Although not the top name on the minds of Buffalo Bills fans this offseason, unrestricted free agent Da'Norris Searcy has been a useful and consistent player for the emerging Bills defense over the past two seasons. Earlier this week, Spotrac.com released a contract projection for Searcy: four years, $21.2 million, with $8 million guaranteed, averaging $5.3 million per season. In average money per year, this projection would place Searcy as the fifteenth-highest paid safety in the NFL.
While it is the first safety contract projected, making comparisons unavailable, in my opinion, a deal in line with Spotrac's projection would become the latest Bills overpay.
It is inarguable that Searcy is a useful player who Bills fans should hope is back on the Bills' roster next year. But that alone does not make Searcy a $5 million per year player. Safety is not a premium position (other than specialists and tight ends, it has the lowest franchise tag value, at $9.6 million), and making Searcy a Top 20 paid player at the entire position would be overvaluing his abilities relative to the market. Searcy, unlike fellow starter Aaron Williams, is unable to play cornerback in a pinch, and has never really been suited to play a centerfield role in addition to his more typical place closer to the line of scrimmage.
For comparison's sake, Searcy's 2014 numbers were: 648 snaps played, 65 tackles, 0.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and three interceptions. His 2013 numbers were: 729 snaps played (with 344 coming during the first five games missed by Jairus Byrd), 71 tackles, 3.5 sacks, one fumble recovered, and one interception.
Comparable free agents
Looking at 2014 free agent contracts for safeties, players such as Donte Whitner ($7 million per year) and Antoine Bethea ($5.3 million per year) were more accomplished and older than Searcy. T.J. Ward ($5.6 million per year), who had also just completed his fourth season in the league, had made the Pro Bowl in 2013 and been a full-time starter, playing over 1,000 snaps in three out of four seasons. Malcolm Jenkins ($5.2 million per year), although under a five-year rookie contract, had been a four-year starter (playing over 800 snaps each year) before hitting free agency.
Mike Mitchell had only started one season for Carolina in 2013 before signing a $5 million per year contract. Mitchell, like Searcy, played behind an extremely talented front seven, and had a breakout campaign in 2013. Mitchell's 2013 numbers were 983 snaps, 66 tackles, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and four interceptions. With over 300 more snaps played, as well as more production in his contract year, Mitchell's 2014 contract, which averages $5 million per year with $5.25 million in guarantees, should be considered the absolute high-end of the spectrum for a Searcy contract.
Also during last year's free agency period, two one-year deals were signed by safeties that should be looked at, both of whom had played more snaps than Searcy in their contract season. In 2013, Nate Allen played 1,200 snaps, with 82 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, and one interception before re-signing for $2 million plus $1 million in incentives. Allen had been a four-year starter in Philadelphia prior to re-signing. Louis Delmas suffered through knee problems during his four years in Detroit, but was a consistent starter when healthy and played 1,058 snaps with 64 tackles, two sacks, and thre interceptions in his 2013 contract year. Despite this production, Delmas was forced to settle for a $2.3 million deal with a maximum value, including incentives, of $3.5 million.
Although from 2012, the Bills should attempt to negotiate a contract similar to that signed by Patrick Chung in 2013. Chung was a full-time starter when healthy in 2011, playing 773 of the 794 total snaps in the eight games he was active for, making 62 tackles, one sack, and one interception during those limited games. In 2012, Chung played more sparingly while also still having some injury problems, logging 542 snaps, 44 tackles, and two interceptions in 12 games. In 2013, Chung signed a three-year contract for $3.3 million per year, with $3 million guaranteed.
A strong case can be made that Searcy deserves a longer-term deal than Allen or Delmas at a value higher than Chung, but the nearly $5.3 million per year figure projected by Spotrac seems excessively high for a player at a devalued position who is not even a full-time starter. In 2014, 56 safeties played more snaps than Searcy; that number was 52 in 2013.
2015 Free Agents
The 2015 safety free agent class is headlined by Devin McCourty. Rahim Moore is also well-regarded, with an aging Antrel Rolle also near the top of the list. A third player (in addition to McCourty and Moore) entering free agency off of his rookie contract is scheme-versatile defensive back Marcus Gilchrist. The previously discussed Allen and Delmas are also free agents again.
While it is clear that McCourty and Moore are more valued, and that Rolle is in a different category of player, the question will be where Searcy falls amongst players such as Gilchrist, Delmas, and Allen. This valuation will vary between teams, but his contract should reflect the reality that he is, in fact, in that tier, rather than the one occupied by McCourty and Moore.
Searcy's limited time as a starter, plus the presence of such a strong supporting cast during that time, muddies the water when it comes to determining a projection of his value in free agency. One thing that stuck out for me when looking at Searcy was how dominant the Bills' defense proved to still be when he missed the Green Bay and (most of the) Denver games. When other Bills starters missed time with injuries - namely, Williams against New England, or Marcell Dareus and Stephon Gilmore against Oakland - the drop-off was obvious. Yet, when Searcy missed time, the Bills still held two of the most potent offenses in the league to arguably their worst games of the season.
While his agent would argue that the Mitchell deal sets the benchmark for safeties with one solid year of starting production under their belt, the Bills should make a case for a contract more in line with the deals given to players such as Chung, Delmas, or Allen. With this information, a fair compromise for Searcy should be a three to four year contract, in the region of $3.5 million to $4 million per year. About $5 million should be fully guaranteed at signing, with the second year salary guaranteed for injury at the time of signing, and then fully at the beginning of the second league year.