Previewing The Free Agency Class, Part 2: Defensive Players

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Last week, we here at The Pacific Tribune addressed the free agency class of players on the offensive side of the ball, the stars, the showman,  and the point scorers. With so much of the spotlight shining away from them it comes as no surprise that many defensive players have a chip on their shoulders when it comes to garnering attention, and getting paid.

The defensive free agent market is arguably slightly deeper and more talented than their offensive counterparts; there’s a good mixture of veteran role players, talented youngsters and guys who will break the bank to have them on your roster. We’ll start with probably the weakest free agency position on defence, defensive tackle.

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The make-up of the defensive line is changing, teams no longer run a straight 3-4 or 4-3 defence, but more of a hybrid style as a greater emphasis is placed on interior pass rushers than run stuffing nose tackles.

Vince Wilfork has been a superb model of the elite interior lineman, immovable against the run, stout and occasionally explosive against the pass, a real lane clogger. But Wilfork is almost certainly set to retire, and with him will likely go the prominent role of the nose tackle. At least for now.

Fellow veteran tackle, Domata Peko is an unrestricted free agent after 11 seasons with the Bengals, whose production dropped despite playing a higher percentage of snaps. Although no longer a three-down starter, Peko at age 32 could still be valuable as an interior presence or at the very least an excellent depth signing if he were to sign in San Francisco for example.

The premier defensive tackle in this class is the Panthers’ Kawann Short, who wasn’t as dominant as he was in 2015, but still had a good year. The Panthers have publicly indicated that Short, at the very least will be hit with the franchise tag. Journeyman, Nick Fairley has had arguably the best year of his career after multiple seasons in St Louis and Detroit. The Saints are desperate for playmakers of defence, but Fairley’s performance this season may have inadvertently priced him out of New Orleans. With 6.5 sacks on the season, if Fairley is able to replicate this form moving forward, well he’d be a valuable asset just about anywhere.

Among other starting quality tackles, include the Patriots’ Alan Branch who’s developed into a fine starter, Tennessee’s Karl Klug an underrated free agent and Kansas City’s Dontari Poe, who would be a good fit back in Arrowhead. However, cap space is at a premium for the Chiefs and if another franchise arrives and opens their chequebooks, well there’s little the Chiefs can do about it.

With the increased demand for potent pass rushers, the defensive end position is one of the most sought after positions on the free agency market. Not only that but the quality of the talent available this offseason, includes top tier defenders, Calais Campbell, Jason Pierre-Paul, Chandler Jones, Jabaal Sheard, Charles Johnson and the newly released Jared Odrick.

Calais Campbell isn’t a traditional edge pass rusher, more of an end on a 3-4 defence. But his value at that position is enormous and he will be one of the most sought after free agents, and deservedly so. The Cardinals would love him back, but a whole plethora of franchises, including, Pittsburgh, Dallas, New England, Denver and others will be chasing him with interest. Fellow Cardinal, Chandler Jones is also a free agent as a pure pass rusher. Coach Bruce Arians has confirmed that Jones will be in Arizona, under the franchise tag if necessary. With his second consecutive season with double digit sacks, Jones is expected to be the long-term pass rushing solution for the Cardinals.

After a injury shortened season on the franchise tag, Jason Pierre-Paul is a free agent and an interesting prospect at that. As a pass rusher, Pierre-Paul will surely get paid big time, but the question is where? With so many free agents to re-sign, it’s not likely to be in New York.

Carolina’s defensive end duo of, Mario Addison and Charles Johnson are both free agents, and only one is likely to return, with Kony Ealy waiting in the wings and Kawann Short taking up a chunk of the free agency cap space.

The best of the rest, include Jabaal Sheard, Jared Odrick, Andre Branch, Chris Baker and the eccentric veteran, Mario Williams.

The linebacking class is supremely deep when it comes to recognisable names. The veteran class is as deep as its ever been. The list is immense, including, Julius Peppers, Trent Cole, D’Qwell Jackson, DeMarcus Ware, Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, Chad Greenway, Paul Kruger and Sean Weatherspoon. These veterans are in vastly differing situations and whilst some could offer significant assistance to any teams’ 2017 campaign, others will be seriously contemplating retirement.

The key long-term free agents are Dont’a Hightower and Melvin Ingram. For Hightower, with teammates Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones traded out of New England, it’s appears that Coach Belichick has identified Hightower as the future stalwart for the Patriots’ defence. But he’s going to cost them big dollars.

Melvin Ingram is one of the more underrated free agents, as he’s been hidden away in underachieving San Diego (now LA), but don’t be fooled he’s an excellent 3-4 outside linebacker. The good news for the NFL is that the Chargers are transitioning to a 4-3 defence, thus Ingram will likely be expendable in Los Angeles. He won’t come cheap, but he’d be a supreme addition to a team in need of a defensive playmaker like the Saints, Colts or Bears.

For further linebacking talent and value, check out Rolando McClain, Malcolm Smith, Nick Perry and Datone Jones.

Every offseason, cornerback is one of the most sought after positions, as teams attempt to combat the expansive passing games that have taken over the league. The cornerback position is reasonably deep this free agency, headlined by, AJ Bouye, Trumaine Johnson, Stephon Gilmore, Morris Claiborne and Captain Munnerlyn.

Bouye had a great breakout season for the Texans, but with a tight cap situation in Houston, Bouye will likely be trading his wares elsewhere in 2017. Stephon Gilmore had a slightly down year in 2016, but he should be highly sought after in free agency. Cowboys duo, Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne find themselves in a tough situation in order to return to Dallas. Salary cap space is at a premium, and they have other needs and free agents to sign. One may return, but not both.

After playing on the franchise tag, Trumaine Johnson will be very keen for a long-term deal to secure his future financially. But will the Rams agree to that? Johnson didn’t exactly play up to the level of the tag and many have suggested that Johnson may get tagged again for 2017. Terrance Newman at age 38 is at the end, but he was still highly effective for the Vikings in 2016. Perhaps a one year contract for Newman, if decides to play on.

Patriots’ cornerback Logan Ryan has developed into a decent starter and as a two-time Super Bowl champion, he’s going to get paid big time. The Bengals’ Dre Kirkpatrick, should return to Cincinnati on a decent contract with Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones likely on the way out. Prince Amukamara was one of the few shining lights in Jacksonville last year and he should be brought back immediately. Other feature cornerbacks include, Captain Munnerlyn, Darius Butler, Nolan Carrol and Leodis McKelvin.

There’s a small, but high quality group of safeties entering free agency in March. Their leader is the inspirational Eric Berry, who has excelled overlooking the impressive Chiefs’ defence. Berry wants and deserves a long-term contract. For the sake of both player and team, let’s hope Berry re-signs in Kansas City.

Barry Church is the third member of the Cowboys’ secondary who is a free agent, and he should be back based on his form. But once again salary cap issues will restrict Dallas’ room to move, they’ll have a tough choice to make come free agency. The Jags’ Johnathan Cyprien had a strong year for Jacksonville, and the Jaguars have an abundance of cap space to bring him back.

Houston Texans’s safety, Quintin Demps had a career year at age 31 and wants to be paid big time. That probably won’t be in Houston, as it’s unlikely the Texans see him as part of their long-term plans. The Cardinals have two young safeties, Tony Jefferson and DJ Swearinger on the market. With Tyrian Mathieu still holding the back of the defence, look for Jefferson to return and Swearinger to head elsewhere.

There’s numerous other safeties with starting experience and skills, notably, Nate Allen, Matt Elam, Chris Conte, Jahleel Addae, Duron Harmon and Donte Whitner.