Is there a market for Darren Sharper?

Darren Sharper is an unrestricted free agent, and I’m wondering what the market is for a 34-year-old free safety who can make plays on the football field.

Would you make him an offer?

Mike Triplett, an Iowa alum (and fellow co-worker of mine at the Daily Iowan on campus), brought it up Thursday in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Sharper was scooped up by the Saints in the ’09 offseason, a castoff of sorts by the Vikings. The Saints got him for a bargain price of $1.7 million.

But Sharper — who came over from the Cover 4/man-to-man scheme of Green Bay — isn’t a Cover 2 safety. He’s a risk taker, not a guy who drops to a landmark and drives downhill once the throw is made. Instead, he’s a player who excels when he can read routes from his pre-snap alignment and drive on the throw before it happens.

Typical of a Gregg Williams free safety. In his scheme — which I see as a perfect fit for Sharper — the free safety plays the deep middle of the field, covers the slot in a nickel alignment and plays enough combo coverages that put him in position to make plays on the ball — driving to a receiver before the ball is thrown.

Much different than a Cover 2 safety who can only take a chance when the ball is in the air. He wasn’t a fit in Minnesota but is ideal — beyond ideal — for New Orleans.

And that’s why the Saints need to re-sign him.

But Sharper will be smart. He will leverage this situation and listen to other teams and possibly other offers. A smart move from a player’s perspective since it drives up his value when it comes to talking numbers with the Saints.

However, is there a market? A small market, I’m told by league sources, but a market nonetheless.

The knock on Sharper has always been that he takes too many risks and can be a liability in the back end. My answer: You don’t come off a nine-pick season and sit sixth overall on the all-time interception list (63) without breaking on the football.

There’s also his tackling. Sharper can be a liability when he tackles in the open field. We saw it against the Colts on Sunday in Miami, and we saw it throughout the year.

But from the GMs I talked to throughout the season when it comes to the safety positing, it’s expected. Personnel men in this league are looking for playmakers, and so much emphasis is placed — in practice — on getting your hands on the football from a defensive perspective, tackling in the secondary (especially at free safety) is a lost art.

Interceptions win games, according to scouts — not a tackle seven yards down the field. That’s what you get with Sharper, a player who can change the course of a game — and score with the football. The risk: He can look bad at times breaking down to make a tackle.

But he’s still wanted because of his playmaking ability. Safeties who can come down in the box, take on pulling guards and make a tackle after a four-yard gain are a dime a dozen in this league — and there will be a whole new batch of them come this spring after the draft.

In the middle of the field, however, there are only so many players who can routinely go up and get the ball. Sharper is one of them. More important, he’s a key to the success of Williams’ schemes.

All of those pressures and exotic blitz packages — complete with multiple pre-snap looks — only go as far as the free safety position. Williams needs Sharper just as much as Sharper needs Williams.

They’re a perfect match, and Sharper needs this scheme to produce. It fits his game and its fits his style of play — one that’s reckless and productive at the same time.

But this is a Super Bowl championship team we’re talking about. And with that comes plenty of departures — players using the ring for a major payday.

Sharper will, and should, test the free-agent waters, but his home is in New Orleans. The Saints need to bring him back, and they need to continue to play a ball-hawking style of defense in 2010.

Soon, we’ll find out his true value to the Super Bowl champs.

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