We wrote a bit in January about NC State’s Ikem Ekwonu potentially being the best offensive lineman in the draft. Well, he certainly thinks so, as he told reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine Thursday that he’d “definitely deserve” to be drafted No. 1 overall, according to Darryl Slater of NJ.com.
There’s already been a bit of talk connecting Ekwonu to the Jaguars. General manager Trent Baalke has a tendency to prefer explosive linemen and Ekwonu demonstrated his explosiveness in field drills including an impressive sub-5.00 second 40-yard dash. Baalke and new head coach Doug Pederson will be looking to put together a group at offensive line that can protect former No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence and create holes for running backs James Robinson and Travis Etienne.
Jawaan Taylor is expected to compete with Walker Little for the right tackle job. Captain Brandon Linder should return to form at center after MCL and ankle injuries forced him to miss a large part of the 2021 NFL season. Andrew Norwell is expected to hit the free agent market and Cam Robinson could join him if the team decides not to utilize their franchise tag on Robinson for the second straight year. Veteran sixth-man Tyler Shatley was recently re-signed and Ben Bartch could help out at guard. So the versatility of Ekwonu could line him up as the perfect choice for Jacksonville’s current situation, where lots of question marks surround the depth chart. Even so, the Jaguars could also fall in love with Evan Neal, who is largely seen as the top pure tackle in the draft.
Still, the redshirt sophomore out of Raleigh is a young, talented prospect with the ability to dominate at tackle or guard. Even if he slips past Jacksonville at No. 1 overall, don’t expect him to be available after both New York teams get a chance to draft. Ekwonu will aim to be only the third Wolfpack offensive lineman in history to be picked in the first round, the highest-drafted Wolfpack prospect since Bradley Chubb in 2018, and, above that, the first top overall pick out of NC State since Mario Williams in 2006.
Two years ago today, the Dolphins let go of a pair of former Pro Bowlers. The Dolphins terminated the contracts of defensive end Mario Williams and running back Arian Foster, two players who were expected to play bigger roles during their tenures in Miami.
Williams, a former first-overall pick, joined the Dolphins during the 2016 offseason after having been released by the Bills. Miami inked the lineman to a two-year, $17MM deal that included $11.98MM in guaranteed money, an indication that the organization was expecting at least starter-quality production from the four-time Pro Bowler.
Unfortunately, Williams’ lone season with the Dolphins proved to be a dud. Williams appeared in 13 games with the Dolphins, finishing the campaign with only 13 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and one pass defended. Miami released the defensive end on this date in 2017, marking the last time he’s been on an NFL roster. Considering he’s 34 years old and hasn’t played in the NFL in two seasons, his NFL career is presumably over.
The Foster move wasn’t as unexpected nor disappointing as the Williams transaction. Following a standout (albeit injury-riddled) tenure with the Texans, Foster joined the Dolphins to be a backup to JayAjayi. The veteran struggled in four games, compiling 55 yards on 22 carries (good for a 2.5-yard average) before being supplanted by rookie Kenyan Drake on the depth chart. Foster ended up announcing his retirement in mid-October, making his subsequent release predictable.
These weren’t the only two moves the Dolphins made two years ago today. The team also let go of defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, who has proceeded to play in 30 games for the 49ers over the past two seasons. The team also waived cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who hasn’t earned an NFL gig since that day.
NFL free agency gets underway on Thursday 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. Here is our updated outlook for each defensive and special teams position.
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 franchised players 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 this offseason:
Now that Chandler Jones, Melvin Ingram, and Jason Pierre-Paul have all been assigned the franchise tag, Nick Perry stands as the top edge defender on the free agent market, and is now in a position to cash in. The Packers opted against the franchise tender for the 26-year-old Perry, so he’ll hit the open market following a career year which saw him post 11 sacks.
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. Charles Johnson, meanwhile, looks like a good bet to return to the Panthers, 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.
Calais Campbell is the best overall player among interior defenders, and though he’s entering his age-31 season and may not cost as much as Johnathan Hankins, Brandon Williams, and Dontari Poe, Campbell will still be highly-sought after as he searches for his last substantial payday Campbell’s agent met with the Cardinals last week, but other speculative fits for the veteran defender include the Broncos, Raiders, Ravens, Colts, and Titans.
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.
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. New England didn’t place the franchise nor the transition tag on Hightower, so he’ll have the ability to set the market at linebacker.
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.
The Texans are didn’t 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.
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. 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. The Bears are expected to make a run at Gilmore, while the Bengals have already been linked to Ryan.
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.
Tony Jefferson is expected to hit free agency, and could be in for a contract that nears the $8-9MM range. 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.
Micah Hyde could have been listed among the free agent corners, as the do-it-all defensive back is capable of playing multiple roles. His versatility is central to the Packers’ defense, and D.J. Swearinger provides the same sort of flexibility to the Cardinals. If Jefferson defects via the open market, Arizona will likely hone in on re-signing Swearinger as his full-time replacement. Jairus Byrd is a late addition to the safety market after being released by the Saints, and it’s possible another will hope he can rebound to his All Pro days as he enters his age-30 season.
The Seahawks don’t figure to re-signSteven 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.
Jeff Locke, 27, managed to pin opposing clubs inside the 20-yard line 34 times in 2016, good for fifth in the league. 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.
February 15th, 2017 at 11:35am CST by Zachary Links
Break out the ceviche, because it’s (apparently) Miami Day here at Pro Football Rumors. Defensive end Mario Williams and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu are the latest players to get released by the Dolphins, according to Armando Salguero of The Miami Herald.
The Williams release has been anticipated for some time now. The 32-year-old was set to carry a $10.5MM cap charge in 2017 and that was not palatable for Miami after he fell flat in 2016. Initially signed to replace Olivier Vernon, Williams could not come close to that type of production and was even a healthy scratch for multiple games.
Williams had only five sacks in 2015, but in the year prior he piled up 14.5 sacks. The Dolphins felt that a change of scenery and a return to a 4-3 system would benefit him, but he instead turned in one of the worst seasons of his career.
On Thursday, the Dolphins also released defensive tackle Earl Mitchelland are working to trade left tackle Branden Albert. The Dolphins will save big bucks by parting ways Albert, Mitchell, and Williams, but the Ekpre-Olomu release isn’t really a cap-related measure. The oft-injured corner was waived/injured last year and this move simply takes him off of IR.
Miami decided this week that they would not be using Jones in the first-round playoff game against the Steelers, Barry Jackson of The Miami Herald writes. It’s possible that Jones reacted poorly to that news, because the Dolphins have decided they do not want to have Jones around at all. Jones, 30, appeared in ten Dolphins games this season. He posted 2.5 sacks, 23 tackles, and a fumble recovery. With Jones out, Mario Williams will play Sunday against Pittsburgh.
If Williams were to remain on the roster on the fifth day of the 2017 league year, he would have $3.5MM of his scheduled $8.485MM base salary guaranteed. The Dolphins have no interest in paying out his salary after a year in which he declined sharply. Williams was relegated to the bench in his first season with Miami and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph even slammed him publicly for a perceived lack of effort. Lately, he has been squeezed out of the gameplan altogether. Williams was a healthy scratch in Week 17 and he’ll likely be squeezed out on Sunday when the Dolphins face the Steelers in the first round of the playoffs.
Of course, this isn’t what the Dolphins had in mind when they signed Super Mario to a two-year, $17MM deal this spring. Williams had only five sacks in 2015, but in the year prior he piled up 14.5 sacks. The Dolphins felt that a change of scenery and a return to a 4-3 system would benefit him, but he instead turned in the worst season of his career. Now on the verge of his 32nd birthday, Williams will be a free agent and will have to take a drastic pay cut if he wants to continue playing.
December 20th, 2016 at 9:59pm CST by Dallas Robinson
Though the struggles that plagued him during the latter portion of his Bills career have followed him to Miami, Dolphins defensive end Mario Williams says he has no plans to retire following the season, according to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. “No, no,” Williams said. “I don’t want it to end like this.”
Williams, 31, has missed several games this season with a nagging ankle injury, but has rejected any thought that he might head to injured reserve (though he did allow that he may require surgery once the season concludes). The ankle ailment and his poor play have led Williams to be demoted off the Dolphins’ starting unit, as he’s been usurped by Andre Branch and has played on less than half the club’s defensive snaps. When he has been able to stay on the field, Williams has posted only 1.5 sacks and graded as the league’s No. 58 edge defender, per Pro Football Focus.
Williams inked a two-year, $17MM deal with Miami this spring, but at this point, it seems unlikely that he’ll see the second season of that contract, a notion that Jackson reported earlier this month. The Dolphins can release Williams next year and save $8.5MM while incurring only $2MM in dead money.
October 14th, 2016 at 7:03pm CST by Connor J. Byrne
At 1-4 with a minus-31 point differential, the Dolphins have been among the NFL’s worst teams this season. There are clearly weaknesses throughout the Dolphins’ roster, and Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald writes that the team has plenty of players it no longer wants. As a result, executive vice president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum, general manager Chris Grier and head coach Adam Gase are likely to oversee a significant makeover during the offseason.
The Dolphins already began moving on from players who aren’t part of the solution earlier this week, cutting offensive linemen Dallas Thomas and Billy Turneron Tuesday. Turner is now with the Ravens, who claimed him on waivers, but Salguero reports that the Dolphins couldn’t find any takers when they shopped him and Thomas.
With Turner and Thomas gone, there are a slew of other Dolphins with iffy futures, according to Salguero. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill and offensive lineman Branden Albert are among those with nebulous statuses beyond this year, though Salguero doesn’t expect Miami to move on from either. Running back Arian Foster, tight end Jordan Cameron and tackle Jermon Bushrod are all impending free agents who are doubtful to return in 2017 (Cameron could retire). Receiver Kenny Stills‘ deal also expires at season’s end, and Salguero notes that he has a fan in Gase, but the Dolphins haven’t been willing to commit a multiyear deal to him yet. Unless that changes prior to free agency, Stills could head elsewhere for a raise.
Defensively, ends Mario Williams, Jason Jones and Andre Branch, linebackers Jelani Jenkins and Koa Misi, and cornerback Byron Maxwell might be in new uniforms next year. Williams and Maxwell, two high-profile offseason additions, look as though they’ll be one and done in Miami, per Salguero. The two have underwhelmed with the Dolphins, who would save $14MM (compared to $5MM in dead money) by releasing them prior to next season. The only other member of the group who’s signed past 2016 is Misi. However, Misi’s career could be in jeopardy, and releasing him would free up $4.2MM in spending room at the cost of just $578K in dead money next season – the final year of Misi’s contract.
Given that the Dolphins’ season isn’t even halfway over, at least some of these individuals could play their way out of the doghouse over the next 11 games. The Dolphins are currently on track for a sizable house cleaning, though, and with the 4-1 Steelers and 3-2 Bills next on their schedule, they could enter their Week 8 bye at 1-6.
October 13th, 2016 at 9:41pm CST by Connor J. Byrne
Defensive end Mario Williams needs to “play better” and “play harder,” Dolphins D-coordinator Vance Joseph told reporters, including Chris Perkins of the Sun-Sentinel, on Thursday. After the AFC East rival Bills released Williams in March, the Dolphins quickly signed the 2006 No. 1 overall pick to a two-year, $17MM deal. Williams, 31, has underwhelmed on the stat sheet in Miami, where he has picked up just seven tackles in a sack in five games. While Pro Football Focus grades Williams’ overall performance a decent 44th among 99 qualifying DEs, his production is way down since last season. Over his past 20 games, Williams has recorded a meager 26 tackles and six sacks.
Elsewhere around the AFC…
Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta endorsed the Monday firing of offensive coordinator Marc Trestman, saying Wednesday, “Marc Trestman is a great guy, a great coach. It was difficult to see him go, but I think it was something that this offense needed” (via Jeff Zrebiec of the Baltimore Sun). Although injuries limited Pitta to just seven of 48 regular-season games from 2013-15, he bounced back this year under Trestman to catch 28 passes on 37 targets. As a whole, though, the Ravens’ offense ranks 18th in yardage, 22nd in scoring and 27th in DVOA. The unit will try to better its production under Marty Mornhinweg, whom Ravens players “have a lot of faith in,” Pitta added.
The Patriots might have to consider a long-term deal for contract-year tight end Martellus Bennett, observes Ryan Hannable of WEEI. The offseason trade pickup from Chicago has racked up 21 receptions with four touchdowns and a whopping 15.0 yards per catch over his first five games in New England. His production has helped make up for a slow start from Rob Gronkowski, who was either out or limited for the first four games of the season. Gronkowski broke out against the Browns last Sunday in a 33-13 win for New England, which appears to have the best tight end duo in the league with him and Bennett. “I’ve felt at home here since Day 1. It’s a place I feel like I belong,” Bennett said. The soon-to-be 30-year-old is currently on track to net a raise over his $5MM salary.
Jets receiver Eric Decker will undergo surgery on his injured right shoulder within the next two weeks, he announced Thursday, adding that he’ll need six to eight months to return to full strength (per Kimberley A. Martin of Newsday). “Getting surgery was really going to be the only answer,” said Decker, whom the Jets placed on injured reserve Wednesday because of a torn rotator cuff. Decker caught nine passes for a whopping 194 yards and two touchdowns in three games this season.
Jenny Vrentas of The MMQB.com had a rather entertaining interview with Bills head coach Rex Ryan and brother Rob Ryan, who’s in his first year as the team’s assistant head coach/defense. Their discussion is certainly worth a full read, but we’ll round up some of the highlights from the braggadocious bros.
Rex Ryan on Rob Ryan:
“Nobody grinds the way Rob does. Bill Belichick hired Rob for one reason: He knew he was a freaking great football coach, and he could grind. That’s it. If you are going to be with Bill Belichick, you better be a grinder.”
“He sleeps here half the week, in his office, in the offseason. Honest to God.”
“I brought in a real football coach. Not a 9-to-5er, a real football coach whose life and passion is the NFL. The name Ryan means something. If you are a fan of the Buffalo Bills, thank your lucky stars he is here, and myself. To me, that’s what we added to this team. When we talk about “all in,” we’re going to do everything we can in our power to help our players succeed. And that’s why we made some of the changes that we made.”
Rob Ryan on why he joined the Bills’ staff:
“I am used to picking my spots, but this time, I had one choice. When I was fired by the Saints, I came here to look at it. Rex loves this team, he brags about this team, so I wanted to be around it. After I did that, for one week, I was like, Damn, I’ve got to be here. I don’t care who was going to offer me a job. I wanted to be a part of this. Rex brought me in, because of nepotism … (pause) … and I’m glad he did.”
“To be the best defensive coach in football, I’ve got to learn from the best, so I came here. It’s been how many years since we’ve been together? He’s not learning anything, but I am. Look at some of his protégés. Bob Sutton is doing a fantastic job in Kansas City. Chuck Pagano was with Rex. He spun off a ton of great coaches, and it is going to be fun to be a part of that.”
Rob Ryan on his nearly three-year tenure as the Saints’ defensive coordinator:
“I need to be in a multiple system. I was hired to be in a multiple system in New Orleans, and I did a damn good job and got fired for it.”
“I have coordinated in college and in the pros. And the biggest history of improvement ever in the league, I coordinated that defense [the 2013 Saints]. The defenses I have taken over were ranked, like, 31st. Oh, “my numbers aren’t too good.” You take over the 31st group and see how you do. And you’re given about two years to do it. There are two years that don’t have my signature on them, and it’s the last two years in New Orleans. And that’s just the truth.”
[Note: Saints head coach Sean Payton responded by shooting down the notion that the team’s defense didn’t have Ryan’s fingerprints on it.]
“All of a sudden, we let some good players go; we changed the system after we finished fourth in the league in defense.”
“The biggest mistake I think I made in New Orleans was sitting on my hands and collecting a paycheck, instead of going in, knowing it was wrong and fixing it. When we wanted to change the philosophy of the defense, I should have.”
“They signed players; they signed a free-agent free safety [Jairus Byrd in 2014], and said, we are going to keep him in the middle of the field like the goalpost. Well, that’s great. He’s not going to make one play back there, and now we have changed the entire defense for one signing, and it ruined us. He’s a great kid. But the truth of the matter is, you let an All-Pro safety walk, Malcolm Jenkins, and lost your two best leaders on the team, him and Roman Harper. We changed the entire style of play. It was strange. But hey, I did the best job I could. And it wasn’t good enough. They should have fired me. They probably should have fired everybody that made that decision to go in that direction. Now I’m going to move my whole family over here to Buffalo for a reason: to go kick everybody’s ass, including theirs.”
“But at the end of the day, the last two years in New Orleans were a waste of time for me.”
Rex Ryan on the Bills’ 2015 defense, which dropped to 19th from fourth under Jim Schwartz the previous season, and whether a rebound is on the way:
“I screwed up, and that’s totally on me. So if people lost a little faith in it, or whatever, I can understand. I should be doubted, because I made a mistake in judgment. But just go back and look at the history. You are going to get the real deal this year, and we’ll see how it goes. I know how it has gone my whole career.”
“This was the first time in my life I have ever come into a situation where the defense got worse. And so that was odd. That was different. No excuses. But I’ll stand by my record; I’ll stand by everything I have ever done in this league statistically. Put the numbers up. Do you want to look at one year, or a 15-year window? I specifically said I probably shouldn’t have tried to combine systems last year. I should have just gone for it, this is it, blunt-force trauma, and bring in some players that knew the system and can help run it.”
Rex Ryan on defensive end Mario Williams, who was unhappy in Ryan’s scheme last season and got his release in March:
“Now look, with some of the comments [he made], do I wish him well? Not really. But, he’s on Miami. If he would have gone somewhere else, maybe. He’s a good kid, but I am used to some mean motherf—ers that play out there. The Terrell Suggs, Jarrett Johnsons of the world. I screwed them, too; I had them drop [into coverage], too. Not one of them bitched. Von Miller [dropped into coverage] in the Super Bowl. Why? Because that’s what’s asked of him; that’s what his job is. Your job is to play. Coaches spend a hell of a lot more time studying tape and everything else. They are trying to put the team in the best position to be successful, not an individual.”
Rob Ryan on the AFC East rival Patriots:
“But I know one thing, we are going to beat them. We are together, we’re going to beat the best. It’s two against one. [Belichick] one on one against any coach in the league, that guy is pretty damn good. And he’s also got his best buddy Tom Brady with him. He trained him, and he single-handedly made him great as well.”