Editor's note: Jeff Howe will preview each position in free agency every day through Feb. 28. This edition highlights the safeties.
Patrick Chung is the Patriots' lone safety with Pro Bowl potential, and one of the team's priorities this offseason should be to put a playmaker alongside the three-year veteran from Oregon.
James Ihedigbo was given more responsibility in 2011 than at any point in his career, and he handled it admirably. However, he isn't the long-term answer at the position. Ihedigbo, an unrestricted free agent, would serve as a nice role player who could provide great value as a special teamer, and he would be an asset closer to the line in sub packages.
The Patriots' biggest question surrounds the future of Devin McCourty, a cornerback by trade who shifted to safety at the end of the season. If the Patriots plan to keep McCourty at safety, they won't need to make a big splash in free agency or the draft. Otherwise, they'll be in the market for an upgrade.
The problem is the draft class is very thin outside of Alabama's Mark Barron — who appears to be a lock to go in the top 20, if not closer to the top 10 — and the free agents are good but flawed.
Head of the Class
1. Michael Griffin: The 27-year-old has been a very good player at times, but he's also been underwhelming. Griffin has had some great statistical seasons in 2008 (seven interceptions) and 2010 (four interceptions, 108 tackles), but they haven't been as eye-popping in 2009 and 2011, though he was still solid this past season. Griffin has shown an obvious knack for making plays when he's on top of his game.
2. Tyvon Branch: The UConn product is an outstanding tackler, topping the 100-stop mark for three straight seasons, but he doesn't force many turnovers (three forced fumbles, three interceptions in four seasons). Still, Branch has been a valuable physical presence for the Raiders since getting taken in the fourth round of the 2008 draft.
3. Dashon Goldson: It was a strange year for Goldson in 2011. It appeared he was done with the 49ers and visited the Patriots after the lockout, though the two didn't come to terms. Then, Goldson returned to San Francisco to have a Pro Bowl season. Goldson is a pretty good player who had a career-best six interceptions last season, but he's not always the most reliable player in coverage.
4. LaRon Landry: The sixth pick in the 2007 draft has elite talent, but his last two seasons have been derailed by Achilles injuries. If health were no concern, he'd be at the top of this list. Oh, and Landry has tweeted some insanely insane photos recently.
Diamond in the Rough
It's difficult to give anyone this label because the free-agent safeties are known commodities. But maybe some of the second-tier players like Thomas DeCoud, Reggie Nelson, Dwight Lowery or Chris Harris could take off in the right situation.
Fit for New England
The budget-conscious Patriots probably won't shell out the necessary dough for Griffin or Branch, and if they didn't like Goldson when he was inexpensive last year, they'll probably steer clear again. There are some lower-level free agents who might be a fit but not much of an upgrade.
That leaves Landry, who played for Bill Belichick's close friend, Nick Saban, at LSU. Landry shouldn't be expensive due to his health concerns. However, it's difficult to rely on him as an upgrade if his Achilles condition is uncertain. He's still worth a shot.
1. Former Patriots Brandon Meriweather, James Sanders and Jarrad Page are free agents. It would be a surprise if they didn't remain former Patriots.
2. Jim Leonhard has been disrupted by knee injuries in each of the last two seasons, but he's been a trusted leader for Rex Ryan in Baltimore and New York. Even if his skills have fallen off due to those injuries, it would be a small victory for the Patriots if they could steal Leonhard from the Jets.
3. Tom Zbikowski is a really good boxer. He's an all right safety, though any team could use his toughness.
4. Brian Dawkins could very likely retire, and if he doesn't, it would be fairly surprising if he continued his career outside of Denver. However, he played for Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, as well as Belichick's good friend, Andy Reid, in Philadelphia. If Dawkins still has enough left, Belichick should pick up the phone.
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Brian Dawkins photo (left) via Flickr/Jeffrey Beall