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2018 Free Agency: Top 10 defensive players by position

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Which free agents could help the Giants?

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at New York Giants NorthJersey.com-USA TODAY Sports

Free agency is upon us. WIth the NFL Combine now past, the league will switch its focus to the already professional players when free agency opens on March 14.

For this free agency preview, we’ll take a look at the top 10 players at each position (based on a mix of stats and film), notable restricted free agents (if available), the most overrated player, the best potential bargain, and the outlook for the Giants.

Part two of this finishes with the defensive side of the ball. If you missed the offensive preview, it’s here.

Edge Rushers

1. Julius Peppers (38)

2. Pernell McPhee (29)

3. Adrian Clayborn (29)

4. Alex Okafor (27)

5. Trent Murphy (27)

6. Kony Ealy (26)

7. Denico Autry (27)

8. William Hayes (32)

9. Connor Barwin (31)

10. Junior Galette (30)

Notable RFAs: Dion Jordan, Shaquil Barrett, Matt Longacre

Position Overview: There’s not a lot of No. 1-type pass rushers set to hit free agency. That makes sense because those types of players are rare. It’s why there was never going to be a realistic chance for players like Ziggy Ansah and Demarcus Lawrence, even with one year of production, to hit free agency. Still, there’s a number of edge rushers who can work as a complementary piece or a rotational pass rusher and provide value to a defense.

Most Overrated: Adrian Clayborn

Because of the lack of top-flight talent on the edge, there’s a possibility those at the top of the market still get big deals. The most likely of this group is Atlanta’s Adrian Clayborn. Clayborn will probably be remembered most for his incredible six-sack game against the Tyron Smith-less Dallas Cowboys in Week 10, but he had 3.5 sacks in all other games in 2017. Per Sports Info Solutions charting from Football Outsiders, Clayborn had 28.5 pass pressures, which ranked tied for 39th among NFL defenders. Clayborn’s teammate, rookie Takk McKinley had four fewer pressures with more than 100 fewer snaps against the pass.

Biggest Potential Bargain: Alex Okafor

Okafor was on his way to a breakout season in his lone year with the New Orleans Saints. Through 10 games he had 4.5 sacks and 15.5 pressures, which at that pace would translate to seven sacks and 25 pressures, be a torn Achilles ended his season prematurely. Okafor found a role in the Saints defense as a productive pass rusher after he fell out of the rotation in Arizona during the 2016 season. However he did put up numbers in his early days with the Cardinals, totaling eight sacks in 2014. He was signed by New Orleans last offseason for just one-year and $2 million. Coming off the injury, Okafor could be signed for another inexpensive one-year deal and would provide a helpful boost to any pass rush when healthy.

Giant Impact: Only three teams have more 2018 money invested in the defensive line than the Giants. Much of that is on the top two edge rushers Jason Pierre-Paul ($17.5 million cap hit) and Olivier Vernon ($17 million). If the Giants are going to add a pass rusher, it’s going to be a cheap rotational piece, but they could also do that by giving more snaps to last year’s third-round pick Avery Moss or take another edge rusher in the draft.

Interior Defensive Line

1. Dontari Poe (27)

2. Sheldon Richardson (27)

3. Muhammad Wilkerson (28)

4. Star Lotulelei (28)

5. Tom Johnson (33)

6. Kyle Williams (34)

7. Bennie Logan (28)

8. DaQuan Jones (26)

9. Haloti Ngata (34)

10. Beau Allen (26)

Notable RFAs: David Irving

Position Overview: Undoubtedly, there’s more talent on the interior of the defensive line on the free agent market than on the edge. What’s good for teams looking for pass rush help is there’s still a number of players who can provide that from inside while also holding up against the run. The ability to create interior pressure is something that separates good defenses from great ones. Of course, there’s also plenty of options for teams looking for run stuffers up the middle, too. Not only is there more top-tier talent inside — albeit with some other off-field concerns at the top — this might be one of the deeper positions in free agency this offseason.

Most Overrated: Star Lotulelei

In the modern age of the NFL, interior pressure is needed and players like Star Lotulelei aren’t seeing as big of an impact, especially if they’re getting a hefty salary to do so. Defensive tackles now need to create pass pressure up the middle unless it’s someone like Damon Harrison, who can stop literally almost every run. Lotulelei is no longer that type of run defender and he generated just nine pressures per Sports Info Solutions charting. In the previous two seasons he had 11 and five pressures up the middle. He had just six solo tackles in 2017 and three other broken tackles — missing a tackle on a third of his attempts. For comparison, Kawann Short, the defensive tackle the Carolina Panthers decided to sign to an extension had 26 pass pressues, 7.5 sacks, and 27 solo tackles. Lotulelei can be a good addition to a defensive line, but paying up for a non-elite run stopper who can’t rush the passer isn’t a smart use of money in this era.

Biggest Potential Bargain: Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson might be one of the most underrated players in the NFL, to the point where he’s not even brought up in the typical “most underrated” conversations. There’s few better pass rushers from the interior than Johnson, who had 23 pressures in 2017 per Sports Info Solutions charting. Johnson has even improved as a run defender and was on the field for 67.6 percent of the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive snaps this past season. He’s not going to be the type of defensive tackle you’d want holding down the fort every play — he’s not going to get paid to be, either — but when placed next to a guy like Linval Joseph, he can make a great impact and add a much needed element inside.

Giant Impact: With Damon Harrison and Dalvin Tomlinson on the roster, the Giants are clearly set with run-stopping defensive tackles. If they go into this market, it’s going to be for someone like Johnson who can create interior pressure. If they do go that path, they could also look for a slightly older, slightly less effective version of Johnson in Frostee Rucker, who will turn 35 years old in September, but also had 18 pass pressures for James Bettcher in Arizona during 2017.

Off-ball Linebacker

1. Avery Williamson (26)

2. Nigel Bradham (28)

3. Demario Davis (28)

4. Navorro Bowman (29)

5. Tahir Whitehead (27)

6. Preston Brown (25)

7. Anthony Hitchens (25)

8. Zach Brown (28)

9. Todd Davis (25)

10. Paul Posluszny (33)

Position Overview: By grouping together inside linebackers and 4-3 outside linebackers, there’s going to be a wide array of skill sets available. There are going to be linebackers who excel in coverage (Bradham), find success blitzing (Davis, Williamson), or play a more traditional role (both Browns). Some players are clearly going to be better fits in certain schemes than others, but there is going to be a little something for everyone among the non-edge linebackers.

Most Overrated: Navorro Bowman

At one point, Bowman was one of the best linebackers in the NFL. Unfortunately age and injuries have taken that title from him. Bowman was released by the San Francisco 49ers midway through the 2017 season before he was signed and finished the campaign with the Oakland Raiders. Overall, the year wasn’t a good one. Per Sports Info Solutions charting, Bowman had 17 missed tackles — tied for 11th-most in the league — on 81 tackle opportunities (21 percent broken tackle rate). Bowman will turn 30 at the end of March, but will also be another year removed from his injury. Bowman’s brief tenure in Oakland was better than it started in San Francisco, but any team looking to sign the linebacker will need to be honest about the expectations of the player it’s getting.

Biggest Potential Bargain: Preston Brown

No one aspect of Preston Brown’s game is going to be eye-catcher, except that he’s a fantastic tackler. He led the league in combine tackles (144) in 2017 and was seventh (135) in 2016. Tackles aren’t a great statistic to judge any defensive player — they’re consistently subjectively given and the situation shapes opportunity — but Brown is routinely around the ball and when he makes an attempt, he doesn’t miss. Brown had just seven broken tackles in 2017 on 74 solo tackle attempts (9.5 percent), which was the sixth-lowest rate among linebackers with at least 50 solo tackles. Brown is also an ironman of sorts. He’s played 16 games in all four of his professional seasons and started 62 of 64 games, including 99 percent of Buffalo’s defensive snaps in 2017. His coverage improved this past season, which bumped the value of his thiree-down ability.

Giant Impact: When is the last offseason the Giants didn’t need to improve at linebacker? The team is also in a position where it doesn’t only need to upgrade, there’s just a need for bodies. The depth chart at linebacker right now includes Ray-Ray Armstrong and B.J. Goodson, who combine to make $2 million in 2018. The Giants could probably find a role for just about any available linebacker at this point. Another Arizona veteran, Karlos Dansby, who played 87 percent of the Cardinals’ defensive snaps at inside linebacker in 2017, is also a free agent.

Cornerbacks

1. Malcolm Butler (28)

2. Bashaud Breeland (26)

3. Trumaine Johnson (28)

4. Patrick Robinson (30)

5. Nickell Robey-Coleman (26)

6. Morris Claiborne (28)

7. Rashaan Melvin (28)

8. E.J. Gaines (26)

9. Ross Cockrell (26)

10. Aaron Colvin (26)

Notable RFAs: Bryce Callahan, Justin Coleman

Position Overview: Cornerback might be the position with the most subjectivity in how to rank the players. Wit the increase of snaps in nickel and dime defenses, teams should be looking at corners who have the versatility to cover the slot and the outside, which most of the corners on this particular top-10 list do have. It’s nice to have a corner who can handle the outside or a corner who can handle the slot, but it’s a real asset for any team to have a cornerback who can do both and there’s a few corners who can fit that mold for teams in free agency.

Most Overrated: Trumaine Johnson

Two years ago the Rams picked Trumaine Johnson over Janoris Jenkins, but they never fully committed to him. Two franchise tags and a down year later, Johnson is going to be able to test the market. In 2015 and 2016, Johnson was a cornerback who could prevent big plays, but didn’t always prevent important ones — he always ranked better in yards allowed per pass (12th and 16th) than by Success Rate (31st and 30th) among qualified corners (75 and 84) per SIS charting. But in the first season under Wade Phillips, Johnson struggled all around by allowing 8.5 yards per pass (71st among 81 corners) and a 49 percent Success Rate (72nd). Johnson is likely to get top corner money, but it’s worth wondering if he’ll be able to bounce back from this past season.

Biggest Potential Bargain: Bashaud Breeland

For some, the image of Bashaud Breeland getting roasted by Antonio Brown on Monday Night Football in Week 1 of 2016 during Josh Norman’s first game in Washington is the last national exposure the cornerback has gotten. But Breeland was never as bad as that faulty game plan and Washington eventually figured out how to work with their top two corners staying on specific sides of the field. Breeland typically took over the offense’s left side of the field and in 2017 Washington was better defending that side (fifth in DVOA) than on the right with Norman (11th in DVOA). With Norman rarely shadowing a top wide receiver, and never doing it for a full game, Breeland got plenty of time defending some of the better receivers Washington faced while they tried to avoid Norman. Breeland was also 21st in yards allowed per pass and 14th in Success Rate among qualified corners this past season, per SIS charting.

Giant Impact: With the move of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to safety and Cockrell a free agent, the Giants are suddenly quite thin at cornerback. This is for a defense that was already just 20th in pass defense DVOA last season. Janoris Jenkins will return as the team’s top corner, but the unknown of Eli Apple is really the only name behind him on the depth chart. There’s been a rumor the Giants are interested in Patrick Robinson, who played mostly in the slot for the Philadelphia Eagles last season. Nickell Robey-Coleman could serve that role too and so could Cockrell if he returns. Expect the Giants to look at players with that inside/outside versatility because as much as those in charge have said it’s a clean slate for Apple on the outside, there’s no telling what the result might be.

Safeties

1. Eric Reid (26)

2. Morgan Burnett (29)

3. Tre Boston (25)

4. Kenny Vaccaro (27)

5. Tyvon Branch (31)

6. Bradley McDougald (27)

7. Marcus Gilchrist (28)

8. Corey Graham (29)

9. Reggie Nelson (34)

10. T.J. Ward (31)

Notable RFAs: Ricardo Allen, Adrian Phillips

Position Overview: Like the linebacker market, there’s a little bit of everything among this crop of free agent safeties. There’s a few, like Eric Reid, who can do just about everything well — and would be served better with a switch back to a more traditional safety than the linebacker hybrid San Francisco experimented with last season. There’s also some great center fielders like Tre Boston, who broke out in that role with the Los Angeles Chargers. At the bottom of the list are two veterans who really only serve as one-dimensional pieces — a free safety in Reggie Nelson and box safety in T.J. Ward. Neither should be counted on much more than that.

Most Overrated: Kurt Coleman

Coleman isn’t on this list because he was released and signed within a few days last week. He signed a three-year/$18 million with the New Orleans Saints. During his stint with the Carolina Panthers, Coleman’s biggest asset was his ability to play the ball. He often appeared to be in the right place at the right time. In 2015 he had seven interceptions with another nine passses defended. In 2016 those numbers were four and seven. But in 2017, he had no interceptions and just three defended passes. He was a step slow in his coverage and that’s more likely to get worse than get better. Jumping early on Coleman instead of waiting out the rest of the safety market might have saved the Saints a little money, but it could have a more negative impact on the field.

Biggest Potential Bargain: Tyvon Branch

Before a torn ACL in Week 10, Branch was having a great year as a versatile safety with James Bettcher and the Arizona Cardinals. He played a few roles in the defense with differing starting points from the line of scrimmage at safety as well as some slot work. The problem with Branch is the injury concerns. He had the torn ACL in 2017 and his 2016 season ended in six games due a torn groin after he recovered from sports hernia surgery. When healthy Branch is an effective chess piece for a defense, but he has not been healthy lately, though that is also a reason why he won’t cost as much as other safeties on the market.

Giant Impact: It’s unclear what the Giants will need at safety. The move of Rodgers-Cromartie has been sold as competition with Darian Thompson, but rarely did Bettcher have just two safeties on the field in Arizona, especially if there’s an effort made to bring Landon Collins closer to the line on a more consistent basis. Branch would make sense as a hybrid player familiar with the defense, but this could also be a place the Giants see more value waiting for the draft.