Why aren't teams signing safeties?

PITTSBURGH -- Morgan Burnett spent the first week of free agency hanging with his wife and kids instead of scrolling Twitter for free-agency updates. He'd already been briefed by his agent, Kevin Conner, in his Atlanta offices, poring over every possibility: available players, comps to previous years, teams that might fulfill safety needs in the draft.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, traditionally not huge spenders, were attractive because they support veteran players.

"I'm confident in my skill set and [knew] that one day I would get a call," Burnett said from the Steelers facility on March 20, the day he signed a $14.35 million contract over three years.

While Burnett was calm and content, the rest of the safety market was shaken. That's no fault of Burnett, who's a quality player on his third NFL contract after eight years with the Green Bay Packers.

But this was a nice deal at a not-so-nice time for the position. That same day, one representative of a free-agent safety texted "ugh" because reality had set in: The money was drying up.

The first two months of free agency left an obvious question for the league: What is going on with the NFL safety?

A position known for its helmeted hulks, center-field-like range and Ronnie Lott highlights has become an afterthought in team spending.

The numbers from this year's free agency tell the story:

  • Every offensive or defensive position saw at least one player score a contract worth $30 million or more ... except safety, with Kurt Coleman getting $16.5 million from the New Orleans Saints before free agency.

  • Four different positions had at least five players earn $20 million or more.

  • On average, the seven highest-paid cornerbacks can earn up to $38.9 million, while the safeties average $8.62 million under the same setup.

  • Even kickers ($34 million!) are worth nearly as much as strong safeties ($34.4 million).

"It tells you it's just a position where maybe safety is the new running back, a position that's not very valued, particularly in light of the free-agent talent," said J.I. Halsell, a former salary-cap analyst with the Washington Redskins.

Eric Reid's collusion case against the NFL doesn't wholly account for this disparity: Seven of Rotoworld's top 10 safeties remain on the market, while no other position has less than four.

Trying to get a sensible explanation elicits a wide range of responses. Some blame a temporary lull similar to what running backs experienced in recent years. Good safety depth in the draft didn't help. One NFL executive floated a theory that safeties are easy to hide if a team would rather spend big on corners and pass-rushers in today's speed game.

But Conner's notes tell him four safeties -- Tony Jefferson, Micah Hyde, Barry Church, Johnathan Cyprien -- signed deals worth between $25 to $34 million just last year.

"The caveat is you can never predict what happens until it happens," Conner said. "It was unpredictably slow and extremely surprising it was slow [this year] based on what happened in previous years."

A really good safety can still erase tons of problems for a defense while essentially playing three positions: safety, inside corner against tight ends, and linebacker in subpackages.

And not many dispute that Reid, Tre Boston and Kenny Vaccaro -- widely considered the top three safeties left -- can still play. They might not do everything well, but they add value.

Reid is a former Pro Bowler, Boston had five interceptions for the Los Angeles Chargers last season and Vaccaro is a former first-round pick.

"I'm still kind of confused as to why some of those players aren't signed," said Matt Bowen, a seven-year NFL safety who's now an ESPN football analyst. "If I'm a coach, I can use them. Those guys we're talking about are really good football players."

Bowen isn't sure what those players' agents feel is appropriate value, but as far as positional value, Bowen believes it's higher than ever because of today's pass-happy game. Safeties must have ball skills, cover freakish tight ends and clean up in the running game.

"If you don't have safeties against Julio Jones, good luck," Bowen said.

This year's NFL draft validated Bowen's words as eight safeties went in the top 100, tied with defensive ends.

But that's good and bad for the position, and the Steelers glorified both sides by signing Burnett to a good but not massive deal, then doubling down with Terrell Edmunds in the first round and Marcus Allen in the fifth. This sets the stage to run three safeties on the field on third downs to help offset the loss of linebacker Ryan Shazier.

As Steelers coach Mike Tomlin pointed out on draft day, versatility is "probably something indicative of the safety position in today's NFL. Not only are they capable safeties but in subpackage defense when you start putting DBs down in the box."

Only high-level versatility gets paid.

As one NFL safety who recently retired points out, Kansas City's Eric Berry and Minnesota's Harrison Smith have deals worth a combined max of $129 million because they are the rare prototypes who can cover Rob Gronkowski one down and knock a running back the next.

Most safeties can't do both, so why pay? Defenses are being built outside-in, the safety said, accentuating the need for good corners.

Tyrann Mathieu was an intriguing option as the classic 25-year-old hybrid who can play corner or safety and loves to fly around the field. But past injuries and a so-so 2017 season left him with a one-year, $7 million deal with the Houston Texans.

What's surprising to Halsell is first-round picks (Reid, Vaccaro) not getting second chances. Most high picks get at least one.

But offensive linemen will continue to get paid because linemen in the draft aren't great. They are more of a free-agent commodity as a result.

Maybe 2019 free-agent-to-be safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and LaMarcus Joyner, fresh off a franchise tag, can change things, just like Le'Veon Bell and Todd Gurley surely will for running backs.

"It's in part about getting those deals at the right time," Halsell said.