By and large, free agency in the NFL played out this month in the exact opposite manner of. Teams with abundant cap space dove into the deep end of the financial pool before the markets even officially opened at the start of the league year, and dozens of marginal players received handsome compensation. Within days, the top talent was off the market.
Well, except for the safety position. Things look a lot more like Major League Baseball in terms of the way the market has unfolded, or, frankly, failed to unfold. This offseason in MLB was about a slow, patience-testing waiting game between teams and free agents, with long-term deals difficult to come by, with the market far softer than we had seen in recent years and with elite players going far into spring training without a new team. were tossed around here and there, and the MLBPA and agent community believed something fishy might be going on.
And some of that same sort of chatter is going around in football circles, but on a far more position-specific basis. Agents for quality safeties -- guys who have been productive and healthy for the most part and who aren't at the end of their careers -- are getting beyond frustrated at the stagnant market, with salaries in a holding pattern at best. Several have reached out to the NFLPA to vent, I'm told, and are casting a jaundiced eye at NFL teams who seem to have strikingly similar financial evaluations on their players.
Bottom line is that at a time when the passing game is all the rage and middling quarterbacks along with receivers and corners are reaping massive contracts, safeties are having a difficult time getting legit offers, much less making a buck.
It's pretty bizarre. Even guys who can make plays on the ball are being largely shut out or limited to no-frills negotiations at a time when even running backs and two-down inside linebackers have gotten paid. There has been almost no movement at this position, and guys like Eric Reid (age 26), Kenny Vaccaro (27), Tre Boston (25), and Ron Parker (30) all still trying to find work, to say nothing of a group of older veterans who have still performed at a high level in recent years, like Corey Graham, Darius Butler and Reggie Nelson.
"We're barely even getting phone calls, and we're not the only ones," said one agent who is involved in the safety market. "You can't even get (BS) offers. We're literally getting nothing. I'm not even talking one year, $3 million. Nothing. And it's not just us."
Indeed, league sources indicated that several of the best remaining safeties on the market have been in communication with one another, sharing their experiences and trying to figure out what the heck is going on. Parker, Vaccaro, Reid and others have spoken about the fact that they can't seem to find a market, with different theories being espoused as to why. Going back to the combine it seems teams were taking a hardline stance on around $5 million to $7 million per year on safeties, and no one was getting close to what they had originally hoped for. The safety who did the best, actually, didn't do a thing, as the Rams placed the franchise tag on Lamarcus Joyner, which will earn him more than $11 million in 2018.
Kurt Coleman got a deal quickly with New Orleans after he was cut by Carolina last month -- he didn't have to wait for the league year to open to officially sign -- but that three-year, $16 million was an outlier. Morgan Burnett had aimed for $10 million and couldn't get $5 million per year on with the Steelers. Tyrann Mathieu had hoped to reach around that figure as well when he turned down an offer to stay in Arizona on a reduced salary and ended up getting from the Texas $7 million on , roughly half of what he was set to make originally in 2018.
That $7 million figure is the highest annual value for a safety this offseason, with 45 players at other positions bettering it on the open market, while 44 non-safeties got deals worth more than Coleman's max value. Only two safeties got over $5 million per year thus far at a time when receivers like Donte Moncrief are getting double that.
There are a few mitigating circumstances. Reid is a former first-round pick who has played well enough to warrant a contract, whether back with the 49ers or elsewhere, but as one of the more prominent players to have joined Colin Kaepernick in his peaceful pre-game demonstrations in San Francisco, this was for him. Trust me, Kaepernick's legal team is watching Reid's situation very closely as it may possibly pertain to their ongoing collusion grievance against the NFL, and if Reid, too, is systematically ignored by needy teams, it will certainly raise more probing questions as to how much of this is really about football. Reid reportedly told ESPN that he does not plan to protest during the national anthem in 2018.
Agents for other safeties believe that teams may be ignoring much of the entire position group -- and other younger safeties overall -- as a means of not just singling Reid out, himself. It may not be as obvious that Reid is blackballed if there are a handful of similar players who can nary get a phone call from a team with stated interest in them, and if all anyone seems to be willing to pay, hypothetically, is around $4 million per year. At various times this offseason clubs like the Packers, Browns, Bucs and Cowboys have been sniffing around on safeties, and, boy, there are still plenty of them to choose from. Twenty-five remain on the market as we speak.
"It feels like, with Eric Reid in the market, and teams not wanting to touch him, that a lot of other safeties are also being held down," the agent said. "Instead of anybody getting $8 million to $9 million per year, no one is getting it."
Perhaps this market will open up some next week with all owners, coaches and general managers huddled together in Orlando at the annual spring meeting. There is also the specter of Earl Thomas -- the best safety in the game, when healthy -- that could be somewhat hampering the free agent market. Thomas is available (the initial asking price was high: a first- and third-round pick) and the Seahawks have engaged with several teams about him, and Thomas wants a healthy new deal wherever he goes, I'm told.for Seattle All-Pro
So perhaps a few teams are holding out for him, and keeping that cash and cap aside for Thomas should they land him. But it's pretty clear that an abundance of options remains at this one particular position group long after most others have been thoroughly picked through and cleaned out. All eyes will remain on Reid, and whether he meets the same free-agent reality that has befallen Kaepernick, and the conversations between these young safeties will continue as they wait and wonder if and when they'll get paid anything close to their originally expected market value.