In a largely predictable move, the top safety set to hit the free agent market was effectively snatched away from 31 other teams on Friday as the Denver Broncos once again designated Justin Simmons with the franchise tag.
Now, teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars who were suspected by many to potentially be players for Simmons will have to look elsewhere for a boost at safety. Luckily for the Jaguars and new head coach Urban Meyer, this year's free agent safety class is among the strengths of all position groups.
So, which safeties are the best fits for the Jaguars when free agency begins on March 17 now that Simmons is no longer an option? We examine below.
Arguably the best defensive back set to hit the market now that Justin Simmons is staying in Denver, Marcus Maye makes the most sense for the Jaguars as a potential free agent addition at safety. Maye, who turns 28 before Week 1, has started in all but 10 of the 64 games since he was drafted in the second round in 2017. He hasn't disappointed either, and his strong play and versatility in the secondary was clearly a big reason the Jets felt comfortable with trading Jamal Adams last season; Maye ended up taking Adams' role in the defense and thrived.
Maye has been deployed all over the field for the Jets over the years, a big reason he is such a natural fit for a Jaguars' secondary that needs help in virtually every area. He played as a deep single-high safety, as a slot defender, and in the box in Adams' previous blitz-heavy role. In his new role in 2020, Maye set career highs in tackles (88), sacks (2.0), tackles for loss (4.0), pass deflections (11), forced fumbles (2.0), fumble recoveries (2.0), and interceptions (2.0).
There is also the fact the Jaguars have a high-ranking member in the front office with ties to Maye. Player Personnel Coordinator Drew Hughes was the director of player personnel at Florida from 2014-17. Maye and Hughes' tenures at Florida overlapped from 2014-2016, with Maye only having one season spent in college without Hughes in the program (2013).
New Orleans safety Marcus Williams will unfortunately always be remembered in part for his infamous role in 'The Minneapolis Miracle, but that shouldn't overshadow the elite production he has had at the safety role in the last several years. He isn't as balanced of a player as Maye, and thus comes in as the second-best fit, but he is likely the best pure cover man of any player on this list.
Williams, who will be only 25 during the 2021 season, has terrific ball production since the Saints selected him in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft. He has recorded 13 career interceptions, with at least three interceptions in every season but one. He also has 30 career pass deflections and has the most natural skillset for a ball-hawking free safety. His lack of impact plays against the run (one career tackle for loss) hinder his overall versatility, but he is still an immensely valuable player who could help Jacksonville's lack of playmaking in the secondary thanks to his range and athleticism.
John Johnson III
Another versatile safety who can feasibly contribute at every level of the defense, John Johnson III is one of the most underrated free agents set to hit the market on March 17. Set to be only 25-years-old during Week 1, Johnson played in just six games in 2019 due to injuries but returned in 2020 to put in one of the best seasons of any safety in the league last year.
In 16 starts last year, Johnson recorded 105 tackles, one interception, eight pass deflections, and two tackles for loss. He didn't have the volume production of impact plays that Williams or Maye had, but he is a high-floor player who flashed elite ability in 2018 when he recorded four interceptions, 11 pass deflections, a forced fumble, and three tackles for loss. There is some projection here, but Johnson's balanced skill set and ability to play deep and in the slot fit what the Jaguars will likely want out of their safeties.
Anthony Harris isn't higher on this list because of two factors: his age (he turned 30 in October) and the scheme and role he played in Minnesota is dramatically different than how the Jaguars are expected to deploy their safeties. With that said, he is still one of the best safeties on the market and he isn't far removed from the stretch in 2018-2019 where he was arguably the NFL's best coverage safety.
Harris had a down year in 2020 when he only recorded seven pass deflections, but the two previous years saw him record 17 deflections and nine interceptions in 29 games, a case of elite ball production. Harris is a talented free safety who thrived in Minnesota's scheme because it allowed him to use his range and instincts to patrol the deep parts of the field. He would be a huge upgrade in Jacksonville's secondary, even if he isn't quite the fit that Maye or Johnson or doesn't have the high ceiling of Williams.
A former Meyer pupil at Ohio State, Malik Hooker seems like the wild card of this year's safeties group. He was a high draft pick just four years ago and was seen by many as one of the top safety prospects to enter the draft in recent years. But things haven't gone smoothly for Hooker since the Colts drafted him with the No. 15 overall pick in 2017, mostly because of injuries. Hooker tore his ACL and MCL in Week 7 as a rookie, ending his first season. In 2020, Hooker suffered a torn achilles in Week 2. Through four seasons, Hooker has played in just 36 games.
Hooker does fit what the Jaguars need in terms of a playmaking safety with range, however. The Jaguars would be rolling the dice on Hooker due to his injury history and overall lack of production since entering the NFL, but he has familiarity with both Meyer and defensive backs coach Chris Ash, who was at Ohio State for Hooker's first season and subsequent redshirt freshman season.