When I originally outlined this list, I saw more than half the clubs in the NFL as possible landing spots for veteran edge rusher Dwight Freeney. Even in his age-35 season, Freeney managed eight sacks for the Cardinals while playing only 255 defensive snaps. Many teams around the league could use that kind of production.
I eventually whittled down the list, and given that Freeney has stated he’d like to play for a winning team during the upcoming season, I tried to weed out clubs that seemingly have no shot at contending in 2016. Still, Freeney is an enticing addition not only because of his ability to disrupt the pocket, but because he’ll come cheap — his deal with Arizona last year was only for the prorated veteran’s minimum (though it did include sack incentives). Cap space won’t be an issue when trying to lure Freeney.
With that said, let’s take a spin around the league and examine some potential fits for Freeney (and his devastating spin move)…
Atlanta Falcons — It’s impossible to overstate just how poor the 2015 Falcons were at getting after opposing quarterbacks. They recorded only 19 sacks, the lowest total for any team in in the league since 2009, and finished last in adjusted sack rate. Atlanta’s only meaningful offseason addition to its defensive line was former Dolphin Derrick Shelby, who as Robert Mays gleefully noted in a recent Ringer NFL podcast (audio link), boasts all of nine career sacks. Freeney visited the Falcons at the beginning of June, but head coach Dan Quinn said his club would off — for now — on signing the veteran edge rusher.
Arizona Cardinals — Freeney has always stated that he’d prefer a return to the desert, but it’s not clear if the Cardinals are reciprocating that interest. Arizona acquired former Patriots pass rusher Chandler Jones this offseason, lessening its need to add another edge presence, and the club would also like to see what it has in its younger options, such as Markus Golden, Alex Okafor, and Shaq Riddick. Still, the Cards clearly know what Freeney brings to the table, so a reunion — at some point down the road — still makes a ton of sense.
Baltimore Ravens — All the way back in March, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said his club “wasn’t done in free agency” and casually mentioned that Freeney remained unsigned. Since that statement, Baltimore hasn’t plucked any key players from the open market, but it did select two rush linebackers — Boise State’s Kamalei Correa and BYU’s Bronson Kaufusi — during the draft. The Ravens will already field two aging veterans, Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, at outside ‘backer during the upcoming season, so perhaps the team doesn’t want another player who’s near the end of his career. General manager Ozzie Newsome, however, loves experienced players, as evidenced by the fact that Baltimore deployed the fifth-oldest AV-adjusted defense in 2015, according to Chase Stuart of Football Perspective.
Buffalo Bills — Bills general manager Doug Whaley specifically name-checked Freeney last month, indicating that the club would only look to add veterans if their younger players weren’t progressing as planned during camp. But Buffalo definitely has a need, as first-round pick Shaq Lawson will miss some regular season action after undergoing shoulder surgery. Rex Ryan is planning on using a more conventional 3-4 look in 2016, so Freeney would spend most of time at outside linebacker, but he clearly has the versatility to shift back to end if Buffalo shows a 4-3 front.
Cincinnati Bengals — Along with the Falcons, the Bengals are one of two teams that has actually met with Freeney, as they had him had him in for a workout at the end of May. Cincinnati has two above-average starters at end in Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson, but the club has little in the way of depth. As Roster Resource shows, the Bengals would be forced to rely on Margus Hunt, Will Clarke, and Marcus Hardison — a group that has all of two sacks to its name — if one of their starters went down. But if Cincinnati does look into officially adding Freeney, reports have indicated that it might not be until training camp begins, or perhaps even later.
Dallas Cowboys — In what is clearly a developing theme among clubs on this list, Cowboys management said at the end of last month that they weren’t interested in Freeney for the time being, as they’d prefer to get a look at their younger rushers first. That stance is going to be a problem for Freeney, who has admitted he’d like to get into a camp as soon as possible in order to prepare mentally. Teams simply don’t have much incentive to sign a veteran who will take practice reps away from less-experienced players. Still, with Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory each facing four-game suspensions, the Cowboys clearly have a pass-rushing need.
Detroit Lions — One side of Detroit’s defensive line is spoken for by the dominant Ziggy Ansah, while the opposite side is manned by the underrated Devin Taylor, an ascending player entering the final year of his rookie deal. However, the Lions did lose both Jason Jones and Darryl Tapp in free agency, so they could certainly use another edge rusher to lessen the load on Taylor, who only played about half of the club’s snaps last season. Freeney would be part of a rotation in the Motor City, which is how he’s best utilized. For what it’s worth, Justin Rogers of MLive.com didn’t dismiss the idea of Detroit signing Freeney when asked earlier this month.
Kansas City Chiefs — The Chiefs could be without linebacker Justin Houston, one of the NFL’s best defensive players of the past half-decade, for part or most of the 2016 season after he underwent ACL surgery earlier this year, but Houston isn’t the only Kansas City edge defender dealing with knee issues. Fellow veteran Tamba Hali is also recovering from offseason surgery and hasn’t participated in camp, while Dee Ford left practice earlier this month with knee tendinitis. Freeney wouldn’t help compensate for any loss in coverage, but he’d be an improvement over current Chiefs backups Frank Zombo and Dezman Moses in terms of pass rush.
New Orleans Saints — We’ve discussed at length the historically inept 2015 Saints defense, so suffice it to say that New Orleans can still use all the help it can get. Last year’s second-round pick, Hau’oli Kikaha, was supposed to make the transition from linebacker to defensive end this summer, but he’ll now miss the entire season after suffering a torn ACL in mid-June. Currently projected to rely on Bobby Richardson (who graded as one of the five worst edge defenders in the league last season, according to Pro Football Focus), Obum Gwacham, and fourth-round rookie David Onyemata to line up opposite Cameron Jordan, the Saints could use Freeney perhaps more than any club on this list.
New York Jets — The Jets will continue to run essentially the same defense used by the 2015 Cardinals, as Arizona continued to employ former defensive coordinator Todd Bowles‘ concepts even after he left for the head coaching job in New York. Gang Green’s defense was very good last year, as they ranked fifth in DVOA and first against the run according to Football Outsider’s metrics. The one area where they weren’t exceptional, however, was pass rush (21st in adjusted sack rate). As Roster Resource details, New York is set to count on Lorenzo Mauldin and Jordan Jenkins — who have played a combined 253 snaps in the NFL (all by Mauldin) — as starting outside linebackers. Freeney, then, could be make sense as a edge rusher who sees 20-25 snaps per game.
Others — The Colts could use another rusher off the edge, but Mike Wells of ESPN.com reported last month that Indianapolis hadn’t engaged in talks with Freeney, and added that a reunion was unlikely. Freeney described a possible stint with the Patriots as a “win-win” for both parties, but Mike Reiss of ESPN.com doesn’t see the fit, noting that New England already has a healthy stable of defensive ends and linebackers. In the NFC, the Eagles could be a landing spot as they convert to a 4-3 scheme under new coordinator Jim Schwartz. Brian Robison isn’t anything special opposite Everson Griffen in the Vikings‘ front, while in Carolina, Mario Addison and Wes Horton are currently the last lines of defense for the Panthers if injuries should befall either Kony Ealy or Charles Johnson.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.