Top Available Free Agents Defense Edition

Inside Linebackers

 

Blake Martinez - After multiple years of strong play at Stanford and now multiple seasons in the NFL, as well, Blake Martinez has shown all the qualities necessary to be a superstar linebacker and complete player. In each of the last three seasons, Martinez has posted 144 or more total tackles. He only missed a mere 15 tackles in 2019, if he can continue to blitz regularly and cover well, he should remain one of the more productive linebackers in the game.

Corey Littleton - Littleton has become one of the best coverage linebackers in the league, capable of running up the seam with tight ends and closing quickly on running backs underneath. He has 18 pass breakups and six interceptions over the last two seasons, and he's posted a 90.6 coverage grade that ranks third best in the NFL. Littleton has steadily improved over the course of his four year career and he continued to make strides in 2019. He was excellent in coverage and can do a little bit of everything as a three down linebacker. 

Joe Schobert -  Schobert has vastly outperformed his fourth round draft investment and has been one of the most productive linebackers in the league. He had five games with 10+ tackles last season and led the league in tackles in 2017 with 144 total. He finished 2019 with four interceptions and four pass breakups, and he’s transitioned nicely from college pass rusher to valuable coverage linebacker. In a new system, his pass rushing ability could come in handy, as he only rushed the passer 62 times last season after rushing over 100 times in his previous two years as a starter.

Jamie Collins - Collins' last attempt at free agency was a complete disaster as most things are for the Cleveland Browns. Multiple seasons of elite play in New England during his first stint with the franchise led the Browns to become enamored with him, but his time in Cleveland was downright terrible. However, his return to the Patriots saw him rediscover a stretch of elite play before cooling off and ending the season with a sequence of somewhat disappointing play. Collins may represent one of the largest potential variances of any free agent available, but he remains an athletic and intriguing player who could tempt teams into trying to take advantage of a play maker and game changer on defense.

 

Danny Trevathan - Trevathan made a name for himself as one of the key pieces in the vaunted Denver Broncos defense that won Super Bowl 50. He continued to play well with the Bears but he only played in nine games in an injury-shortened season. Trevathan is still a strong starter, but the fact that he turns 30 in March knocks him down this young, talented list. He has a couple of effective seasons left in him if he can manage to stay on the field, and will likely sign for a reduced rate due to past injury history.

De'Vondre Campbell - Campbell is a productive physical linebacker who offers pass rush ability as well but he has some issues in coverage. As evidenced in 2019, he can still make some splash plays in that, but he's just a step slow against more athletic players. Still, he's a great high volume tackler and despite being labeled as a two down player he played over 900 defensive snaps last season (921), averaging 58 snaps per game.

 

Nick Vigil - In some ways, Vigil is the opposite of De'Vondre Campbell. He's very good in coverage but has had his share of issues as a tackler. Despite his solid tackle total, Vigil missed 19 tackles in 2019. He can be an effective starter, and an every down player as he logged 985 snaps last season. He put up a career year last season totaling 107 tackles, with 3 tackles for a loss, a sack and 5 passes defensed.

Nick Kwiatkoski - Kwiatkoski may not be a familiar name, but he was excellent for the Bears last season. Stepping in for an injured Danny Trevathan, the 2016 fourth round pick out of West Virginia was strong in all facets of the game. He is relatively inexperienced with just 22 career starts, but the upside is enormous with the solid all around play maker. After being named a starter week 10 last season he averaged  over 58 defensive snaps per game. Posting 62 total tackles, 6 tackles for a loss, and 2 sacks over the course of the final 8 games of 2019. Kwiatkoski offers a potential high upside low cost acquisition for a team when compared to other free agent linebackers.

 

Jon Bostic - Bostic found success with the Redskins last season breaking the 100 tackle mark and serving as their top linebacker despite being signed during training camp. He can function as a decent starter and is a jack of all trades, master of none type player. Bostic eclipsed the 1000 snap mark in 2019 playing 1031 total snaps, 438 as a run defender, 535 in coverage and 58 as a pass rusher. The seven year veteran had an incredible 2019 campaign which should get him paid nicely as he posted 103 total tackles, 3 tackles for a loss, and a sack.

 

Edge/DT's 

 

Chris Jones - Heading into his age 26 season, Jones is one of the best young defensive linemen in the game. Jones' 58 total pressures were the fourth most among interior defenders this year, and he's proven to be a capable, disruptive run defender. Jones is probably the best defensive tackle in the NFL not named Aaron Donald. He's exceptional at stuffing the running game and at rushing the quarterback. It'd be a surprise if the Chiefs don't franchise tag Jones, but if he indeed hits the open market then he is set up for a major payday.

Jadeveon Clowney - Clowney's first season in Seattle went swimmingly as he reminded us all what he's capable of when healthy. Pass rushers earn massive contracts for their ability to get after the quarterback, Clowney has always been great, in that department. The price tag may be too high for many teams, but Clowney brings top run defense and solid pass rush to the table.The Seahawks can't use the franchise tag on Clowney this off season, so it'll be interesting to see whether they break the bank for the star defensive end. 

Shaquil Barrett - Barrett has gone from underrated role player to potentially overrated pass rusher after a career year that saw him pressure the quarterback 82 times (20 sacks, 18 QB hits, 44 hurries). The sacks will get most of the attention, and will perhaps lead to him being overpaid, but it’s the 82.0 pass rush grade that is a better indicator of Barrett’s future success. Barrett deserves credit for taking advantage of a starting role and putting together a career year, but potential suitors must look beyond the gaudy sack totals before investing long term.

Yannick Ngakoue - Ngakoue has followed his collegiate profile as a good pass rusher and below average run defender. At just 25 years old, he looks like a strong presence off the edge for the foreseeable future. Ngakoue is going to get a huge contract as he comes off yet another incredible season rushing the passer. He's unquestionably the most prominent Jacksonville Jaguars player set to hit free agency and one they'll hope to retain in order to avoid having to fill a huge hole in their defense.

Dante Fowler - The Jacksonville Jaguars' number three overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft showed his true potential as a member of the Los Angeles Rams in 2019. Fowler's 11.5 sacks tied him for ninth in the league in that department. Fowler played a nearly every down role for the Rams amassing 880 total snaps, 507 as a pass rusher, 313 run defense snaps, and dropped into coverage 60 times. He has immense upside if he can just remain consistent for whatever team decides to acquire his services.

 

Arik Armstead - Former 2015 first round pick Arik Armstead has been a solid enough player for the 49ers since being drafted, but this season he took a step towards being something else entirely. Armstead has played the most snaps (913) of his career this season and has been dramatically more productive as a pass rusher, almost doubling his previous career high in total pressures. Armstead has elite physical tools and impressive versatility, but a big leap forward in production in a contract year will always set alarm bells ringing. Armstead’s potential is significant, and he showed this season that high level production is there to be drawn out of him if a team thinks they can be the one to do it.

Bud Dupree - A first-round draft pick in 2015, Dupree finally broke out in a big way in 2019. Like the aforementioned Dante Fowler, he racked up 11.5 sacks to tie for ninth in the NFL. The question is whether Dupree will build off his impressive campaign, or regress to the mean. The 26-year-old Kentucky product recorded career highs in pressures (51),  pass-rush grade (76.3) and defensive stops (43). A team will have to buy into the fact that 2019 was a trend and not an outlier to feel comfortable paying him big money in the off season.

 

Matt Judon - No Terrell Suggs. No Za'Darius Smith. No worries. Judon stepped up after their departures and logged 9.5 sacks on the season. The Baltimore Ravens' best edge rusher in 2019 should make some big money on the free agent market. He played nearly every down with 837 defensive snaps, 450 as a pass rusher, 274 in run defense, and 113 in coverage. To go along with 9.5 sacks, he also had 41 solo tackles, 11 assists, 13 tackles for a loss, and 4 forced fumbles. Judon will play next season as a 28 year old so he potentially has several more productive seasons ahead.

 

Kyle Van Noy - As the Patriots saw in 2019, Van Noy is one of the best pass rushers among stand up linebackers in the NFL. He can wreak havoc on quarterbacks but is still good enough in coverage to cause problems for opposing offenses. The versatile chess piece can play a number of roles in the front seven, so teams will covet his services in 2020. He rarely left the field for the Patriots in 2019 playing 875 total snaps, managing 55 total tackles, 7 tackles for a loss, 6.5 sacks, 3 passes defensed, 3 forced fumbles, and 2 fumble recoveries.

 

Leonard Williams - Some of the gloss on Leonard Williams' career has faded, as he never became the dominant force along the defensive line that he was once pegged as. In his second year, he notched 55 total pressures and earned an overall PFF grade of 81.4, but that grade has slipped to barely above 70.0 this past season. The draw of Williams is that he has shown high level play in the past, and will enter the 2020 season just 26 years old, but he needs to prove he can be a significant factor rushing the passer again or his value has a very defined cap to it.

 

Jarran Reed - Suspension derailed Jarran Reed’s once promising career, but prior to that, he was coming into 2019 on the back of a career year with the Seattle Seahawks. Reed is a solid player across the board, whose 11 sacks two years ago may have flattered his pass rushing a little. Perhaps suited to more of a rotational role on defense, he isn’t bad at any one aspect of defensive line play, but he's not spectacular either, which ultimately may see him slip through the cracks of free agency until the later waves when the big names have been cleaned up.

 

Robert Quinn - Robert Quinn's 2013 season, the one in which he racked up over 90 total pressures and earned an overall PFF grade of 93.6, is still one of the best edge-rushing seasons that PFF has ever seen. That year, Quinn was a phenomenon when it came to beating tackles around the corner, but frustratingly, he was never able to get near that level again. His career went sideways when he was forced into schemes that asked him to be a stand-up linebacker on the edge, but his 2019 season in Dallas saw him return to some of his better play as a defensive end. This season saw him post 57 total pressures, the best figure he has recorded since that 2013 season.

Defensive Backs

Anthony Harris - One of the league’s most underrated defenders, Harris has been a play maker on the back end of the Minnesota defense since seeing extended playing time in 2018. Harris has the top regular season coverage grade among safeties at 91.6 after ranking sixth last season. He’s played the majority of his snaps at free safety, but this season has seen him play about 40% of his snaps in the box or over the slot, showing that he can play a more versatile role in a defense. Harris has nine interceptions and seven pass breakups over the last two years, all while missing just four of his 100 tackle attempts. Play making, sure tackling safeties are of immense value in the NFL, and Harris has shown both traits as much as any safety in the league over the last two seasons.

Byron Jones - A move to cornerback rejuvenated Jones’ career in 2018, as he showed that he could play single coverage on the outside at a high level. Many will point to Jones not picking off a pass over the last two years, but his 74.1 coverage grade in single coverage is 11th-best during that time, and he has also shown the ability to match up against tight ends when called upon. Jones brings youth, versatility, and coverage ability to the open market, making him arguably the top defensive free agent heading into the off season.

 

Justin Simmons - Simmons had a breakout 2019 season, the biggest place where Simmons improved has been at the catch point, where he broke up eleven passes in 2019 after breaking up just three in his first three years in the league. At only 26 years old, Simmons will be coveted by two-high safety teams with interchangeable roles, and the hope is that his breakout season was an indicator of big things to come. Even if he can’t duplicate his All-Pro season, Simmons still brings a solid all-around safety who can line up all over the field. Simmons is a ball hawk and one of the best safeties the league has to offer. He's been great through all four seasons with the Denver Broncos and I don't see that slowing down any time soon, regardless of where he ends up signing.

 

James Bradberry - Bradberry has emerged as one of the league's most talented corners and has proven capable of limiting teams number one wide receivers, meaning it may be wise for the Carolina Panthers to franchise tag him. If they opt not to do so, Bradberry will become one of the most sought after DBs on the free agent market. He exceeded 1000 defensive snaps playing 1020 in 2019 putting up 63 total tackles, 13 passes defensed, and 3 interceptions.

 

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix - Potentially heading on to his third team in the past three seasons, Ha Ha Clinton Dix took a short term ‘prove-it’ deal with the Chicago Bears to try and hit the open market again with improved interest. As a former first round pick, expectations for his play are high but may need to be adjusted to simply ‘solid’ given what he has shown so far in his NFL career. Clinton-Dix makes plays on the football in coverage, which is the most important aspect of safety play. The Alabama product should have a lucrative deal coming his way after what was one of the better seasons in his six-year career.

 

Jimmie Ward - Ward has worn many hats in the 49ers’ secondary, but 2019 has been his best season by a long shot, as he ranked eighth among safeties with an 84.2 overall grade during the regular season. After playing slot corner, outside corner and every safety variation, Ward’s career year came after spending 71% of his snaps at free safety, where he’s broken up eight passes and missed just three tackles on the year. Ward has been flying around the field this season, and he’s become a play maker on the back end of one of the best defenses in the league. After missing the first three weeks of the 2019 season, Ward didn't miss a beat in his return. The versatile DB is set to earn a lucrative contract after six seasons in San Francisco.

 

Kendall Fuller - There’s no arguing that Kendall Fuller’s career has been heading south at an alarming rate, but we are only two years removed from him looking like the best slot defender in the NFL. In 2017, Fuller earned an overall PFF grade of 90.6 thanks to four interceptions and eight pass breakups, he allowed a passer rating of just 56.7 and only 9.3 yards per catch. The Chiefs moved Fuller to safety where his play fell off a cliff, but a new team might try and resurrect his best play in the slot given that he is just 25 and should theoretically have his best football ahead of him. He's primed for a bounce back season, he has a bright future ahead if he can stay on the field.

 

Tre Boston - Over the last three seasons, Boston has quietly been one of the best pure free safeties in the league, and he’s done it with three different teams. He’s not as versatile as other safeties on the list, as he lines up almost exclusively as a free safety, but with 11 interceptions and 16 pass breakups over the last three years, Boston is a game-changer on the back end. On the other hand, his tackling has been poor, as he’s missed 25 tackles over the last two seasons. While his tackling and lack of versatility drop his value, Boston is a perfect fit in a deep safety role for both single- and two-high safety teams.

 

Karl Joseph - A player who has always been good but not great since entering the league, Karl Joseph just hasn’t made enough splash plays in his time in the NFL to convince his own team to buy in long term or even keep his starting spot secure. Joseph has just four interceptions in four seasons with the Raiders and has forced just a single fumble, but he has hit double digit defensive stops every season and shown the ability to be a solid force on defense. Joseph has talent, particularly in a coverage scheme that plays with split safeties, and he will likely be available for a bargain fee given how his Raiders tenure panned out.

 

Damarious Randall - As a player who has bounced around different positions since being drafted in the first round, Damarious Randall is now searching for his third team and a situation that can truly work for him. The Packers initially drafted him as a cornerback, and he struggled in that regard before ending up in Cleveland. Where he was the deep safety in a Gregg Williams' system before seeing a more well rounded role in 2019 with 202 snaps in the box, 88 slot corner, and 407 at free safety. Randall is definitely a better safety than he was a corner and seems best suited to that single high role in a Cover-1/Cover-3 system.

By:@BMartzy