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Free agent fits: Big-name, value and low-key safeties the Redskins could pursue

With the Super Bowl in the books, the attention of the NFL now turns to the offseason. While the combine and college pro days are just around the corner, the draft is still 11 weeks away. Free agency begins next month (March 9) and will be the immediate focus.

Washington general manager Scot McCloughan has said his philosophy is building through the draft and that he doesn’t expect the team to be big players in free agency, but there are still talented players set to hit the market who could help Washington. One of the biggest needs is safety. There are a number of potential free agents who could fill that need.

Big name: Eric Berry, Chiefs, age 27
Berry was taken by the Chiefs with the fifth overall pick of the 2010 draft, one choice after Washington drafted franchise left tackle Trent Williams. It’s hard to imagine the Chiefs will allow Berry to leave, but if they did, he would instantly become the top safety available. Berry doesn’t stand out in terms of size, at 6 feet tall and 212 pounds. But watch the Chiefs defense for a few plays and he’ll jump off the screen. He’s very quick, playing much faster than the 4.47 40-yard dash time that he was clocked at during the combine.

Here, Berry lines up deep off the line of scrimmage as the single deep safety. The Chargers opt to run a draw play, delaying for a moment before handing off to the running back.

By the time the ball is handed off, Berry has dropped back to more than 20 yards off the mesh point. That’s a lot of distance to make up, but Berry makes quick work of it. He sprints down towards the line of scrimmage, while the running back bounces his run outside.

The angle Berry takes isn’t great, but his speed allows him to cover up his mistake. Berry cuts the distance between himself and the back in half before the back has even crossed the line of scrimmage.

Berry continues to close in quickly, diving at the running back’s legs and grabbing on to make the tackle for a minimal gain.

It was a superb play from Berry who closed a great deal of distance very quickly to keep the run from turning into a big play. His speed makes him stand out, but his tackling ability makes him a real asset to the defense. In the playoffs, Kansas City often trusted Berry to cover Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski without any help.

Here in the red zone, the Patriots isolate Gronkowski to the left and have him run a quick stop route. Berry has little help against one of the toughest players to cover and tackle in the NFL.

Berry makes sure he stays on top of Gronkowski to cover for any shots into the end zone. He then gets his eyes in the backfield to locate the ball as Tom Brady begins his throwing motion.

Berry can’t quite get there before the ball, but arrives just after. He grabs on to Gronkowski’s leg and trips him up, bringing him down to the ground by himself for a small three-yard pick up.

It might appear like a simple play, but covering and tackling Gronkowski in the red zone without any help is not an easy task. The Chiefs had a lot of belief in Berry to give him such an assignment and he repaid that faith with a good play.

He made a number of highlight-reel plays this year and has done throughout his career. Berry has also been one of the most inspiring players in the NFL. He missed the 2014 season after being diagnosed with cancer, but returned to the field this year and had a Pro Bowl season. His example of hard work and courage would be a positive influence on any locker room in the NFL.

Berry starts the season with a winning record after beating cancer

If the Chiefs were to allow him to test the market, I’d be surprised if Washington were one of the teams in the mix for him. He’d be paid in line with the very best safeties in the league and the days of paying free agents overly large sums of money appear to be in the past for Washington.

Good value: George Iloka, Bengals, 25
A fifth-round pick in 2012, Iloka has done a good job developing into a starting-caliber safety for the Bengals. He has impressive physical attributes, measuring in at 6-4, 225. With that body type, it would be easy to assume Iloka would be more of an in-the-box safety than a deep center fielder. But when he does play as the deep safety, Iloka shows off impressive range.

Here, Iloka lines up as the single deep safety in the middle of the field. The Rams run a double move on the outside.

Iloka reads the quarterback’s eyes, which help him drift towards the correct side of the field. But he waits until he can see the ball being thrown to break on it. The corner on the outside bites on the double move and allows the wide receiver to get past him. As the ball is released, Iloka is at the hash marks. The expectation for most safeties is to be able to get from the middle of the field to the numbers, but Iloka goes beyond that here.

Iloka gets to the numbers with ease before he slows down to locate the ball. The throw is a poor one, but Iloka tracks it well and adjusts his angle. He jumps the throw and intercepts the pass just before it reaches its intended target.

Here’s a clip of that play:

A better throw perhaps challenges Iloka more, but the range to get from the middle of the field to outside the numbers is impressive.

That range is a very good trait to have for a safety, but Washington likes to have versatile safeties that can play deep or closer to the line of scrimmage. Iloka has the size and the tackling ability to have an impact on the run game.

This time, the Rams look to deceive the Bengals. They pull the right guard to the left side of the line and have the fullback follow him to sell a run to the left, but running back Todd Gurley runs out to the right. Iloka lines up as the eighth man in the box.

While the rest of the defense is fooled into working to the left side of the offensive line, Iloka spots Gurley running the other way. He quickly works to the edge.

Iloka closes quickly on Gurley before making a good tackle to bring Gurley down behind the line of scrimmage. Not many safeties manage to bring down a powerful back like Gurley behind the line of scrimmage without any help, but not many safeties have the size and frame Iloka has.

I expect Iloka to be one of the Bengals’ priority free agents, given his age and development to this point. But should they not manage to reach an agreement, Iloka would be a nice fit with what Washington desires in a safety. He can play both deep and in the box, which Washington regularly asks its safeties to switch between. The only question I would have is can he consistently cover the slot. Safeties DeAngelo Hall and Kyshoen Jarrett have both been asked to roll down and cover the slot receiver. But Iloka can be a little stiff in man coverage, particularly against smaller, quicker slot receivers. Overall though, there’s plenty to like about Iloka, who has talent and age on his side.

Under the radar: Tashaun Gipson, Browns, 25
Tashaun Gipson’s development is one of the few things the Browns have gotten right recently. He was an undrafted free agent in 2012 and developed quickly into their starting free safety. While he’s the smallest of the safeties I’ve listed here, just 5-11, 205, he’s the best ball hawk of the group. He has 14 career interceptions, four more than Berry, who has played 20 more games. Gipson fits in well with the likes of Hall and Jarrett as safeties who can play as the single deep safety or rotate down over the slot receiver.

Here, Gipson lines up in the slot over the top of Jets wide receiver Eric Decker. Gipson follows Decker inside and forces him to adjust his route before peeling off back towards his zone on the outside.

As Gipson drops back, he gets his eyes on the quarterback. He follows the quarterback’s eyes to the outside.

Gipson then turns his head to find the receiver the quarterback was targetting.

After locating the target, Gipson turns his head around once more to locate the ball. He adjusts his body in air to sink underneath the throw and intercept the pass in front of the receiver. It was a fantastic play from Gipson that displayed very good coverage instincts, but unfortunately he was then tackled by the receiver and fumbled the ball back to him.

Gipson can also play as a single deep safety, something that Washington asks its safeties to do a lot as part of their base cover-three scheme.

On this play, the Cardinals run a play-action pass out of a run-heavy formation. Two tight ends run across the middle of the field to try and distract Gipson from the double move by Larry Fitzgerald on the outside.

Gipson doesn’t bite on the underneath routes. Instead, he follows the quarterback’s eyes towards Fitzgerald on the outside.

By the time Carson Palmer releases the ball, Gipson has made up most of the distance he needs to to get on top of Fitzgerald’s route. The Browns get lucky that the corner isn’t called for pass interference, stopping Fitzgerald from getting past him.

But the missed pass interference shouldn’t take away from Gipson, who does a good job getting over the top and being in position to make the play. The interception ends up being an easy catch after Fitzgerald was delayed by the corner. But had Fitzgerald managed to evade the corner, Gipson would still have been in position to at least contest the catch.

The two big knocks on Gipson are his health and his ability against the run. His size limits him in the run game, although he’s quick enough to avoid blockers. He’s yet to play a full 16-game season and he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament that forced him to miss the last five games of the 2014 season. He didn’t have the best of seasons this year, but some of that could be attributed to him recovering from that previous injury as well as a high-ankle sprain that forced him to miss three games early this season. All of those factors could mean that Gipson flies under the radar while other names claim the big contracts first. But at 25, Gipson is still very young and could fit in nicely with Washington’s dime package that made the most of moving safeties around to deceive the opposition.

Mark Bullock is The Insider’s Outsider, sharing his Redskins impressions without the benefit of access to the team. For more breakdowns, click here

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