There are still plenty of impact free agents left on the board, including some big names. Here’s a look at some of the high-profile veterans that are still looking for work in advance of training camp:
Things have been eerily quiet for Maclin since he was displaced by the Ravens, though the Eagles and Cowboys considered him in the spring. We also haven’t heard a peep about Decker since his spring meetings with the Raiders and Ravens. Both players are roughly in the same boat – they were 1,000-yard receivers in 2015, but they are on the wrong side of 30 and haven’t done much on the field in the last two years. Still, both profile as low-risk/high-reward signings.
We ranked Barwin as a top-10 free agent pass rusher when the market opened, but he hasn’t garnered much interest this offseason. The Rams reportedly expressed interest in re-signing Barwin in mid-March, but they have since revamped their front seven and there is little room for additions. The rival Cardinals kicked the tires on him in April, but for one reason or another, they did not add him to a unit that ranked 17th in pressure rate and 24th in adjusted sack rate in 2017. Barwin’s veteran leadership could help him find a deal in the coming weeks, but he’s probably not a starting-caliber player at this point in his career.
Last year, Hankins waited patiently before signing a three-year, $27MM free agent deal with the Colts. The Colts bailed on that contract this past March, putting him back in the free agent bin. Hankins, again, is patiently waiting for his market to develop. New defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus did not see Hankins as a fit for his scheme, but he could be a solid addition for plenty of other teams. Hankins played in a 4-3 with the Giants but did well in the Colts’ 3-4 setup last year. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the No. 20 interior defender in the league last year with tremendous marks for his work against the run. The Redskins met with Hankins soon after his release, but first-round pick Da’Ron Payne is now slated to hold down the starting nose tackle position. The Jets met with Hankins in April and that still looks like a logical fit to us.
There’s no longer a place for Bowman in the Raiders’ front seven after the signing of former Chief Derrick Johnson, but some team out there is likely to make a play for the veteran. Bowman lost all of the 2014 season and most of 2016 to injury, but he was healthy and productive in 2017.
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:
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 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
Although there are a number of high-quality starting linebackers available in free agency this year, I predict most contracts signed by LBs over the next few weeks will come in lower that most expect. The linebacker market is relatively stagnant, and unless the player is a legitimate star or inking an extension with his original club, he’s usually disappointed with his annual value. The most expensive deal for an unrestricted free agent ‘backer who signed with a new team was Bruce Irvin‘s $9.25MM/year pact with the Raiders, and Irvin can almost be considered an edge rusher. After Irvin, it’s Danny Trevathan, whom the Bears signed for a $7MM annual value in 2016.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise if no linebacker listed above is able to top Trevathan’s two-year-old average, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t starting-caliber LBs on the market. Zach Brown, the poster boy for having to accept cheap contracts, is coming off another solid season, but is reportedly asking for top-three inside linebacker money. Good luck. Similarly, Demario Davis is looking for $8-10MM annually, while the Jets — who have interest in re-signing him — view him as a $3-4MM/year player.
Nigel Bradham and NaVorro Bowman should both come in around Trevathan’s $7MM average after posting excellent 2017 campaigns. While the Eagles would surely prefer to re-sign Bradham, the club’s dire cap situation may mean Bradham will hit the open market next Wednesday. Bowman, meanwhile, was traded from the 49ers to Raiders last season, and he seems like a good bet to stay with Oakland after new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther heaped lavish praise on the 29-year-old.
Top-to-bottom, the cornerback market is the deepest positional group on the defensive side of the ball. Need a No. 1 defensive back with experience in both man and zone? Trumaine Johnson is your guy. How about a top-end cornerback who, while admittedly up-and-down at times, has the ability to shut down opposing wide receivers? Malcolm Butler has you covered. A former first-round pick who has finally played up to his potential over the past two seasons? Take a look at Morris Claiborne. Or is a career journeyman who posted 10 excellent games last year more your speed? Look into Rashaan Melvin.
Slot cornerbacks are also prevalent in this year’s defensive back market, and while I ranked Aaron Colvin, T.J. Carrie, Patrick Robinson, and Nickell Robey-Coleman in order of my preference, they could each be plugged into a starting nickel package immediately. I originally though Robinson could land a disappointing deal given his age (31) and his track record of underwhelming play prior to 2017, but he’s already garnering interest from the Giants, Raiders, and Cardinals, so his market should allow him to reach at least $5MM annually. Colvin could garner even more than Robinson thanks his youth (26), and Ian Rapoport of NFL.com expects Colvin to have a “legit” market.
If teams are looking for a bargain at cornerback, they should target Ross Cockrell, whom the Steelers dealt to the Giants last year for a seventh-round pick. Cockrell has always been overlooked in the NFL, but he keeps producing results. In 2017, Cockrell finished first in Football Outsiders’ success rate, which measures cornerbacks on their ability to consistently stop opposing wideouts short of the sticks. In fact, Cockrell was one of only eight defenders who stopped a receiver short of a successful gain on over half their tackles a season ago, as FO’s Aaron Schatz recently tweeted, but the league consistently undervalues him and his skill-set.
The best free agent safety was taken off the board earlier today when the Rams used the franchise tag on Lamarcus Joyner, and the remaining market is extremely top-heavy. Eric Reid, Morgan Burnett, Tre Boston, and Kenny Vaccaro could all be in line for at least $5MM annually, but the rest of the class could struggle to find multi-year deals. Among the top-tier safeties, Vaccaro stands out as perhaps the most interesting name. A first-round pick in 2013, Vaccarro has posted three exemplary campaigns and two dreadful years; in 2017, Pro Football Focus ranked Vaccaro as the single-worst safety in the league among 87 qualifiers. But given his draft pedigree and his ability to man the slot, Vaccaro should land a solid deal.
While I like Reid and Burnett a bit more as players, it wouldn’t be a shock if Boston actually lands the largest contract. Reid and Burnett spend a lot of time close to the line of scrimmage, and both have been used as de factor linebackers from time to time. Boston, on the other hand, is a deep safety who can play coverage, and that repertoire is much more difficult to find on the open market. Similarly, Tyvon Branch has been great in coverage during his career with the Raiders, Chiefs, and Cardinals, so he could also see a nice pay bump next week.
After Branch, the crop of available safeties steeply drops off. Every other free agent we’ve listed above will be at at least 29 years old when the 2018 gets underway except for the Lions’ Tavon Wilson, and he was one of the NFL’s worst starting defensive backs last season. Veterans like Corey Graham or Ron Parker can still play as third safeties who see time in “big nickel” packages, but if you’re looking for a starting safety, you’ll want to bring in one of the top six defensive backs on the board.
With quarterback Drew Stanton suffering through a knee injury, the Cardinals have added some reinforcement at the position. The Cardinals announced this evening that they have signed quarterback Matt Barkley. The team has also promoted safety Harlan Miller from the practice squad. To make room on the roster, the team has placed safety Tyvon Branch, offensive tackle D.J. Humphries and tight end Ifeanyi Momah on injured reserve.
We learned last week that Stanton had suffered a sprained knee during Thursday’s loss to the Seahawks, and there were reports that the team could turn to Barkley for a backup role. A former fourth-round pick, Barkley played in seven games (six starts) for the Bears last season, completing 59.7-percent of his passes for 1,611 yards, eight touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. The 27-year-old inked a two-year deal with the 49ers during the offseason, but he was released at the end of the preseason. Barkley also had a stint with Arizona between 2015 and 2016.
Assuming Stanton, who was filling in for the injured Carson Palmer, misses time, Blaine Gabbert will get the first shot at the starting gig. The 28-year-old appeared in six games (five starts) for the 49ers in 2016, completing 56.9-percent of his passes for 925 yards, five touchdowns, and six interceptions. He’s yet to appear in a game this season.
We learned earlier this week that Branch, Humphries, and Momah were likely to miss the rest of the season. Branch suffered a torn ACL during Thursday’s contest, and considering his impending free agency, his injury-filled tenure with the Cardinals could be over. Humphries dislocated his kneecap and suffered MCL damage on Thursday night, ending the third-year edge blocker’s season prematuraly. Momah, a former undrafted free agent out of Boston College, injured his knee against the Seahawks.
Miller, a 2016 sixth-round pick, started two games for Arizona as a rookie, compiling seven tackles and one interception. He was waived by the organization in early September but ultimately landed on the team’s taxi squad.
November 10th, 2017 at 10:39am CST by Zachary Links
The Cardinals lost more than a game on Thursday night. Cardinals safety Tyvon Branch suffered a torn ACL in the defeat, a source tells Mike Garafolo of NFL.com (on Twitter). He’ll be placed on season-ending injured reserve.
Bruce Arians confirmed this diagnosis Friday afternoon and added Branch will undergo surgery.
Branch started in all nine of the Cardinals’ games this season, giving himself a larger-than-anticipated role following the addition of Antoine Bethea in free agency. His season ends with 66 total tackles, six passes defensed, and one forced fumble.
Branch, 31 in December, was initially slated to earn $4MM on the backend of a two-year, $8MM contract. Instead, he agreed to cut his salary in half. He’ll be a free agent after the season so it’s possible that he has played his final game for the Cardinals.
Between 2009 and 2011, Branch was considered one of the top safeties in the game. He’s no longer an elite player, but he has shown that he can still play at a high level.
The Cardinals and Tyvon Branch have reworked the safety’s contract, reports ESPN’s Field Yates (via Twitter). The veteran will now making $2MM instead of the $4MM he was set to receive, opening up a chunk of cap room for Arizona.
Branch signed a two-year, $8MM contract with the organization last offseason. The 30-year-old was limited to only six games in 2016 as he struggled through a groin injury, and he had two separate stints on the injured reserve. The safety ultimately finished the year with 28 tackles and four passes defended.
Between 2009 and 2011, Branch was considered one of the top safeties in the game. During that three-year span with the Raiders, he averaged more than 100 tackles, two sacks, and one interception.
December 12th, 2016 at 3:28pm CST by Zachary Links
The Cardinals lost the game and they lost a couple of important defensive players. Defensive back Tyvon Branch is headed back to IR and linebacker Deone Bucannon has also been lost for the year, the team announced. Right tackle Ulrick John is also likely to go IR with a dislocated shoulder.
Branch was first shut down in the fall when he suffered a groin injury. After healing up faster than teammate Chris Johnson, Branch was designated as the team’s one player to return from IR. Unfortunately, he has re-aggravated the injury. Branch, who just turned 30, appeared in seven games this year and totaled 27 tackles. He remains under contract through 2017 with a cap number of $4.5MM. If the Cardinals were to cut him before June 1, they’d save $2.75MM against $1.75MM.
Bucannon, 24, has been used primarily at linebacker this year after trying to make it work as a strong safety in the previous two seasons. All in all, he has 89 total tackles, two pass deflections, and one fumble recovery in his 13 games. It appears that the change has worked out for the former first-round pick. Pro Football Focus has him ranked as the No. 34 linebacker in the NFL, though that is powered by a strong 86.1 coverage grade and watered down by weak marks for run defense and pass rush.
December 2nd, 2016 at 4:32pm CST by Connor J. Byrne
The Cardinals have activated safety Tyvon Branch from injured reserve, the club announced. He’ll play Sunday against the Redskins, tweets Darren Urban of the team’s website.
Branch, a former Raider and Chief who signed a two-year deal with Arizona in March, appeared in the Cardinals’ first five games this season, racking up three starts and 20 tackles. He then landed on injured reserve Oct. 4 with a groin issue, and the team designated him to return from IR on Nov. 23. He’ll now rejoin a 4-6-1 club that entered the season as a Super Bowl contender but now has little room for error as it clings to slim playoff hopes.
While Branch will return Sunday, fellow defensive back Tyrann Mathieu is unlikely to suit up because of a sore shoulder. The 2015 first-team All-Pro’s shoulder kept him out of two of the Cardinals’ games in November, though he did play in their 38-19 loss to the Falcons last Sunday.
November 23rd, 2016 at 12:37pm CST by Zachary Links
In early October, both safety Tyvon Branch and running back Chris Johnson were placed on injured reserve with severe groin injuries. At the time, coach Bruce Arians indicated that it would be a race between the two to see who could get healthy first. It appears that Branch has won.
Branch will come off IR and is on the field practicing today, according to Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com (on Twitter). The safety cannot play before Dec. 4 but he is on the path to return.
Branch appeared in all 16 games for the Chiefs last season and recorded 43 tackles, one interception, a forced fumble, and four passes defensed. The advanced metrics from Pro Football Focus placed Branch as the 30th best safety in the NFL last year, slotting him ahead of free agents like Chris Conte, Eric Weddle, and David Bruton. While he did not start in 2015, the Cardinals believed that he was capable of a larger role. Branch was shelved after just five games this year, but he’ll get the opportunity to rejoin the club for the final stretch of the season.
Because only one player can return from IR, Johnson’s season is through. In 2015, Johnson was surprisingly productive for Arizona before a fractured tibia ended his season early. He re-signed with the Cardinals in the spring where he was expected to be David Johnson‘s primary backup. His season ends with a grand total of 95 yards and one touchdown off of 28 carries.
The NFL today informed the Falcons they’ll forfeit the first three days of OTAs in 2017 for violating NFL-NFLPA work rules for excessive contact in practice. Atlanta is the second team to receive punishment for that infraction following sanctions against the Seahawks. The Falcons aren’t happy about the punishment, but they did not face the heavy fines and draft penalties that the Seahawks did as repeat offenders.
“We take player safety very seriously and work hard to ensure that we are in compliance with league rules,” the Falcons wrote in a statement Thursday.
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians says that he has his “fingers crossed” when it comes to the recoveries of running back Chris Johnson and safety Tyvon Branch because it’s possible that one of them could be healthy enough to return this year (Twitter link via Alex Marvez of the Sporting News). Both players were placed on IR this week with groin injuries. Teams can only bring one player back from IR each season, so it’s effectively a race between the two to see who can get healthier first.
The Cardinals are placing running back Chris Johnson on IR with a groin injury, according to a team announcement. Safety Tyvon Branch is also headed to the IR with the same injury.
In theory, both players could be eligible to return on December 4th for the Cards’ home contest against the Redskins. However, that will depend on the condition of each player and the team will also have to prioritize them against other candidates to return from IR. Each team can have a player return to action after eight weeks, but they can do only do so with one player.
Johnson had 95 yards and one touchdown off of 28 carries this season as he played the backup role behind David Johnson. Andre Ellington, who was once supposed to be the main guy in Arizona, now moves into the No. 2 RB role.
To replace Johnson on the roster, the team officially re-signed running back Kerwynn Williams. Also, with Carson Palmer‘s status in the air (concussion), the team also promoted quarterback Zac Dysert from the practice squad. Versatile wide receiver/defensive back Brittan Golden was promoted from the practice squad to the active roster. In other moves, punter Drew Butler (calf) was waived with an injury settlement and safety Christian Bryant was added to the practice squad. The team still has one opening on the taxi squad.