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Free agency focus: If not Earl Thomas, what are Cowboys options at safety?

Earl Thomas wants to be the highest paid safety. If Dallas balks at that asking price, here are a few more options.

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys and Earl Thomas haven’t been shy about their interest in one another, flirting with the possibility for more than a calendar year. This week, it was reported that Earl Thomas is “allegedly” looking to become the highest paid safety in the NFL, a title currently held by Eric Berry of the Chiefs.

Berry signed a six-year deal worth $78M, an average of $13M per season, and up to $40M in guarantees, $29.8M of which was guaranteed at signing. It’s important to note that Berry got roughly 51% of that contract guaranteed. These extensions are always going to have little tidbits of wording that protects the team’s investment. Berry has a prior injury history that the Chiefs kept in mind and that will be no different for the team that signs Earl Thomas.

If it’s the Cowboys that sign Thomas, getting to $13M per year isn’t nearly as hard to swallow, it’s all about what is guaranteed? Thomas has publicly spoken about his frustrations with Seattle because he wants security; long-term security in a contract will be hard to obtain for Thomas. He’s had two of his last three seasons end with a leg injury and no matter if he’s the best in the game or not, that is not something any buyer will overlook. Earl Thomas is one fantastic playmaking safety but concessions will have to be made for him to get close to the type of money he desires. Those concessions are likely coming in the form of a much lower guarantee.

So, for this exercise only, let’s say the Cowboys are out of the Earl Thomas sweepstakes, what next? The Cowboys still need to upgrade the safety position and they’re going to benefit from an over-saturated safety market.

Player Age 2018 Salary 2018 Snap % Tackles Sacks QB Hits FUM INT
LaMarcus Joyner 29 $11,287,000 90% 78 1 1 0 1
Tyrann Mathieu 27 $7,000,000 98% 89 3 4 0 2
Marcus Gilchrist 31 $4,000,000 85% 58 0 0 0 3
HaHa Clinton-Dix 26 $2,084,625 98% 92 1 2 2 3
Tre Boston 27 $1,500,000 85% 79 0 2 1 3
Landon Collins 25 $1,530,140 73% 96 0 2 1 0
Adrian Phillips 27 $1,500,000 66% 94 0 1 1 1
Kenny Vaccaro 28 $1,100,000 72% 58 2 4 0 1
Curtis Riley 27 $630,000 95% 75 0 1 0 4
Clayton Geathers 26 $703,482 68% 89 0 2 1 0

The way you look at this safety market is by first identifying the most important dominoes for free agency. There are four dominoes in this free agent class at safety that will determine how everything shakes out for the scope of the position.

-LaMarcus Joyner, LAR

-Earl Thomas, SEA

-HaHa Clinton-Dix, WAS

-Landon Collins, NYG

Each of those guys have a market value north of $9M per season and could easily earn more than what the market currently dictates via Spotrac. However, if you’re a buyer in the safety market, the good news is that you got plenty of options. The above chart is only a fraction of the list of guys that will be available. For the Cowboys, they first need to begin thinking outside the “box” when it comes to adding a safety. Last offseason, the safety market was at a complete standstill because no team ever wants to set the price tags. The Cowboys had their hearts set on striking a trade for Earl Thomas and turned their nose up at every other safety on the market.

Stephen Jones was painting pretty broad strokes calling everyone from the “Honey Badger” to Tre Boston a box safety, even though Boston has played free safety for his entire career. The Cowboys should look at Tre Boston again. He’s young, reliable, and his three interceptions are the same total of combined interceptions by Cowboys safeties last season. Boston also had a forced fumble and recovery last season with 79 tackles combined. The best part of going after a guy like Boston is that for some reason, he still flies under the radar, which means he won’t be breaking the bank.

Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu may be more of a hybrid player but the production is there and that’s where the Cowboys focus should be. Dallas doesn’t need another try-hard, solid player like Jeff Heath, who had unfortunate struggles tackling last season. The Cowboys need someone that can help them take the ball away and force offensive coordinators to gameplan for them. The Cowboys aren’t getting enough of that from their cornerbacks though they all deserve praise for their coverage abilities.

Between the four cornerbacks of Awuzie, Byron Jones, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis, the Cowboys had 34 PBU’s but only three interceptions. Byron Jones had a breakout season that earned him Pro Bowl honors but he struggled down the stretch, and had zero picks in 16 starts. The Cowboys need to give this safety market a hard look because there really isn’t a bad place to start upgrading. If Dallas misses out on Thomas, they should look for the best guy to pair with Xavier Woods, who the Cowboys say is interchangeable at his position.

This safety market is intriguing because there is something for everyone:

-You want blockbusters?

Go after Earl Thomas, LaMarcus Joyner, HaHa Clinton-Dix, or Landon Collins (if available)

-You want versatility?

Go after Tyrann Mathieu or Marcus Gilchrist

-You want a solid player that won’t leave you penniless or a “try before you buy-type”

Tre Boston, Kenny Vaccaro, Curtis Riley, and Adrian Phillips are all fine considerations.

Earl Thomas is the dream but he just might price himself out of consideration when you add up his availability concerns and age. Still, with a market full of options, the Cowboys can be patient and still find an upgrade, if they keep an open mind. Don’t obsess over measurables, it’s production that is most important.