2021 Free Agency Preview: Defense
We have already looked at the top offensive free agents available this offseason; it's time now to flip to the other side of the ball and talk about the top defenders available.
The defensive free agent landscape is much broader than the offensive one. There's a general consensus out there about the top running back available, the top two or three receivers and so on. This is very much not the case defensively. The opinions on the best player at any given position vary wildly depending on where you look and what you prioritize. There just aren't that many scheme-transcendent defenders available this year, very few players whom any team would love to get their hands on. That makes picking a top player or two at each position a very tough task indeed; there's far more subjectivity here than on offense. That makes for more interesting discussions, however, so let's go ahead and dive in.
Best Available Players: Shaquil Barrett, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Yannick Ngakoue, Baltimore Ravens; Carl Lawson, Cincinnati Bengals; and Jadevon Clowney, Tennessee Titans
The crème de la crème of the edge rusher market came and went before free agency even opened. J.J. Watt, being cut rather than having his contract expire, got a head start on everyone by signing a two-year, $28-million deal in Arizona. That's good news for him, as there's a fairly deep class of edge rushers to compete with, and they all might drive each other's deals down.
There's a lot of disagreement about which of the other available edge rushers would be at the top of a list; rankings all over the Internet vary wildly. By the numbers, the best rusher available is Shaquil Barrett, with 62 pass pressures in 2020—actually down some from his crazy 19.5-sack season in 2019, but still very, very good. Barrett didn't miss a step moving from a part-time pass-rusher in Denver to a full-time player in Tampa Bay; while his double-digit sack season isn't remotely sustainable, his pressure rate has been. The one potential catch for Barrett is that, while we group edge rushers together, there still are differences between a 4-3 end and a 3-4 linebacker, and Barrett has spent most of his career as the latter; he drops into coverage more than you'd expect from a generic edge rusher. Barrett is a better fit for a team that will let him do more of his work out of an odd front, though he's good enough that it shouldn't be a deal-breaker to stick him at end.
Look a little past raw pressure numbers, however, and it's entirely possible that Yannick Ngakoue might be the best pass-rusher available; just one who was not used to the best of his ability in 2020. Traded twice—first to Minnesota, and then to Baltimore—Ngakoue found himself in more limited situations than he saw in Jacksonville. Ngakoue isn't the most versatile pass-rusher in the league—in fact, the only way to really use him is to set him up as a 7- or 9-tech, point him at the quarterback, and let him go. As far as one-dimensional skill-sets go, however, that's a pretty good one to have. Ngakoue was averaging a 13.6% pressure rate in Minnesota, which would have ranked 14th among qualified pass-rushers in 2020 and is very much in pace with his Jacksonville numbers; it's his time in Baltimore which dragged him down. Give him a full season in a defensive scheme that fits his style,and he could easily lead all of this year's free agent class in pass pressures in 2021.
Carl Lawson is the other 50+ pass pressure guy available this offseason, and now he's pulled that feat off twice. It would be a smoother narrative had he done it in each of the last two seasons, but no -- his other significant pass rushing season was as a rookie in 2017. A return to form as he enters free agency is perfect timing . It's a little surprising that Cincinnati didn't use their franchise tag on anyone, considering their significant cap space. Mind you, $18 million for Lawson would be hard to swallow, but those marginal dollars matter less when you have more room to maneuver.
Then there's Jadeveon Clowney, who was one of the most talked-about free agents last season, and one of the largest busts of 2020. Clowney recorded zero sacks in eight games with the Titans, and it wasn't just a matter of being unlucky. Clowney also set career lows in pressure rate and knockdown percentage; he simply was not as effective as he had been in years past. Still, with a significant track record, expect his services to be in demand once again, if perhaps on a more incentive-laden contract this time around.
How Much Will They Cost?
Take Dante Fowler's three-year, $45-million deal as your starting base point and add a bit on top as a premium. None of the available edge rushers this year are going to break the $20-million barrier, joining the Bosas and Garretts and Macks of the world, as none of them come without some degree of baggage, but $15 million would be an unlikely bargain.
For Ngakoue, you're looking for a team with a strong interior line than can let him focus on pure pass-rushing. That sure sounds like the New York Giants to me, assuming they can resign either or both of Leonard Williams and Dalvin Tomlinson. For Barrett, the ideal team would be one running out of an odd front with a low pressure rate and high salary-cap space … but that's pretty much a null space on the Venn diagram. The Cincinnati Bengals hit two out of three, however—third in pressure rate and sixth in cap space. Even if they do bring back Carl Lawson, they could use more help. As for Clowney, a trip to the Indianapolis Colts would make for an interesting pairing; both Denico Autry and Justin Houston are free agents to be, and Clowney could fit in as an every-down player; he's still an above-average run defender as well.
There's plenty of depth available out there. Trey Hendrickson, Melvin Ingram, Bud Dupree, Leonard Floyd, Matthew Judon, Aldon Smith, Takkarist McKinley and Haason Reddick are just a small slice of the deep class available. While none of those names are going to take over a game by themselves, someone's going to pick up a significant contributor at a comparative discount.
Best Available Player: Dalvin Tomlinson, New York Giants
The best player available when the offseason began was Leonard Williams, who came off the market as the Giants tagged him. That just moves this title down the line slightly, with Dalvin Tomlinson taking the crown. Tomlinson had a 75% stop rate last season, and just missed the top 10 in successes for interior linemen in 2020 -- which is more impressive considering he was doing it alongside Williams, who vacuumed up most of the run stops for himself. Tomlinson fits as a nose tackle, an even-front defensive tackle, and even an odd-front end in a pinch, making him scheme versatile. An old-school mudder who can absorb double teams and open lanes for the players around him still has value, even if you suspect he'd have been more in demand a generation ago.
How Much Will He Cost?
The most similar run-first lineman to sign a deal in recent memory was D.J. Reader, who signed a four-year, $53 million contract with Cincinnati a year ago. It's safe to put Tomlinson in that same basic category, though he might come in a little under that mark if for no other reason than the tighter salary cap this season.
You're looking for a team with low adjusted line yards, a low power success rate, and salary cap space to sign a big-budget player. The Patriots and Broncos both fit that category, but so do the Carolina Panthers, and that might be the most interesting option. Carolina has released the oft-injured Kawaan Short, opening up a spot next to Derrick Brown on the interior of the defense. Adding a premium run-stopper would help a Panthers team that ranked 26th in adjusted line yards, 22nd in power success and 19th in stuff rate, and Tomlinson's ability to command multiple defenders might give more room for the Brian Burnses of the world to work on passing downs.
The best non-New York lineman available this offseason is Denver's Shelby Harris. Harris' efficiency numbers are right up there with the pair of Giants; it's just usage that's the question. Both Williams and Tomlinson topped 600 snaps this past season; Harris has only topped 60% of his team's defensive snaps once in his seven-year career. He also made only $2.5 million as a free agent last year, so he's likely to have the most affordable price tag of any of the top linemen out there.
Best Available Player: Matt Milano, Buffalo Bills
Lavonte David's long-term deal removes the best all-around linebacker from the market. What we're looking for, then, is a player who excels at one portion of the game; someone you can game plan around. Matt Milano, come on down!
Want a pass-covering linebacker? Don't care about literally any other part of the job? Then Matt Milano might be for you. Milano has averaged just 4.3 yards allowed per target throughout his career, which historically has been enough for him to overcome poor tackling and bad fits in run defense. The former, at least, might be a thing of the past—Milano had just three broken tackles in 2020 after whiffing on at least 13 in each of his first three seasons. Still, you're paying for coverage chops, with everything else being gravy. That was more than enough to be useful for Buffalo, as their pass defense DVOA jumped by eight points with Milano in the lineup rather than A.J. Klein. That was not enough to earn Milano a franchise tag -- with interior linebackers and 3-4 outside linebackers grouped together, tagging a player like Milano rarely makes sense.
How Much Will He Cost?
The closest match for a pass-coverage linebacker deal out there is Anthony Barr's 2019 deal with Minnesota, clocking in at five years and $67.5 million. That deal has since become something of an anchor for the Vikings, and it's likely no other team will want to match a $13.5 million price tag for for a one-dimensional player like Milano, no matter how good that dimension actually is. Expect Milano to be one of the ten highest-paid inside linebackers in football, but closer to the bottom of that list than the top, more $10 million than $18 million.
If Dallas can squeeze out space under their cap, Dan Quinn would love to have Milano. Tennessee has a hole with Jayon Brown a pending free agent, and David would fill that gap nicely too. But if he does leave Tampa Bay, it might make the most sense for David to head over to the Miami Dolphins, where linebacker remains Brian Flores' biggest hole defensively. Milano would pair nicely with Jerome Baker on the interior of that defense, significantly improving their 27th-ranked defense against running backs as receivers.
You could make a strong argument for Jayon Brown over Milano as the top inside linebacker still available; both are similar coverage-first players testing the market for the first time. Milano just ends up finishing slightly ahead of Brown in our charting stats, so he gets the nod, but it's close. K.J. Wright would have been in that group a few years ago, and he still has plenty left in the tank at age 32. If you're looking for a linebacker to help in the run game, you're probably looking at Denzel Perryman, and possibly also some game tape from the 1970s. Still, someone will want to give a two-down player like Perryman a shot.
Best Available Players: John Johnson, Los Angeles Rams and Anthony Harris, Minnesota Vikings
At one point, the safety position looked like it was going to be a free-agent bonanza. That lasted until Justin Simmons, Marcus Maye and (somehow) Marcus Williams all received the franchise tag -- and yes, we're as interested as you are in seeing how the Saints are planning on fitting that one in under the cap. That takes some of the shine off the top of this group, but there are still quality names available -- just not as many as there were 72 hours ago.
John Johnson of the Rams is a free safety in name, but the Rams used him all over the place—not just in the box, but also as a slot corner more often than not. As a corner, Johnson allowed just 4.3 yards per target, second-best in the league among players with at least 40 targets. Add in an above-average run stop rate and Johnson finished 2020 with 48 successes by our numbers, tied for third among safeties. Yes, some of that is volume, but that just means the Rams found ways to get Johnson around the ball. That versatility has likely priced him out of Los Angeles; the Rams sit $34 million above the cap as free agency begins.
Like most of the Vikings' defense, Anthony Harris had a down year in 2020. Blame the massive talent drain around the team, blame the odd COVID situation, blame what you will, but his stop rate fell to 28% in 2020. Harris did not forget how to play safety last season, mind you—his 10 pass breakups was one off the league lead for safeties. There's every reason to believe he'll bounce back and be one of the league's top safeties again—albeit perhaps not with the Vikings, who have some work to do to squeeze under the salary cap.
How Much Will They Cost?
At the moment, there is a gap in the safety pay range. The five most expensive contracts all fall between $14 million and $15 million, with Eddie Jackson's five-year, $58.4-million extension exemplifying those top deals. Then there's a gap, with the next six safeties making between $10 million and $12 million; no one falls in the $12 million-to-$14 million range. Both Johnson and Harris would squeeze nicely into that group, especially now that they don't have to compete with Simmons, Maye and Williams for the top contracts.
It feels like the Jacksonville Jaguars are as close to a lock as you can get to sign some help in their secondary; they can't fill all their needs in the draft, and they have money to burn. New defensive coordinator Joe Cullen comes from Baltimore, where they have loved living in dime formations. You need someone better than Andrew Wingard to fill that role. The versatility of Johnson might be perfect for them. Other safety-needy teams getting in on the action include the Lions (Duron Harmon is a free agent), Panthers (to replace Juston Burris and possibly Tre Boston, if he doesn't bounce back), and Washington (Kamren Curl was a great find in the draft, but you can't run with just one safety). With so many tags being handed out early, the demand is beginning to significantly outpace the supply -- great news for Johnson and Harris.
The lower tier of safeties remained untouched by the pre-free agency signing spree. That includes Keanu Neal, Malik Hooker, Jaquiski Tartt and Xavier Woods, though they'll likely have to wait for the top guys to sign before they get to go anywhere. They all have the argument of being more in-the-box sorts of players than the big names, however; better suited for those looking for thumpers instead of centerfielders.
Best Available Players: William Jackson, Cincinnati Bengals; Desmond King, Tennessee Titans; Richard Sherman, San Francisco 49ers; and Mike Hilton, Pittsburgh Steelers
Picking a top cornerback was difficult, to say the least. The class is deep; there are over a dozen players out there who will be starting somewhere next season. But there's no true prize that everyone will be fighting over, no shutdown No. 1 corner who comes in without any question marks to speak of. Quality players, for sure, but no one who leaps off the page.
There was a time when it looked like the Bengals' William Jackson was set to be the next top corner in the league. In his first season in 2017, Jackson allowed just 3.1 yards per target, with 14 pass breakups on just 41 targets; throwing at him simply did not work. He has not been able to live up to that mark over the last three seasons, however. Don't get us wrong, his 7.1 yards per target mark in 2020 is still worthy of a starting corner; it's just not the player he could have developed into. Jackson's the best outside corner on the market this year and he's only 28 years old; he's the favorite to get the largest contract out of this bunch.
Your best shot at finding a stud here may well be the Titans' Desmond King. It was only two seasons ago that he was an All-Pro; one of the most effective slot corners in football. In 2018, he allowed just 5.6 yards per target with six pass breakups and three interceptions, all while providing value as a return man as well. That feels ever so long ago at this point, however; King was terrible in 2019, and was traded for just a sixth-round pick in the middle of the 2020 season. That doesn't scream "valuable piece." He bounced back some in 2020 with a respectable 6.9 yards per target, and his versatility—King is sort of a slot/box safety hybrid—makes him a more attractive free agent; he can fill multiple potential needs. If I had to gamble on one corner, he'd be the one I'd choose.
You may well prefer Richard Sherman and be justified for it. Sherman has had only one good season in the past three—he spent 2018 at half-speed recovering from an Achilles injury, and only played in five games in 2020 as he was significantly banged up. If he's healthy, then the soon-to-be 33-year-old can still play at a very solid level, especially if he's in a variation of the Seahawks defense he excelled in for years. Those are pretty significant "ifs," though, for a player who is closer to the end of his career than the beginning.
Then there's Mike Hilton, who might be atop these rankings in a world where receptions were blown dead at the spot of the catch. Hilton has shown an ability to play both inside and outside with Pittsburgh, and his 5.8 yards per target this season leads all available free agents. He's an effective pass rusher, as well; no cornerback in the league topped his 55 pass rushes from a season ago. Hilton's major problem is his tackling, or lack thereof; he's missed double-digit tackles in three of the last four seasons.
How Much Will They Cost?
If any cornerback is going to hit double-digit millions, it will likely be Jackson; No. 1 corners don't come around every day, and Jackson is one of the top 30 outside corners in the league. The $6 million to $10 million per year range seems just about right for the other three, with Sherman likely bringing down the larger deal thanks to his longer track record of success. No cornerback this year will crack the top 15 active cornerback deals; this is a class of depth and depth alone, with no Jalen Ramsey or Marlon Humphrey deals to be found. Instead, think more along the line of Chris Harris' two-year, $17-million deal, or Jonathan Jones' three-year, $21-million extension.
Assuming they can make the cap work, the Buffalo Bills feel like a logical landing spot for Jackson. While Jackson is an acceptable top corner, making him the second guy next to Tre'Davious White would be huge. The Bills need to replace Josh Norman on the outside anyway, and the trio of White, Jackson, and Taron Johnson would be the best the Bills have had in quite some time. The San Francisco 49ers have only three cornerbacks under contract; they combined for 11 defensive snaps for the team last season. They'll be adding a corner or three somewhere. Sherman may be too pricey for them, so picking up King would make a lot of sense—a relatively budget pick with a high upside. As for Sherman, Jon Gruden and the Las Vegas Raiders have been ignoring the tampering rules, going on Sherman's podcast and trying to recruit him. It makes sense; reuniting with Gus Bradley is a great fit for Sherman's skill-set, and the Raiders have been trying (and mostly failing) to find secondary help since Gruden arrived. Of course, the Jets, with Sherman's most recent defensive coordinator running the show, would also love to have Sherman on board, so loyalty alone won't drag Sherman to Sin City.
For a class without a top name, there are plenty of solid corners available for teams who need one. Shaq Griffin, Brian Poole, Troy Hill, Chidboe Awuzie, the list goes on. No matter what your team's budget is, and no matter if they need a slot guy or an outside guy, depth or a starter, there's a cornerback available that fits that profile. It's a buyers' market out there.