Maybe it’s time for a new definition, given the pile of cash that Landon Collins, Tyrann Mathieu and Earl Thomas collected last week on the NFL’s free agent market.
Call it the Franchise Safety.
“Let’s face it: The NFL is a passing league,” heavyweight agent Tom Condon told USA TODAY Sports. “There’s a premium on throwing the football … and a premium on coverage.”
Over the years, Condon has negotiated many of the biggest quarterback contracts in NFL history. Now he’s had a hand in the 3-year, $42 million contract that Mathieu signed with Kansas City, which matches the $14 million average salary in Collins’ 6-year, $84 million pact with Washington as the richest ever. Thomas will get $13.75 million per year on his $55 million haul with Baltimore.
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No, their previous teams didn’t break the bank to keep them. Yet with the salary cap rising at least $10 million for a seventh consecutive year, to $188.2 million, the market spoke — at least for some — in a manner that often eludes players at a typically under-appreciated position.
“Their value is catching up to corner market,” new Ravens GM Eric DeCosta said, mindful of the continual recycling of league-wide passing marks. “As teams look at it, there’s increasing value for anybody who touches pass coverage. The market for nickel backs is going up, too, just like it is for pass-rushers and cornerbacks.”
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Maybe this is some sort of anomaly. It was just a year ago when Eric Reid hit the market, but couldn’t land a job until September, when injuries in Carolina’s secondary opened the door for a one-year deal. Reid recently re-upped with the Panthers for 3 years, $22 million.
But it seems apparent his lack of offers last year probably had more to do with the since-settled collusion grievance against the NFL over national anthem protests, than it did with the widely expressed excuse of a traditionally weak market for safeties.
Then again, it is rare to see three of the best players at the position simultaneously hit the market.
Doug Williams, Washington’s senior vice president of player personnel, acknowledges the usual pecking order for defensive players that begins with pass-rushers and cornerbacks. But elite talent, he contends, costs at any position.
“You think about that,” Williams said when asked about formulas to balance cap dollars by position. “But first, you’ve got to secure the guy you want.”
Now Washington’s secondary includes the NFL’s highest-paid safety in Collins, 25, and the highest-paid cornerback in Josh Norman, earning $15 million per year.
Williams said there was little hesitation to set a new ceiling in a “game-changer” like Collins (whose rookie contract paid $1.53 million per year) when considering his presence twice a year in a Giants uniform against Washington in divisional contests.
“It’s a lot that you’re paying for,” Williams said. “But we watched him for the last four years. You can feel him on the field.”
Interestingly, agent David Mulugheta brokered the deals for Collins and Thomas — with an obvious sense of the market while working an intense timeline. After Collins’ agreement was settled during the three-day “legal tampering” window before the official start of free agency on Wednesday, Thomas’ deal came quickly as Plan B for the Ravens.
“I thought I was going to Kansas City,” Thomas said during an introductory news conference at the Ravens headquarters on Friday. He also thought he’d get a short-term deal with the Chiefs that would have him back on the market within two years.
Then Baltimore called. The Ravens hoped to re-sign C.J. Mosley, but couldn’t compete with the 5-year, $85 million deal, averaging $17 million, that the inside linebacker struck with the Jets. Said DeCosta, “We couldn’t go there.”
On to the full-court press to land Thomas. The wire-to-wire timing for the deal? DeCosta said it was consummated in just four hours after the initial contact.
“We got in late,” DeCosta said. “Sometimes you start early on a player and someone else swoops in and signs him. We were forced to restrain ourselves (on Thomas) because of C.J.”
The Chiefs wound up with Mathieu, 26, and it’s striking that a franchise at the forefront of another passing revolution with Patrick Mahomes also is leading the way again for safety pay. Their safety shuffle last week included releasing Eric Berry, who was previously the league’s highest-paid at $13 million per year.
Now there’s a great debate to be had with this trio. Who will provide more bang for the big bucks?
Mathieu, aka “The Honey Badger,” is the most versatile. With Arizona and Houston, he’s been aligned in the slot and out wide at cornerback. With more sacks (3) than interceptions (2) last season, he can affect games as a blitzer, too.
Thomas, 30, has championship pedigree established in Seattle to go with his big-play range. DeCosta’s contention that Thomas plays “like a Raven,” includes the underlying expectation that with four starters departed from the NFL’s No. 1-ranked unit, he will do much to help maintain a certain culture for a franchise that has long been better identified by its defense. Maybe Thomas is the next Ed Reed, so to speak.
Collins came to Washington eager to prove he’s more than a “box” safety. That expectation was crystallized with a gift from team owner Dan Snyder that came inside another type of box — a game-worn Sean Taylor jersey. Taylor, who wore No. 21, seemed to be on a Hall of Fame path for Washington before he was fatally shot during a home invasion in Miami in 2007.
Snyder presented the jersey during a celebratory dinner on Wednesday night — a gesture that moved Collins to tears.
“It was unbelievable,” Williams described. “Everybody just got quiet. Here’s this big ‘ole tough safety, overwhelmed by emotion. First, it spoke volumes about the type of guy he is. And it showed the love and respect that he has for Sean Taylor.”
If the jersey didn’t underscore the expectation for Collins, the contract surely does.
“When you sign a guy to a deal like that, the owner obviously has to sign off on him,” Williams said. “Fortunately, we’ve got Dan Snyder.”
Him again. It seems fitting that Snyder is again signing the check for a deal that sets the market in the NFL. Yet not even Snyder has paid so much for a safety, which is quite another sign of the times.