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Is there a statistical reason Eric Reid isn’t in the NFL? No.

The safety’s continual free agency doesn’t appear to be rooted in performance

Ahead of the kickoff to the 2020 regular season between the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans, the NFL broadcast premiered a music video of musician Alicia Keys singing “Lift Every Voice And Sing.” As Keys, flanked by masked backup singers at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, sang the so-called Black national anthem, b-roll footage of NFL players doing various Very Good Deeds – volunteering with Black children, attending formal events, protesting in the streets, kneeling in prayer – was interspersed.

The video, along with other messages throughout Week 1 of the season, was meant to highlight the NFL’s new embrace of social justice initiatives, particularly the systemic oppression of Black people.

But two minutes into the video, archival footage from the 2016 season appeared, showing three San Francisco 49ers players kneeling on the sideline, most notably quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began sitting, and later kneeling, during the national anthem to bring attention to police violence and systemic racism that year.

On Monday, Eric Reid, who was kneeling next to Kaepernick in the video, took to social media to lambaste the NFL for his unapproved cameo, calling it “disingenuous PR.”

Reid, like Kaepernick, is currently unsigned in the NFL.

A day earlier, Kaepernick took to the internet to point out that fact:

“While the NFL runs propaganda about how they care about Black Life, they are still actively blackballing Eric Reid … for fighting for the Black community,” Kaepernick tweeted. “Eric set 2 franchise records last year, and is one of the best defensive players in the league.”

“One of the best defensive players in the league” is a subjective (and heavily biased) argument from one of Reid’s closest friends, but Kaepernick does make a point that the NFL suddenly supports social activism, yet 32 teams still appear to be actively trying to keep one of the loudest proponents of social change out of the league.

Although Reid has clear deficiencies as a starting safety, his continual free agency does not appear to be rooted in his performance, but for other factors, namely: (1) his initial support of Kaepernick and (2) his continued outspokenness when it comes to police violence and systemic oppression.

The numbers bear it out.

Reid can still stop the run

Critics of Reid might suggest he remains a free agent purely because of football reasons. And it is true that Reid has his flaws as a safety – mainly when it comes to pass coverage. According to ProFootballFocus.com’s charting data, Reid was targeted as a primary pass defender 57 times in 2019, and quarterbacks completed 45 of those passes (78.9%) for 573 yards, seven touchdowns and zero interceptions. No safety who was targeted at least 20 times in coverage allowed a higher passer rating than the 148.1 mark opposing quarterbacks had against Reid last year. As a result, Reid earned PFF’s worst “coverage” grade among all qualified safeties, and its third-worst player grade overall.

PFF also rated Reid as the 69th-best safety, out of 71, last season. That may lend evidence to him not being good enough to warrant a roster spot, but a closer look at the list tells a different story.

The two players who rated No. 70 and 71 were Jordan Whitehead and Jermaine Whitehead, respectively. Jordan Whitehead started for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sept. 13. Jermaine Whitehead would likely still be in the league but for, among other things, threatening to kill a Twitter user following a game last season while playing for the Cleveland Browns. For the two players who rated right in front of Reid, D.J. Swearinger (No. 67) re-signed with the New Orleans Saints in March and Montae Nicholson (No. 68) would likely still be starting for the Washington Football Team had a woman not overdosed on fentanyl at Nicholson’s home back in November.

Certainly, it wouldn’t make sense to sign Reid and ask him to play a coverage-based role in 2020. But Reid actually did much better in other areas of the game last season. He led all safeties in tackles against designed runs in 2019, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, with 74. While some of that was an artifact of lining up in the box on 47% of snaps, 10th-most of any qualified safety, Reid wasn’t merely padding his stats with meaningless downfield tackles. He recorded more than half of his rushing tackles on plays that put the offensive team in a less favorable down-and-distance situation than they were in before, according to expected points. And while raw tackling stats can at times be misleading and/or useless, Reid ranked second in the league last season in tackles (130) for a defensive back. The player in front of him, the Arizona Cardinals’ Budda Baker, received a four-year, $59 million extension last month, making Baker, who, like Reid, also struggles in coverage, the highest-paid safety in the league.

So even after a down year (by his standards), it’s not hard to envision Reid having some use as a run-stopping strong safety. He also creates value by putting pressure on the opposing quarterback: Reid had four sacks last year – which ranked second among safeties behind Jamal Adams (6.5 sacks) – and he had the second-best pass rush win rate (31.8%) of any safety with at least 20 qualified plays rushing the passer.

safeties with similar skills

Coverage still makes up most of a starting safety’s responsibilities. Chuck Clark of the Baltimore Ravens spent 46% of his snaps in coverage last year, and that was the lowest share for any safety who started at least 10 games. This, in turn, makes Reid a liability if the plan is to use him in a full-time capacity. But perhaps teams could find a role that accentuates his strengths, if they really wanted to.

To see whether that’s actually true, we looked at 10 other safeties from the past five years with the most similar ProFootballFocus grades to Reid’s 2019 numbers, and tracked whether they were with a team the following regular season. Three of the 10 were not: Trent Robinson (2015), Isaiah Johnson (2018) and Barry Church (2018) were all either unsigned or released before the regular season, and haven’t played since.

But the majority did find roles to play the next season, and three – Maurice Alexander (2015), Landon Collins (2015), who signed a six-year, $84 million contract with Washington in 2019, and Kenny Vaccaro (2017) – were full-time starters the following year. Even 37-year-old Mike Adams was able to bounce back from a Reid-like season in 2018 to find a part-time role with the Texans in 2019.

Although it’s not entirely unheard of for a safety of Reid’s skills to be out of football, more often we would expect some team to find a use for him. That’s particularly true because Reid is still only 28 years old. According to research by Pro-Football-Reference.com, the peak age for defensive backs is 29, so it’s not as though Reid is ancient and past his prime.

So, Why is Reid not on an NFL roster?

Eric Reid of the Carolina Panthers kneels during the singing of the national anthem before their game against the New Orleans Saints at Bank of America Stadium on Dec. 29, 2019, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

“Blackballing” sounds like the easy way out, but a better explanation has yet to present itself.

When Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem during the 2016 preseason, Reid, at the time in his fourth season, was the first player to join the demonstration. Following that season, Kaepernick didn’t re-sign with San Francisco, and a year later the team chose not to bring Reid back (unless he took a significant pay cut).

In 2017 and 2018, Reid and Kaepernick filed a grievance with the NFL alleging that team owners colluded to prevent the pair from playing in the league due to the protests. (The grievance was settled in February 2019.) After filing the grievance, it took Reid four games into the 2018 season before the Panthers offered him a contract, which came only after a season-ending injury to starting safety Da’Norris Searcy.

The Panthers clearly saw Reid as a starter-worthy player as recently as last year, signing him to a three-year, $22 million contract extension. But in March, in a cost-cutting move that would save the rebuilding team $3 million in cap space, Reid was released, along with quarterback Cam Newton.

Since his release back in March, there has been practically zero interest in Reid. He told Deadspin last week that there have been “no developments” in him signing with a new team, and he told the Associated Press on Wednesday that he hasn’t received as much as a tryout, let alone a contract offer. Washington head coach Ron Rivera, who coached Reid in Carolina, said he’d call Reid if the team didn’t already have Collins.

It comes down to Reid’s original sin of aligning himself with Kaepernick and the consequences that have followed both since. When the pair, and other players, kneeled during the 2016 season, it both broadened the awareness of police brutality to white America and created a powerful pushback (including from the White House) against social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement. Kaepernick received death threats and was heavily criticized by the league’s conservative-leaning fan base and those who don’t even watch football. Sponsors pulled out of Reid’s annual golf tournament to benefit the Baton Rouge Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation; the event hasn’t been held since 2016.

Pat Gillham, an associate professor at Western Washington University who studies the history of protest movements, including the policing of them, coined the term “strategic incapacitation” to describe the tactics of police to stifle protest, mostly through the “neutralization of any threats” to supposed security.

During protests, Gillham argues in his research study, Securitizing America: Strategic Incapacitation and the Policing of Protest Since the 11 September 2001 Terrorist Attacks, police identify the “transgressive” figures, such as its leaders, and apply controversial – if not downright illegal – tactics to silence the figureheads, including but not limited to the use of lethal weaponry, arrests, surveillance and even infiltration. These tactics are meant to devalue or discredit movement leaders as a way to discredit the entire movement.

In the case of the NFL, Kaepernick and Reid weren’t the only players who kneeled during the national anthem, but they’ve been identified as the movement’s leaders, thus Kenny Stills, Michael Thomas and the hundreds of players who kneeled during the 2017 season after one particular expletive-laden rebuke from President Donald Trump remained employed after joining in on kneeling while Kaepernick and Reid continue to have issues obtaining jobs.

With regards to Reid, the NFL appears to be using “strategic incapacitation” to suppress any further forms of (non-sanctioned) social activism that asks for more than voting, police reform or racial unity. In June, Reid posited defunding the police nationally on Twitter and, as stated above, laid into the league following the Keys video.

“What the [NFL] is doing is half-hearted at best. [NFL commissioner Roger Goodell] has gotten comfortable saying he ‘was wrong’ as if his mere acknowledgment reconciles his admitted wrongdoing. He hasn’t even called Colin to apologize, let alone reconcile, proving this is only PR for the current business climate,” Reid wrote on Twitter.

“As such, Roger Goodell uses video of Colin courageously kneeling to legitimize their disingenuous PR while simultaneously perpetuating systemic oppression, that the video he’s using fights against, by continuing to rob Colin of his career. It’s diabolical.”

Not exactly as harmless as painting “End Racism” in the end zone.

This continued form of dissent by Reid contradicts the league’s messaging and it would not be in the league’s and its 32 franchises’ best interests for an employee to be spouting off radical, by-any-means-necessary talking points.

Reid and Kaepernick forced the league – albeit after four years – into the bare minimum work of social justice: donations to the Black community; tiny, illegible names of victims’ names on the back of helmets; and renditions of the Black national anthem by a safe R&B artist.

But the NFL hasn’t forgotten the firestorm the pair ignited in 2016 and – season-ending injuries aside – appear headstrong in making sure neither Reid nor Kaepernick still have a place in professional football, whether they’re good enough to play or not.

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight. He previously wrote for ESPN Insider, The New York Times and Sports-Reference.com and consulted for the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks.