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Evaluating the available options to replace Johnathan Cyprien

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There are some good options for finding a starting safety, but which one fits best?

Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

After losing starting safety Johnathan Cyprien to a season-ending ACL tear on Wednesday, the Titans are going to add a veteran safety to the roster. Luckily for the team, there are a bunch of good options out there at this position and they may even be able to add a player that offers little to no drop off from where they were two days ago. So let’s take a look at some of those options.

Trade for Seahawks star Earl Thomas

Let’s get this one out of the way up top. I don’t think this is going to happen and fans probably shouldn’t get their hopes up. Yes, Earl Thomas is a phenomenal safety. In fact, he’s among the top handful to play the position in the last decade. However, he’s also going to come with a high price both in draft pick compensation for the Seahawks and a top-of-the-market extension to carry him beyond the 2018 season.

As I’ve broken down before, the Titans are approaching a period where they are going to be tight against the salary cap. They’ve already extended Taylor Lewan and made him the highest paid offensive lineman in the NFL. They also added on two more years to Delanie Walker’s deal which is near the top of the tight end market. Next offseason they will likely be working on top-of-the-market extensions for Kevin Byard and Marcus Mariota. That leaves no room for yet another expensive deal, especially at safety where they will soon be paying Byard like the star he is. You can’t build a team around a $30 million dollar a year safety tandem. It’s just not feasible.

Not only that, but despite the contract stalemate, Seattle isn’t just going to let him walk for cheap. Seattle reportedly wanted the Cowboys 2018 1st round pick in exchange for Thomas before the draft. Even if they back that off to a 2nd round pick, that’s a pretty high price for a 29-year old safety who you then have to give a long term extension to. Not only does that make your secondary incredibly expensive, but it also removes a 2nd round pick which should turn in to a cheap, above average starter for the next four years when the Titans are desperately going to need cheap, above average starters.

As a Texas alum, I have a deep love for ET, but I think there is virtually zero chance that the Titans go trade for him as a Cyprien replacement.

Sign Eric Reid

Reid is a former Pro Bowl safety who has been a full-time starter in San Francisco for all five seasons of his career since being drafted in the first round of the 2013 draft. Out of all the available options, he may be the most similar to Cyprien. At 6’-1” and 213 pounds, he is a physical presence who is most comfortable near the line of scrimmage. In 2017, the 49ers actually moved Reid to weakside linebacker midway through the year to make way for their promising young safety Jaquiski Tartt to move in to the starting lineup.

Over the course of his career, Reid has earned PFF grades of 69.6, 64.2, 66.8, 58.1, and 70.3 with his best year coming in 2017. He has started 69 of a possible 80 games and accumulated 264 tackles, 10 interceptions, and 36 pass break ups.

Reid is a tremendous athlete as evidenced by his excellent combine testing numbers.

He’s known to be a strong tackler and one of the NFL’s biggest hitters. Really, he’s like a younger, more athletic version of Cyprien. If you’re looking for the best like-for-like replacement, this is your guy.

Of course, there is some non-football distraction element with Reid to some extent due to his participation in the protests against police violence with his friend Colin Kaepernick, but if the NFL does it’s job and comes up with a fair and agreeable anthem policy — I know, that’s a HUGE if — I don’t think a significant backlash from the fan base would be likely.

I think Reid is probably the best of the bunch talent-wise and he fits the role that was intended for Cyprien.

Sign Kenny Vaccaro

The other safety that is inexplicably without a team right now is another former first round pick in Kenny Vaccaro. Selected three spots ahead of Reid in the 2013 draft, Vaccaro has spent his five year NFL career with the Saints, racking up 67 starts, 283 tackles, 8 interceptions, and 29 passes broken up. The strength of his game is versatility. He is capable of playing all over the field as the Saints used him as a deep safety, box safety, and as a big nickel playing over slot receivers. His best use has been in the box though and that is the role he would primarily play in Tennessee since the Titans already boast outstanding players at free safety and slot corner.

Vaccaro’s PFF grades over his five year career are not great: 66.7, 48.9, 65.8, 65.0, and 50.3, with his coverage grades generally pulling down high run defense and tackling grades. It’s hard to say how much of those grades were the result of the Saints asking Vaccaro to do too much as part of what has mainly been a poor defense during his time there and how much is due to him just not playing that well. Either way the grades leave some questions with Vaccaro.

Sign Lardarius Webb

While Reid and Vaccaro are primarily thumpers who would fit well in the role Cyprien was set to play for this team, Webb is a very different type of safety. The 32 year old started his NFL career as a corner before converting to safety in 2015. At 5’-10” and 179 pounds, no one is going to mistake him for these other players at the mini-tryout tomorrow.

He was a backup role player for the 2017 season in Baltimore as starters Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson ate up most of the snaps at safety. However, his familiarity with Pees’ defense could give him a leg up. I kind of figured that Webb might get a call from the Titans earlier in free agency for that reason and with Kendrick Lewis banged up with another mystery injury, its possible that the team goes ahead and signs two of these players on Friday to bolster depth.

I’m not sure that Webb is a clear starter on the current roster.

Sign Mike Mitchell

Mitchell is another veteran option that the Titans are reportedly bringing in. Most recently with the Steelers, Mitchell has been a free safety who plays more like a strong safety for years now. At 6’-1” and 216 pounds he’s a physical hitter, but last year he really started to look a step slow and missed too many tackles, leading to him being released in a cap clearing move for the Steelers earlier this offseason.

Allowing Mitchell to spend more time near the line of scrimmage could help his game, but the Titans should be able to get a read on how well he’s moving around during the workout.

So who should the Titans sign? I’d lean Reid personally, but I think Vaccaro is a very close second. I wouldn’t mind going ahead and adding Webb while they’re at it for added depth and experience in Pees’ system.