NFL: Top Defensive Free Agents

An important phase of the NFL offseason is Free Agency. Teams will fill roster needs with free agents and shape up draft strategies. Often there are big signings as top players are rewarded with large contracts. Some signings turn out to be successful. However, some turn out to be a failure or as the NFL likes to say…a free agent bust.

These are the top Defensive FAs in 2020;

Defensive Line

The available DL FAs boast an impressive list of names. This includes young stars Leonard Williams, Chris Jones, and Arik Armstead, all entering their prime years, likely to earn big contracts. Also in their mid-20s, but with less recognizable names, are Michael Pierce, Yannick Ngakoue, Emmanuel Ogbah, Tim Jernigan, A’Shawn Robinson, Jordan Phillips, and Danny Shelton. All of these players can command big contracts and have been successful in their time in the league. 

There are also a few high-profile DL over the age of 30 capable of playing at a high level. Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy, Vinny Curry, and Adrian Clayborn will all find work in the league but will get less lucrative deals because of their age. Just behind them are several other linemen such as Jarran Reed and Akeem Spence, who are capable starters, although less impactful than the other players on the list.

Edge

There’s no secret in the NFL that pressuring a QB is important to a team’s success. However, there’s very little elite talent in this year’s pass rusher FA group. Although high profile and former first-round draft picks Jadeveon Clowney, Ezekiel Ansah, Vic Beasley, Dante Fowler, and Shaq Lawson are all available, none have played at a high level since entering the league. Although teams are desperate for pass rush help, each carries an inherent risk. The player who might earn the biggest contract, after leading the league in sacks in 2019, is Shaquil Barrett, although prior to last season his resume is bare.

If teams aren’t willing to hand over large contracts to the more familiar names, there are a few other options. Derek Wolfe was a promising part of the Denver Broncos pass rush rotation in their Super Bowl run but hasn’t been able to build on his early years in the league due to injury. Likewise, Jabaal Sheard, Matt Judon, Robert Quinn, and Mario Addison have flashed promise, but aren’t game-changing players. In addition, their contract offers will depend on who misses out on the priority names. Quinn and Addison especially will have to settle for rotational roles, as teams won’t want to pay them big money as journeymen over the age of 30.

Linebacker

Like with many FA groups, this year’s FA LBs are all available because they aren’t key pieces of a team’s future, but can be solid contributors to teams with needs. Jamie Collins could be the most talented LB available, but it’s hard to determine his value and role as he enters his ninth season. After Collins, there isn’t a standout LB in the list, as the more consistent players are also the older ones, where teams will be reluctant to give them long-term and/or expensive contracts. Sean Lee, Wesley Woodyard, Danny Trevathan and Lorenzo Alexander all fall into this category.

A few FA LBs could garner big contracts if teams feel they can get more out of them. Players like AJ Klein, Blake Martinez, Kyle Van Noy, and Bud Dupree have all been overshadowed by teammates including Luke Kuechley, TJ Watt and Dont’a Hightower during their careers. Teams might explore what they can provide as counterparts to other top LBs already on rosters. Rounding out the top FA LBs are Reggie Ragland, Kamalei Correa, Jon Bostic, and Manti Te’o, who will find roles on teams, but will have to settle for lower contracts than the other names on this list.

Cornerback

The FA CB group has perhaps the best combination of depth, talent, and youth of all positions. Former Super Bowl winners and highly talented CBs Chris Harris, Jimmy Smith, Logan Ryan, and Bradley Roby are all still in their prime and will be sought after by teams whose defensive scheme they fit. Long-term veterans Johnathan Joseph, Aqib Talib, Tramaine Brock, Tramon Williams, and Marcus Sherels are also available, although they won’t be as high on most teams’ lists.

The remaining names on the list have a few questions around them. While still under 30, Jason Verrett and Darqueze Dennard have missed substantial time with injury. However, when healthy they’ve been capable starters – Verrett especially, who is a former Pro Bowler. Bashaud Breeland is coming off an impressive playoff run and a Super Bowl win, but prior to 2019, he hadn’t been dominant at the position. Similarly, Ronald Darby has also won a Super Bowl and is strong when healthy, but his lack of availability may limit his earning capacity. James Bradberry, Levi Wallace, and Emmanuel Moseley are lesser-know CBs, but have starter experience and could round out some roster holes, most likely after the draft.

Safety

The safety FA group is perhaps the worst of all defensive positions. Vonn Bell is the best option as a downfield, hard-hitting safety. If teams instead want a free safety who can help in coverage, Haha Clinton-Dix is perhaps the best available option. Although Devin McCourty and Andrew Sendejo are also available, they may not command the same interest as they enter the twilight of their careers.

The other safety options are tricky to evaluate. Nate Ebner has been a backup and occasional starter for the New England Patriots, but teams will explore other options first, including in the draft. Tre Boston and Jeff Heath have multiple years of starter experience, although they are unlikely to receive big contracts as mediocre players at the position.

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