We’re back with the latest in our free agency series. With just days to go before free agency official begins, I thought it was a good time to take a look at one of the Washington Redskins‘ biggest needs, safety:

Big name: Jairus Byrd

Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd is one of the top, if not the top, free agents available on the open market this offseason. The Bills franchise-tagged Byrd last offseason, hoping to eventually sign him to a long-term deal. But a year later, Buffalo couldn’t agree to a new deal with Byrd and opted against franchise tagging him again. Byrd reportedly turned down a $9.5 million per year contract offer from the Bills to allow him to test the waters of free agency.

Clearly then, Byrd won’t come cheap. He is, however, one of the few elite players available and could prove a worthwhile investment. He’s going to get paid extremely well, but there is a reason for that. Byrd is a true free safety; someone that can roam the deep middle of the field and go sideline to sideline to help his corners on the outside.

Here, Byrd is playing as the single-high safety. The Steelers are looking to hit a deep shot with a go route up the sideline.

Immediately after the snap, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger locks on to his target and sets his feet to throw. Byrd is watching Roethlisberger and follows his eyes to his target. That tips Byrd off to the direction of the throw.

Byrd tracks the ball from the moment it leaves the quarterback’s hand and shows good range to get across the field and intercept the ball outside the numbers. For what it’s worth, Byrd returned this interception back into the Steelers’ half.

Byrd’s experience in the middle of the field is invaluable. When you focus on him every snap, you notice how often he is shouting out calls to the rest of the defense from what he sees and getting people set in the correct position.

On this play, the Jets move a receiver in motion. As you can see, Byrd begins signalling to other defenders to make them aware of what he sees. But Byrd does more than just signal the play.

He drops to his landmark deep in the middle of the field while keeping his eyes on quarterback Geno Smith.

When Smith reaches the top of his drop, he slightly opens himself up. It’s the subtlest of movements from his front foot to get himself in position to throw to his left. But that’s enough for Byrd to pick up on and begin breaking on the ball.

Byrd actually gets there too early and has to wait for the ball to come to him before intercepting it.

Byrd reads the quarterback and breaks on the ball as well as anyone in the league. The ability to play as a single-high safety allows the rest of the defense to play more free. The strong safety can come up into the box and help run support and cover the slot receivers. Part of the reason Kam Chancellor became such a threat in Seattle is because Earl Thomas is the best free safety in the NFL and allows him to play closer to the line of scrimmage. With the Seahawks setting the trend for NFL defenses going forward, more teams will want a rangy free safety. There just aren’t that many around, which is what makes Byrd so pricey. But Washington has struggled with its safeties since the untimely passing of Sean Taylor. An investment in Byrd might just prove worthwhile if they can find a way to structure the contract.

Good value: Chris Clemons

Clemons is a somewhat underrated safety because he doesn’t make the big, flashy plays. Clemons only has four interceptions in his five seasons in the NFL. What he excels at is preventing the opposition from making those big plays.

On this play, the Dolphins run a form of ‘Cover 6’, where they split the deep part of the field into three zones: a quarter, quarter and a half. Clemons is covering the inside quarter of his side of the field.

Clemons keeps his eyes on quarterback Tom Brady and mirrors his movement. Some pressure up front forces Brady to move to his right.

Brady looks back across the field while on the move, spotting a receiver running across the middle. Clemons spots the same thing and breaks towards the receiver.

Clemons manages to jump in front of the receiver and get his hands to the ball. Ideally, Clemons would have and should have intercepted the pass. But breaking up the pass is a good play in its own right.

Here’s another similar play, this time preventing a touchdown.

Clemons is responsible for the deep middle of the field. The Colts have wide receiver Reggie Wayne lined up in the slot. Wayne runs a in-breaking route across the face of Clemons.

As Wayne makes his cut, Clemons opens his hips and gets his eyes on quarterback Andrew Luck.

He breaks in front of the route, forcing Luck to delay his throw. But Wayne attempts to cut back outside and Luck pulls the trigger.

Clemons dives in front and once again breaks up the pass, saving the touchdown.

So while Clemons doesn’t make too many big plays, he does prevent them. Washington already has aggressive corners in David Amerson and DeAngelo Hall, who thrive on jumping routes to make interceptions. Having a reliable safety who they can trust to be over the top and prevent them getting burned will help them make plays.

Under the radar: Mike Mitchell

Mitchell was a second-round pick of the Raiders in 2009, but failed to grasp a starting spot during his four seasons in Oakland. He landed on his feet this season with the Carolina Panthers, where he started 14 games and had his only real-productive season in the NFL. But at just 26 years old, Mitchell still has his best years ahead of him.

Like Byrd, Mitchell is more of a deep free safety than an in-the-box guy. He showed this season he can be reliable as a single-high safety. While he didn’t make too many flashy plays (at least in the games I saw), he was consistently in the correct position and made good reads. Crucially as a safety, he stopped plays underneath from turning into big-yards-after-the-catch plays.

On this play, the Vikings run a play-action pass designed to fool the defense into believing it’s a run play.

But Mitchell trusts his keys, which tell him the play is a pass. He stays in the deep middle of the field instead of biting up towards the line on the run fake. He spots the receiver running a crossing route and begins to break on it before the ball is even thrown.

Mitchell wasn’t able to break up the pass, but he was able to make the tackle a split second after the ball was caught, keeping the play to a minimal gain. It may not seem special, but it’s something Washington hasn’t managed to do well for years. Making open field tackles and stopping yards after the catch are big weaknesses of the Redskins defense.

Carolina played a lot more Cover-2 and Tampa-2 defenses, which pair a second safety deep with Mitchell. That made things slightly easier for Mitchell, as he only had to worry about half of the field.

Here in the red zone, the Saints are looking to attack up the seam. Mitchell is the safety over the top, looking to cover his half of the field.

Drew Brees spots what he thinks is an open receiver. But Mitchell does a good job staying over the top and following Brees’s eyes, breaking on the ball as its thrown.

Mitchell manages to get a hand on the ball and knock it away from the receiver, saving the touchdown.

Mitchell’s weaknesses come against the run. He’s not particularly poor in run support, but he can be slow to read run keys from the offense and get to the line of scrimmage. At times, that meant he was late and taking bad angles. But at 26, there’s plenty of room to grow.

Which safety would you like to see the Redskins sign this offseason?

Mark Bullock is The Insider’s Outsider, sharing his impressions of the Redskins’ play without the benefit of access to the team.

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