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Free agent safeties: Who should the Browns go after?

Lots of talent for the backend, and DBN wants you to know specifics

Green Bay Packers v Minnesota Vikings
Anthony Harris #41 of the Minnesota Vikings 
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

No doubt at all the Browns will need to bring in some safety help this off-season. Hopefully, they can draft a young stud to plug in for years.

At the same time, the franchise should consider signing a veteran player on the free agent market. The good news is that this year the free agent safety market is flooded with excellent talent.

Cleveland Browns v Cincinnati Bengals
Juston Burris
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Which brings up a topic of concern among the Browns faithful: the current safety situation. Three of Cleveland’s safeties are about to hit free agency: Damarious Randall, Juston Burris and Eric Murray. The free agent period begins March 18. All three players are unrestricted free agents which means the Browns can sign them up until the free agency period begins. After that, they are free to sign with another club.

Randall was the starting free safety last season while Morgan Burnett anchored the strong safety slot. Both men had issues in the deep zone last year so an upgrade is probable.

So, who is out there for the Browns to pursue? What are each player’s strengths? Who will fit better into new defensive coordinator’s Joe Woods scheme? How much influence will DB coach Jeff Howard have in the hiring process? Should the priority be a free safety or a strong safety?

Luckily, DBN has you covered. Below is our analysis and predictions of the current safety free agent market.

Free agent safeties (listed by ranking)

Denver Broncos v Buffalo Bills
Justin Simmons #31 of the Denver Broncos
Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

FS Justin Simmons – 6’, 2” 202 pounds

2020 free agent safety ranking: 1

Current club: Denver Broncos

Drafted: 2016 Round 3, pick 98

Age: 26

40 time: 4.53

NFL games played: 58

NFL starts: 48

Injuries: 2016 wrist fracture, 2017 ankle injury (IR)

2019 cap hit: $2.2 million

Awards: Jay McGillis Memorial Scholarship Award (2015), Second Team All-ACC (2015), Honorable Mention All-American (2015), Second Team All-Pro (2019)

Top 100 free agents ranking: 12

Chris Pokorny: After starting his career with the Broncos as a strong safety, Simmons has been Denver’s starting free safety for the past two seasons, not missing a single snap. He was an average to above average safety prior to 2019, where he had a breakout year. His biggest improvement came in defending passes; Pro Football Focus (PFF) credits him with 11 passes defended last year, while another site lists it at 15. He also registered 7 interceptions the past two seasons. I don’t think Simmons will grow into an elite-level safety, but he has the versatility to play either role and will be a solid, above-average player. I’m not anticipating him hitting the market, though, as early word is that if Denver doesn’t re-sign him, they will slap the franchise tag on him.

Matt Wood: I would like Simmons, but I have seen that Denver is planning on bringing him back, even if they have to tag him. He is insanely dependable as he hasn’t missed a snap since 2018. I don’t see Denver letting him leave.

Barry Shuck: This is a player. Graded out by PFF at 90.8 for the 2019 season. Has a special talent for breaking up passes and still a young man. Can line up anywhere on the field, has played cornerback before and has good closing speed. Played under Joe Woods while he was the DC in Denver in 2017-2018 so the transition would be a smooth one. The Broncos may not allow Simmons to test the market with a chance he may be labeled with the team’s franchise tag. Durable player with only minor injuries so far. Really busted out last year with 93 total tackles, four interceptions, 15 pass defenses which got him named Second-Team All-Pro honors.

Wild Card Round - Minnesota Vikings v New Orleans Saints
Anthony Harris #41 of the Minnesota Vikings intercepts a pass during the second quarter against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Wild Card Playoff game
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

FS Anthony Harris – 6’, 1” 202 pounds

2020 free agent safety ranking: 2

Current club: Minnesota Vikings

Drafted: undrafted 2015

Age: 28

40 time: 4.62

NFL games played: 65

NFL starts: 31

Injuries: 2015 torn labrum (shoulder blade)

2019 cap hit: $3.1 million

Awards: First Team All-ACC (2013), First Team All-American (2013), Third Team All-ACC (2014), NFL Interceptions co-leader (2019)

Top 100 free agents ranking: 3

Matt Wood: Can we take a moment and thank the Football Gods for the Vikings cap situation? There is almost no possible way the Vikings can bring Harris back, even with DE Everson Griffen coming off the books. They need to clear gobs of cap space and letting Harris walk is almost a certainty. With Harris you get a ball-hawk who was paired with the fantastic Harrison Smith on the backend of the Vikings defense. I LOVE defensive backs who have a nose for the ball and Harris does just that. I usually hate paying safeties, but the Browns have a huge need and Harris is a difference maker. I would love to get him on a short-ish deal, he turns 29 this season so a 3 year deal would be great. If he wants a longer deal, the Browns should look elsewhere.

Barry Shuck: Harris can be a difference maker on the field. Went undrafted because of a shoulder injury his senior year at Virginia that scared teams off. Has been incredibly durable since. Graded the highest of all safeties in 2019 from PFF with a 91.6 grade. Is a force in the run defense and can play in the slot or the box which makes his versatility a plus. His best feature is that he is a sure tackler which would be something new in the Browns’ backfield. Is classified as a “playmaker” for the defense and shows up every game. Joe Woods was the DB coach in Minnesota when Harris was drafted, so the new Browns’ DC has intimate knowledge of his skills and work ethic.

Chris Pokorny: Despite being a rotational safety for the first four years of his career, Harris had the perfect contract year as a full-time starter in 2019, leading Minnesota’s defense with 6 interceptions during the regular season and a league-high 91.6 grade among safeties, according to PFF. More impressive than that is the fact that he wasn’t limited to being a ‘deep free safety’ in Minnesota, as PFF notes that 40% of his snaps came in the box or lined up against a slot receiver. I don’t think Harris was a one-hit wonder either; he had been receiving steady playing time over the past few years, including in 2018, when he registered 46 tackles and 3 interceptions despite having started in only three games.

Minnesota Vikings v Green Bay Packers
Jayron Kearse #27
Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

FS Jayron Kearse – 6’, 4” 215 pounds

2020 free agent safety ranking: 3

Current club: Minnesota Vikings

Drafted: 2016 Round 7, pick 244

Age: 26

40 time: 4.62

NFL games played: 62

NFL starts: 5

Injuries: 2013 shoulder injury

2019 cap hit: $736,056

Awards: First Team All-ACC (2014), First Team All-American (2015), First Team All-ACC (2015), National Champion runner-up (2015)

Top 100 free agents ranking: 90

Barry Shuck: Kearse is actually Anthony Harris’ backup with the Vikings, but that doesn’t mean he is devalued. Durable player who is aggressive and will hit. Has sat behind two good safeties in Minnesota and is just waiting his turn. Long arms with good reach. Does not have the game experience as the other safeties listed with few starts but is still young and a great athlete. Was projected as a late first-round to early second-round pick coming out of Clemson and had the credentials to back it up but slipped way down and was a Day 3 pick.

Chris Pokorny: A seventh-round pick in 2016 by the Vikings, Kearse has been a backup or rotational player during his four years in Minnesota. This past season, he started three games, and on the year, registered 28 tackles and 6 passes defended. He is a big dude at 6-4, 215 lbs, showing impressive athleticism to play strong safety, linebacker, or nickel corner. The feeling is that the Vikings are in a bad cap situation, and a team won’t have to overpay for Kearse, but he’ll receive a deal to try becoming someone’s starter. His size against tight ends is really intriguing to think about — and if Cleveland addresses free safety with a big signing or draft prospect, then a lower-level signing like Kearse might be the right call for strong safety.

Matt Wood: Had some issues off the field last year (arrested) so you wonder how much the new Browns front office will want to take a gamble. He was a victim of playing time in Minnesota, being behind starting safeties Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith there wasn’t much of a chance for Kearse to make a difference on a regular basis. BUT the Vikings still found ways to get him on the field as he played safety, nickel and even a bit of LB for the Vikings. You are betting on the upside with Kearse. Depending on his price tag he could be a nice fit with the Browns.

Wild Card Round - San Diego Chargers v Baltimore Ravens
Adrian Phillips #31 of the Los Angeles Chargers celebrates after intercepting a pass by Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens during the second quarter in the AFC Wild Card Playoff game
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

SS Adrian Phillips – 5’, 11” 210 pounds

2020 free agent safety ranking: 4

Current club: Los Angeles Chargers

Drafted: undrafted 2014

Age: 27

40 time: 4.63

NFL games played: 63

NFL starts: 24

Injuries: 2019 broken arm (IR-return)

2019 cap hit: $2 million

Awards: Honorable Mention All-Big 12 (2013), First Team All-Pro (2018), Pro Bowl (2018)

Top 100 free agents ranking: 64

Chris Pokorny: After going undrafted in 2014, Phillips has spent the past six years with the Chargers. A broken arm took him out for much of the 2019 season, but it was 2018 where he really shined in a versatile role showing he can play free safety, strong safety, or the hybrid linebacker role at any given time. On top of that, he was also a Pro Bowler for his work on special teams coverage. Despite that good 2018 season, he only managed to get a one-year, $2 million deal from the Chargers in 2019 — and after an injury-filled season, I don’t expect him to get a lucrative deal now. Phillips again falls in the category of Kearse — you’re getting a player with potential who fills a starting void.

Matt Wood: Another guy who could be a bit of a buy low option. He missed a lot of time last season with a broken arm but has performed well with the Bolts in the past. Made his bones as a special-teamer but has played well on defense. He isn’t a guy that you would love covering the slot a bunch, seems to be more at home closer to the LOS. To be fair, I haven’t watched him a ton, I just like the other guys more.

Barry Shuck: Talk about persistence. Phillips was released from the Chargers eight times, and then rewarded them with a banner Pro Bowl year in 2018. Probably the hardest-working player on the team that can be the heart and soul of any defense. A player who can play any position needed including an extra linebacker. Special teams ace as well. Excellent deep field presence and a sure tackler. Great burst and can take on larger receivers.

NFL: Super Bowl LIV-San Francisco 49ers vs Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) runs the ball as San Francisco 49ers free safety Jimmie Ward (20) defends during the first quarter in Super Bowl LIV
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

FS Jimmie Ward – 5’, 11” 193 pounds

2020 free agent safety ranking: 5

Current club: San Francisco 49ers

Drafted: 2014 Round 1, pick 30

Age: 29

40 time: 4.47

NFL games played: 64

NFL starts: 44

Injuries: 2014 stress fracture foot, 2014 quad injury, 2014 foot injury (IR), 2016 quad injury, 2016 fractured clavicle (IR), 2017 forearm fracture (IR), 2018 left forearm fracture (IR)

2019 cap hit: $3.8 million

Awards: Third Team All-MAC (2011), First Team All-MAC (2012), Third Team All-American (2013), First Team All-MAC (2013), Super Bowl runner-up (2019)

Top 100 free agents ranking: 28

Matt Wood: This one is interesting. Obviously has a tie in with the new coaching staff, so having a guy that you can just plug and play in the back end and be a coach on the field, especially at the safety position, has to count for a bit extra. Age is getting to be a bit of an issue with a longer deal, much like Harris, but I think Ward would be a good get for the Browns.

Barry Shuck: Ward is a very good player that in my opinion cannot stay of the field. Are there long-term concerns about his health? Ties to new Browns DC Joe Woods with the 49ers would be a plus. Very instinctual and is quick to the tackle. Is a smaller guy which some view as a negative especially against bigger receivers. Not a great player in the box and with shedding blocks. Also, is more of a hand-grabber than with good tackling techniques.

Chris Pokorny: A first-round pick in 2014, Ward’s six years with the 49ers were all over the place. He tried to play strong safety, then moved to free safety, then moved to cornerback, and was most recently back to being a free safety. To be fair, the changes were a product of so many head coaching changes in a short period of time. Last year was Ward’s ‘breakout’ season, playing 71% of his snaps at free safety, according to PFF, with 8 passes defended and only 3 missed tackles on the year. The upside to signing Ward is that he would give new Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods a player he is familiar with. The downside is that he was playing on an outstanding all-around defense, while Cleveland still has some holes — and Ward’s effectiveness came this past season.


Chris Pokorny: If the Browns decide to sign a safety in free agency, then my eyes are on Harris. The combination of his versatility, ball skills, and having two solid seasons in a row provides me with a confidence that his skills will translate to any team. Kearse is also interesting if he can be had on a smaller contract; but I’d understand if the Browns gave Ward a look too for his ties to Joe Woods’ secondary. Preferred signee: Harris

Matt Wood: Overall I think it is a decent free agent class. There isn’t a “no-doubt guy” that you have to have, but I think Harris is close. If the Vikings weren’t in cap Hell I doubt they would let him leave. All things considered I would go with Harris unless he is asking for break the bank kind of money. I would rather see the Browns out their money in the trenches this off-season. Preferred signee: Harris

Barry Shuck: The Browns must bring in not only an experienced safety, but a good experienced safety. Other than offensive tackle, the offensive needs are negligible, so why not spend their funds on improving the defense? Harris is a baller with production and playmaking abilities. He wouldn’t even be in the conversation if the Vikings weren’t in cap Hell. Harris would become a cornerstone of the defense and is still young. It will be a challenge to sign him because there are several other teams such as the Atlanta Falcons that will go after him. The defensive backfield hasn’t been the same since Jabrill Peppers was traded. Play big and sign big. Preferred signee: Harris


Which free agent safety do you hope the Browns sign?

This poll is closed

  • 9%
    Justin Simmons
    (43 votes)
  • 64%
    Anthony Harris
    (288 votes)
  • 10%
    Jayron Kearse
    (45 votes)
  • 2%
    Adrian Phillips
    (12 votes)
  • 8%
    Jimmie Ward
    (36 votes)
  • 4%
    Safety not listed
    (20 votes)
444 votes total Vote Now