A Facebook discussion on Kerry Rhodes' prospects as Antrel Rolle's replacement in Arizona left me mentally ranking the situations at free safety in the NFC West, based on a combination of ability and potential.
My initial rankings came out in reverse order of experience at the position. That seemed out of whack on the surface, but we're talking about ranking situations, not ranking players. I did move up Arizona's situation into the second overall spot based on factors explained below.
1. Seattle Seahawks. First-round choice Earl Thomas should make an immediate impact. He should become the best coverage safety in the division. I'm leaning heavily on the potential side of the equation in ranking Seattle's situation at the top, but I suspect every other team in the division would trade its starting free safety for Thomas without hesitation. Seattle will have Thomas signed to a long-term deal, with veteran secondary coach Jerry Gray onboard to tutor him.
2. Arizona Cardinals. Rhodes remains under contract through 2013 and at a reasonable rate. He gets to line up next to Pro Bowl strong safety Adrian Wilson, which can only help. Rhodes is a proven starter and he will not turn 30 until the 2012 season. This looks like a good situation for the Cardinals even if they would have preferred keeping Rolle.
3. San Francisco 49ers. Dashon Goldson started all 16 games in his first season as Mark Roman's replacement in the lineup. He improved and enjoyed a breakout performance against the Cardinals on Monday Night Football. Goldson enters his contract season needing to prove he's focused on getting better, not just getting richer. At age 25, he gives the 49ers a potential long-term starter and playmaker. He also has a good supporting cast on defense. Unlike his counterpart in St. Louis, Goldson has not been named a franchise player, making the franchise tag a more palatable option financially should a long-term deal prove elusive.
4. St. Louis Rams. Oshiomogho Atogwe might be the best free safety in the division. He's been a ball hawk, a true professional and the type of player the Rams would love to build around -- at the right price. That last part has proven somewhat problematic, however, and financial complications could make 2010 the final year the Rams and Atogwe are together. This marriage of convenience came with a prenuptial agreement giving the Rams an easy out after the season. Atogwe must know the Rams do not see him as an elite safety. It's not the best situation for the long term. Atogwe, 29 and coming off an injury-shortened season, still must prove he can be an impact player in Steve Spagnuolo's defense.
Let's see how many people dive into the comments as if this were a straight ranking of free safeties based on their proven abilities (a ranking that might go in this order: Atogwe, Rhodes, Goldson and Thomas).