11 most underrated defensive free agents in 2021

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Doug Farrar
·18 min read
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The NFL offseason is packaged hope. Say what you will about the league, but the NFL knows how to command attention. Sure it is easy during the season, with the weekly build-up to a slate of games, but the league might do some of its best marketing work in the late winter and early spring. How? By selling fans hope.

Hope in the form of incoming rookies via the draft, and hope in the form of franchise-changing veterans via free agency.

When the 2021 league year begins on March 17. some huge names are going to be on the open market. Players like Allen Robinson, Kenny Golladay, Trent Williams, Anthony Harris, and more. Fans will soak up very bit of information when this process begins, believing that one acquisition or two could be the difference between a 10-6 season and a Lombardi Trophy.

The NFL offseason is packaged hope, and we love every part of that process.

Yet some of the best franchises do their work on the “secondary” free agent market. While teams pay top-dollar for the big names, other organizations nibble around the edges of free agency and spread out smaller contracts to players that are flying under-the-radar. If that sounds like the kind of team you root for, then this is your kind of piece. Here are the most underrated players to watch on the defensive side of the ball when free agency begins.

1. S Marcus Maye

(AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

A second-round pick of the Jets out of Florida in 2017, Maye has relatively low interception numbers (six over four seasons) that don’t accurately reflect his total value. He’s been put in weird positions by bad defensive coordinators, but he’s overcome it with his athleticism and acumen. Last season, even as his team struggled mightily, Maye proved to be a standout, allowing 22 receptions on 36 targets for 229 yards, 149 yards after the catch, four touchdowns, two interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 93.4. Maye really stood out in Week 15 when the Jets upset the Rams, 23-20. His deflection on Jared Goff’s fourth-down attempt to tight end Gerald Everett — the Rams’ last offensive play of the game — was a definitive statement.

“I got everything we wanted, threw a ball out there and Maye made a good play,” Goff said after the game. “I mean, he made a great defensive play and we weren’t able to convert on it.” Maye has the ability to be a high-level player at one of the NFL’s most important positions — the true deep-third eraser safety — and going by the recent market for top safeties, that should give him a contract with an average value of over $10 million per year.

2. S Anthony Harris

(Chuck Cook -USA TODAY Sports)

Harris’ 2019 season was one of the most remarkable for any safety in recent years. Then, he allowed just 14 catches on 20 targets for 164 yards, 47 yards after the catch, seven interceptions, no touchdowns, and an opponent passer rating of 55.0. He was the best deep-third safety in the NFL, and the Vikings responded by giving him the franchise tag designation as opposed to signing him to a long-term contract. That gave him a one-year guaranteed salary of $11,441, but as it turned out, Harris should have preferred an opportunity to bet on himself. Harris had a reversal of fortune as the Vikings did in 2020 — the team went from 10-6 to 7-9, and Harris’ own stats certainly implied regression. He allowed 15 catches on 28 targets for 236 yards, 40 yards after the catch, four touchdowns, no interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 121.4. Now, he was working with an entirely new cornerback group, and the Vikings’ pass rush took a major nose dive. (from 48 sacks in 2019 to just 23 in 2020). That’s going to affect any safety negatively, and as he showed in this near-pick of Matthew Stafford in Week 17, Harris was still anticipating offenses and making plays as he had the season before. The results just weren’t there.

Still have questions? Here’s Harris in that same game, rolling 40 yards deep and breaking off his own assignment to deny Mohamed Sanu a touchdown. (Also: This is an insane throw by Stafford. Get happy, Rams fans).

Sometimes you find yourself in a disastrous situation, and there’s no way out. That’s what Harris faced in 2020. It will be interesting to see if it depresses his market, but any team looking for that back-third safety should give Harris a relative pass as regards last season. He’s not a fluke.

3. EDGE Bud Dupree

(Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports)

Though his sack numbers have varied pretty wildly from season to season, Dupree has proven to be pretty consistent when it comes to total quarterback pressures — he’s had at least 42 every year since 2017, and 43 in a 2020 season that ended for him in Week 12 due to a torn ACL. Of course, when your bookend on the defensive line has 75 pressures (hello, T.J. Watt), and you’re on the same line with a guy like Cameron Heyward who can wreck half an offensive line whenever he wants to, the automatic assumption is that Dupree is more a product of his environment than a force on his own. While there may be some truth to that in a general sense, when you isolate Dupree on tape, he’s perfectly capable of making his own statements with an impressive array of pass-rushing techniques. Here, in Week 11, he just bombs Jaguars left tackle Cam Robinson (who’s also in our Top 101 free agents list) with a long-arm power move straight out of the Von Miller playbook to sack quarterback Jake Luton…

…and here, in Week 8, he displays his ability to work in traffic to close quickly to and through the pocket to force a Lamar Jackson fumble. One of the more impressive effort sacks of the 2020 season.

Dupree was on pace to have his best season before he was injured, and as long as everything checks out in that regard, he’ll do well on just about any defensive front, and as an occasional off-ball linebacker.

4. EDGE Leonard Floyd

(AP Photo/Scott Eklund)

One reason Brandon Staley landed the job as the Chargers’ head coach after just one season as the Rams’ defensive coordinator was a clear ability to take players and put them in positions to have their best seasons to date. That was certainly true for cornerback Darious Williams (who’s now one of the more underrated cornerbacks in the NFL), and it was also true for Floyd, who signed a one-year, $10 million contract with the Rams in 2020 after four decent seasons with the Bears. In Staley’s defense, Floyd posted career highs in sacks (10.5), quarterback hurries (34), and stops (31), and the stops are instructive. Out of nowhere, Floyd proved to be not only an excellent edge-rusher, but also a highly underrated run-stopper for the Rams. Floyd had four stops in Week 6 against the 49ers, and this six-yard Deebo Samuel loss was a perfect example of how Floyd can use his speed, quickness off the snap, and grit (not to mention a towel Samuel should keep tucked in!) to limit one of the NFL’s most complex and effective run games.

But when you’re an edge-rusher, you’re paid for sacks and pressures, and Floyd was especially effective against Russell Wilson. This sack at the start of the second quarter in the wild-card round against the Seahawks, in which Floyd just demolished right tackle Brandon Shell, is but one example. https://twitter.com/RamsNFL/status/1348034244623224836 It took a little extra time for the light to come on for Leonard Floyd, but it certainly did in 2020, and he’ll be paid accordingly in 2021.

5. CB William Jackson III

(Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)

Last May, I ranked Jackson as the NFL’s ninth-best cornerback in man coverage, and here’s what I wrote about him back then:

Not much went right for Cincinnati’s bottom-feeding defense in 2019, but Jackson was a rare standout in a positive sense. Though he struggled with injuries in the second half of the season, An outstanding boundary cornerback who was negatively affected at times by some perplexing safety “help” looks, Jackson seemed more comfortable when he could just erase his target on his own. Last season, Jackson did allow one touchdown in man coverage (which the Bengals used on just 33% of their snaps), but aside from that, he gave up just 10 catches on 28 targets for 159 yards, and a Positive Play Rate of 32.1% — good for fourth-best in the league.

Well, at least Jackson was stalwart in this regard in 2020, though Cincinnati’s coverage was still a whole lot of sad trombone, as it has generally been under defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. Unless you believe that going from 29th in pass defense DVOA in 2019 to 27th in 2020 is a Great Big Thing, which I do not. In any event, Jackson was targeted 40 times in 227 man coverage snaps in 2020, allowing just 15 receptions for 187 yards, and a Positive Play Rate of 32.5%, which ranked fourth among cornerbacks with at least 25 targets in man coverage. Consistent? Admirably so at a position where you can quickly find yourself on the dark side pretty quickly. Jackson is also a pretty decent zone cornerback — he allowed 16 completions on 27 targets for 292 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, and a Positive Play Rate of 44.4%. Jackson isn’t really a “bail-and-trail” boundary cornerback in the traditional sense — he’s more the guy you want pressed up against his receiver and following the route all the way though. Much better in man and match than spot-drop zone. If you play him off-coverage, you can wind up with things like this 50-yard completion from Deshaun Watson to Brandin Cooks against the Texans in Week 16.

(No, I’m not quite sure what the safety to Jackson’s side was doing here, either). Here, from the same game, is how you want Jackson to operate: Matching receiver Chad Hansen step-for-step from the start of the route, and nearly coming up with the pick as he breaks off to the ball.

It’s not easy to find great man cornerbacks, and even more difficult to find man cornerbacks who have Jackson’s consistency from year to year. He should be highly coveted for that reason alone, and he'll be even better in a defense in which the guy running it has half a clue.

6. S John Johnson III

(Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)

Coverage stats for safeties aren’t generally illustrative of their play on the field, and that tends to be more true at that position than others. To accurately discern responsibility for coverage is just tougher when you’re dealing with deep safeties who are more often than not coming down to stop plays than they are rolling deep with speed receivers. So when we reveal the 2020 coverage stats per Pro Football Focus for Rams safety John Johnson III — 55 receptions allowed on 73 targets for 390 yards, 235 air yards, three touchdowns, one interception, nine pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of 95.1 — you may think we’re talking about an average pass defender. Then, you see the plays Jackson makes all over the place, and his value becomes clearer .The nine pass deflections last season, though? Pay attention to that, because while Johnson isn’t a ballhawk in the traditional sense with just nine interceptions in his four-year career, he is a plus-level disruptor at the catch point. Watch, for example, how Johnson comes down in spun single-high coverage to slow-play Rob Gronkowski over the middle in Week 11, making Tom Brady think he’s got the throw to his old buddy, when he really doesn’t.

If you want positional versatility… well, Johnson played 164 snaps in the slot last season, and here in the wild-card round against the Seahawks, he’s just waiting to whack the heck out of D.K. Metcalf, one of the NFL’s most physical receivers, to interrupt yet another pass. I'm convinced that Johnson would rather break up a pass and hit someone hard than intercept the pass, but it works for him.

Johnson is also a fine run defender, and he’s got the 31 stops in the 2020 season to prove it. His interception numbers may not overwhelm, but that doesn’t stop Johnson from being one of the most complete safeties in the league — and a clear asset for any NFL defense. He was also the on-field shot-caller for Brandon Staley’s defense in 2020, so he’ll bring that acumen wherever he goes.

7. CB Mike Hilton

(Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports)

Without a lot of fanfare, Hilton has become a very solid pass defender as a primary slot cornerback — especially in zone coverage, where he allowed just seven receptions on 11 targets for 81 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions. Just as crucially, all three of Hilton’s interceptions last season were on deep passes, and this pick of Deshaun Watson in Week shows Hilton’s acumen to stay with Watson through the scramble drill and break to the ball when it’s coming. Hilton (No. 28) has developed a preternatural sense of what quarterbacks are doing, and he’ll occasionally run a route better than the receiver he’s covering.

Last June, I ranked Hilton as the 11th-best slot defender in the NFL, noting that he was “aggressive to a fault at times, [and] can get gobbled up by smarter receivers running exact routes. But he also has the recovery speed to swoop in even after he’s beaten to deflect a pass and benefit his defense.” I’d say he’s cleaned up a lot of that, and I’d put him in the top five among slot defenders at this point. An excellent blitzer with three sacks and nine total pressures in 2020, Hilton is an ideal addition for any defense playing primary sub-package schemes out of zone, especially against speed slot receivers who can be very tough to match across the field.

8. CB Troy Hill

(Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports)

Like Hilton, Hill has been one of the NFL’s better zone cornerbacks over the last two seasons, and he was especially effective in that role under defensive coordinator Brandon Staley in 2020. I had Hill as my eighth-best zone cornerback for the 2019 season after he allowed just seven receptions on 20 targets for 118 yards, no touchdowns, one interception, and a Positive Play Rate of 35% — the fifth-best rate in the NFL for cornerbacks targeted 20 or more times. That was under Wade Philips in a system where the Rams played zone on 57% of their defensive snaps. Under Staley, the Rams played some sort of zone coverage on 66% of their pass defense snaps, so Hill’s increased effectiveness was a boon. Last season, Hill gave up 27 receptions on 47 zone targets for 307 yards, no touchdowns, three interceptions, a league-high 119 interception return yards and two touchdowns, and a Positive Play Rate of 48.9. More volume, but more interceptions, and more big plays the other way. This interception and 35-yard touchdown return in Week 13 against the Cardinals has Hill jumping a Kyler Murray pass to Andy Isabella, and Hill’s awareness is a hallmark of his play as usual.

Hill was less effective in man coverage last season, allowing 12 receptions on 19 targets for 160 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions, but if your team is in need of a dynamic zone-heavy cornerback who can win inside and outside and make something of it after the catch, Hill is one to watch.

9. CB Michael Davis

(Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)

Davis first hit my radar last June, when I did a deep dive on the NFL’s best zone cornerbacks. The undrafted free agent from BYU who joined the Chargers in 2017 came in 11th on that list after allowing 19 receptions on 34 targets for 254 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions, and a Positive Play Rate of 50% when playing zone coverage. In 2020, Davis allowed 37 catches on 57 targets for 475 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions, and a Positive Play Rate of 54.4%. More opportunities to make plays, and a couple mistakes, but overall, Davis displays fine form in all kinds of coverage. In man coverage last season, Davis allowed 16 catches on 33 targets for 175 yards, one touchdown, one interception, and a Positive Play Rate of 39.4%. He can also work through a route all the way, as he showed in this interception of a Josh Allen pass to Stefon Diggs in Week 12. The recovery speed against a receiver of Diggs’ ability to shake coverage in the open field is especially notable.

As I wrote last year, if you want a cornerback who can can do everything from taking speed receivers up the chute, to breaking up screens, to deflecting quick slants and drags over the middle, Davis could be your guy.

10. EDGE Carl Lawson

(Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports)

The Bengals’ defense has been a schematic disaster under defensive coordinator Lou Anaromo over the last two seasons, especially when it comes to coverage, but Lawson hasn’t let that affect his pass-rush abilities. Last season, in 16 games and 11 starts, Lawson put up 3.5 sacks, 24 quarterback hits, 34 quarterback hurries, 20 stops, and two forced fumbles. Lawson has all the tools you want in an edge-rusher. He can bend the edge and “dip-and-rip” to the pocket, he’s very good at converting speed to power when it’s time to bull-rush a tackle, and as he showed in this Week 15 sack of Ben Roethlisberger against Alejandro Villanueva, he’s got an inside counter that’s very tough to deal with.

Oh… and if you want an edge-rusher with ridiculous upper-body strength, here’s Lawson throwing Eagles left tackle Jason Peters aside with one hand to get to Carson Wentz.

Given his skill set and his pressure numbers in a dysfunctional defense, don’t be surprised if Lawson is a double-digit sack artist in the right system next season.

11. EDGE Markus Golden

(AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

Last June, I named Golden as the Giants’ most underrated player, saying this about him:

This is a bit of a cheat, as Golden isn’t currently on the Giants’ roster — they placed a UFA tender on the veteran that gives him until July 22 to find another team, or he’ll be back with Big Blue. If that’s the case, Patrick Graham’s defense will certainly benefit, because Golden has been one of the NFL’s sneaky-good pass-rushers for a while now. Last season, he led the team with 64 total pressures on a defense that was otherwise bereft of true pass-rushing talent, and when he’s given starters’ snaps as he was last year and with the Cardinals in 2015 and 2016, he’s able to use everything from speed moves to a bull rush to beat blockers to the quarterback.

Golden did play seven games for the Giants in 2020 before the team traded him back to the Cardinals in October for a 2020 sixth-round pick. It turned out best for Golden, who was free in Vance Joseph’s blitz-heavy concepts to get after the quarterback with authority. Golden had 41 total pressures with Arizona in nine games and just 14 with Big Blue in seven. Not that Golden needs a blitz to get pressure, as he showed in this Week 17 rep against the Rams, where he just burned right tackle Rob Havenstein around the edge to come down with quarterback John Wolford. At 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds, he’s got a great combination of speed, power, and speed to power.

Golden has been a consistently underrated pressure machine for a while now, but whichever team signs him for 2021 and beyond will be rewarded with more quarterback disruption than you might think. He may be less of a priority for the Cardinals, who just signed J.J. Watt, but some lucky team is going to get a real bargain with this guy.

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