 1,141 +4.7 -0.5 +2.7 +2.3 +0.2 13
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
Abram Elam DAL 30 1,050 -5.3 -2.3 -5.8 +2.2 +0.6 55

Here are the 2011 Pro Football Focus grades on the five safeties detailed in the post. Four of the five safeties graded out with a positive grade, while only Abram Elam finished in the red. PFF looks over every play a player has, and then grades them according to their play. This is another important tool for us to use when evaluating safeties.

Part Two: Options at safety in the 2012 NFL Draft

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