Top 2016 Free Agents By Position: Defense

NFL free agency will get underway on Wednesday, March 9th, and while we can still expect the list of free agents to undergo some major changes between now and then, we’ll head into free agency week with a pretty good idea of what the market will look like. Franchise and transition tags have been assigned, many teams have cut their overpriced veterans, and most clubs are in the process of assigning RFA and ERFA tenders, if they haven’t already done so.

With free agency around the corner, it’s time for us to break down the outlook for each position. After looking at offense yesterday, we’ll tackle defense and special teams today.

Listed below are our rankings for the top 15 free agents at each defensive position. These rankings aren’t necessarily determined by the value of the contracts – or the amount of guaranteed money – that each player is expected to land in free agency. These are simply the players we like the most at each position, with both short- and long-term value taken into account.

Restricted and exclusive-rights free agents, as well as players who received the franchise tag, aren’t listed here, since the roadblocks in place to hinder another team from actually acquiring most of those players prevent them from being true free agents.

We’ll almost certainly be higher or lower on some free agents than you are, so feel free to weigh in below in our comments section to let us know which players we’ve got wrong.

Here’s our breakdown of the current top 15 free agents by defensive position for 2016:

Interior defensive line:Malik Jackson (Vertical)

  1. Malik Jackson
  2. Damon Harrison
  3. Ian Williams
  4. Jaye Howard
  5. Nick Fairley
  6. Cedric Thornton
  7. Haloti Ngata
  8. Akiem Hicks
  9. Terrance Knighton
  10. Mike DeVito
  11. Brandon Mebane
  12. Paul Soliai
  13. B.J. Raji
  14. Jared Crick
  15. Steve McLendon
    Honorable mention: Kevin Williams, Al Woods, Ahtyba Rubin, Randy Starks, Henry Melton

The interior of the defensive line might be the deepest positional class among the defensive free agent groupings, but the list is clearly led by Malik Jackson, who looks poised to cash in on the open market after the Broncos were forced to use their franchise tag on another defender, linebacker Von Miller. At just 26 years old, Jackson figures to be among the highest-paid of this year’s free agents, at any position.

Clubs that play a 3-4 scheme will be especially interested in this crop of free agents, as Ian Williams, Jaye Howard, Cedric Thornton, and Haloti Ngata are all extremely experienced in that front (and offer some degree of positional flexibility). On the 4-3 side, Nick Fairley, who had to settle for a one-year contract last offseason, figures to interest teams looking for gap-shooting interior lineman.

Nose tackle also features a multitude of options, and although Damon Harrison is expected to land the largest deal, Terrance Knighton, Paul Soliai, and B.J. Raji should also be able to find nice contracts in the coming weeks. All four of those players are adept at plugging up space in the middle, although the latter three may be forced to take short-term pacts due to either age or recent performance.

Edge defender:Olivier Vernon

  1. Olivier Vernon
  2. Bruce Irvin
  3. Jason Pierre-Paul
  4. Mario Williams
  5. Charles Johnson
  6. Greg Hardy
  7. Tamba Hali
  8. Robert Ayers
  9. William Hayes
  10. Derrick Shelby
  11. Nick Perry
  12. Junior Galette
  13. Jason Jones
  14. Chris Long
  15. O’Brien Schofield
    Honorable mention: Adrian Clayborn, Courtney Upshaw, Mike Neal, Dwight Freeney, Andre Branch

While we didn’t include franchise-tagged players on this list, we did incorporate Olivier Vernon, who was assigned the transition tag by the Dolphins. Miami will have the option to match any offer receives from another club, but they won’t receive any compensation if they decline to match. The latest reports indicate that the Dolphins could simply allow Vernon to walk if he signs an offer sheet that pays him more yearly than the transition tag will ($12.734MM).

Elsewhere, Bruce Irvin seems ready to earn more than $10MM annually, and given that he’s not expected back in Seattle, the Jaguars and Falcons — both of whom employ former Seahawks coordinators as head coaches — make sense as landing spots. Jason Pierre-Paul will face an interesting free agency due to the status of his injured hand, as will Greg Hardy and Junior Galette due to off-field concerns, and in the case of Galette, Washington’s right to match any offer he receives.

Clubs looking for veteran pass-rushers are in luck this offseason, as Mario Williams, Charles Johnson, and Chris Long — all recently released — join longtime Chief Tamba Hali as free agents. Of the group, Long had the worst season in 2015 and might have to sit on the open market for awhile longer, but the other three should find a robust market for their services — Williams and Johnson, in fact, have already begun taking visits with interested teams.

Inside linebacker:Danny Trevathan (vertical)

  1. Danny Trevathan
  2. Jerrell Freeman
  3. Rolando McClain
  4. Derrick Johnson
  5. Zach Brown
  6. Stephen Tulloch
  7. James Laurinaitis
  8. Demario Davis
  9. Craig Robertson
  10. Daryl Smith
  11. Erin Henderson
  12. Donald Butler
  13. Mason Foster
  14. DeMeco Ryans
  15. Keenan Robinson
    Honorable mention: Kelvin Sheppard, Jasper Brinkley, Audie Cole

After helping the Broncos to the Super Bowl title last season, Danny Trevathan figures to be the highest-paid among free agent inside linebackers. A return to Denver is possible, but with their cap problems, the Broncos will probably have to bow out — the Falcons, for one, have been mentioned as a possible destination for Trevathan.

Veteran presence abounds on this list, as James Laurinaitis, Daryl Smith, and DeMeco Ryans have all been recently released by their respective clubs. Laurinaitis will probably be the most coveted of the trio, as Smith reportedly might head back to Baltimore on a cheaper deal, while Ryans has dealt with so many injuries in recent seasons that it might be hard for him to land a starting gig.

As far as projects go, Zach Brown might be my favorite of the bunch — the former second-round pick is full of athleticism, but just never broke through with the Titans, so a change of scenery could do him good. Further down the list, Craig Robertson has shown an aptitude for pass coverage, a trait that is highly coveted in today’s NFL.

Outside linebacker (non-rush):Tahir Whitehead (Vertical)

  1. Tahir Whitehead
  2. Mark Barron
  3. Vincent Rey
  4. Nigel Bradham
  5. Chad Greenway
  6. Sean Weatherspoon
  7. Danny Lansanah
  8. Justin Durant
  9. Bruce Carter
  10. Emmanuel Lamur
  11. Shea McClellin
  12. David Hawthorne
  13. Philip Wheeler
  14. Spencer Paysinger
  15. Jason Trusnik

Easily the weakest group among the defensive free agent class, it was a struggle to find 15 players to fit this list. Indeed, it might be considered a stretch to call several of these players outside linebackers — Sean Weatherspoon, Bruce Carter, Shea McClellin, and David Hawthorne all have recent experience on the inside.

Tahir Whitehead looks like the clear favorite to sign the biggest deal among this group, but Mark Barron might be the most interesting player on the list. Drafted No. 7 overall as a safety, Barron looked like a bust until he was traded to the Rams, who converted him to weakside ‘backer. He’s thrived ever since, and it seems like Los Angeles wants to retain him.

The tail end of this list features linebackers whose primary role will be on special teams, but closer to the top, Vincent Rey and Nigel Bradham would fit in most systems — not as stars, certainly, but as role players who can be counted on. Chad Greenway also offers that level of veteran experience, but it’s likely that he’ll stay in Minnesota.

Cornerback:Janoris Jenkins (Vertical)

  1. Janoris Jenkins
  2. Sean Smith
  3. Prince Amukamara
  4. Casey Hayward
  5. Adam Jones
  6. Brandon Boykin
  7. Jeremy Lane
  8. Leon Hall
  9. Patrick Robinson
  10. Nolan Carroll
  11. Josh Robinson
  12. Jerraud Powers
  13. Antonio Cromartie
  14. Shareece Wright
  15. William Gay
    Honorable mention: Sterling Moore, Charles Tillman, Kyle Wilson, Coty Sensabaugh, Terence Newman

Janoris Jenkins will probably get the most money among free agent corners — he’s 27, and he already reportedly turned town $9MM per year from the Rams. Los Angeles placed the franchise tag on fellow CB Trumaine Johnson, so it’s unclear if Jenkins is still in the club’s plans.

He’s a year older, but Sean Smith could give Jenkins a run for his money as the highest-paid free agent corner, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he ultimately earns more. Smith probably isn’t the pure athlete that Jenkins is, but he’s arguably more steady, and that’s something teams will pay for in a corner.

The group of slot corners might be the most interesting part of this list, as Brandon Boykin, Jeremy Lane, and Leon Hall all stand to earn a bit of money from the inside. Casey Hayward, too, has been primarily deployed on the inside, but he’s shown an ability to play outside cornerback as well, so he should be in line for a larger deal.

Safety:George Iloka (Featured)

  1. George Iloka
  2. Eric Weddle
  3. Rodney McLeod
  4. Tashaun Gipson
  5. Reggie Nelson
  6. Walter Thurmond
  7. Rashad Johnson
  8. Dwight Lowery
  9. Isa Abdul-Quddus
  10. Husain Abdullah
  11. Tyvon Branch
  12. David Bruton
  13. Robert Golden
  14. Will Allen
  15. Michael Griffin
    Honorable mention: Chris Conte, James Ihedigbo, William Moore, Quintin Demps, Roman Harper

Like the interior defensive line class above, the safety group contains a strong list of players who could be counted on to start for a number of clubs. The Bengals, notably, will see both their starting safeties hit the open market — Reggie Nelson led the league in interceptions and made the Pro Bowl last season, but George Iloka is seven years younger, so he’ll score the bigger deal.

After nine years in San Diego, Eric Weddle has stressed that he’ll look to latch on with a contender this offseason, and he shouldn’t be wanting for suitors. Tashuan Gipson also expects to move on from his old club — the Browns — and like Iloka, his age should help him land a nice contract. Rodney McLeod, also young at just 25, probably isn’t a household name, but he has been excellent during his career with the Rams, and his next deal could surprise.

Isa Abdul-Quddus and David Bruton haven’t been full-time starters during their careers, but they’ve been solid when they’ve been asked to play. Meanwhile, Chiefs free agents Tyvon Branch and Husain Abdullah weren’t asked to start last season — Eric Berry and Ron Parker held down those roles, but there’s little doubt they could handle a starting job.

Kicker:Adam Vinatieri

  1. Adam Vinatieri
  2. Josh Brown
  3. Greg Zuerlein
  4. Nick Novak
  5. Phil Dawson
  6. Kai Forbath
  7. Randy Bullock
  8. Shayne Graham

Justin Tucker would have easily topped this list of free agent kickers, but he has already signed his franchise tender with the Ravens. Adam Vinatieri is still going strong at age 43 and is expected to return to the Colts, so Josh Brown, who shined with the Giants last year, might the best kicker to actually reach the market.

Greg Zuerlein (aka “Greg the Leg”) has the best distance on his kicks, but has struggled with accuracy — the Rams have indicated he won’t be handed the kicking job if he returns, so maybe he heads elsewhere.


  1. Bryan Anger
  2. Jon Ryan
  3. Brad Nortman
  4. Shane Lechler

Like at kicker, the best player at punter — the Raiders’ Marquette King — has already been taken off the market, and none of these players are likely to land a large deal. Of the bunch, Bryan Anger will probably make the most money, as he’s a former third-round pick and is only 27 years old.

Luke Adams contributed to this post. Photos courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

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