The Dallas Cowboys need to address their secondary as badly as I need to address this COVID hair. Both need a new look and an upgrade. Like I have to get out and get this hair cut, the Cowboys need to get out of The Star in Frisco and pursue an upgrade to the free safety position when the NFL’s free agency period opens on March 18th.
The Cowboys will likely allow Xavier Woods to walk in free agency, opening up a hole in the back end of the defense. Donovan Wilson looks like he’s earned the starting strong safety spot, but Dan Quinn needs to find a guy that can play in the deep middle in his cover-3 defense. Good thing for the Cowboys, there are several options available to them both in free agency and the NFL Draft. If they don’t make a move to solidify that spot this offseason, then it’s pretty clear they never will.
There’s a variety of top-end talents and low-risk, high-reward players in this year’s safety group, and the Cowboys should take a shot. Here are 5 free agent safeties the Dallas Cowboys should pursue in free agency.
Anthony Harris, S, Minnesota Vikings
Coming off a franchise tag season, Anthony Harris is scheduled to be a free agent yet again. He’s was a player that I wrote about last year that the Dallas Cowboys should pursue. Unfortunately, they never got the chance. However, this offseason, it’s unlikely the Vikings will place the tag on Harris again, which should allow him to pick his next squad in free agency.
Now, it’s likely that Harris will demand a pretty hefty payday, but it’s something the Cowboys should consider.
With the youth they’ll be deploying at cornerback with Trevon Diggs, and if the NFL Draft falls right, Patrick Surtain or Caleb Farley, they’ll need someone on the back end that has experience and can make plays. Anthony Harris is that.
He had a bit of a down year in 2020, but his 2019 was stellar. In 2019, Harris led all safeties in interceptions, had the second-highest grade among safeties per Pro Football Focus, and allowed the tenth lowest passer rating.
2020 was not as kind as he didn’t record an interception, and his passer rating allowed ballooned to 121.4. However, after a down year, Harris could be had for a below-market rate for someone who was arguably the best safety in football in 2019.
Marcus Maye, New York Jets
Amidst all the clamor for Jamal Adams in 2019 and the 2020 offseason, an underrated trade target at safety was Marcus Maye of the New York Jets. Maye, more of a free safety didn’t bring the name value that Adams did, but he was a solid player in his own right.
In 2020, Maye was the fourth-highest graded safety overall and third-highest graded safety in coverage per Pro Football Focus. Though he allowed a passer rating of 93.7, Maye did have two interceptions and seven pass breakups. His 27 stops were tied for 12th in the NFL.
He’s a solid player that could fit well with Donovan Wilson, and coming from the Jets may not demand an expensive contract in free agency.
John Johnson III, S, Los Angeles Rams
John Johnson of the Los Angeles Rams might be one of the more underrated names in this free-agent safety group. In a defensive secondary that featured recent daft picks, Jordan Fuller (2020) and Taylor Rapp (2019), Johnson led the safety position in snaps.
Johnson will be just 26 this offseason and had one of the better seasons at safety in 2020. He had the third-highest defensive grade per Pro Football Focus and the fourth-highest coverage grade in 2020. His 29 stops tied for eighth in the NFL last season. He recorded just one interception and added seven pass breakups.
Johnson was a fixture on a Rams defense that turned out to be one of the best in the NFL. Yes, that unit was led by arguably the two best defensive players in the league in Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald, but Johnson held up his end of the bargain as well.
Keanu Neal, S, Atlanta Falcons
Looking for a player with a Dan Quinn tie, how about Keanu Neal, who was drafted by Dan Quinn, Keanu Neal.
Neal, a former first-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons back in 2016, has had an up and down career. After making the Pro Bowl in 2017, he played in just four games in 2018 and 2019. He got some injury luck in 2019 when he played 15 games for an up and down Falcons defense that got a shot in the arm when the team moved on from Quinn and promoted Raheem Morris to Interim Head Coach.
Pro Football Focus graded Neal as the 29th best safety in the league in 2020. He’s a versatile safety that can line up deep at free safety, in the box, or slot coverage.
If the Cowboys are looking for an inexpensive free agent option, which is generally the standard operating procedure, Neal could be the guy they’re looking for. Signing Neal would preclude the Cowboys from taking a safety in the second or third round in April. He would provide some depth and be a bridge player until your young safety draft pick were ready to play.
Malik Hooker, S, Indianapolis Colts
Speaking of a player with a lot of upside but no luck is Malik Hooker of the Indianapolis Colts. Hooker has been in the NFL for four years and has never played a full 16-game season. Twice he played seven or fewer games, including 2020, where he suited up for just two games before suffering a season-ending injury.
Hooker was a first-round pick of the Colts in the 2017 NFL Draft. Like Neal, he shouldn’t require a big contract to sign, but he’s a player who could provide a spark to your secondary if he stays healthy. The big question is can he stay healthy?
Other names to consider:
If you haven’t seen anyone discuss it, it’s only a matter of time until you do. The obvious connection to Dan Quinn and the Cowboys flirtation with the former All-Pro Safety makes the Cowboys a potential destination for Earl Thomas.
As cool as it would be to have Thomas line up in the Dallas secondary, there may be too much baggage there to want to bring into a young defensive back room.
Like Anthony Harris, Simmons of the Denver Broncos received the franchise tag in 2020 and is slated for free agency this Spring. However, unlike Harris, Simmons had a pretty good year for the Broncos, and his price tag might be well out of the Cowboys’ spending patterns. Simmons could set a new high for safety money this offseason, and it’s unlikely the Cowboys would want to venture into that. However, if they did want to spend big at the position, which would be out of character, then Simmons is the cream of the safety crop.