A week before free agency started, five top defensive players were removed from free agent boards.
Four defenders got the franchise tag: New York Giants defensive lineman Leonard Williams, New York Jets safety Marcus Maye, Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons and New Orleans Saints safety Marcus Williams. Also, Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David got an extension. Williams, Maye, Simmons and David all would have been top-10 available free-agent defenders, and Williams probably wasn't far off. As usual, a number of impact defenders are off the board long before free agency gets going.
That doesn't mean there aren't some good options. Teams who want to improve on defense can still find some helpful fits. Here are the top 20 defensive players in free agency.
20. CB Desmond King
King was a solid producer for the Los Angeles Chargers, and he also had a first-team All-Pro season as a kick returner. If he is in the right scheme fit he can be a reliable option, as long as his new team doesn't expect him to be a true No. 1 cornerback.
19. EDGE Leonard Floyd
Floyd was a bit of a disappointment as a first-round pick for the Chicago Bears, but broke through the double-digit sack barrier in his first year with the Los Angeles Rams. Floyd isn't a sure thing to match his 10.5 sacks from last season, but he's a capable pass rusher and plenty of teams need that.
18. CB Mike Hilton
Hilton is a slot cornerback, and that has a lot of value in today's game. Having a reliable slot cornerback to stick with some of the best inside receivers in the game is a must, and Hilton has filled that role very well the past four seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
17. CB Richard Sherman
Sherman is a bit of a tough case. He is 33 years old, not a prime age for most cornerbacks, and he had an injury-plagued 2020. But in 2019 he was phenomenal for the San Francisco 49ers, and he's a Hall of Fame talent. If you're getting anywhere near the 2019 Sherman, not to mention anything like his peak years with the Seattle Seahawks, he can be a huge boon. It's risky though.
16. CB Shaquill Griffin
Griffin was a starter for all four seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, and he made a Pro Bowl in 2019. He's probably not elite, but he's young with a lot of experience and will fit in some team's defense as a starter.
15. CB William Jackson III
Jackson, a former first-round pick, never turned into a great player with the Cincinnati Bengals. But he was good, still has that draft pedigree and plays a valuable position. He'll have no trouble getting paid.
14. LB Matt Milano
Milano's value to the Buffalo Bills showed when he was hurt last season. The defense didn't look the same when he was out. He plays a devalued position of off-ball linebacker, but there is still a place for old-school linebackers in the game and Milano is very good at his role. (Update: Milano is re-signing with the Bills on a four-year, $44 million deal per ESPN's Adam Schefter.)
13. DT Ndamukong Suh
The king of the one-year deals is on the market again. Suh's Pro Bowl days might be over at age 34, but he can still play a ton of snaps, provide a decent pass rush and is still very good against the run. Suh has positioned himself perfectly, as a perennial free agent who plays a position that's hard to fill and willing to answer the call for any team that feels it might be one piece away.
12. EDGE Haason Reddick
The Arizona Cardinals misused Reddick, a former first-round pick, as an off-ball linebacker until his fourth season, when they shifted him to the edge. Reddick then posted 10.5 sacks in his final 11 games, including five sacks against the New York Giants. That strong finish leaves teams trying to figure out if that was a small-sample fluke or if Reddick finally unlocked his potential in the right role.
11. EDGE Trey Hendrickson
Hendrickson, always a productive rotational player for the New Orleans Saints, became a starter in 2020 and posted 13.5 sacks. Metrics say that number was a bit bloated and could regress, but Hendrickson can still be a difference-making pass rusher.
10. EDGE Romeo Okwara
It was odd that the Detroit Lions didn't use the franchise tag. Even if they were ready to move on from receiver Kenny Golladay, Okwara might have been a good investment after a 10-sack breakout season. Okwara is still just 25 years old and many teams will be interested.
9. DT Dalvin Tomlinson
Tomlinson is a big body who can anchor the middle. He has never missed a game in four seasons with the New York Giants and even can give a bit of an interior pass rush. For teams looking for a big tackle to occupy blockers in the interior of the line, Tomlinson is the top option.
8. S John Johnson III
Johnson was a good playmaking safety with the Los Angeles Rams, and there will be plenty of speculation that the Chargers will bid for him considering Johnson's old defensive coordinator Brandon Staley is the Chargers' new head coach.
7. S Anthony Harris
Harris had a very good 2019 season, leading the NFL in interceptions. He didn't have any interceptions last season, and his down season and age (he'll turn 30 in October) will work against him in free agency a bit. But he's still a good option and plenty of teams could use an upgrade at safety.
6. EDGE Yannick Ngakoue
Ngakoue has had a bumpy last couple years, wanting out of Jacksonville, having a short stay in Minnesota after a trade and then going to the Ravens in another trade during last season. Despite it all he's posted at least eight sacks in each of his five NFL seasons, and that kind of track record at age 25 will lead to a big payday.
5. EDGE Bud Dupree
Dupree is a tricky case. He tore his ACL in the second half of last season when he was playing on the franchise tag with the Pittsburgh Steelers. If a team believes he'll be fully healthy, he could be a good addition. Dupree has 19.5 sacks in 27 games over the past two seasons. Some team will take a shot on the former first-round pick being healthy, or Dupree will take a one-year deal to prove it and then hit free agency again.
4. EDGE Matt Judon
Judon surprisingly got the franchise tag last offseason from the Baltimore Ravens. Judon is a good, solid linebacker who consistently posts strong sack totals. He's not a great one-on-one pass rusher, but some team is going to pay him to help their rush.
3. EDGE Jadeveon Clowney
It's OK if you push Clowney way down the list. He had a miserable season with the Tennessee Titans. Clowney might be a little overrated — he might overrate his own abilities too, based on his contract desires — but he is a quality defender, especially against the run, and can take over a game. And even though it seems like he's been around a long time, he just turned 28 in February.
2. EDGE Carl Lawson
Lawson isn't a sure thing. He has just 11.5 sacks the past two seasons, and teams will be paying him like he'll get much more than that. Lawson is 25 years old, has good pass-rush ability and spent most of his time in Cincinnati being used as a role player. Perhaps he can explode in his second stop.
1. EDGE Shaq Barrett
The Denver Broncos obviously didn't know what they had with Barrett. Once Barrett escaped Denver for Tampa Bay, his career took off. The Bucs couldn't give him the franchise tag again because they used it on receiver Chris Godwin. Most teams are either in dire need of an edge rusher or could use another one, and Barrett has been one of the best the past two years. He could get a monster deal.