NFL Rundown: Safety Eric Reid

After spending all of the 2018 offseason in free agency, safety Eric Reid was signed by the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers’ starting safety Da’Norris Searcy is out for the rest of the season after being diagnosed with his second concussion in a 30-day span. With a glaring hole in their defense, the Panthers called the former San Francisco 49er. This weekend, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera announced that Reid would be starting at safety in their game against the New York Giants this Sunday. After just two weeks with the Panthers , Reid seems poised to make an immediate impact.

Given Reid’s history, especially his 2017 season, it’s not surprising he secured the starting job. Reid was drafted in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers; in the preseason of that year, the former Louisiana State University  Tiger beat out veterans Craig Dahl and C.J. Spillman for the starting free safety position. Reid had an electric rookie season — 4 interceptions, 11 passes defended, and 77 combined tackles — that was capped off by a Pro Bowl appearance. For the next three years, Reid held onto the starting role and remained a stalwart on the back end of the 49ers’ defense. Over his first four seasons, Pro-Football-Reference ranked Reid the 19th best safety in the league. In 2017, the final year of Reid’s rookie contract with San Francisco, the 49ers cleaned house by hiring a new coaching staff and general manager. With the regime change, the 49ers shifted from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 defense. Given Reid’s build (6 feet 1 inch and 213 pounds), he was asked to play a new role: strong safety. A position unique to a 4-3 defense, an SS plays close to the line of scrimmage, covering tight-ends and running backs in coverage, and opposing the run. This is in sharp contrast to Reid’s old position of FS, where he was often deep in the secondary and focused on defending the pass. After starting at SS for the first two weeks of the 2017 season, Reid was sidelined for three weeks with a knee injury. During his absence, Reid lost his starting job to backup SS Jaquiski Tartt. To keep Reid on the field, the coaching staff changed his position again, this time to linebacker —a position similar to SS, but one that Reid had never played. Reid had growing pains after his shift to linebacker. In his first game starting at linebacker (Week 7 against the Dallas Cowboys), the 49ers were blown out by the Cowboy’s potent rushing attack. Reid and the 49ers defense gave up 40 points and 501 yards. Over time, however, Reid grew into his new position. He had a solid game against the New York Giants, helping the 49ers win their first victory of the season. Just three weeks after his subpar debut at linebacker against Dallas, Reid earned a 81.6 rating out of 100 on Pro Football Focus, not allowing a pass longer than 10 yards. Eventually, injuries forced Reid back into his original position as the secondary for the remainder of the season. Reid excelled, showing off his skill of attacking the ball and his ability as the last line of defense. At the end of the 2017 season, the 49ers decided not to extend Reid, allowing him to test the waters in free agency. Ranked as the 10th best SS by Bleacher Report and the eighth best defensive free agent by Shutdown Corner, Reid showed himself to be a capable and versatile starting safety. Additionally, he was only 26 years old, a young player with plenty of time to learn and grow. Reid seemed to have set himself up for free agency well. However,  no call came until the end of September — five weeks into the regular season.

Reid was the first NFL player to kneel with his former teammate Colin Kaepernick. Throughout the 2016 and 2017 seasons,after Kaepernick was no longer with the 49ers, Reid protested by kneeling on the sideline during the national anthem. In an op-ed penned in The New York Times, Reid explains how the killing of Alton Sterling,an unarmed black man shot by police in Reid’s hometown, Baton Rouge, LA, drove him to act. Reid stated, “This could have happened to any of my family members who still live in the area. I felt furious, hurt and hopeless. I wanted to do something.” Reid’s outspokenness and support of Kaepernick has made teams shy about seriously investing in him. Teams are unwilling to take on the controversy and face the ire of ownership and fans.

Reid signing with the Panthers is a step in the right direction for the NFL. In the old Panthers regime, Reid would not have been signed. Jerry Richardson, the founder and former owner of the Carolina Panthers, was forced to sell the team after an NFL investigation revealed serious workplace misconduct, including the use of racial slurs and multiple instances of sexual harassment. Richardson is not a fan of player protests; in a press release he stated, “Politicizing the game is damaging and takes the focus off the greatness of the game itself and those who play it.” David Tepper, the new owner of the Carolina Panthers, supports player protests, calling them “patriotic.” Tepper cleared the ownership impediment,which existed with the previous owner, clearing the way for Reid to be signed. Former Panther and franchise all-time leading rusher DeAngelo Williams explains the contrast between owners plainly in a conversation with ESPN: “They just signed Eric Reid. There is no way in hell the owner [Jerry Richardson] would have touched Eric Reid.”

However, Reid’s signing is not a wholesale victory for player protests. Though the Panthers do deserve some applause for signing Reid, they should also to be criticized for not doing so earlier. Based on his on-the-field performance, Reid is a starter in the NFL. Frankly, he’s a better player than some of the starters on other teams. However, it took a team in serious desperation for Reid to be offered a realistic contract that reflected his ability. The safety position has been a severe issue for the Panthers since last season. In 2017, the Panthers ranked 28th out of 32 teams in pass defense. They signed Da’Norris Searcy in the offseason to help bolster their floundering secondary. Even if Searcy were healthy, Reid is clearly the better player. Although Searcy has been in the league for two more seasons than Reid, Reid has more career game starts, career interceptions, and career solo tackles. Reid is a younger and more versatile player with a much higher ceiling. Nonetheless, the Panthers were unwilling to go to Reid until they had no other options.

Reid has made no statement on whether he will protest this season with the Panthers. His collusion case against the NFL is still ongoing. Nevertheless, Reid getting a job is reason for optimism. Despite its frustrating low pace, the NFL may be moving in the right direction.