As the Seahawks so efficiently proved in the Super Bowl, pass-rushing is a valuable skill, and a bevy of pass rushers can be one of the most important assets a team has. The NFL is currently chock full of that kind of talent, at a time when their services have never been in higher demand.
Unfortunately for enterprising young defensive ends and outside linebackers, the free agent market looks to be glutted with these edge defenders and it may push down the price for everybody.
At a fundamental level, teams are asking for two skills from their edge defenders: pass-rushing and run defense. While some teams want pass coverage skills to add diversity (and therefore create confusion) within their scheme, it’s unlikely that a player like Clay Matthews will ever see his snaps reduced because of poor ball skills.
There are a multitude of ways that run defense and pass-rushing can be expressed, from tying up blockers and clogging gaps to penetrating and getting to the ballcarrier, but for the most part, teams are looking for disruption.
For the most part, teams will be looking for two starters, one starter or depth among their edge defenders but there are more than a few teams that will be testing out new players and could use insurance.
Two Starting Edge Defenders
Oakland Raiders (#1 Overall Need)
The Raiders had fine run defense on the edge, but the combination of relatively mediocre pass-rushing and the fact that both defensive ends are hitting free agency means that the Raiders will need to focus on filling in the pieces they’ll need to field an effective defense, especially in a division with Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers.
Chicago Bears (#2 Overall Need)
It’s becoming increasingly clear that Julius Peppers is aging and it seems even more the case that Shea McClellin won’t be able to pick up his torch. The Bears were the worst team in the NFL at generating pressure from outside and just so happened to match that accomplishment in the run game by quite a margin. There’s hope that Peppers can rebound for a short time and continue to play for some years, but for the most part both players need to be replaced and the depth behind them overhauled—for all his athleticism, Cornelius Washington is still a longshot.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (#3 Overall Need)
There’s a chance that Adrian Clayborn could build on his 2011 instead of his 2013, but it looks more unlikely than not. Like Clayborn, Da’Quan Bowers could also fulfill his first-round potential but that’s looking less and less probably. Daniel Ne’o-Tesheim is not a starting quality player and probably shouldn’t be a primary backup, either. All that in mind and Tampa Bay will need to fill both edge rushing positions, though could serviceably only fill one for some time while waiting to see if Bowers or Clayborn bear out.
One Starting Edge Defender
Atlanta Falcons (#4 Overall Need)
Between a returning Kroy Biermann and Osi Umenyiora (and potentially Malliciah Goodman), there’s a good chance that there’s one talented pass-rusher. Atlanta badly needs to fill in the other one unless they really want to roll the dice with both. Repeating the performance from 2013 is not an option for a Falcons team that otherwise has a great shot to make the playoffs despite their tough division.
New York Jets (#5 Overall Need)
Quinton Coples turned it on later in the year as he adapted to the position change enough to the point where he can be counted on as a reliable starter with the potential to be more than that. But with Calvin Pace hitting free agency and Antwan Barnes coming back from a potentially worrisome injury, the Jets don’t really have an answer for their other outside linebacker position. Barnes has played in mostly situational roles throughout his career anyway and a full-time starter might require investment.
Jacksonville Jaguars (#6 Overall Need)
Jason Babin and Andre Branch both performed worse than their talent warrants, and it’s likely that Gus Bradley will be able to design a system that will allow them to thrive, but on the other side, Tyson Alualu was terrible. They might ask Branch to switch to the left side, but it’s almost certain that either Babin or Branch dropped due to true talent problems instead of simply having an off year. The Jaguars could do with a premier pass-rusher in order to kickstart their emerging defense.
Detroit Lions (#7 Overall Need)
The Lions have an extremely talented young pass-rusher in Ezekiel Ansah, but with Willie Young hitting free agency, they’ll either have to rely on Devin Taylor to step in or find a defensive end on the market. The Lions have an extremely capable defensive line, so a top-tier talent here could ensure that they win the trenches against nearly any opponent for years to come. They’re only missing one piece, and it could go a long way into papering over problems elsewhere.
Minnesota Vikings (#8 Overall Need)
Excepting a futures contract for Justin Trattou, the Vikings only have one defensive end on contract for 2014 (Brian Robison). With news that Everson Griffen wants to test the market (and the high likelihood that the Vikings don’t pursue Jared Allen), the Vikings are thrust into a position of needing someone to bookend the very talented Brian Robison. They produced pressure at an astounding rate, but couldn’t turn as many of them into sacks as they should have. That will turn around, but their issues are by no means resolved even with re-signing Griffen.
Washington Redskins (#9 Overall Need)
Like Minnesota, Washington finds itself losing three of its top four edge players to free agency and there aren’t many signs (barring a franchise tag) that Brian Orakpo is clearly set to return to Washington. Ryan Kerrigan is an extremely good player, but the only player scheduled to be on the roster come mid-March is fifth-round pick Brandon Jenkins, as Darryl Tapp and Rob Jackson are both set to be free agents as well.
Houston Texans (#11 Overall Need)
Houston will always be able to generate pass rush pressure with J.J. Watt in the fold, but it takes more than one player to build a defense, especially when it comes to defending against outside runs—a big issue for the Texans in 2013. Brooks Reed was uncharacteristically poor and is a much better player than he showed, but Whitney Mercilus simply played to his poor talent level. There’s a lot of uncertainty at outside linebacker behind them, but it seems clear they need to invest in one impact starter by next year.
Tennessee Titans (#17 Overall Need)
The best edge defense in the AFC South belonged to Tennessee, and Derrick Morgan seems forever a moment away from getting his due. Unfortunately, their second-best player was the surprising Ropati Pitoitua and not Kamerion Wimbley—which means they’ll need to replace a 4-3 defensive end as Pitoitua enters free agency. No one on the roster has a great chance of replicating his production, but the situation is by no means dire.
Denver Broncos (#19 Overall Need)
Von Miller functionally serves as an edge player in the context of team needs and should be back for a full season next year, which should resolve most of the concerns they’ve had about pressure this year. Elvis Dumervil’s replacement, Shaun Phillips, is hitting free agency and Derek Wolfe is simply not a good player. In Phillips’ stead, Robert Ayers should do fine, but there’s not a clear solution between Malik Jackson and Jeremy Mincey at left defensive end. It’s not a huge issue for Denver because they can manufacture edge pressure without that spot filled, but it would be good in case a player like Miller goes down again.
Carolina Panthers (#20 Overall Need)
Greg Hardy might be the biggest defensive free agent name on the market and it will be tough for Carolina to retain his services. Even without him, Charles Johnson and an average defensive end will be a formidable pair and Mario Addison has shown could exceed that bar. If not, Frank Alexander has some potential as well to at least be a replacement-level player. Carolina should do their best to re-sign Hardy, but they’ll still get pressure and top-tier run defense without him.
Insurance on the Edge
New York Giants (#10 Overall Need)
It could very well be the case that Damontre Moore replaces Justin Tuck (who is reportedly excited to test free agency) and he could inject some life into a line that severely underperformed, but it seems more likely that Moore won’t be able to complement Jason Pierre-Paul as much as the Giants would want. At minimum, they’ll need to invest in insurance for the former third-round pick.
Dallas Cowboys (#12 Overall Need)
Anthony Spencer’s return from injury won’t mean much for the Cowboys as he’ll hit the market, but Demarcus Ware should be able to work with George Selvie (or Everette Brown if he jumps the depth chart) to produce pressure. Selvie is a fine player, but he won’t grab headlines and he could very well have topped out. It’s not much of a gamble to stick with Selvie if they can’t keep Spencer, but it still represents the kind of risk that warrants attention.
Indianapolis Colts (#13 Overall Need)
The Colts were a very volatile team and the missing consistency of a good pass rush was a reason. While Robert Mathis still has a few years left in him, Erik Walden really isn’t a starting outside linebacker in the league. Bjoern Werner will likely be asked to step up and take his place, though the concerns about his fit as an OLB haven’t gone away since the draft. The Colts have reason to be confident in Werner’s play, but shouldn’t prevent them from exploring option in case Werner doesn’t pan out.
New Orleans Saints (#14 Overall Need)
The edge production from the Saints in 2013was surprisingly tepid considering the rest of their defensive performance, but much of this was because of an injury to Victor Butler in training camp. He and Galette should both do well next year, though neither are stellar. Unfortunately, the players behind them on the roster are either mediocre or free agents, which raise serious questions about their resiliency and rotation ability.
Pittsburgh Steelers (#15 Overall Need)
The process of re-signing Jason Worilds is becoming difficult and Lamarr Woodley is aging (though still very effective). It remains to be seen if Jarvis Jones can be effective, but for the most part the Steelers are looking to add depth instead of starters. A relatively mediocre year rushing the passer was more the result of snap counts and rookie play than talent and the Steelers will need to address other issues first instead. That said, there’s more uncertainty here than most teams that have two slotted starters.
Cincinnati Bengals (#18 Overall Need)
The Bengals have the best run defending pair of defensive ends in the league, and they aren’t bad at pass-rushing, either. Unfortunately, Michael Johnson will enter the competitive free agent market unless he receives a franchise tag. Over the course of the year, they rotated in other defensive ends, but no one looked particularly comfortable. Margus Hunt has the best possibility of taking a leap and replacing Johnson should push come to shove and they may have reason to trust his physical ability, but it would be surprising if they went into this offseason with just him as the plan.
Arizona Cardinals (#21 Overall Need)
Todd Bowles’ scheme in Arizona relies less on specific players to create pressure than any other team, but they’ve invested in some good players to attack opposing offensive tackles nevertheless. John Abraham has proven that Atlanta erred in letting him go, and Sam Acho’s return from injury can only help while Alex Okafor learns the position. But Acho is a very limited player even without the injury and Abraham’s age is going to catch up to him soon. The Cardinals may rely on them less, but they could stand to upgrade easily.
Philadelphia Eagles (#22 Overall Need)
Trent Cole continues to fly under the radar as an edge defender and has an argument as one of the ten best in the game, but Connor Barwin has been less than stellar on the other side. At times, Barwin doesn’t look like a respectable starting OLB, but the Eagles do have an option on the roster in Brandon Graham, who has been extremely impressive in his limited snaps the last two years, and should have an impressive 2014 if he does start. He hasn’t proven himself as a 1000 snap player yet, so the Eagles would be wise to invest in insurance if he doesn’t pan out, even with Barwin waiting in the wings.
New England Patriots (#23 Overall Need)
Rob Ninkovich continues to be a criminally underrated edge defender, especially against the run, but Chandler Jones continues to run hot and cold. Jones can be (and should get) better, but with Andre Carter at the end of his contract, New England needs to find ways to shore up their somewhat anemic pass rush.
Buffalo Bills (#27 Overall Need)
The Bills quietly had one of the best defenses in the league, and the use of Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes was a big reason why. Though Hughes wasn’t an every-down player like Williams was, he should have a big role in Jim Schwartz new offense, and they’ll be able to use Manny Lawson like a movable chess piece once more. That said, they are thin at the back end of this position and could certainly use the depth.
Kansas City Chiefs (#28 Overall Need)
One of the most talented defenses in the country, Kansas City does not lack for players on the edge. Tamba Hali and Justin Houston are talented both in stopping the run and rushing the passer and are perhaps the only pair to both be top ten at their position. But behind them was Frank Zombo who is neither exciting nor contracted through 2014. Dezman Moses doesn’t exactly inspire confidence either, so Kansas City should want to add depth here if at all possible. James Michael-Johnson’s return from injury could change that, but it’s a longshot.
Developmental Edge Depth
San Diego Chargers (#16 Overall Need)
Dwight Freeney’s return should give the Chargers a very good player on the edge, and Jarret Johnson isn’t bad on the other side. Melvin Ingram never panned out and Larry English is leaving, but that mostly means that the Chargers will continue to grab depth. Freeney’s age and the injury issues for San Diego are red flags worth paying attention to, but mostly the Chargers will want a subpackage pass rusher that can spell their starters.
Green Bay Packers (#24 Overall Need)
A tough year for the Packers better demonstrated the importance of depth and luck than it did new pass-rushers, and they should be fine with Nick Perry and Clay Matthews, though it doesn’t look like the elite pair they hoped for. Regardless, challenging Andy Mulumba to go with Mike Neal should go some way to fixing the problem.
Cleveland Browns (#25 Overall Need)
Initially, it looked like the Browns overpaid for Paul Kruger last year, but he’s more than made up for his contract in Cleveland. He, along with Jabaal Sheard, did an excellent job in both run defense and in pass rushing, and one of them will be challenged by Barkevious Mingo, who’s ready to take the next step. Behind them, there isn’t much experience, but the starting unit will be solid even though it doesn’t yet have a marquee player.
Seattle Seahawks (#26 Overall Need)
Michael Bennett, their best pass-rusher, is hitting free agency and it shouldn’t much matter. Cliff Avril and Chris Clemons are excellent pass-rusher and Seattle has a rushing specialist in Bruce Irvin. Further, they shouldn’t have much problem attracting free agents. The sudden appearance of the Seattle pass rush had much to do with the new free agent signings, but also the penetrating play of the interior linemen, some of whom will also be staying. As it is, they have a deep, deep rotation of excellent edge players.
Miami Dolphins (#29 Overall Need)
Despite his age, Cameron Wake can reprise his role as the most dominant 4-3 defensive end in 2014, and the now sophomore Dion Jordan should make the outside tough to break through in Miami. The players behind them aren’t taking the world by storm, but they are far better than the usual string of backups teams are forced to use in response to injury.
San Francisco 49ers (#30 Overall Need)
Aldon Smith’s evolution into a complete player from the pass-rushing specialist he was his rookie year really has allowed the 49ers to focus elsewhere, and there’s extra talent to be had here. While Ahmad Brooks has been effective, he’s not raising as many eyebrows as Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta, both of whom showed significant prowess for the position in their 300 or so snaps. The future is bright at this position.
Baltimore Ravens (#31 Overall Need)
The Ravens have one of the best pass-rushing packages in the country in part due to the fact that they have unrivaled depth and a diversity of talents. Despite the worry about age up front, Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs should make the position worry-free and the players behind them—Pernell McPhee and Courtney Upshaw—could start for a number of teams. Having John Simon on the roster can’t hurt either.
St. Louis Rams (#32 Overall Need)
Not only do the Rams have the best pair of bookends in the league, but they’re young at the position without immediate contract worries from anyone down the depth chart. They have a top-tier backup in William Hayes, too. The most the Rams will need to do is fill out the chart to make sure they have high-upside players waiting in the wings.