Amid the spectacle that is the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis was an interesting report over the weekend from ESPN’s Miami Dolphins blogger James Walker. According to said report, free safety Chris Clemons, who is scheduled to become a free agent on March 11 if he isn’t re-signed by the Dolphins before then, is not considered to be a “priority” by the club’s new GM Dennis Hickey.
The Dolphins have holes to fill at four of their five offensive line positions and notable in-house free agents like cornerback Brent Grimes and defensive tackle Paul Soliai to likely retain. Still, with an estimated $36 million to play with, the Dolphins have more than enough resources to bring back Clemons if they want to. Apparently, if they have any inclination of doing so, the desire isn’t significant.
If Walker’s report is accurate, Hickey either has reservations about Clemons’ long-term worth or feels as though the team can find an upgrade at free safety in free agency or the draft. Let’s evaluate the former theory first.
If the Dolphins hold the opinion that Clemons isn’t worth what his asking price will undoubtedly be — potentially three or four years for around $5 million per season — there will certainly be an opposition to that sentiment. While Clemons hasn’t produced many game-changing plays, having only intercepted four passes and forced two fumbles in his five-year career in Miami, he’s as reliable as they come in coverage.
According to Pro Football Focus, Clemons ranked as the league’s 19th-most efficient safety in 2013 and possessed the ninth-best coverage grade out of 86 qualifying players at the position. The 0.20 yards he allowed on average per coverage snap just so happened to be the lowest figure for any safety in the entire NFL. Clemons’ speed and range in center field is truly an asset to Miami’s secondary. He may not have a knack for producing takeaways, but he’s as equally immune to mistakes in coverage.
Clemons missed a career-high 14 tackles in 2013, but other than lacking ideal ball-hawking prowess and consistent tackling ability, he’s an above average starting free safety who merits a multiyear deal. Given his aforementioned flaws, though, there will undoubtedly be tempting potential upgrades on the open market and available during May’s draft.
It’s certainly understandable if Hickey is unwilling to settle for above-average play at free safety when he could potentially nab elite play or at least more of a difference-maker. Signing or drafting a better safety than Clemons might be easier said than done, though.
Pro Football Focus slots Clemons as the fourth best impending free agent at the safety position this offseason, behind only Jairus Byrd, T.J. Ward and Donte Whitner. Signing Byrd would potentially give the Dolphins one of the game’s most dominant secondaries, but would likely require winning a bidding war if the Buffalo Bills are crazy enough to let him walk. All indications from Western New York are that the Bills will either lock up Byrd with a lucrative, multi-year contract or slap him with the franchise tag.
As for Ward and Whitner, both potential free agents are strong safeties, not free safeties like Clemons. That isn’t an insurmountable road block as Reshad Jones has the versatility for a move to free safety if need be. Jones is a hard-hitter who excels when he’s given the freedom to play closer to the line of scrimmage than center field, though. It would be wise of the Dolphins to keep Jones put, especially if they hope he returns to form after a down year in 2013.
If the Dolphins are intent on replacing Clemons with a more adept playmaker this offseason, the draft is where they might be relegated to finding one. However, this year’s draft class is considered somewhat underwhelming at the safety position and obviously comes with no guarantees. Trusting a rookie at free safety would be a huge roll of the dice by Hickey.
Replacing Clemons with a ball hawk to pair with Jones on the back end of Miami’s defense would be a laudable ambition. With so many needs to address this offseason, though, Hickey should focus on replacing those who performed poorly in 2013, not those who played well. Clemons, without question, falls under the latter group.
Cody Strahm is a Miami Dolphins contributor for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @CodyJStrahm.