2010 free-agent preview: Defensive backs

This is the third in a series of position-by-position analyses of the best players who may be available on the NFL’s open market when free agency opens on March 5:

Safeties first

What do Nick Collins, Antoine Bethea and O.J. Atogwe have in common? They all stand 5-11, they’re all playmakers in their primes, and unfortunately for teams hungry for such safeties, they all will be restricted free agents.

The top prize is Collins, who has 13 interceptions over the past two seasons. Considering his talent and Green Bay’s secondary concerns, the team should consider locking him up beyond 2010.

Bethea, whose strong tackling helped the Colts overcome the loss of Bob Sanders, will be back in Indianapolis.

The most "available" of this trio is Atogwe, one of the few bright spots on the Rams’ defense. The team desperately needs draft help and may move him for the right offer of picks.

The corner market

Like the Packers with Collins, it would be wise for the Panthers to give similarly restricted cornerback Richard Marshall a long-term deal. Former Jaguars and Rams wide receiver Torry Holt, a seven-time Pro Bowler, thinks Marshall has All-Pro potential. "He has it all," Holt said. "He’s a very physical, strong guy who likes contact."

Holt compares Marshall, who had 88 tackles and four interceptions last season, to a bigger, faster version of Antoine Winfield who can both cover and play the run.

Unrestricted free agent cornerback Leigh Bodden is capable of huge games.
Unrestricted free agent cornerback Leigh Bodden is capable of huge games.

While Marshall has the most upside and is the least available, the Patriots’ Leigh Bodden and the Texans’ Dunta Robinson are both unrestricted.

Bodden, with his size (6-1, 193) and long arms, is attractive for a team that plays a lot of zone and off coverage. He can explode for big games. During his first season in New England, three of his five interceptions came in one game, against the Jets’ Mark Sanchez.

Robinson’s assets are his speed and quickness, but his playmaking ability was limited in Houston, where he was consistently matched up with the opponent’s best receiver. He can also move inside to play nickel.

"If there’s a weakness, it’s that he’s susceptible to double moves against receivers with a suddenness to their routes," Holt said.

Restricted Redskin Carlos Rogers is a bit like Robinson: a tantalizing talent without the numbers to back it up.

"He’s another guy who can solidify a secondary," Holt said. "I would like to see his physical abilities translate to more plays. His 24 passes defensed (in 2008) shows he can get to the ball; he just need to take better advantage."

Still sharp

If there’s proof that a smart one-year deal for an accomplished veteran can pay off, Darren Sharper is it. At 34, playing in aggressive scheme that was a perfect fit for his ballhawking style, his best season was a key part of the Saints’ Super Bowl success.

Sharper was a steal at $1.7 million, and with New Orleans deciding not to tag him as its franchise player, other contenders looking for an instant impact have a shot at getting him, especially if he gets signed past ’10.

Same division, same skills

Teams may not be able to land a top-flight playmaking safety on the open market, but if they look to the AFC North, they can find two strong 3-4 run supporters in the Steelers’ Ryan Clark and the Ravens’ Dawan Landry. "They’re really very similar players," said an NFC team’s scout. "They are both solid tacklers who aren’t as good in coverage."

Clark is unrestricted, and although Landry is not, the Ravens may not tender him because of their potential depth at his position.

Value and versatility

Because the cover-2 requires cornerbacks to play so much zone coverage, those who play in that scheme need to have good lateral range and upfield instincts. The Colts’ Marlin Jackson fits that mold, making him a versatile option further down the list.

Teams who can look past his injury woes — he is coming off knee surgery — might be able to get two players in one.

"He is one of those corner/safety hybrids," Holt said. "If it’s not Indy, he could help a lot of teams."

The top 10 …

1. Nick Collins, S, Packers*
2. Antoine Bethea, S, Colts*
3. O.J. Atogwe, S, Rams*
4. Richard Marshall, CB, Panthers*
5. Darren Sharper, S, Saints (UFA)
6. Leigh Bodden, CB, Patriots (UFA)
7. Dunta Robinson, CB, Texans (UFA)
8. Roman Harper, S, Saints*
9. Ryan Clark, S, Steelers (UFA)
10. Dawan Landry, S, Ravens*

UFA=will become unrestricted free agent on March 5
*-will be restricted free agent with lack of CBA

… And one more to watch

Nate Clements, CB, 49ers: Clements hasn’t lived up to the eight-year, $80 million deal he signed three years ago, as his speed and durability have let him down. Coming off a broken bone in his right shoulder, he is an experienced cover man who might be better off at safety. If the 49ers are looking to get younger in the secondary, he might get released.

Vinnie Iyer is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at viyer@sportingnews.com.

This is the third in a series of position-by-position analyses of the best players who may be available on the NFL’s open market when free agency opens on March 5:

Safeties first

What do Nick Collins, Antoine Bethea and O.J. Atogwe have in common? They all stand 5-11, they’re all playmakers in their primes, and unfortunately for teams hungry for such safeties, they all will be restricted free agents.

The top prize is Collins, who has 13 interceptions over the past two seasons. Considering his talent and Green Bay’s secondary concerns, the team should consider locking him up beyond 2010.

Bethea, whose strong tackling helped the Colts overcome the loss of Bob Sanders, will be back in Indianapolis.

The most "available" of this trio is Atogwe, one of the few bright spots on the Rams’ defense. The team desperately needs draft help and may move him for the right offer of picks.

The corner market

Like the Packers with Collins, it would be wise for the Panthers to give similarly restricted cornerback Richard Marshall a long-term deal. Former Jaguars and Rams wide receiver Torry Holt, a seven-time Pro Bowler, thinks Marshall has All-Pro potential. "He has it all," Holt said. "He’s a very physical, strong guy who likes contact."

Holt compares Marshall, who had 88 tackles and four interceptions last season, to a bigger, faster version of Antoine Winfield who can both cover and play the run.

Unrestricted free agent cornerback Leigh Bodden is capable of huge games.
Unrestricted free agent cornerback Leigh Bodden is capable of huge games.

While Marshall has the most upside and is the least available, the Patriots’ Leigh Bodden and the Texans’ Dunta Robinson are both unrestricted.

Bodden, with his size (6-1, 193) and long arms, is attractive for a team that plays a lot of zone and off coverage. He can explode for big games. During his first season in New England, three of his five interceptions came in one game, against the Jets’ Mark Sanchez.

Robinson’s assets are his speed and quickness, but his playmaking ability was limited in Houston, where he was consistently matched up with the opponent’s best receiver. He can also move inside to play nickel.

"If there’s a weakness, it’s that he’s susceptible to double moves against receivers with a suddenness to their routes," Holt said.

Restricted Redskin Carlos Rogers is a bit like Robinson: a tantalizing talent without the numbers to back it up.

"He’s another guy who can solidify a secondary," Holt said. "I would like to see his physical abilities translate to more plays. His 24 passes defensed (in 2008) shows he can get to the ball; he just need to take better advantage."

Still sharp

If there’s proof that a smart one-year deal for an accomplished veteran can pay off, Darren Sharper is it. At 34, playing in aggressive scheme that was a perfect fit for his ballhawking style, his best season was a key part of the Saints’ Super Bowl success.

Sharper was a steal at $1.7 million, and with New Orleans deciding not to tag him as its franchise player, other contenders looking for an instant impact have a shot at getting him, especially if he gets signed past ’10.

Same division, same skills

Teams may not be able to land a top-flight playmaking safety on the open market, but if they look to the AFC North, they can find two strong 3-4 run supporters in the Steelers’ Ryan Clark and the Ravens’ Dawan Landry. "They’re really very similar players," said an NFC team’s scout. "They are both solid tacklers who aren’t as good in coverage."

Clark is unrestricted, and although Landry is not, the Ravens may not tender him because of their potential depth at his position.

Value and versatility

Because the cover-2 requires cornerbacks to play so much zone coverage, those who play in that scheme need to have good lateral range and upfield instincts. The Colts’ Marlin Jackson fits that mold, making him a versatile option further down the list.

Teams who can look past his injury woes — he is coming off knee surgery — might be able to get two players in one.

"He is one of those corner/safety hybrids," Holt said. "If it’s not Indy, he could help a lot of teams."

The top 10 …

1. Nick Collins, S, Packers*
2. Antoine Bethea, S, Colts*
3. O.J. Atogwe, S, Rams*
4. Richard Marshall, CB, Panthers*
5. Darren Sharper, S, Saints (UFA)
6. Leigh Bodden, CB, Patriots (UFA)
7. Dunta Robinson, CB, Texans (UFA)
8. Roman Harper, S, Saints*
9. Ryan Clark, S, Steelers (UFA)
10. Dawan Landry, S, Ravens*

UFA=will become unrestricted free agent on March 5
*-will be restricted free agent with lack of CBA

… And one more to watch

Nate Clements, CB, 49ers: Clements hasn’t lived up to the eight-year, $80 million deal he signed three years ago, as his speed and durability have let him down. Coming off a broken bone in his right shoulder, he is an experienced cover man who might be better off at safety. If the 49ers are looking to get younger in the secondary, he might get released.

Vinnie Iyer is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at viyer@sportingnews.com.

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