Free agency is coming. With the NFL Combine now past, it’s now a full sprint to the official start of the new league year on March 13 at 4 p.m. ET. In preparation for the opening of free agency — legal tampering starts on Monday — we’re going to look at the top available players at each position. The specific rankings are mine — based on a mix of film and stats — but the range of these players should still give a good idea where the NFL will view them when teams start opening their wallets. In these previews, we’ll give a top-10 list by position (age noted is in-season), a quick overview of the group, the most likely to be overvalued, most likely to be undervalued, and what it all means for the New York Giants.
If you missed the offensive preview, take a look here. Today we’ll break down the defensive side of the ball.
1. Trey Flowers (26)
2. Za’Darius Smith (27)
3. Preston Smith (27)
4. Justin Houston (30)
5. Ziggy Ansah (30)
6. Cameron Wake (37)
7. Markus Golden (28)
8. Alex Okafor (28)
9. Terrell Suggs (37)
10. Benson Mayowa (28)
Position Overview: What was expected to be a super deep crop of free agent edge rushers got shallow when the franchise tag deadline hit. Demarcus Lawrence, Dee Ford, Frank Clark, and Jadeveon Clowney all got tagged, which took a significant chunk from the top of the market. Then late on Sunday night, the Rams signed Dante Fowler to a one-year/$14 million deal to keep him in LA for the season. There are still some good options at the top of the market, but that price probably went up for those desperate for pass rushers.
Most likely to be overvalued: Trey Flowers
This is another one of those instances when the top player available is the best but also the most likely to be overvalued. Flowers is an excellent pass rusher, who has been productive over the past two seasons, though like Olivier Vernon, has been more effective with creating pressure than picking up sacks. That’s not a bad thing. But with many of the other top pass rushers off the market, Flowers could get a megadeal that would need an increase in production to match in value — better than ranking 18th in pressure rate among 173 players with at least 200 pass rush snaps last season per Sports Info Solutions.
Most likely to be undervalued: Justin Houston
Houston is still an excellent pass rusher — he was 26th in pressure rate among that group of players with 200+ pass rushes — but age and injury could leave his market limited. Houston is still only 30 years old and has been a force whenever he has been on the field. Last season he had nine sacks while he only played in 12 games and rushed the passer on just 80.1 percent of his pass snaps. If Houston can be had on a one-year deal at less than Fowler or with a team-friendly multi-year deal, that would be a win.
Giant Impact: The Giants are going to be active in the edge rusher market. While they weren’t initially likely to be targeting the top tier of the market, they’re impacted because the players they were likely to go after — say, Za’Darius Smith or Preston Smith — now are considered the top tier. The Giants now will also have to hope to go for the mid-tier and pass rush depth — say, Markus Golden or Alex Okafor (two former Cardinals with James Bettcher) — won’t be more costly because of what happened at the top of the market with desperate teams throwing around a lot of money.
Interior defensive line
1. Ndamukong Suh (32)
2. Sheldon Richardson (28)
3. Malik Jackson (28)
4. Henry Anderson (28)
5. Christian Covington (26)
6. Caraun Reid (28)
7. Muhammed Wilkerson (30)
8. Rodney Gunter (27)
9. Corey Liuget (29)
10. Darius Philon (25)
Notable RFAs: Shelby Harris
Position Overview: There is a lot of pass rush potential from the interior in this group. The top three will make an instant impact as plug and play pieces while the rest of the group offers mostly young pieces who can grow in a rotation. Outside of Suh, Richardson, and maybe Jackson, there’s not likely to be as much money thrown around for these interior players, though the potential for a surprising deal or two is definitely there.
Most likely to be overvalued: Ndamukong Suh
Suh, at his best, is worth a big deal. He showed that at times with the Rams in 2018. For the team signing Suh, they’ll have to be content with the “at times” part. Suh had a nearly identical pressure rate to Sheldon Richardson last season (8.15 percent to 8.21 percent), but Richardson did not have the advantage of lining up next to Aaron Donald. Last year, Suh only had four tackles against the run at or behind the line of scrimmage. That can work on a loaded defensive line but could be cause for some concern if Suh is the anchor on a big deal for another team.
Most likely to be undervalued: Caraun Reid
Should Reid sign with another team in free agency, it would be his fourth team in six seasons with two separate stints in Detroit thrown in. But last year, Reid was a force for the Cowboys despite only playing in 10 games and on just 28 percent of the defensive snaps. Against the run, Reid had as many stops at or behind the line of scrimmage as Suh. Against the pass, he was one of the most disruptive interior rushers — though in a limited sample. Among 93 defensive tackles with at least 100 pass rush snaps (Reid had just 104), he ranked fifth in pressure rate, per SIS, behind Aaron Donald, Chris Jones, Geno Atkins, and Sheldon Day. Teams could do much worse when looking for a rotational piece on the defensive line.
Giant Impact: With B.J. Hill and Dalvin Tomlinson, the Giants aren’t in the need for a Suh or Richardson, but could be looking to add interior depth. Reid could be a good fit with the bonus of taking him away from the Cowboys. So too would Rodney Gunter, another former Cardinal under James Bettcher. Gunter broke out as a starter last season after serving as depth previously.
1. C.J. Mosley (27)
2. Anthony Barr (27)
3. K.J. Wright (30)
4. Jordan Hicks (27)
5. Jamie Collins (30)
6. Thomas Davis (36)
7. Brandon Marshall (30)
8. Kwon Alexander (25)
9. Preston Brown (27)
10. Mark Barron (30)
Notable RFAs: Corey Littleton
Position Overview: There is a wide range of linebackers available. 3-4 inside linebackers and 4-3 outside linebackers are grouped together here, but the reality is there is barely a difference anymore. These players can be slotted into any defense and with good coaching, the base scheme shouldn’t matter. Anything a team is looking for — coverage, run stopping, blitzing — can be found in this group.
Most likely to be overvalued: Kwon Alexander
Kwon Alexander’s impressive 145 combined tackles and 108 solo tackles in 2016 is the outlier. For every other season of his career, he’s missed as many plays as he’s made. During 2017, Alexander missed 30 percent of his solo tackle attempts per Football Outsiders, which is an insane rate. That was down to 17.9 percent in 2018 before he got hurt, which still isn’t a great number for a linebacker who is supposed to be a tackling machine. Add in he’s coming off a torn ACL and was never great in coverage before the injury and the red flags continue to come.
Note: this paragraph was already written well before this report came out.
I’m told the asking price for Kwon Alexander is $11-$12 million right now.— JennaLaineESPN (@JennaLaineESPN) March 11, 2019
Most likely to be undervalued: Jamie Collins
Collins is coming off being released from a massive deal with the Cleveland Browns he never lived up to, but that deal won’t be a problem for his next team. Collins, still just 30 years old, played well last season, especially against the run despite reports of not always playing with maximum effort. He had 19 tackles against the run at or behind the line of scrimmage, which was tied for the fifth-most among defenders in 2018. Collins allowed high yards per target in coverage, but that was due to a few big plays. His 40 percent positive play percentage allowed in coverage per SIS ranked third among 17 linebackers who saw at least 40 targets. He was also a productive pass rusher went sent on the blitz on nearly a quarter of his pass snaps.
Giant Impact: This all depends on how the Giants feel about Alec Ogletree. He’s set to count for $11.75 million against the cap this season and the Giants would only free up $500,000 if they released him before June 1. However, if they count him as a post-June 1 cut, they could free up $4 million. Having that money tied up until June 2 is usually a negative for teams, but if Dave Gettleman wants money saved for signings during the regular season, that’s an easy way to free it up without having to limit spending during free agency. The reality is most likely none of that happens, the Giants stay away from this position, and ride with Ogletree for another year.
1. Ronald Darby (25)
2. Steven Nelson (26)
3. Bryce Callahan (28)
4. Justin Coleman (26)
5. Pierre Desir (29)
6. Kareem Jackson (31)
7. Jason Verrett (28)
9. Morris Claiborne (29)
9. Bashaud Breeland (27)
10. Orland Scandrick (32)
Notable RFAs: Trevor Williams
Position Overview: This is a decent market for teams looking for slot corners, but the impact top outside corners aren’t really there. It’s possible there is value to be discovered with some of these players, but each comes with his own set of concerns. The corner market also isn’t particularly deep this year.
Most likely to be overvalued: Bryce Callahan
Callahan would already be a tricky evaluation because of how good the Bears defense was under Vic Fangio and there should always be a hesitation when trying to lift one part of a great defense like that and transferring it to another. Then the Tavon Young contract set the baseline for Callahan — a three-year/$25.8 million extension that will pay him over $8 million from 2020 through 2022. That could be the least Callahan asks for and that’s a massive number to throw around even as slot corners are base defenders in the modern NFL.
Most likely to be undervalued: Orlando Scandrick
At 32 years old, Scandrick won’t be near the top of anyone’s top corner list. But he played well last season, despite the connection to the 2018 Kansas City Chiefs defense. First, the problem for the Chiefs was the run defense (32nd in DVOA) not the pass defense (12th). And Scandrick was fourth among 83 qualified cornerbacks in yards allowed per pass and 10th in success rate per Football Outsiders. The same can be said about Steven Nelson, who was 28th in yards allowed per pass and 12th in success rate, though his market will be more robust. Coverage charting stats are not stable from year-to-year, but Scandrick can be a solid veteran addition to a team, likely on the cheap, when that option isn’t readily available elsewhere on this market.
Giant Impact: There has been no indication the Giants will move on from Janoris Jenkins, so the current cornerback depth chart consists of Jenkins, Sam Beal, and Grant Haley. It would not be a surprise if a veteran was brought on to take pressure off the two young players. The Giants could also be the type of team willing to take a swing on Jason Verrett with an incentive-laden deal. It wouldn’t kill the cap and when he was healthy, Verrett was one of the league’s best corners. It’s a gamble well worth the risk.
1. Earl Thomas (30)
2. Adrian Amos (26)
3. Landon Collins (25)
4. Tyrann Mathieu (27)
5. Lamarcus Joyner (29)
6. Ha Ha Clinton Dix (27)
7. Tre Boston (27)
8. Antoine Bethea (35)
9. Jahleel Addae (29)
10. Kenny Vaccaro (28)
Position Overview: This group is as deep as expected and has continued to grow. Single-high safeties, box safeties, hybrid slot safeties, they’re all here. What makes this interesting is if the presence of multiple high-end safeties — Thomas/Amos/Collins — allows them to cash in or if the loaded market keeps the prices down on even the best of the best. It’s probably going to end up being a little of both.
Most likely to be overvalued: Lamarcus Joyner
If the market does boom, Joyner could find himself as the consolation prize for a team that misses out on one of the top three. But Joyner’s play hasn’t really been on the level of those in the top tier of this class and over the past two seasons, he’s been outproduced by John Johnson in Los Angeles. How teams view Joyner is probably going to be the tipping point for the entire safety market.
Most likely to be undervalued: Antoine Bethea
Teams aren’t going to be rushing out to sign the 35-year-old Bethea to a long-term deal. But Bethea can bring just as much value as some of the other safeties on the market. Last season, Bethea allowed the second-lowest yards per attempt (5.58) and yards per coverage snap (0.51) among 17 safeties targeted 40 or more times per Sports Info Solutions. Both marks were only behind Adrian Amos (4.2, 0.26). Bethea has the ability to play both safety roles and can effectively blitz — 3.0 sacks in 2018. He’s far enough down the line for this safety market, he could be had for a low price with just as much production and some of the other available options.
Giant Impact: This is another place the Giants need to go heavy. Or they don’t value safeties at all and they’ll ignore it. Who knows? If they want top tier impact to replace Collins, the only option is Amos, who can match Collins’s overall impact on the game but more in the passing game than against the run. Tyrann Mathieu and Tre Boston are options, but both were available last season. Bethea could be a buy-low veteran and has a year of experience with Bettcher in Arizona.