As the league continues to shape its "pass first" reputation, a need for good safeties has become even more important. Safety play is down across the league and several teams may attempt to upgrade the position this offseason.
Lucky for those teams, several proven starters are set to hit the market. Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd headlines the class. His former college teammate T.J. Ward is also likely to cash in. Veterans Antoine Bethea, Chris Clemons and Malcolm Jenkins are the second-tier safeties that could easily upgrade several teams' units. Nate Allen and Major Wright are also solid options.
Below are the top 10 safeties who are set to become free agents in March. Each player's 2013 team is listed in parentheses.
1. Jairus Byrd (Buffalo Bills)
Despite the Bills' desire to re-sign him, unless they place the franchise tag on him, he is likely gone. Byrd is looking to make some serious cash and deservedly so. Although he missed several games with plantar fasciitis in both of his feet, Byrd was still named to the Pro Bowl after collecting 48 tackles, a sack, four interceptions and a forced fumble in just 11 games. He has been a Pro Bowl safety three times in his career and could be in line to become the NFL's highest-paid safety.
2. T.J. Ward (Cleveland Browns)
Newly-minted Pro Bowl and All-Pro safety T.J. Ward is scheduled to hit the open market for the first time in his career. While he is the most likely on this list to receive the franchise tag, Ward would be a big splash signing for any team. Ward started all 54 games that he has appeared in during the last four seasons and has been a play-maker. Ward has five interceptions and five forced fumbles in his four-year career.
3. Antoine Bethea (Indianapolis Colts)
Two-time Pro Bowl safety and Super Bowl winner Antoine Bethea is set to become a free agent in March and could be playing for a new team for the first time in his career. The eight-year veteran out of Howard, Bethea has been a stable force in the Colts defensive backfield throughout his career. Like Ward, he has started every game he has played in and has only missed five games. He coming off a solid season where he posted 110 tackles, a sack and two interceptions.
4. Chris Clemons (Miami Dolphins)
The 28-year-old will hit free agency for the first time after spending five years in Miami. Clemons worked his way up from special teams to starter during the last three seasons. While he does not gather a ton of big numbers, Clemons has the ability to cover and stop the run.
5. Malcolm Jenkins (New Orleans Saints)
Former first-round pick Malcolm Jenkins is a converted cornerback with a nose for the ball. Still just 26, Jenkins has plenty of experience and a Super Bowl ring. He was an All-Pro in 2010 but has never reached a Pro Bowl. A five-year veteran with the ability to cause turnovers, Jenkins could receive plenty of interest.
A heavy hitter with tons of experience, Whitner is likely to be targeted as a veteran presence. He is probably worth more to the 49ers than to any other team, but after a strong resume of work during the last few seasons, a team is likely to overpay for the former Buffalo Bill. He is a leader and could be a valued asset to a young, talented squad.
Pollard has established himself as a solid starter in the NFL. He played very well with the Titans last season and could be due for the first major payday of his career. He has bounced around the league and his next team will be this fifth.
8. Major Wright (Chicago Bears)
Wright is a talented player who has improved every every year. He could be in for a big pile of cash, especially from a team that thinks the best is yet to come. Wright has accumulated nine interceptions and three touchdowns in the last three seasons. Only 25, he is among the youngest veterans on the market.
9. Nate Allen (Philadelphia Eagles)
Allen turned around his career under new defensive coordinator Billy Davis this season. After dealing with three different coordinators in three years, his fourth play-caller wound up being the best bet for Allen. The four-year veteran has played in several different defenses -- so he is adaptable -- but likely needs to play in the box at this point in his career. A nasty leg injury during his rookie campaign has permanently slowed him down, but he is a smart player and has greatly improved his tackling ability. He could signed for competition or be a starter.
The Panthers undercovered a gem when they signed Mitchell to a one-year deal last offseason. The former Oakland Raider blossomed in Sean McDermott's defense and was an absolute play-maker. Mitchell collected 64 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles and four interceptions. He is likely better off staying in Carolina but could look to get a stable starting gig and paycheck somewhere else.
Other notable names:
James Ihedigbo (Baltimore Ravens)
Ihedigbo moved into the starting lineup this season and responded with a career year. The 30-year-old finished the season with 101 tackles, 11 pass defenses and three interceptions. He played for the league minimum last season and figures to earn a much larger payday in free agency.
Usama Young (Oakland Raiders)
Young suffered a neck injury late in the season and landed on injured reserve. If healthy, he should provide solid depth and the ability to play multiple roles.
Kendrick Lewis (Kansas City Chiefs)
Lewis has considerable starting experience, with 50 career starts. He was somewhat overshadowed in Kansas City, playing next to Eric Berry. Lewis finished last season with 56 tackles, four pass defenses and an interception.
Charles Woodson (Oakland Raiders)
The veteran returned to Oakland last season and played a considerable role for the Raiders, despite being 37 years old. He did well enough that he should receive interest on the free agent market, although it wouldn't be a surprise to see him return to Oakland.
Ryan Clark (Pittsburgh Steelers)
Clark has been a consistent playmaker for the Steelers, posting his third straight season with more than 100 tackles. At 34, he'll likely attract free agent interest, but on short-term deals.