Statistical Preview of 2009 Free Agency: V. Free Safeties

I'm writing this article while in a car travelling to Gainesville (not driving said car, of course), so it's going to be short and to the point. Later on in the comments section, we can talk about any issues that I don't include in the article. Also, I apologize in advance for not including citation links in the article. I'll get around to it sometime soon. If you want to read my earlier free agency previews, here's Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Today, in Part 5, I'll be evaluating the free agent possibilities at FS. As is the pattern here, I'll first establish a profile, then identify the free agents who fit that profile, and finish by ranking those free agents. Because this is the last free agency preview, I'll also do a little bit of a "preview recap" at the very end.

IDENTIFYING THE TARGET(S)

Traditionally, and in the 49ers' current defensive scheme, the FS is more of a pass-defender than run-stopper. He's the captain of the secondary, and is usually referred to as the QB of the defense because he's responsible for setting up coverage presnap. After the snap, a FS's main job is to disrupt the opponent's passing game, either through interceptions or bone-crushing hits. Essentially, that means there are 4 types of FSs: ball-hawk-only (think Merton Hanks), hard-hitter-only (think Keith Lewis), hard-hitting ball-hawk (think Ronnie Lott), and Mark Roman. As we're all aware having watched the past few seasons of Niner football, Roman is the rare daily double of a FS that's neither a ball-hawk nor a hard-hitter. In other words, Roman is a FS who does virtually nothing to disrupt the opponent's passing game once the ball is snapped. Need proof? 10 words: 0 INTs and 0 FFs as a starting NFL FS. It's no wonder, then, that Singletary wants to improve the position this offseason.

By now, you know what's next, so here's a table showing the starting FSs for each NFL team in 2008:

Player

Team

How

Acq

Round

Age

Acq

College

Pos

Last Pos

Prev Tm

1st Pos

Current Tm

Antrel Rolle

ARI

Draft

1

--

CB

--

CB

Charles Godfrey

CAR

Draft

1

--

CB

--

FS

Ed Reed

BAL

Draft

1

--

FS

--

FS

Reggie Nelson

JAC

Draft

1

--

FS

--

FS

LaRon Landry

WAS

Draft

1

--

FS

--

SS

Michael Griffin

TEN

Draft

1

--

FS/SS

--

FS

Eric Weddle

SD

Draft

2

--

CB/SS

--

FS

Brodney Pool

CLE

Draft

2

--

FS

--

CB

Nick Collins

GB

Draft

2

--

FS

--

FS

Brian Dawkins

PHI

Draft

2

--

SS

--

FS

Mike Brown

CHI

Draft

2

--

SS/FS

--

FS

Oshiomogho Atogwe

STL

Draft

3

--

FS/SS

--

FS

Tanard Jackson

TB

Draft

4

--

CB

--

FS

Ko Simpson

BUF

Draft

4

--

FS

--

FS

Marvin White

CIN

Draft

4

--

FS

--

FS

Kerry Rhodes

NYJ

Draft

4

--

FS

--

SS

James Sanders

NE

Draft

4

--

SS

--

SS

Antoine Bethea

IND

Draft

6

--

FS

--

SS

Jarrad Page

KC

Draft

7

--

SS

--

FS

Michael Johnson

NYG

Draft

7

--

SS

--

SS

Hiram Eugene

OAK

Draft

ND

--

CB

--

FS

Kevin Kaesviharn

NO

Free Agent

ND

25

CB

FS

FS

Erik Coleman

ATL

Free Agent

5

26

FS

SS

FS

Ken Hamlin

DAL

Free Agent

2

26

FS

FS

FS

Madieu Williams

MIN

Free Agent

2

26

FS

FS

FS

Ryan Clark

PIT

Free Agent

ND

26

FS

SS

FS

Renaldo Hill

MIA

Free Agent

7

27

CB

FS

FS

Eugene Wilson

HOU

Free Agent

2

28

CB

FS

FS

Kalvin Pearson

DET

Free Agent

ND

29

SS

SS*

FS

Brian Russell

SEA

Free Agent

ND

29

FS

FS

FS

Mark Roman

SF

Free Agent

2

29

FS/CB

SS

SS

Marlon McCree

DEN

Free Agent

7

31

OLB

FS

FS

After the jump, I'll discuss the table, identify 3 free agent FS targets, pick the one (or two) with the best stats, and give an alternative solution to the Niners' FS problem...

FYI...Data in the column "Last Pos Prev Tm" tells you the last position at which the player started for his previous NFL team. Kalvin Pearson's asterisk (*) means he only started 1 game as an injury replacement with his previous team. Data in the column "First Pos Current Tm" tells you the first position at which the player started for his current NFL team. The value of these two columns will become apparent soon enough.

OK, so this table has a cornucopia of info. In fact, because there's so much info - and because I'm in a car right now - I'll discuss it in bulleted form.

In re Mark Roman:

  • He's 1 of only 4 starting FSs who were signed as free agents by their current team the offseason after starting at SS with their previous team.
  • He's the only starting FS in the NFL who was signed as a free agent SS, started initially at SS with his current team, but then got moved to FS later. In other words, the Niners are the only current team that didn't intend to switch their free agent SS to FS when they signed him. How's that for planning?
  • He's had the most position flexibility of any free agent signee: He started at FS in college, then moved to CB his senior year, then played CB and FS in CIN, then played SS in GB, and then switched back to FS after initially starting at SS with the Niners. This much position movement can be interpreted as an asset or a liability. I think you can guess which way I'm leaning on that one.

In re starting FS success:

  • 6 of 32 have made the Pro Bowl (Reed, Griffin, Collins, Dawkins, Bethea, and Hamlin)
  • 5 of 6 Pro Bowlers were drafted by their current team
  • 5 of 6 Pro Bowlers were picked in the 2nd round or higher
  • 5 of 6 Pro Bowlers started at FS in college

In re starting FSs who were drafted by their current team:

  • 21 of 32 total
  • 17 of 21 were selected before the 5th round
  • 4 of 4 drafted after 4th round were moved from their college position
  • 16 of 21 started at either FS or CB in college

Finally, and most relevantly, in re starting FSs who were signed as a free agent by their current team:

  • 10 of 11 were acquired by age 30
  • 10 of 11 were starting Ss with their previous team
  • 9 of 11 started primarily at either FS or CB in college
  • 1 of 11 started primarily at SS in college
  • 3 of 3 who were "starters" at SS with their previous team started primarily at FS in college

So summing up the info in the table, Pro Bowl FSs are most likely to have been college FSs who were selected by their current team on Day 1 of the draft. Starting FSs are more likely to have been drafted than signed as a free agent. If they were drafted by their current team, they probably started at CB or FS in college, and, if selected late, were most likely moved to FS after playing a different position in college. Finally, starting FSs who were signed as free agents are most likely to have been acquired by age 30 after starting at S for their previous team. If they started at SS with their previous team, they were most likely a starting FS in college.

THE LITTER

Here's how I would apply the above stats to the 49ers' current situation:

  • They should probably draft a FS given that most Pro Bowlers at the position were drafted by their current team. If they choose to do so, they should target a college FS or CB in the early rounds.
  • If they choose to sign a free agent FS, he should be younger than 30, and have started at S for his previous team. Ideally, he started at FS for his previous team. However, if he started at SS for his previous team, he should have at least been a FS (or CB) starter in college.

It turns out that only 2 free agent FSs fits all 3 free agency criteria (age, current starting S, starting FS in NFL or starting FS/CB in college). For the sake of making this article more interesting, though, I'll be a little lenient and add 1 free agents to the mix who meets 2 criteria, but just misses on age. Here are the contenders:

Eugene Wilson, age 29, starting FS for HOU, college CB

James Sanders, age 25, starting FS for NE, college SS

Renaldo Hill, age 30, starting FS for MIA, college CB

As I said earlier, the FS's primary job is to disrupt the other team's passing game, either through his ball skills or hitting skills. Therefore, I'm going to use 5 stats that are the best available indicators of passing game disruption: (1) individual interceptions, (2) individual passes defended, (3) individual forced fumbles, and (4) team pass defense DVOA. Interceptions and passes defended measure ball skills, forced fumbles measures hitting skills, and team pass defense DVOA measures overall passing game disruption. Obviously, the first 2 are better indicators than the last 2, but, hey, it's the best I have to work with. As I did with FBs, I'll show stats for all seasons that each player was the starting FS on his team.

Here are their stats:

Eugene Wilson

29 yo

 

Year

Team

INTs

PDs

FFs

Pass Defense DVOA

Rk

2003

NE

4

5

0

-30.3%

2

2004

NE

4

3

2

-10.8%

6

2005

NE

1

6

0

26.9%

29

2008

HOU

2

7

0

21.1%

26

Average

 

2.8

5.3

0.5

1.7%

16

James Sanders

25 yo

 

Year

Team

INTs

PDs

FFs

Pass Defense DVOA

Rk

2007

NE

4

5

1

-6.9%

6

2008

NE

2

3

0

21.7%

27

Average

 

3.0

4.0

0.5

7.4%

17

Renaldo Hill

30 yo

 

Year

Team

INTs

PDs

FFs

Pass Defense DVOA

Rk

2006

MIA

2

9

0

1.0%

12

2007

MIA

1

2

1

20.1%

28

2008

MIA

3

4

0

4.8%

12

Average

 

2.0

5.0

0.3

8.6%

17

Although there aren't any Lotts or Reeds in this bunch, each has his strengths and weaknesses. Wilson was on 2 Super Bowl winners that had stout pass defenses and has averaged the most PDs, but his INT and FF numbers indicate he's not much of a play-maker. Sanders was the starting FS for the greatest (regular season) team of all time, and has averaged the most INTs, but is lacking in FF department, which indicates he's more of a ball-hawk than hard-hitter. Finally, Hill has averaged the fewest INTs and FFs of the 3, and his team's pass defense DVOAs are at the bottom of the pack. Adding these meager stats to the fact that he's the oldest of the 3, and Hill seems to clearly be the worst free agent FS option.

Given how mediocre the 3 free agent FSs are, it begs the question: Would they be an improvement over Mark Roman if they continued the same level of performance that they've had so far in their careers as starting FSs. Here are Roman's stats:

Mark Roman

32 yo

 

Year

Team

INTs

PDs

FFs

Pass Defense DVOA

Rk

2007

SF

0

4

0

20.8%

29

2008

SF

0

5

0

15.7%

20

Average

 

0.0

4.5

0.0

18.3%

25

It seems to me that, except for Hill, the answer is yes. Both Wilson and Sanders have higher averages in INTs, FFs, and team pass defense DVOA, while offering essentially the same performance as Roman when it comes to PDs. Keep in mind, though, that neither Wilson nor Sanders appear to offer the 49ers a quantum leap in FS performance.

PICK OF THE LITTER

Based on the stats I've presented above, here's how I'd ranked the 3 best-fitting free agent FSs:

  1. James Sanders
  2. Eugene Wilson
  3. Renaldo Hill

Sanders gets the nod over Wilson because he's younger and has similar stats. Hill brings up the rear because he's clearly the worst of the 3. Based on the mediocre stats of all 3, though, and therefore the likelihood that they won't perform considerably better than Roman, I'm of the opinion that the Niners should either (a) give Dashon Goldson the job, (b) draft a stud FS or CB on Day 1 of the draft to be their starting FS in 2008, or (c) let Goldson start until the draft pick is ready to assume the starting FS spot. All in all, though, one thing is clear: Roman needs to be replaced.

SUMMAR OF FREE AGENCY PREVIEWS

OK, so that's it for the previews. Taking all 5 of them together, here's how I think the 49ers should proceed in addressing their weaknesses at QB, RT, FB, pass rusher, and FS:

  • Sign Jeff Garcia
  • Now that Vernon Carey's been re-signed by MIA, select a college T early in the draft with the intention of making him their starting RT in 2008.
  • Sign either Tony Richardson or Leonard Weaver
  • Start Parys Haralson at ROLB, and select a college DE early in the draft to help with pass-rushing depth and tactical flexibility.
  • Start Goldson at FS, and select a college FS or CB early in the draft with the intention of making him their starting FS of the future.

Thanks for reading my free agency previews. I hope you enjoyed them. Here's hoping that, whether they listen to my advice or not, the Niners succeed in addressing their 5 most glaring positional weaknesses.

 

 

**DVOA statistics used to produce this article were obtained from Football Outsiders.

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