Julius Peppers

This Date In Transactions History: Julius Peppers

After a mysteriously quiet 2007, Julius Peppers mounted a strong comeback campaign in ’08. Then, on the heels of notching a career-high 14.5 sacks and helping the Panthers return to the playoffs, Peppers wanted out. Specifically, Peppers expressed a desire to join a team with a 3-4 scheme so that he could move from defensive end to linebacker. 

Peppers insisted that he would never sign a long-term deal with Carolina and tried hard to discourage the team from using the franchise tender on him in the 2009 offseason.

The front office has been informed of my desire to explore opportunities with other NFL teams following the expiration of my contract next month,” Peppers said in a statement (via ESPN.com). “At this point in my NFL career, I am seeking new challenges that will allow me to grow, develop and reach my personal potential on the football field.”

The Panthers held firm, however, and applied the one-year, $16.7MM placeholder on their top defender. In theory, another team could have signed Peppers as a restricted free agent, but that would have required the forfeiture of two first-round picks on top of a mammoth contract. While he was stuck between a rock and a hard place, Peppers abstained from offseason activities. The multiple-time Pro Bowler’s absence cast a serious shadow over the Panthers’ offseason and made the football world wonder whether the Panthers would cave and trade him.

Ultimately, Peppers’ agent was unable to find a suitable deal for him. And, on June 26, 2009, Peppers inked his one-year deal with the Panthers.

Peppers earned another Pro Bowl nod in 2009, and that proved to be the final season of his first Panthers run. After the season, the Panthers declined to use the franchise tag on him, allowing him to reach unrestricted free agency and to a six-year, $91.5MM deal with the Bears. When that deal was terminated in 2014, he stayed in the NFC North and signed with the Packers.

It took a while, but Peppers ultimately came full circle. In 2017, the veteran joined the Panthers on a one-year, $3.5MM deal. A few months later, the Panthers canned GM Dave Gettleman and brought back Marty Hurney as their top football executive, but there were no hard feelings between Peppers and Hurney. This past March, Peppers and Hurney shook hands on a new one-year, $5MM deal to keep the 38-year-old in Carolina.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Panthers To Re-Sign DE Julius Peppers

The Panthers have re-signed veteran defensive end Julius Peppers to a one-year, $5MM deal, according to Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer (Twitter links).

The 2018 free agent edge defender class is extremely weak, so much so that PFR named Peppers as the best pass rusher on the market. That’s not to say Peppers isn’t still a talented player, but a 38-year-old isn’t often viewed as the best available free agent at his position.

Peppers, of course, spent the first eight years of his career with the Panthers before reuniting on a one-year pact for 2017. The veteran defensive end collected $3.5MM with Carolina a season ago, and he will now see a pay increase after a successful campaign.

And successful it was, as Peppers managed 11 sacks, his highest total 2012. Sacks can be fluky, of course, but Pro Football Focus graded Peppers as a league-average defensive end, ranking him 63rd among 110 qualifying edge defenders.

Peppers played 50% of Carolina’s defensive snaps in 2017, and he’ll likely continue in a rotational role during the upcoming season. He’ll play alongside other Panthers defensive linemen including Mario Addison, Wes Horton, and Daeshon Hall.

[RELATED: Panthers Depth Chart]

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

PFR’s Top 50 NFL Free Agents For 2018 1.0

There will be tons of free agents available in March, but only a some of them can be real difference makers for your favorite team. To help separate the wheat from the chaff, we’ve assembled our early list of the Top 50 NFL Free Agents for 2018.

Our early version of the NFL’s top 50 free agents may include players who will be re-signed between now and March 14. When we update this list next week, a few of the big names will be spoken for while new high-profile names will join the fray as veterans become cap casualties.

Recently, we broke down the top free agents by position on both offense and defense, but our rankings below may not have each player listed in the same order. Those position lists took the short-term value of a player into account more heavily, meaning many players in their 30s received prominent placement. Our overall top 50 list favors longer-term value, and is more about forecasting which players will be in highest demand when it comes to years and dollars.

With those caveats out of the way, let’s dive in! Here are Pro Football Rumors’ top 50 NFL free agents for 2018:

1. Kirk Cousins, QB (Redskins): At long last, Kirk Cousins is headed towards unrestricted free agency. You may or may not regard Cousins as a star, but he is the best quarterback in recent history to reach the open market and QB-needy teams will be rolling out the red carpet for him. The Jets, Vikings, Broncos, and Cardinals have been named as the top suitors for his services, but the NFL is full of surprises this time of year and we would not be surprised to see other teams get involved. The cash-flush Browns are reportedly keen on signing a lower-cost vet and drafting a QB early, but who’s to say they won’t change course and get in on the Cousins sweepstakes? The Bills, Giants, Dolphins, Bucs, and Colts could also consider kicking the tires here, but there are obstacles in that bunch ranging from established starters already in place (Eli Manning, Ryan Tannehill, Jameis Winston, and Andrew Luck) to financial constraints. No matter where he goes, it’s almost certain that Cousins will become the league’s highest-paid player of all-time. That is, until another top-tier QB signs a contract extension soon after.

2. Drew Brees (Saints): There are multiple possibilities for Cousins but it’s hard to see a scenario in which Brees actually leaves the Saints. Brees has already said that he does not plan on testing free agency, so he’ll likely put pen to paper before things begin on March 14. As far as we can tell, the only way Brees will think about leaving is if he is lowballed to an extreme degree by the Saints, but that seems improbable based on his history with the team

3. Case Keenum (Vikings): One year ago, no one ever would have expected Keenum to be one of 2018’s most sought-after free agents. The Vikings signed the former Rams signal caller to a one-year, $2MM deal in March with the idea that he would back up Sam Bradford and, eventually slide down to third on the depth chart when/if Teddy Bridgewater returned to full health. When Bradford went down in September, Keenum exceeded all expectations and put together the best season of his career. The 30-year-old graded out as Pro Football Focus’ ninth-ranked QB in 2017, putting him above the likes of Jimmy Garoppolo, Aaron Rodgers, Marcus Mariota, Matthew Stafford, and Tyrod Taylor. With Keenum at the helm, the Vikings earned a first-round bye and beat the Saints in a playoff thriller before succumbing to the Eagles in the NFC championship game. Of course, after four seasons of mediocrity, teams are wondering whether this was an aberration or a real sign of things to come. Teams know that Keenum is not a lock, but he’s also the best Plan B for any team that loses out on Cousins or doesn’t have the means to sign him.

4. Andrew Norwell, G (Panthers): There was a time when tackles were the only offensive linemen to really cash in on the open market. That’s no longer the case, as evidenced by the contracts of Kevin Zeitler (five years, $60MM) and Kelechi Osemele (five years, $58.5MM). Osemele inked his free agent deal with the Raiders in 2016 and Zeitler signed his in the 2017 offseason. Given the cap increase and the natural progression of the market, Norwell figures to reset the market for interior linemen. Keenum figures to gross no less than $20MM/year on his next contract, so he’s slotted behind him, but an average annual value of $13-14MM is not out of the question for the former undrafted free agent.

5. Nate Solder, OT (Patriots): Solder isn’t coming off of his best season and he might be the least sexy name in the top ten. Still, there’s a dearth of tackles league-wide and Solder has been among the league’s best at his position for quite some time. The Patriots are bracing for Solder to leave as they fear he’ll garner offers of $12MM/year. No other tackle in this year’s free agent crop is even close to him in terms of ability, so we’re also buying into the hype. Injuries contributed to Solder’s up-and-down season, particularly early on, so teams will take that into account when evaluating him.

6. Allen Robinson, WR (Jaguars): The Jaguars opted against using the franchise tag on Robinson, which is understandable since they have limited cap space. Robinson missed almost all of 2017 with an ACL tear, but his 2015 season (and even his so-so 2016 campaign) gives teams reason to believe that he can be a quality WR1. Robinson is one of only two such players on the unrestricted market, so expect him to get paid. Robinson probably couldn’t do worse than Kenny Britt‘s four-year, $32MM deal with the Browns from last season (and he should do a whole lot better), but if he is underwhelmed by the multi-year offers he receives, he could always go the Alshon Jeffery route. Jeffery inked a one-year, $9.5MM prove-it deal with the Eagles and that turned out to be a smashing success for both parties. Jeffery was rewarded with a four-year, $52MM extension in December, so Robinson’s camp will surely be open to a pillow contract if necessary. 

7. Sammy Watkins, WR (Rams): Some may view Robinson and Watkins as 1A and 1B in this year’s wide receiver class, particularly since Robinson missed all of 2017 and Watkins, despite his own injury history, played in all but one of the Rams’ games. Unfortunately, Watkins did not have the platform year he was hoping for as he caught just 39 passes for 593 yards. If we strike Robinson’s lost year and Watkins’ down year from the record, the breakdown favors the Jags receiver – Robinson averaged 77 receptions for 1,078 yards and eight touchdowns per 16 games in that set versus Watkins’ 66 grabs for 1,063 yards and seven scores. These two should come pretty close in average annual value, but we give the edge to Robinson.

8. Trumaine Johnson, CB (Rams): Players often bemoan the franchise tag, but Johnson can’t really complain after receiving two consecutive tags from the Rams and earning more than $30MM between 2016 and 2017. The Rams, rightfully, did not consider a third consecutive tag for Johnson at a cost of ~$20MM and they already have his replacement in Marcus Peters. That’s one suitor down, but plenty of other teams will be eager to speak with Johnson, who profiles as the best cornerback in a deep class.

9. Sheldon Richardson, DT (Seahawks): Richardson gave the Jets lots of headaches, but he also gave them high-end production. He didn’t quite match that production in Seattle, but Richardson is positioned for a massive payday anyway since impactful defensive linemen are at a premium. Our own Dallas Robinson estimates that Richardson will garner about $9MM/year, but I would say that is his floor. The top-end of free agency rarely yields team-friendly deals, so Richardson could easily creep into eight figures in AAV, particularly since he does not turn 28 until November.

10. Dontari Poe, DT (Falcons): Poe thought he was in for a monster contract last offseason, but concerns about his lingering back issues forced him to take a one-year, $8MM deal with Atlanta. Teams may still worry about his back being a ticking time bomb, but perhaps they’ll view him in a different light now that he has played back-to-back 16 game seasons and has only missed two regular season contests over the course of his career.

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Top 2018 Free Agents By Position: Defense

NFL free agency will get underway on Wednesday, March 14th, 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 on Monday, 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 2018:

Edge defender:

  1. Julius Peppers
  2. William Hayes
  3. Trent Murphy
  4. Pernell McPhee
  5. Aaron Lynch
  6. Alex Okafor
  7. Adrian Clayborn
  8. Kony Ealy
  9. Connor Barwin
  10. Jeremiah Attaochu
  11. Junior Galette
  12. Derrick Shelby
  13. Barkevious Mingo
  14. Kareem Martin
  15. Erik Walden

As a positional group, pass rushers comprise interesting market on the defensive side of the ball. It’s not often that a list of best available players is topped by a 38-year-old, but Peppers is the top free agent edge defender after the Cowboys and Lions deployed the franchise tag on Demarcus Lawrence and Ezekiel Ansah, respectively. As with quarterbacks, NFL clubs are extremely reluctant to allow pass rushers to hit the open market, so top-tier options are rarely ever truly “available.” Peppers, for his part, hasn’t even declared whether he’ll return in 2018, but indications are that he’ll suit up for a 17th campaign after posting 11 sacks last year.

Alongside Peppers, other veterans populate the edge market, and while William Hayes may not be a household name, he’ll be a contributor for whichever team signs him. A stout run defender, Hayes is also capable of generating pressure despite managing only one sack in 2017. The Dolphins used Hayes on only 271 defensive snaps a season ago, and have since replaced him by acquiring fellow defensive end Robert Quinn from the Rams. Now that he’s entering his age-33 season, Hayes should come cheap, but will almost assuredly outplay his contract.

Nearly every other available pass rusher has some sort of flaw which will likely limit his market next week. Trent Murphy is only 27 years old and put up nine sacks in 2016, but he missed the entirety of the 2017 campaign with injury. Pernell McPhee, Alex Okafor, Junior Galette, and Derrick Shelby have also been plagued by health questions in recent seasons. And Adrian Clayborn famously registered the majority of his 2017 sacks (and 20% of his career sack total) in one game against overwhelmed Cowboys backup Chaz Green.

The two names that I keep coming back to are Aaron Lynch (49ers) and Jeremiah Attaochu (Chargers). Yes, Lynch has been suspended for substance abuse, struggled with his weight, and was reportedly in danger of being waived prior to last season. He’s also extremely young (he won’t turn 25 years old until Thursday) and ranked fifth in the league with 34 pass pressures as recently as 2015. Attaochu, a 25-year-old former second-round pick, also has youth on his side, and while he hasn’t quite flashed as much as Lynch, he’s also been buried on LA’s depth chart for much of his career.

Interior defensive line:

  1. Sheldon Richardson
  2. Dontari Poe
  3. Muhammad Wilkerson
  4. Star Lotulelei
  5. DaQuan Jones
  6. Beau Allen
  7. Denico Autry
  8. Justin Ellis
  9. Tom Johnson
  10. Bennie Logan
  11. Chris Baker
  12. Kyle Williams
  13. Dominique Easley
  14. Haloti Ngata
  15. Jay Bromley

Interior rushers are getting more respect in today’s NFL, but that still hasn’t translated to them being paid on the level of edge defenders — the 2018 franchise tag for defensive tackles, for example, is roughly $3MM cheaper than the tender for edge rushers. While the 2018 crop of interior defenders boasts some impressive top-end talent, none of the available players figure to earn a double-digit annual salary. Sheldon Richardson may have the best chance to do so, but Seattle determined he wasn’t worth a one-year cost of $13.939MM, so is any other club going to pay him $10MM per year? I’d guess he comes in closer to $9MM annually, which would still place him among the 25 highest-paid defensive tackles.

Dontari Poe will be an intriguing free agent case after setting for a one-year deal last offseason, but the most interesting battle among defensive tackles will take place Star Lotulelei and Muhammad Wilkerson, and I’m curious to see which player earns more on the open market. Both are former first-round picks, and it’s difficult to argue Wilkerson hasn’t been the more productive player — or, at least, reached higher highs — than Lotulelei. Wilkerson also won’t affect his next team’s compensatory pick formula given that he was released, but his off-field issues, which include a reported lack of effort and problems with coaches, could limit his appeal.

While Beau Allen and Denico Autry are potentially candidates to be overpaid based on their youth, there are bargains to be had at defensive tackle. Tom Johnson is 33 but he’s offered consistent pressure from the interior for years — his last contract was for three years and $7MM, so he shouldn’t cost much this time around. Haloti Ngata was injured in 2017 but plans to continue his career, and he can still stop the run. And Dominique Easley was outstanding as a 3-4 end in 2016 before missing last season with a torn ACL, meaning the former first-round pick could be a value play for any number of teams.Read more

NFC Notes: Peters, Panthers, Saints

The Rams were one of only two teams to express legitimate interest in acquiring CB Marcus Peters, and while Los Angeles head coach Sean McVay cannot yet talk about Peters or the trade specifically, Terez A. Paylor of the Kansas City Star says it is no surprise that the Rams would be the team to land the former first-rounder. Although Peters is now eligible for a long-term extension and is likely to be on his best behavior anyway as a result, Paylor notes that McVay has quickly established a strong presence in LA, and he and DC Wade Phillips have full command and respect of the locker room. Paylor suggests that the Rams’ trade for Peters demonstrates their faith in their culture, and that culture, combined with the fact that they play on the West Coast — where Peters has long indicated he wants to be — made it a perfect fit.

Now let’s take a look at a few more NFC notes:

  • The Rams are hiring Holy Cross offensive coordinator Liam Coen as their assistant WRs coach, per Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports (via Twitter).
  • Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer takes a look at the Panthers‘ plans for the offseason, and he says Carolina will likely release DE Charles Johnson, though it is difficult to say whether Julius Peppers will be back or will call it a career. Person also does not expect Andrew Norwell to be back, so the Panthers will need to draft or sign a defensive end and a guard this offseason, and the hope is that whatever guard they acquire will also be capable of playing center.
  • The Saints have a few interesting calls to make with respect to their restricted free agents, as Larry Holder of the Times-Picayune observes. Willie Snead, Delvin Breaux, and Brandon Coleman are all RFAs, and although Holder does not make any specific predictions, it sounds as if Snead may be playing elsewhere in 2018, but Breaux and Coleman could be back.
  • Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press says Lions GM Bob Quinn has shown a few noticeable draft tendencies in his first several years on the job, including his apparent preferences to draft for need, to draft high-floor prospects (even if those prospects don’t have the potential to be stars), and to draft high-character players with track records at major collegiate programs. In light of that, Birkett predicts that Detroit will select Boston College DE Harold Landry in the first round of the 2018 draft.
  • We learned earlier today that it does not look like Anthony Hitchens will be back with the Cowboys.

Julius Peppers Leaning Toward Returning

Julius Peppers is leaning toward returning for a 17th NFL season rather than retiring, a source close to the Panthers defensive end told Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer.

Fowler notes that the future Hall of Fame candidate has already undergone shoulder surgery this offseason and was believed to have played through the injury this past season. That wasn’t enough to stop the now-38-year-old from leading the Panthers with 11 sacks while fulfilling a part-time role.

A 2002 Panthers first-round pick, Peppers returned to his native North Carolina last year after spending three seasons with the Packers and the previous four with the Bears. Peppers has still been a reliable contributor despite approaching age 40. He’s appeared in all 16 games in each of the past 10 seasons while collecting at least seven sacks each year. Peppers also holds the Panthers’ all-time record for career sacks (92).

Peppers is set hit unrestricted free agency this offseason after signing a one-year, $3.5MM deal with the Panthers last offseason. The Panthers, who returned to the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons, also have another key free agent on its defensive line in Star Lotulelei. Mario Addison and Charles Johnson represent the other key Panthers defensive ends under contract, though the latter might profile as a cut candidate.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Julius Peppers Undergoes Shoulder Surgery

Panthers veteran defensive end Julius Peppers underwent surgery on his right shoulder, the player posted to his Instagram account and the team later confirmed. The procedure was a repair of his labrum, Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer hears from a source (Twitter link). Julius Peppers (vertical)

In his Instagram story, Peppers says, “Thanks everyone for the calls, texts and wishes. Everything went smooth and I’m recovering well.” He was seen at times wearing a brace on the same shoulder during the 2017 season. It is not clear at this time if the surgery has any implications on his status for the 2018 season. Set to be a free agent, Peppers has said he intends to take time before deciding on his future plans.

The injury did not slow him down in 2017. At the age of 37, he played in all 16 games and registered a team-high 11 sacks while helping Carolina earn a return to the postseason. His standout season helped him move to fourth place on the all-time sack list with 154.5. Only Bruce Smith (200), Reggie White (198) and Kevin Greene (160) have tallied more.

Though he turned 38 in January, Peppers obviously can still contribute at the NFL level and is sure to draw interest from potential playoff teams in 2018.

 

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

NFC Notes: Panthers, Peppers, Giants, Apple

The Panthers would like to have 37-year-old Julius Peppers back in the fold next year, as David Newton of ESPN.com writes.

I’d love for him to come back, absolutely,’’ head coach Ron Rivera said. “And I know we’ve managed him [in terms of practice time] and we’ll do whatever we need to. But it’s all up to him. He’s had a very good year. Who knows? Hopefully, we can keep it rolling.”

Peppers is playing out a one-year deal with a base value of $3.5MM that could reach up to $4.25MM with bonuses. Of course, his focus is currently on helping the Panthers advance in the playoffs.

Here’s more from the NFC:

  • New Giants GM Dave Gettleman had a sit-down meeting with Eli Apple this week, according to Paul Schwartz of the New York Post (on Twitter). Schwartz takes this as a sign that Apple could still be in the team’s plans for 2018 and Mike Garafolo of NFL.com (on Twitter) agrees. However, that comes with the caveat that Apple shows increased maturity. If all goes right, both Apple and offensive lineman Ereck Flowers could be a part of the team moving forward.
  • The Cardinals are in town to interview Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz for their head coach opening today, a source tells Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer (on Twitter). First, Schwartz gets his shot in the afternoon, followed by DeFilippo in the evening.
  • The Packers want to talk to a key executive from the Ravens about their GM vacancy.

The 10 Best One-Year NFL Contracts Of 2017

Signing a one-year contract is almost never ideal from a player’s perspective — while a single-season pact can often mean a larger salary, it doesn’t come with the security or guarantees that a multi-year deal offers. From a team’s vantage point, however, there’s essentially no such thing as a poor one-year contract. The player doesn’t work out? No problem: he’s off the books in one season and doesn’t hinder the club’s long-term financials.

Not every player listed below was inked with the presumption that they’d become an integral piece of their respective team’s roster, but they’ve all made good on their one-year pacts. Here are the ten best one-year NFL contracts signed in 2017:

Case Keenum, QB (Vikings)

In Week 9 of the 2016 season, Keenum was appearing in his final game as the Rams’ starting quarterback, and had led the club to a 3-5 record while ranking 29th in both quarterback rating and adjusted net yards per pass attempt. Fast forward to the 2017 campaign, and Keenum is 16th in quarterback rating, 11th in ANY/A, and fronting a Vikings team that leads the NFC North at 6-2 — not bad for a one-year, $2MM deal. It’s unclear how long Keenum will remain Minnesota’s starter under center (Teddy Bridgewater is due back next week), but Keenum, who will be 30 years old when free agency opens next spring, has put himself in line to compete for a starting job in 2018, either with the Vikings or with another club.

Josh McCown, QB (Jets)

Although the Jets were thought to be tanking this season, they’ve posted a 4-5 record (a mark that includes close losses to the Dolphins and Falcons), and McCown has been a key driver of that success. Now 38 years old, McCown is posting his best statistics since 2013, and has completed 70.4% of his passes for 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He’s been especially productive in the deep passing game, ranking second in touchdowns and third in passer rating on throws of 20 yards or more, per Mike Castiglione of Pro Football Focus. Given his performance and his locker room presence, McCown shouldn’t have any trouble landing another job next offseason.

LeGarrette Blount, RB (Eagles)LeGarrette Blount (Vertical)

While trade acquisition Jay Ajayi figures to take over as the Eagles’ starting running back going forward, Philadelphia has already gotten value out of Blount and his one-year, $1.25MM pact. Blount has handled at least 12 carries in seven of nine games this season while posting a robust 4.6 yards per rush. While he’s scored only two touchdowns thus far, Blount ranks first among all running backs with more than 25 touches with a broken tackle per touch ratio of 39.4%, according to Football Outsiders. The Eagles are the best team in the league right now, meaning they’ll be favored in a majority of their remaining games. Even with Ajayi in tow, positive game scripts should ensure Blount still has a role in Philadelphia’s backfield.

Alshon Jeffery, WR (Eagles)

Following two consecutive down seasons in Chicago, Jeffery took a pillow contract with the Eagles — he’ll collect $9.5MM (and can earn $4.5MM via incentives) before searching for a long-term deal next spring. Jeffery is fresh off his best game of the season, as he posted six receptions for 84 yards and two touchdowns against the Broncos’ vaunted pass defense. While he’s still not creating separation — dead last in the league in yards of separation among qualified wideouts — Jeffery and his contested catch ability are nevertheless a large part of the Eagles’ offense. He’s accounted for 35.03% of his club’s air yards (10th in the NFL), per Next Gen Stats, giving quarterback and MVP candidate Carson Wentz a much-needed weapon on the outside.

Alex Okafor, DE (Saints)

After trying the likes of Bobby Richardson and Paul Kruger of the past two seasons, the Saints have finally found a counterpart to Cameron Jordan at defensive end in the form of Okafor, whom New Orleans lured away from Arizona with a $2MM contract. He’s since played more than three-quarters of the Saints’ defensive snaps, racking up 3.5 sacks in the process. Also excellent against the run, Okafor ranks second among 4-3 defensive ends with a 9.5% run stop percentage, per PFF. All told, Okafor has helped the Saints defense rebound to a No. 16 ranking in DVOA and No. 15 ranking in adjusted sack rate (and those numbers are prior to New Orleans’ five-sack performance against the Buccaneers on Sunday).

Julius Peppers, DE (Panthers)

Peppers is back in Carolina following a seven-year hiatus, and the former No. 1 overall pick is playing like it’s still 2008. He’s 37 years old now, so the Panthers are wisely limiting his snaps — he’s seen action on roughly half the club’s defensive plays through nine weeks. Peppers has racked up 7.5 sacks this season, a figure which ranks eighth among defenders this season and places him fourth all-time with 150.5 career sacks. If Carolina earns a postseason berth — FiveThirtyEight gives them a 52% chance to do so — it will be on the strength of the team’s defense, which currently ranks sixth in DVOA.

Zach Brown, LB (Redskins)

Coming off the best season of his career with the Bills in 2016, Brown was surprisingly forced to settle for a one-year, $2MM deal with the Redskins after initially searching for a $6MM/year contract. And that’s not due to lack of interest, as Oakland, Miami, Indianapolis, and Buffalo all expressed interest in the veteran linebacker before he landed with Washington. Several of those clubs (we’re looking at you, Raiders) would certainly love to have a defender of Brown’s caliber and price available right now. A playmaking machine who embodies a 21st-century linebacker, Brown should be able to land a multi-year pact next offseason, when he’ll still be only 28 years old.

Morris Claiborne, CB (Jets)Morris Claiborne (Vertical)

The Jets’ offseason was primarily dedicated to getting rid of veteran players, but general manager Mike Maccagnan‘s small-scale signings have worked out well, as Claiborne joins McCown as the second Gang Green addition on this list. Claiborne, 27, has always been an effective player when healthy, but injuries have often marred his performance. He’s never played an entire 16-game slate, and he’s managed more than 11 games just once during his five-plus year career. Like Brown, Claiborne can use 2017 as his platform season in order to secure a multi-year deal in 2018 — as long as stays healthy for the rest of this year, that is.

Nickell Robey-Coleman, CB (Rams)

A perfectly-named slot corner, Robey-Coleman was shockingly cut loose by the Bills earlier this year despite ranking as PFF’s No. 33 cornerback in 2016 and being on par to earn just $2.083MM in 2017. The Rams scooped him up on a one-year deal worth the minimum salary, and he’s been outstanding under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, helping Los Angeles to a No. 3 ranking in pass defense DVOA. Thus far, the 25-year-old Robey-Coleman ranks third among 64 qualified cornerbacks in success rate, per Football Outsiders.

Patrick Robinson, CB (Eagles)

While the Eagles certainly have leaned on their excellent young corps on the way to a 8-1 record, general manager Howie Roseman should be lauded for his one-year, cost-effective signings of Robinson, Jeffery, and Blount. Cast off by the Colts one year into a three-year deal, Robinson signed with Philadelphia for the minimum salary and has since become the Eagles’ best cornerback. Pro Football Focus ranks the former first-round pick as the No. 4 corner in the league, and Robinson is allowing only 56.3% of targets in his area to be caught. While Robinson may not be able to parlay his production into a hefty deal in 2018 given that he’ll be 31 years old when next season gets underway, he’s been a superb addition for the Eagles.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

South Notes: Brees, Panthers, Titans, Texans

Don’t expect Drew Brees to sign another extension before the season. The 38-year-old Saints quarterback is again entering a contract year but wants to wait until after the season to discuss another deal to stay in New Orleans. Brees said waiting until the end of the year is best for himself and the team, Josh Katzenstein of NOLA.com reports. Brees’ one-year extension from 2016 will pay him $24.25MM this season.

The 17th-year quarterback is also not exactly endorsing the Saints taking a signal-caller early. While that may be in the best interest of the franchise post-Brees, the current starter doesn’t want a high draft pick that will sit behind him and not help the team in 2017.

The flip side is, if I’m going to start and that quarterback sits, well that’s not helping our team right now,” Brees said, via Katzenstein. “So, I want somebody who’s going to help our team right now. When I leave here, I want this organization to be successful — whenever that is — so I want them to be prepared for that. They need to be thinking about that, but then again, I don’t want to make it seem like this is my farewell tour. That’s not the way I view it.”

Here’s more from the league’s South divisions.

  • The Panthers‘ free agency plan focused on established veterans, and Dave Gettleman and Ron Rivera pointed to the success the more veteran-laden 2015 Super Bowl team had compared to its successor. “You go back to the Super Bowl year and you look at what we had with Roman (Harper), Charles (Tillman) and Jared Allen. Those three veteran guys right there. And then you look at what we did with (Mike) Adams, (Captain) Munnerlyn and Julius (Peppers),” Rivera said, via Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer, pointing to the additions of a 36-year-old safety, a soon-to-be 29-year-old nickel corner and a 37-year-old defensive end. “Are we trying to copy what we did? You’re darned right. We really are.” Both Adams and Peppers are actually older than the players the Panthers are bringing them in to emulate.
  • Rivera hopes Peppers’ decision to sign a one-year pact doesn’t amount to a farewell tour. The seventh-year Panthers coach said the 16th-year edge defender has a lot left in the tank and wants him to consider playing beyond this season. Peppers’ three mid-30s seasons produced a combined 25 sacks, adding to Rivera’s point.
  • Carolina also will consider using Munnerlyn outside in addition to his usual slot role, Person notes. Munnerlyn has far more experience than James Bradberry or Daryl Worley but has spent the majority of his career in the slot. The now-two-time Panther could be competing for an base defense starter’s role while sliding to his customary nickel on passing downs.
  • The Titans worked out Miami tight end David Njoku on Saturday, Ian Rapoport of NFL.com tweets. They hold picks 5 and 18 in the first round. Njoku’s soaring value has induced mock drafts to route him to teams picking in the range of Tennessee’s No. 18 selection. The Titans still have Delanie Walker under contract, but he will be 33 in August.
  • Having been connected to Tony Romo throughout the offseason, the Texans are also a candidate to take a quarterback early. Bob McNair said as much earlier this offseason. But Bill O’Brien may not necessarily be ready to start a rookie. “I think it’s tough to play quarterback as a rookie in our league,” O’Brien said this week. “I think that there’s no substitute for experience. So, I think it’s hard to ask a guy to come in straight from college and Day 1 he’s a starter on your team. But I know that there are some really good quarterbacks in this draft that we’re looking at and we’ve met with a lot of them. We’re excited about continuing to get to know them. But, I just think for me as a general rule, that’s tough to start them as a Day 1 guy.”