The safety position is often overlooked when compared to the cornerback position, but a big-name, playmaking safety can take a team from mediocre to very good. Similarly, a bad safety can sink a great defense, even if it has a stellar pass rush, stalwart defensive front and good cornerbacks.
Plays are going to break down, cornerbacks are going to get beat and safeties have to be there to clean up the mess. If a team overlooks its safety position, it's nearly guaranteed to lose at least one game on the back of a blown play by a safety.
That said, teams on the lookout for improvement at the safety position need to look no further than this year's group of free agents. It's a strong safety class overall, and while some of the top names might not ever make it to the open market, there are quite a few starting-caliber safeties set to hit free agency.
Here are the nine safeties who made our top 100 free agents of 2016 list.
Eric Berry, S, Kansas City Chiefs
Eric Berry overcame cancer and returned to the football field in less than a year. Few humans could accomplish such a feat, let alone earn first-team All-Pro honors his first season back. Berry combined with Marcus Peters, Sean Smith and Ron Parker to form one of the league's better secondaries, and the Chiefs hope to keep the unit in place for 2016.
That won't come cheaply, however. The demand for Berry's services and rise in salary demands could lead to the team applying the franchise tag by March 1. If Berry somehow makes it to the open market, he could land one of the biggest contracts ever given to a safety in NFL history.
Eric Weddle, S, San Diego Chargers
Weddle spent his nine-year career in San Diego, but he will be playing somewhere else this season after an ugly falling-out with the Chargers. Weddle is now 31 years old and has a lot of mileage on his body (he was slowed by a lingering groin injury in 2015).
Even with the injuries, Weddle turned in another quality season with 79 tackles and six passes defended over 13 games, although he failed to record an interception for the first time in his career. Weddle figures to have at least two or three prime years left, which should be enough to land him a mid-level veteran deal on the open market. Look for him to land with a contender, or perhaps even a fellow AFC West team for maximum revenge factor against his old Chargers.
Reggie Nelson, S, Cincinnati Bengals
A strong career in Cincinnati finally culminated in a trip to the Pro Bowl for the first time in Nelson's career in 2015, and it's not crazy to say he should have been in the conversation for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. No player finished the season with more interceptions than Nelson, and he was a rare blend of enforcer and ball hawk on one of the NFL's best defenses.
It was a hard point to imagine Nelson reaching when he was unceremoniously traded from the Jacksonville Jaguars just before the start of the 2010 season in exchange for journeyman cornerback David Jones. Nelson spent the first three years of his career with the Jaguars after he was selected in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft, but was shipped off and considered at the time to be a bust.
But at age 32, Nelson is playing the best football of his career and is easily one of the best safeties in the NFL. The question is just how much more does he have in the tank and how much money is smart to give to a defensive back set to turn 33 early in the 2016 season?
Tashaun Gipson, S, Cleveland Browns
Gipson might be one of the more polarizing free agents on the market this offseason. Regarded as one of the most outstanding safeties in 2014, he suffered a dramatic downturn in performance last year (though there is speculation that was due to an ankle injury).
At his best, he had six interceptions in 11 games in 2014 and was a top-10 safety per Pro Football Focus. At his worst, he picked off just two passes last year and was in the bottom 10 of PFF's grades at his position. The key question going forward for interested teams is which Gipson will you get: the Pro Bowler from two years ago or the struggling defender of last year?
George Iloka, S, Cincinnati Bengals
A former fifth-pick, the 25-year-old Iloka has blossomed into one of the most complete safeties in the league. He received positive grades in both run defense and pass coverage from Pro Football Focus in each of the last two seasons, and finished 2015 as the 15th-best safety in PFF's overall rankings. Iloka would a valuable asset for any team looking to upgrade its secondary with a versatile and physically gifted safety.
Walter Thurmond, S, Philadelphia Eagles
Thurmond made a smooth transition from cornerback to safety last year after never having played an NFL snap at the position prior to the 2015 season. Despite his lack of experience, he was still an above-average performer in coverage and as a run defender, and made several big plays for the Eagles' defense. His ability to cover the slot also enhances his profile and makes him one of the best free agent values on the market.
Husain Abdullah, S, Kansas City Chiefs
Abdullah is one of several Chiefs defensive players set to hit free agency, and it's unlikely that Kansas City will opt to bring him back with other guys ahead of him on the priority list. A full-time starter in 2014, he saw his playing time diminished in 2015 in a part-time role. Still, he received one of the best coverage grades from Pro Football Focus over the last two seasons and would be a capable starting safety on most teams.
Rodney McLeod, S, Los Angeles Rams
The Rams went from having one of the worst defensive backfields in the league to suddenly having some serious talent at both cornerback and safety. Unfortunately, a lot of that talent is now set to hit the open market, and that includes McLeod. He has improved every season he's been in the league and last season put up 82 combined tackles, three forced fumble, a fumble recovery and one interception. He is definitely a starting-caliber safety and should get paid as such.
Isa Abdul-Quddus, S, Detroit Lions
Abdul-Quddus was primarily a special teams player in three years with the New Orleans Saints and was well on his way to being as such for his two years with the Lions, but struggles from James Ihedigbo saw Abdul-Quddus get his opportunity on defense. He took advantage of that opportunity, and used his speed to cover more ground. The Lions defense improved a lot with Abdul-Quddus back there, and while there is still limited film on him it's safe to say there will be teams that consider him a starting safety if he hits the open market.