Top 2017 Free Agents By Position: Defense

NFL free agency will get underway on Thursday, March 9th, and while the list of free agents will change between now and then, we do have some idea of who will be available when free agency kicks off. The frenzy is right around the corner and it’s time for us to break down the outlook for each position. After looking at offense, we’ll tackle defense and special teams today.

[RELATED: Top 2017 NFL Free Agents By Position: Offense]

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 2017:

Edge defender:

  1. Chandler Jones
  2. Melvin Ingram
  3. Jason Pierre-Paul
  4. Nick Perry
  5. Jabaal Sheard
  6. James Harrison
  7. John Simon
  8. DeMarcus Ware
  9. Lorenzo Alexander
  10. Andre Branch
  11. Julius Peppers
  12. Charles Johnson
  13. Datone Jones
  14. Mario Addison
  15. Dwight Freeney

The Cardinals have already made it abundantly clear that Chandler Jones will see the franchise tag this offseason, and Melvin Ingram and Jason Pierre-Paul are also candidates to be tagged by the Chargers and Giants, respectively. If the latter two are able to hit the open market unfettered, however, they both figure to break the bank. Ingram, Pro Football Focus’ No. 6 edge defender, could be a fit for both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes, while JPP will be looking for a long-term commitment after signing consecutive one-year deals.Chandler Jones (vertical)

The rest of this year’s crop of free agent pass rushers is a blend of young defenders searching for their first payday and veterans on the hunt for one last contract. Among the players with youth still on their side, Packers edge defenders Nick Perry and Datone Jones figure to interest different clubs, as Perry is a better match for a 3-4 defense while Jones needs to restart his career as a 4-3 defensive end. John Simon has been overlooked while playing alongside the likes of J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus but could represent a hidden gem, while the Dolphins are reportedly prioritizing Andre Branch.

After managing nine sacks over the first nine years of his NFL tenure, Lorenzo Alexander busted out with 12.5 quarterback takedowns in 2016, and now could be looking for a double-digit annual salary. James Harrison and Charles Johnson, meanwhile, look like good bets to return to Steelers and Panthers, respectively, but DeMarcus Ware could be something of a wild card — after missing 11 games in the past two seasons, does the 34-year-old have enough left in the tank? The same could be asked of Dwight Freeney, who at age-37 posted three sacks in a rotational role for the Falcons.

Interior defensive line:

  1. Kawann Short
  2. Calais Campbell
  3. Johnathan Hankins
  4. Brandon Williams
  5. Dontari Poe
  6. Chris Baker
  7. Bennie Logan
  8. Nick Fairley
  9. Alan Branch
  10. Jared Odrick
  11. Karl Klug
  12. Terrell McClain
  13. Lawrence Guy
  14. Earl Mitchell
  15. Stacy McGee

Unlike the edge defender market, the 2017 cadre of interior defensive lineman shouldn’t be overly affected by the franchise tender. Head coach Ron Rivera recently confessed the Panthers will “probably” have to use the tag on Kawann Short, but the rest of the defensive tackles listed here should be able to hit the open market. Of the remaining defenders, Campbell is the best overall player, but given that he’s entering his age-31 season, he may not cost as much as Johnathan Hankins, Brandon Williams, and Dontari Poe.Johnathan Hankins (Vertical)

Hankins is only 24 years old, and though the Giants are trying to retain him along with the rest of their defensive core, the 6’3″, 320-pound mauler should represent an attractive option to a number of clubs this offseason. Williams, too, offers a massive presence on the inside, while Poe could intrigue clubs based on his first-round pedigree and athleticism (though his play hasn’t always matched his potential). The Redskins’ Chris Baker is a solid, well-rounded defensive tackle, and could constitute a consolation prize for teams that miss out on their top targets.

The rest of the class offers an interesting mix of nose tackles (Bennie Logan), interior pass rushers (Nick Fairley, Earl Mitchell), and run stoppers (Karl Klug, Alan Branch), so clubs hoping to bolster their defensive line should find no shortage of options. Jared Odrick recently hit free agency after being released by the Jaguars, while Terrell McClain, Lawrence Guy, and Stacy McGee could be underrated finds for the right team. McClain, for what it’s worth, has already been linked to the Falcons.

Linebacker:

  1. Dont’a Hightower
  2. Zach Brown
  3. Kevin Minter
  4. Perry Riley
  5. Lawrence Timmons
  6. Gerald Hodges
  7. A.J. Klein
  8. Daryl Smith
  9. Sio Moore
  10. Sean Spence
  11. Karlos Dansby
  12. Malcolm Smith
  13. Manti Te’o
  14. Mike Morgan
  15. Nick Bellore

As usual, the non-rush linebacker market isn’t exactly overflowing with elite talent, and Dont’a Hightower stands as far-and-away the best player among this group. The Patriots already traded away several of their best defenders, including Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, an indication that they view Hightower as the best best to stick around long term. Hightower has communicated an openness to the franchise tag, but New England may go in another direction and offer him the transition tender instead.Dont'a Hightower (Vertical)

Coming off a disappointing four-year run with the Titans in 2016, Zach Brown was last year forced to sign a one-year deal with the Bills for less than $1.5MM. That won’t be the case this spring, as Brown finally lived up to his second-round draft status by grading as one of the league’s best ‘backers. Brown especially excelled in pass coverage by using his speed to chase pass-catchers around the field, and in today’s NFL, that’s a skill-set that equals a hefty paycheck.

Kevin Minter has captained the Cardinals defense for the past two seasons, and has indicated he wouldn’t mind following Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to New York. Lawrence Timmons, meanwhile, is talking about a return to the Steelers, but general manager Kevin Colbert admitted an agreement between the two sides could be hard to reach. After years of playing behind Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, A.J. Klein is seeking a starting job, while Mike Morgan and Nick Bellore are more likely to be signed as primary special teamers.

Cornerback:

  1. A.J. Bouye
  2. Trumaine Johnson
  3. Logan Ryan
  4. Stephon Gilmore
  5. Morris Claiborne
  6. Dre Kirkpatrick
  7. Prince Amukamara
  8. Brandon Carr
  9. Kayvon Webster
  10. Terence Newman
  11. Sterling Moore
  12. Captain Munnerlyn
  13. Sam Shields
  14. Jerraud Powers
  15. Tramon Williams

The Texans are unlikely to use the franchise tag on A.J. Bouye, a decision which sets up the young corner to be the single-most intriguing player on the 2017 free agent market. Only 25 years old, Bouye came out of nowhere to grade as PFF’s No. 3 corner in 2016. But the former undrafted free agent played on less than 900 defensive snaps over the first three years of his career, so he’s going to get paid on essentially one season of production. Bouye earned less than $3MM total during his time with Houston — his next contract could contain five times that amount…annually.A.J. Bouye (Vertical)

The cornerback market stands as one of the best free agent positional groups this offseason, as strong players permeate the list from top-to-bottom. Trumaine Johnson faces an outside shot of being franchise-tagged, but if he hits the open market, he’ll likely be aiming for a contract similar to that of his former Rams teammate Janoris Jenkins (five years, $62.5MM). Elsewhere among corners, Stephon Gilmore is a more high-profile name than Logan Ryan, but Ryan has simply played better over the last few campaigns, and offers a more dependable output.

Morris Claiborne is a former first-round pick but didn’t play like it until last season. Dre Kirkpatrick is a former first-round pick but has never played like it. The rest of the cornerback list has warts, as well: Prince Amukamara has dealt with injury, Kayvon Webster has only two career starts, Terence Newman is entering his age-39 season, and Sam Shields is coming off multiple concussions. All of these players offer upside, but they are all undoubtedly attached to risk.

Safety:

  1. Eric Berry
  2. Tony Jefferson
  3. Duron Harmon
  4. Barry Church
  5. Darius Butler
  6. Jonathan Cyprien
  7. Micah Hyde
  8. D.J. Swearinger
  9. Jahleel Addae
  10. T.J. McDonald
  11. Bradley McDougald
  12. Quintin Demps
  13. J.J. Wilcox
  14. Mike Adams
  15. Rashad Johnson

The Chiefs are working to re-sign Eric Berry, but if the two parties can’t agree to a new deal, Kansas City will likely employ the franchise tag for the second consecutive season. The only problem? Berry is adamant that he won’t play under the tag again, even though it would guarantee him a one-year salary of nearly $13MM. Realistically, Berry won’t have any choice but to sign the tender — given that he’s already 28, he can’t afford to sit out the season and risk hitting the open market at close to 30 years old.Tony Jefferson (Vertical)

Tony Jefferson, meanwhile, is expected to hit free agency, and could be the second-highest paid safety in this class behind Berry. Jefferson did reach the free agent market in 2016 as a restricted free agent, but he didn’t come with draft compensation attached. Any club could have signed him to an offer sheet, and if the Cardinals declined to match, would have acquired Jefferson scot-free. No team did so, which could be an indication that Jefferson’s 2016 market could be less robust than expected.

Also working against Jefferson is the fact that he plays close to the line of scrimmage, a role that’s relatively easy to fill, as Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus explained on a recent podcast. Duron Harmon, on the other hand, has demonstrated an ability to play deep safety, and thus could be in for a surprisingly high salary. The Cowboys’ Barry Church is “solid at everything, great at nothing,” tweets Andy Benoit of Sports Illustrated, while Jonathan Cyprien and T.J. McDonald are primarily run defenders. Darius Butler may be the most fascinating case among this list of safeties, as the former corner should theoretically offer above-average coverage skills.

Kicker:

  1. Steven Hauschka
  2. Nick Novak
  3. Nick Folk
  4. Robbie Gould
  5. Greg Zuerlein
  6. Phil Dawson
  7. Connor Barth
  8. Mike Nugent

The Seahawks don’t figure to re-sign Steven Hauschka after bringing in fellow kicker Blair Walsh, but the longtime Seattle placekicker should be able to quickly find a new home in free agency. Nick Novak attempted the second-most field goals in the NFL last season after many Texans’ drives stalled, while Robbie Gould filled in admirably for the Giants after they released Josh Brown, converting of all ten of his field goal attempts.

Nick Folk was released as a cap casualty, and still has the talent to become another club’s kicker, while Mike Nugent — cut by the Bengals at midseason — may be nearing the end of the road after missing six extra points. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Phil Dawson come back for a fifth season with the 49ers, but Greg Zuerlein could move on from the Rams after the club threatened to bring in competition last offseason.

Punter:

  1. Jeff Locke
  2. Britton Colquitt
  3. Shane Lechler

Jeff Locke, 27, managed to pin opposing clubs inside the 20-yard line 34 times in 2016, good for fifth in the league. Britton Colquitt isn’t quite the punter that his brother, Dustin, is, but he found a new club soon after being cut last season and should do so again in 2017. Now 40 years old, Shane Lechler is a seven-time Pro Bowler, but the Texans lost 12.7 points of field position on punts last season, meaning Houston could go in another direction at punter.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

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3 comments on “Top 2017 Free Agents By Position: Defense

  1. tazzuka

    Little bit of a mistake, Odrick was cut but Jaguars not the Dolphins

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