The Seven Days of Free Agency, Day 7: Safety

While Juan Thornhill and Tyrann Mathieu are a dynamic duo, Daniel Sorensen potentially leaving the safety group would create a hole in the Chiefs' secondary. Is there a potential Dirty Dan replacement in this pool of free agents?
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The players who play the safety position are asked to do a little bit of everything. They are the last line of defense, the playmakers, and sometimes the leaders.

In the NFL, it has seemed like safeties have been undervalued for a while compared to other positions. Among the top-level contracts, safeties are still paid less, on average, than linebackers. The relationship between the two position's values does not make much sense in the modern NFL, where the passing game reigns.

The Kansas City Chiefs are changing that philosophy. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo ran an incredible amount of three safety sets last year. The versatility of having rangier players on the field gives a defense more options defending the quarterback. This is paramount in a league that is increasingly focused on stretching the field with the passing game.

The Chiefs' three-safety sets could improve, also. The third safety the Chiefs used last year was Daniel Sorensen who graded out as one of the worst safeties in the NFL on Pro Football Focus and has been, at best, inconsistent. If a better safety is added to the defense, what would Spagnuolo's unit look like?

This offseason, the Chiefs will have a chance to upgrade at safety through free agency. While the class is not 100 names long, the talent in the class is comparable to any other position group in free agency. On the last day of The Seven Days of Free Agency series, it is time to go over this safety free-agent class.

Miss any of The Seven Days of Free Agency? Click here for Day 1: Wide Receivers, here for Day 2: Tight Ends, here for Day 3: Offensive Linemen, here for Day 4: Defensive Linemenhere for Day 5: Linebackers, and here for Day 6: Cornerbacks.

The One Above the Rest

John Johnson - (Rams, SS, 16 games played, 105 tackles, 1 interception)

John Johnson has a fantastic name. He is also an excellent football player.

The No. 3 rated safety on Pro Football Focus has had a great start to his career after being drafted in the third round of the 2017 draft. Johnson is a do-it-all safety who has been a key part of a good Rams defense and a piece that now-Chargers head coach Brandon Staley used uniquely. The only question with Johnson going into free agency is if he is scheme-proof. Staley is one of the brightest minds on defense in the NFL today and it is hard to project what Johnson will do away from his scheme. Even so, Johnson is in line to break the bank somewhere this offseason as the clear number-one safety in the free-agent class.

The Solid-Upside Starters

Anthony Harris - (Vikings, FS, 16 games played, 104 tackles, 0 interceptions)
Keanu Neal - (Falcons, SS, 15 games played, 100 tackles, 1 interception)
Xavier Woods - (Cowboys, FS/CB, 15 games played, 72 tackles, 0 interceptions)
Tashaun Gipson - (Bears, FS, 16 games played, 66 tackles, 2 interceptions)
Jaquiski Tartt - (49ers, SS, 7 games played, 30 tackles, 1 interception)
Rayshawn Jenkins - (Chargers, SS, 15 games played, 84 tackles, 2 interceptions)
Duron Harmon - (Lions, SS, 16 games played, 73 tackles, 2 interceptions)

While some are not household names, any of these players could be a top-20 safety in 2021 and it would not be surprising.

After two years of dominant play, it seemed that Anthony Harris was well on his way to earning a big payday in 2020. Instead, the Vikings franchise-tagged Harris. In 2020, playing on the franchise tag, Harris had a disappointing year compared to the reputation he had built for himself. His struggles raise small red flags about if he was an elite player or if he was in an elite position the two years before. If a team is able to ink Harris to a contract that is a bit team-friendly, he could be a great signing for a team in need of safeties.

Former first-round pick Keanu Neal is probably leaving a cash-strapped Atlanta Falcons team this offseason. After a horrid 2019 left many wondering if Neal had lost the ability to play overnight, Neal came back in 2020 and solidified himself as a good safety once again. Neal will now be a hot commodity on the free-agent market for teams looking to add a downhill, big-hitting menace to their defense that can also adequately cover.

Xavier Woods and Tashaun Gipson are two of the most versatile safeties in the free agency class. Woods has played a meaningful amount of snaps at slot corner and has played well at all safety positions which makes him an extremely intriguing Swiss Army knife option in free agency. Gipson is a proven veteran off a nice year on the Bears who can play in a Cover-2 shell or come down into the box and line up against a tight end. Both safeties could be coveted for these multifaceted skillsets.

Jaquiski Tartt, Rayshawn Jenkins, and Duron Harmon are lesser-known names who play more of a box-safety role. All three would be solid starting safeties on a new team as they excel when their responsibilities are to play around the line of scrimmage and make plays.

The Vets with Poor Recent History

Lamarcus Joyner - (Raiders, 14 games played, 66 tackles, 0 interceptions)
Ricardo Allen - (Falcons, 12 games played, 25 tackles, 2 interceptions)
Kenny Vaccaro - (Titans, 13 games played, 83 tackles, 0 interceptions)
Bradley McDougald - (Jets, 7 games played, 36 tackles, 0 interceptions)
Malik Hooker - (Colts, 2 games played, 7 tackles, 0 interceptions)
Karl Joseph - (Browns, 14 games played, 67 tackles, 1 interception)
Daniel Sorensen - (Chiefs, 15 games played, 91 tackles, 3 interceptions)
Jahleel Addae - (Chargers, 11 games played, 21 tackles, 1 interception)
Andrew Sendejo - (Browns, 14 games played, 67 tackles, 0 interceptions)
Jalen Mills - (Eagles, 15 games played, 74 tackles, 1 interception)

Recent history has not been kind on many of these veterans. Within the last two years, each one of these players has had poor stretches of play or injuries.

The poster boy of this group is Lamarcus Joyner. Joyner signed a four-year deal with the Raiders in free agency two years ago and the deal immediately turned into a disaster when the 2019 season started. Joyner's play did not match his contract the last few years which led to him being a cap casualty heading into the 2021 offseason. Now the issue for teams is to figure out if the 31-year-old safety played poorly because of issues with his game or because the Raiders misused him.

Malik Hooker has been a sad story the past four years. The very talented safety out of Ohio State has had a really tough time staying healthy in the NFL, playing only 36 out of 64 games possible in his career so far. A team is likely to take a gamble on the 25-year-old safety, but it remains to be seen what kind of contract Hooker can swing in free agency.

The players in this group could be serviceable in 2021. Some of these players might even be signed as starters. However, there is ample risk involved in giving any player in this group a large role on defense. That risk does mean they are most likely cheaper, so the value proposition will be there for any team willing to take a risk.

The Fine Depth

Shawn Williams - (Bengals, 13 games played, 16 tackles, 0 interceptions)
Erik Harris - (Raiders, 14 games played, 61 tackles, 0 interceptions)
Terrence Brooks - (Patriots, 14 games played, 23 tackles, 0 interceptions)
Will Parks - (Eagles, 10 games played, 31 tackles, 0 interceptions)
Chris Banjo - (Cardinals, 13 games played, 48 tackles, 0 interceptions)
Josh Jones - (Jaguars, 13 games played, 83 tackles, 1 interception)

These players should just be depth. All of these safeties struggled when they were given a chance to play meaningful time as a player on the starting defense. 

Who should the Chiefs target?

With Daniel Sorensen potentially leaving in free agency, safety is a sneaky need for the Chiefs. The third safety in snaps last year for the Chiefs was Juan Thornhill and he played 70.88% of the Chiefs' defensive snaps. Who could best step in to replace Sorensen?

If the Chiefs wanted to go for a traditional box safety, Rayshawn Jenkins in The Solid-Upside Starters is a very intriguing option. Jenkins has had a breakout last few years for the Chargers and it is hard to say what his market is. If his market settles around $5 million a year, the Chiefs should be in the market for Jenkins as he is the perfect compliment to Thornhill and Mathieu.

Providing a different flavor, an intriguing option is Xavier Woods who is also in The Solid-Upside Starters. The reason Woods is intriguing is that it seems Spagnuolo loves safeties who can play cornerback. Woods is the most proven safety who can play cornerback in this free agency class and would play a role similar to Kendall Fuller in the 2019 playoff run or L'Jarius Sneed in the last half of 2020.

The Chiefs could also dip their toes into The Vets with Poor Recent History for a risk/reward signing. A player like Karl Joseph is intriguing if the Chiefs want to bank on the traits that got him picked in the first round many years ago. The players from The Vets with Poor Recent History will be cheaper than most other safeties in the free-agent class. The issue will be giving these players a large role. Veach and company must be confident the player can play 65%+ defensive snaps next year and not be a liability. 

One possibility that should not be ruled out is just bringing back Daniel Sorensen. With many other needs this offseason, there is a case to be made for bringing back Dirty Dan as he knows the system, he has had streaks of quality play before in his career, and he should be cheap.

Final Thoughts

With how frequently the Chiefs' third safety hits the field, making a play on a safety in free agency seems like a priority the team could have.

Spagnuolo loves to play three-safety defensive sets and move his players around like chess pieces. In the modern NFL, a three-safety set makes sense to utilize speed to prioritize pass coverage over all else. Tyrann Mathieu has played his best football when he is allowed to be a maniac in the middle of the field and roam where his elite instincts take him. A quality third safety is the player that unlocks this.

There are different flavors of safety out there for the Chiefs to pick from. It is up to Brett Veach and Steve Spagnuolo to figure out what player is a fit in the defense.

Miss any of The Seven Days of Free Agency? Click here for Day 1: Wide Receivers, here for Day 2: Tight Ends, here for Day 3: Offensive Linemen, here for Day 4: Defensive Linemen, here for Day 5: Linebackers, and here for Day 6: Cornerbacks.