If you need a difference-maker on defense, there are plenty of options in free agency. And it doesn’t matter what position you’re looking for.
There are run-stuffing tackles, dangerous edge rushers, solid inside linebackers, fantastic cornerbacks and playmaking safeties. The best player at each of those positions won’t come cheap, but there are a lot of instant upgrades available for each level of a defense.
25. Bills DT Jordan Phillips
Phillips had 5.5 sacks through five seasons, then in his sixth season he had 9.5 sacks for the Bills. Great timing. That doesn’t mean the 341-pounder has had a breakout, but he certainly improved his stock.
24. Vikings CB Trae Waynes
The former first-round pick never developed into a top-end starter for the Vikings, but he is a reasonable option and just 27 years old. He can be a decent target for a team that misses out on the elite options.
23. Browns LB Christian Kirksey
Kirksey was cut this week by the Browns, after two injury-filled seasons. If he is healthy he can be a solid three-down off-ball linebacker who can rack up tackles.
22. Lions DT Damon Harrison
The Lions cut “Snacks,” who should find a job with someone. He’s still capable of being a top-end run-stuffing interior lineman.
21. Bills DE Shaq Lawson
Lawson is a test for how much a 25-year-old former first-round pick with just 16.5 sacks in four seasons can get in free agency. Some team will see the potential and believe the Bills couldn’t develop it, and sign him.
20. 49ers S Jimmie Ward
Ward’s versatility is his biggest asset. He can play all over the secondary. The former first-round pick doesn’t make enough big plays, but he can be a solid starter. He had his best year after the 49ers settled on him staying at free safety all last season.
19. Packers LB Blake Martinez
While the value of inside linebackers can be debated, Martinez is good at what he does. He’s just 26 years old with at least 144 tackles in each of the past three seasons. That might not be worth what Martinez wants in free agency, but he can help a defense.
18. Browns LB Joe Schobert
Schobert is a reliable inside linebacker, solid across the board. He’s coming off a 133-tackle season with the Browns and is a set-and-forget type of addition.
17. Buccaneers DT Ndamukong Suh
Suh might run out of time to play for all 32 teams on consecutive one-year deals, but he’ll try to get through as many as possible. Suh will hit free agency for the third straight offseason, and once again he’ll be a solid interior player for whatever team he lands on.
16. Falcons DE Vic Beasley
In early February, the Falcons made the unusual step of announcing they wouldn’t be re-signing Beasley. Beasley had one great season, posting 15.5 sacks in 2016, and has just been OK in his other four seasons. He’s a former No. 8 overall pick and does have that one All-Pro season, but what’s that worth in free agency?
15. Titans CB Logan Ryan
Ryan got a three-year, $30 million deal when he left the Patriots for the Titans, and he hits the market again at age 29. He should still have another couple seasons left as a viable starter.
14. Panthers CB James Bradberry
Bradberry wants at least $15 million per season according to a report, and that seems excessive. He is a solid option after starting all four of his NFL seasons with the Panthers.
13. Vikings DE Everson Griffen
The Vikings want to bring back Griffen, who rebounded from a tough personal year in 2018 to post eight sacks in 2019. Griffen, 32, has 74.5 career sacks and still has a lot of value.
12. Vikings S Anthony Harris
Harris is a Pro Football Focus darling, with his grade ranking second among all safeties last season. Only Denver’s Justin Simmons ranked higher. Harris tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions, and will have plenty of interest.
11. 49ers DE Arik Armstead
Armstead, a former first-round pick, had nine sacks through four 49ers seasons. He picked a great time to break out with a 10-sack season in 2019. The huge defensive lineman is now an intriguing investment.
10. Rams DT Michael Brockers
Brockers has been overshadowed playing next to Aaron Donald, but he’s a quality player in his own right. He’s not the kind of addition that would sell a million jerseys, but he could start for just about any defense.
9. Rams LB Cory Littleton
Littleton got his shot at being a defensive starter in 2018, and the former special teams standout had two fine years with the Rams. He’s a true three-down linebacker who can be a plus defender in all situations. He’s the best inside linebacker on the market.
8. Rams OLB Dante Fowler Jr.
Fowler was once the third pick of the draft, is 25 years old and had 11.5 sacks last season. That will play well in free agency if the Rams can’t sign him to a long-term deal. Fowler hasn’t quite lived up to his draft status but he still has a ton of appeal in a league starved for edge rushers.
7. Giants DE Leonard Williams
If Williams doesn’t get the franchise tag, Giants GM Dave Gettleman will get roasted for sending away draft picks to the Jets for a few weeks of Williams in a lost season, and Williams will have plenty of interest. Williams may not have developed into the player the Jets hoped they were getting with the sixth pick of the draft in 2015, but he still is a quality lineman.
6. Broncos CB Chris Harris Jr.
The Broncos seemed to move on from Harris when they agreed to a trade for Jacksonville cornerback A.J. Bouye. That means Harris will be one of the most coveted players on the market, a four-time Pro Bowler who still is playing at a high level despite turning 30 last June.
5. Broncos S Justin Simmons
Simmons has developed into a fine safety for the Broncos. He became the priority in the secondary, not Chris Harris Jr., and almost surely will get the franchise tag.
4. Cowboys CB Byron Jones
The Cowboys can’t pay everyone, and if Jones leaves they could regret not making him more of a priority. He’s a former first-round pick whose versatility is perfect for the modern game. Jones is a fine player in all facets of the game and he is just 27 years old.
3. Buccaneers DE Shaquil Barrett
Last year, the Broncos let Barrett walk for a one-year, $4 million deal to Tampa Bay. Then Barrett led the NFL with 19.5 sacks. There’s some risk in paying Barrett off one career year, but anyone that can threaten 20 sacks in a season is going to get a monster deal in free agency.
2a, 2b, 2c. Chiefs DE Chris Jones, Jaguars DE Yannick Ngakoue, Steelers OLB Bud Dupree
There are reports that all three will get the franchise tag, so we’ll lump them together. None of them are likely to really see free agency — though they’d be in demand if they do. Jones will get the franchise tag, but perhaps there’s a tag-and-trade scenario in play. The Chiefs aren’t going to let him walk for nothing; Jones is one of the best interior defenders in the NFL. Ngakoue wants to move on but the Jaguars aren’t going to let that happen, and the Steelers will reportedly find the cap space to tag Dupree if they can’t sign him to a longer deal first.
1. Seahawks DE Jadeveon Clowney
Clowney’s career started slow, but the former No. 1 overall pick has become a force. He’s a menace against the run and can rush the quarterback too. At his best, Clowney is one of the absolute best defenders in the game. The Seahawks traded for him knowing he might only be there one year, and now Clowney is going to get a huge contract in free agency.
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