The 2019 free agent edge rushing class should thank Khalil Mack — by not caving in Oakland and eventually garnering a $23.5MM/year contract from the Bears, Mack reset the market for pass rushers. As Joel Corry of CBSSports.com recently noted, $20MM per season for star edge defenders is now the “new norm.” 2019 free agency will bring an excellent crop of available defensive ends/outside linebackers, and while the list of players on the open market will certainly change by next spring thanks to extensions and franchise tags, there should be plenty of talent to go around. If your team needs someone to get after the quarterback, 2019 is the time to attack.
Let’s take a look at the market as a whole, which I’ve sorted into a few different tiers:
Open your checkbook
- Frank Clark (Seahawks)
- Jadeveon Clowney (Texans)
- Trey Flowers (Patriots)
- Dee Ford (Chiefs)
- DeMarcus Lawrence (Cowboys)
Each of these players will be a legitimate candidate for the franchise tag in 2019, although the salary amounts would vary. Clark and Flowers would be tendered as defensive ends, which should net them one-year salaries of roughly $17.5MM. Clowney and Ford, however, would likely be tagged as linebackers thanks to the NFL’s archaic franchise system, which differentiates between defensive ends and outside ‘backers. The linebacker franchise tender is expected to be worth approximately $16.325MM, per Corry. Lawrence, meanwhile, would be on his second consecutive franchise tag, meaning his salary would increase by 20% to $20.572MM. The Cowboys star has indicated he won’t play under another tag, but unless he takes the Le’Veon Bell route, he won’t have much of a choice.
Ford, particularly, is incredibly intriguing: while he’s the oldest member of the group at age-27, he’s come out of nowhere to post the most productive campaign of his career. Per Evan McPhillips of Pro Football Focus, Ford currently ranks first in both total pressures and quarterback hits. Will a pass-rush needy club overlook Ford’s spotty track record in the hope that he’s a long-term answer on the edge?
- Lorenzo Alexander (Bills)
- Brandon Graham (Eagles)
- Derrick Morgan (Titans)
- Brian Orakpo (Titans)
- Cameron Wake (Dolphins)
Graham and Wake should almost get their own category, as they’re (historically) far better than the other three players listed here. Graham has steadily improved throughout his career and currently grades as Pro Football Focus‘ No. 3 edge rusher, but he’ll be 31 years old when next season gets underway. Last time he was a free agent (entering his age-26 campaign), Graham only received a four-year deal with an annual value of $6.5MM. He’ll get more this time around thanks to his production and the rising salary cap, but he may not be able to break the bank. PFR’s Zach Links examined Graham’s case for a contract extension earlier this year.
Wake, too, presents an age concern, as he’s already 36 years old. That hasn’t stopped him from topping double-digit sacks in three of the past four seasons, however, and he tied for sixth in sacks during that time. Wake has been pretty healthy during his career save for an Achilles injury in 2015, but he’s currently sidelined after surgery for a meniscus trim. He’s close to returning to game action, per Ian Rapoport of NFL.com, and which point Wake will only further his free agent case.
Injured at the wrong time
- Ezekiel Ansah (Lions)
Injury question marks have dogged Ansah in the past, but he’s already a lock to miss the most games of his career this season, as he hasn’t played since the Lions’ opener while dealing with a shoulder issue. Streaky is the perfect word to define Ansah, especially given that he’s capable of double-digit sack totals in any given year (14.5 in 2015, 12 in 2017) but also posts down seasons (just two sacks in 2016). Age is also working against Ziggy: he entered the league as an older prospect (24) in 2013, and he’ll now be hitting free agency in advance of his age-30 season. A one-year pact, for far less than the $17.143MM franchise tender amount he’s making this season, appears likely.
Something left in the tank?
Will all three of these players be in the NFL in 2019? Matthews certainly will be, but it may not be with the Packers, as at least one recent report indicated the Packers would not seek to re-sign Matthews if the season ended today. Suggs, meanwhile, also appears primed to return next season. In May, Suggs said he plans to spend additional seasons in a Ravens uniform, and he made the Pro Bowl as recently as 2017. Peppers is the true question mark, as he’s already 38 years old and underwent shoulder surgery over the offseason. If Peppers does come back in 2019, it’s hard to imagine him playing anywhere other than Carolina.
Take a chance on me
- Shaquil Barrett (Broncos)
- Dante Fowler Jr. (Jaguars)
- Matt Longacre (Rams)
- Aaron Lynch (Bears)
- Shane Ray (Broncos)
- Preston Smith (Redskins)
- Za’Darius Smith (Ravens)
There are a number of intriguing options in this tier, but I want to focus on the two Smiths. Za’Darius Smith had a coming out party on Sunday against the Titans, posting five tackles, three sacks, and a forced fumble in Baltimore’s domination of Tennessee, and was subsequently named the AFC’s defensive player of the week. He’s also tied for eighth in the NFL with 10 quarterback hits, and he’s only played 258 defensive snaps. As Suggs inches close to retirement, Smith has a chance to become the next great Ravens pass rusher. But as Jeff Zrebiec of The Athletic notes, Baltimore has allowed other defenders — Paul Kruger, Pernell McPhee — to leave via free agency in the past, so there’s no guarantee Smith will be back in Baltimore.
Preston Smith is interesting simply because of his reliability. He’s started 37 consecutive games since becoming a full-time player in 2016, he’s played more snaps than anyone in this section aside from Za’Darius Smith. Given that other high-upside players such as Fowler and Lynch have dealt with off-field issues, while Fowler and Ray have been hampered by injuries, Smith’s day-in, day-out approach could entice a team to overpay.
- Margus Hunt (Colts)
We won’t blame you if you’re not even sure who Hunt is. The 53rd overall selection in the 2013 draft, Hunt managed only 1.5 sacks over four disappointing seasons with the Bengals before joining the Colts in 2017. Last year was much of the same for the Estonia native, but this year, at the age of 31, Hunt has seemingly figured something out. He’s already posted four sacks on the season, and he’s also tied with the Vikings’ Danielle Hunter for most tackles for loss (9). As Justis Mosqueda of Optimum Scouting details below, Hunt is an all-new player:
As everyone expected, 31-year-old Margus Hunt has developed into a world-wrecker this year pic.twitter.com/3OCpFJgzkt
— 💀 Dahaunte Adams 💀 (@JuMosq) October 16, 2018
If he continues this production for the rest of the season, what kind of contract is Hunt looking at? I’m dubious that most clubs would be willing to give a player with little-to-no track record, who’s entering his age-32 campaign, a multi-year deal. With more than half of the 2018 season left to go, Hunt could potentially fall back to his prior level of performance, but if he doesn’t, it’s possible he could command double-digits next spring.