With the consistent progression forward towards 11 personnel as the base offense across the NFL, pro football defenses have had to adjust to three receiver sets by aligning with five defensive backs on more and more snaps. While some teams choose to do so by adding a cornerback, either bringing on a dedicated slot player or moving a boundary corner inside, the other option is to place a coverage safety in the slot.
The Green Bay Packers went with the latter option for much of the 2017 season under defensive coordinator Dom Capers, as Morgan Burnett occupied the slot largely out of necessity. With slot cornerback Quinten Rollins hurt and many of the healthy corners fitting as boundary corners only, Burnett drew the unenviable task of lining up in the slot for much of the season, where he performed well.
Burnett’s experience as a slot corner stretches back to the latter part of the 2016 season. As a willing tackler, playing closer to the line of scrimmage makes him valuable from the slot as a run supporter in addition to his ability to play well as a box safety or sub-package linebacker. However, the 29-year-old Burnett has made practically no noise in the free agent market this offseason despite being one of the two or three best safeties available.
This is a head-scratching trend over the past week that is not limited to Burnett alone. A look at SB Nation’s Top 100 free agents for 2018 finds eight safeties who are unrestricted or street free agents plus a ninth who is restricted. Of those eight, one (Lamarcus Joyner) received the franchise tag, one (Tyrann Mathieu) has signed a contract, and six remain unsigned and with little attention apparently being paid to them.
What in the world is going on here?
Burnett’s role and value seems most closely tied to a pair of fellow safeties on this year’s free agent market: Eric Reid of the 49ers and Kenny Vaccaro of the Saints. All three players are good in run support and have the ability to play safety, in the slot, or linebacker. And yet all three are conspicuously absent from any free agent discussions. The only substantial story written about Burnett over the past week was this piece from Packersnews.com, which stated that he was looking for a contract averaging around $8.5 million per year.
More conventional safeties like Tre Boston, Steven Terrell, and Tyvon Branch are also quiet, with teams seemingly unwilling to commit big money to the position.
So why the slow market for these players at a position that is becoming increasingly critical for defenses?
Perhaps one reason is that despite being able to fill in as slot corners, many of this year’s free agent safeties have only moderate success in that role. To be certain, none save perhaps Mathieu and Joyner would be described as elite coverage players, which is the quality teams would likely value most in these players. Vaccaro, for example, allowed 1.38 yards per coverage snap from the slot*, among the highest of this year’s qualifying slot defenders. Burnett’s number in the same statistic was a more reasonable 1.07, though he allowed the worst passer rating of the group at 133.7. Reid posted better numbers in both categories than Vaccaro or Burnett, but did so in a smaller sample size before being moved to linebacker full-time late in the season.
*(Stats provided by Pro Football Focus)
In addition, there appear to be plenty of market politics going on as well. Teams around the NFL are likely ignoring the franchise tag for Joyner, which comes with an $11.3 million price tag, as an outlier. Furthermore, as Joyner was the only real star-caliber safety on the market (prior to Mathieu’s release), the remaining players are rightly viewed in a separate tier of their own. It is now likely a reverse auction, with teams all seemingly concluding that none of these free agent safeties are worth big money for middle-of-the-road coverage numbers in the slot. As such, teams are likely sticking to their values, expecting the players to eventually lower their expectations and sign in the coming weeks.
Finally, there is the Mathieu factor. The former Cardinal, who was released last week, signed an absurdly team-friendly one-year, $7 million contract with the Houston Texans. That compensation package likely falls far short of what his market could have brought had he signed with the highest bidder; however, he stated that money would not be the deciding factor in picking his new team, and his personal history in nearby Louisiana likely had something to do with going where he did.
However, Mathieu may have hurt the market for his fellow hybrid safeties by signing that relatively inexpensive deal. Can you blame a team for balking at the idea of spending more money on a player like Burnett — who could play a somewhat similar role but is far less explosive and productive of a player than a healthy Mathieu — than what Houston will pay Mathieu this year? Replace Burnett’s name with that of any of the other safeties in this class and you see the same argument take shape.
All told, it seems that the upper tier of safeties has overestimated their value this offseason, and no agent nor team wants to be the one to set the market first. Furthermore, Mathieu’s team-friendly deal just made things even more difficult for his fellow safeties.
Once one of these players does decide to bite the bullet and become the next unrestricted free agent safety to sign a deal, expect many of the other dominoes to begin falling. But when the dust settles, don’t be surprised if Burnett comes back to Green Bay on a deal that falls far short of the dollar amount he was initially hoping to receive.