For the Baltimore Ravens, one of the top priorities during the offseason will be to find a quality starter at the free safety position.
The Ravens tried to address that last year through free agency as the post-Ed Reed era began, but they swung and missed on free agent signee Michael Huff.
The Oakland Raiders cap casualty looked like a good signing at the time, but after a season-opening debacle in Denver, he never regained his fulltime duties prior to being cut midway through the season (yet now he’ll be playing in the Super Bowl for Denver, so how’s that for a season coming full circle for a player?).
The Ravens now have a fresh start, with Matt Elam moving to strong safety, and they get a redo at the free safety position.
The draft has a few options, but free agency may also boast starting-caliber talent.
The headliner of the free agent safety class is playmaker Jairus Byrd, who promises to be too rich for Baltimore’s salary cap constraints.
Realistically, the Ravens aren’t going to find a game-changing type safety on the open market. But that doesn’t mean they can’t improve the defense, as essentially all the team needs is a true back-end safety who can step in and start from day one while letting Elam take over at his natural position.
The Baltimore secondary is far from the biggest problem heading into 2014, with just free safety being a glaring necessity, but also not a position the Ravens need to unload the salary cap on.
Here are a few free agent options that could fit what Baltimore needs.
The Ravens struggled to force turnovers from the safety position in 2013, and Charles Woodson isn’t going to change that fact.
He intercepted just one pass for the Oakland Raiders last season, which came off a desperation throw against the San Diego Chargers.
What Woodson DOES bring, however, is an experienced member of the secondary who can take over a deep-man role, with a “don’t let anyone past you” focus. This would be more of a lateral move than a major upgrade, as Elam and James Ihedigbo had similar roles last season.
The Raiders added Woodson to a poor defense, and put him in a “don’t mess up” role in order to salvage a porous team.
Oakland ran a lot of Cover 2, but Woodson was almost always the deepest man.
His role didn’t offer much in terms of determining exactly how good he was in 2013, but he managed to have more positive than negative plays.
Woodson was able to successfully take on that role, which didn’t give him many opportunities to make plays. Signing Woodson to a one-year deal – if he wants to leave Oakland – would be ideal if the Ravens also want to find a long-term solution at free safety at some point in the draft.
Here’s someone who isn’t a free agent (yet) but very well may be soon. The veteran has a cap number of $8 million in 2014, and may be on the outside looking in regarding Tennessee’s offseason plans (can you hyperlink please: http://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2014/01/17/michael-griffin-realizes-he-could-be-a-cap-casualty/).
Given Baltimore’s well-documented tendency to favor players who are released so they can save compensatory picks, Griffin could be the dream scenario for the Ravens.
If available, he fits exactly what Baltimore needs, and would fit in well with Elam.
In 2013, Griffin had a much better season than 2012, mainly due to the addition and usage of Bernard Pollard.
The Titans used Pollard up in the box frequently, much more like a linebacker.
This is the type of role Elam will likely have in the coming years.
Pollard’s role forced Griffin on an island, but the Titans didn’t shy away from letting him hold down the back end by himself for a good chunk of the season.
With two talented cornerbacks in Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb, the Ravens could benefit from a free safety who can play the role Griffin did in 2013.
He has only missed two games in his seven-year career, can play man coverage in the slot, but isn’t a sure tackler coming forward from his deep rover role.
Griffin is exactly the type of safety who (if available) could step in and help Baltimore’s defense in 2014.
Unlike the other two, Antoine Bethea isn’t hailing from a role of a deep one-man safety duty. In Indianapolis’ defense, Bethea and Laron Landry split back-end duties, and often ran two-deep looks as opposed to just leaving Bethea on an island like Griffin and Woodson.
That doesn’t make Bethea any less of a free safety candidate, however he may not be the most ideal for Baltimore’s needs.
Bethea is built like a linebacker who plays well against the run but isn’t a novice in coverage. He had just two interceptions in 2013, yet manned down his area for the most part.
On one interception (Week 1 vs the Oakland Raiders), Bethea’s play recognition was on display.
He was lined up closer and not in a deep look given that Oakland was knocking on the red zone door – but he still had back coverage duties.
Before the slot receiver even turned for the ball, Bethea was in position for the interception.
In 2013, one of the glaring weaknesses of Baltimore’s defense was the lack of a playmaker at the safety position. Each of the four interceptions that Elam and Ihedigbo combined to produce were right-place-right-time plays as opposed to undercutting a route and making a play on their own, like Bethea did in this example.
Bethea isn’t an ideal true ball-hawking free safety, but his experience and instincts in coverage would be an upgrade. He could be a good fit, however he may command more money than the Ravens are likely willing to dish out for a free agent, risking the loss of a compensatory pick.
Other names to keep in mind: Malcolm Jenkins, Stevie Brown, Ryan Clark, and any starting free safety released by his current team, preserving comp picks for Ozzie & Co.