Free Agent Market For Edge Defenders

Our list of 2015 free agents provides a comprehensive position-by-position breakdown of which players are eligible to hit the open market this year. However, that list of names doesn’t include much context or additional information about those players. So, with March’s free agent period fast approaching, we’ll be taking a closer look this month at the free agent market for each position. Today, we’ll turn our attention to edge defenders — 3-4 outside linebackers and 4-3 defensive ends. Let’s dive in….

Top unrestricted FAs:

Teams in search of pass rushers this offseason will focus on this group, but that doesn’t mean every player on this list excels at getting to the quarterback. Sheard has seen his sack total decrease every season, and Reed has never gotten to the quarterback more than six times, but both guys played well against the run in 2014. Morgan, meanwhile, was Pro Football Focus’ top-rated cover man among 3-4 outside linebackers last season (subscription required), and players like Pierre-Paul and Hughes are solid in every aspect of the game.

Still, in today’s NFL, few skills are valued more highly than an ability to pressure the quarterback, which is why someone like Houston – 2014’s sack leader – figures to land one of the biggest contracts of the offseason, assuming he doesn’t just play on a one-year franchise deal. Hughes and Pierre-Paul lead off the next tier behind Houston, and Hardy certainly hasn’t the talent to lead this group in sacks next season, though it’s still not clear if he’ll face a suspension from the NFL for off-field issues.

Graham, Morgan, and McPhee are among the most interesting names on this list. Graham and Morgan are former first-rounders who never quite fit with their current teams, and who never quite lived up to expectations, but PFF’s data suggests both players have been very productive when given the opportunity. McPhee is another pass-rushing specialist who played a limited role in Baltimore, but excelled in that role, and could draw interest this winter from teams who foresee him taking on more responsibilities on defense.

Of course, teams eyeing these players will have to consider their defensive scheme. Some of these guys will be able to fit in as a 4-3 defensive end or a 3-4 outside linebacker, but most of them are more comfortable playing either one or the other. It’s also worth taking into account the fact that the top players in this group won’t necessarily reach the open market — Houston and Pierre-Paul will likely be franchised, and Hughes is a candidate for the tag as well.

Other unrestricted options:

They won’t land big contracts, but veterans like Freeney, Harrison, and Umenyiora may be the most productive players in this group for the 2015 season. A club looking for a part-time specialist could certainly do worse than landing one of those veterans.

Still, there’s upside to be found here. English likely won’t develop into a regular contributor at this point, but fellow first-round picks Clayborn and Alualu could still be above-average players in the right situation. Moats was very good in part-time duty for the Steelers last season, and Johnson racked up 39 total quarterback pressures for the Lions (though his status remains up in the air — he may be a restricted free agent). Acho, Ayers, Schofield, and Spencer are also intriguing names, for a variety of reasons.

Most of the players in this group will be situational players, or backups, but none of them should be particularly expensive, and pairing a run-first defender with a part-time pass rusher could be an effective, cost-conscious way to get solid production on the edge, without splurging on one of the market’s top free agents.

Restricted FAs:

Shelby played 420 defensive snaps for the Dolphins, and was an effective run stopper for the team, so he looks like the best bet to receive a qualifying offer, out of these three players. If the Chiefs and Seahawks decide to re-sign Moses and Scruggs, respectively, it will likely be for a salary less than the minimum RFA tender.

Previous looks at the 2015 free agent market:

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