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The NFL’s 2020 Free Agent Class Could Reset the Pass Rush vs. Pass Coverage Debate

Last season, the Patriots and Ravens defenses prioritized pass coverage above all else. Will we finally see a new market-setting cornerback contract this spring? And what will that mean for pass rushers who are looking to get paid?

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Late last month, Chris Jones joined Colin Cowherd’s show The Herd to chat about the NFL offseason. The Chiefs defensive tackle discussed Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City’s potential as a dynasty, and the proposed CBA. At one point, the conversation turned to Jones’s future with the franchise. A day prior, news had broken that the Chiefs were expected to use the franchise tag on their 25-year-old star defender. “It’s a little hard,” Jones said of being tagged. ”It’s like, ‘What else y’all want me to do? I’ve got to go ahead and get 30 sacks, 35 sacks, to show you how I can.’”

It’s a fair question, considering how well Jones has played over the past two seasons. He notched 15.5 sacks in 2018—the third-highest mark in the league, and an absolutely ludicrous number for an interior defensive lineman. In 2019, Jones finished with nine sacks despite missing three games with a groin injury. For the second season in a row, Pro Football Focus data showed that on a per-snap basis, Jones was the second-most disruptive interior pass rusher in the league—behind only Aaron Donald. His performance in the Super Bowl will likely be lost to history, thanks to Mahomes’s growing legend, the narrative around Andy Reid’s first championship, and jet chip wasp. But Jones was arguably the Chiefs’ most impactful player that night in Miami. His pressure directly led to Jimmy Garoppolo’s first-half interception, and if not for his pair of pass knockdowns in the fourth quarter, the Niners might be Super Bowl champions. With all he’s contributed over the past couple years, it’s hard to blame Jones for looking around and wondering what else he has to prove.

The same goes for several other pass rushers from the past two free-agent classes. Jones’s former teammate, Dee Ford, led the NFL with 77 pressures in 2018. Ford was rewarded with the franchise tag last March before the Chiefs eventually traded him to San Francisco for a second-round pick. The Niners handed Ford a five-year, $85 million extension, but less than $20 million of that was guaranteed at signing. With 2019 breakout star Arik Armstead set to hit free agency this spring, some have wondered if Ford could actually be the odd man out along the Niners’ defensive line. Then there’s Frank Clark, who was franchised by Seattle last season and then essentially took Ford’s place when the Seahawks traded him to the Chiefs for a 2019 first-round pick and 2020 second-round pick. Clark also got a huge extension—five years, $104 million with $62.3 million guaranteed—but the deal was yet another instance of a team choosing not to hand a massive contract to a young, homegrown pass rusher.

Over the past year, some of the league’s most productive—and eventually most expensive—pass rushers have either been franchised and traded or ignored in free agency altogether by the teams that drafted them. And this free-agent class is no exception. After being tagged by the Texans and traded to Seattle for the final year of his deal, former no. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney will be a free agent this spring. The Jaguars will reportedly tag 24-year-old sack artist Yannick Ngakoue, and given that Ngakoue has publicly stated he won’t play for Jacksonville again, a trade seems imminent. With Armstead and Shaquil Barrett also slated to hit the market, many of this year’s top defensive free agents are pass rushers—and that doesn’t seem like an accident. The 2020 class seems like the next step in the referendum on the comparative value of pass rush and pass coverage in the NFL, and how the market shakes out could illustrate how teams are thinking about that debate.

Last season, the Ravens and Patriots emerged as two outliers along that spectrum. Baltimore and New England finished fourth and first in pass defense DVOA, respectively. They also ranked 31st and 32nd in the amount of cap space allocated to edge defenders. Both teams elected to let their top pass rushers walk in free agency rather than pay a premium to retain them. Za’Darius Smith left the Ravens and signed a monster deal in Green Bay. By season’s end, Smith had emerged as arguably the most disruptive pass rusher in the league. New England allowed Trey Flowers to ink a five-year, $90 million deal (with a whopping $56 million guaranteed) with Detroit last spring.

It’s no coincidence that while skimping on their defensive lines, the Pats and Ravens ranked first and second, respectively, in the amount of cap space devoted to their secondaries. Members of both front offices will tell you that valuing coverage over pass rush isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. If Khalil Mack hit the market, New England would probably take a long, hard look at him. And Baltimore’s focus on the back end of its defense was driven, at least in part, by guys like Earl Thomas and Marcus Peters becoming available at the right time. But it’s clear that both analytically inclined organizations have made a conscious effort to prioritize the back end of their defense because they believe it’s easier to manufacture a useful pass rush than it is to conjure solid coverage. For the second year in a row, Baltimore may lose its most productive pass rusher. The Ravens tagged 28-year-old Matthew Judon on Friday, but as we’ve seen over the past year, that may just be a way to hang on to him temporarily before flipping him for a draft pick.

Smart teams appear to be embracing this line of thinking, but it hasn’t yet impacted the way that resources are allocated throughout the league. Teams may not be re-signing their own draft picks, but these guys are still getting paid by someone. Since Von Miller reset the pass-rushing market with a $19 million average annual value in 2016, three players—Mack, Clark, and the Cowboys’ DeMarcus Lawrence—have topped $20 million per year. As this year’s crop of rushers hits free agency, those numbers should only continue to climb. Ngakoue’s asking price on a new deal will start at the $21 million per year figure given to Lawrence and Clark. And it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Jones’s people ask for a number north of $20 million as well—rightfully slotting him behind only Aaron Donald among interior defensive linemen. Based on how the market has turned out in recent years, those are the figures these guys should be asking for. Whether it’s smart for teams to dole them out is a different story.

No one is arguing that Lawrence isn’t an excellent player who deserved the $65 million guaranteed he got in his extension last April. But as the Cowboys do a forensic check on their cap situation, Lawrence’s $22 million cap hit in each of the next two seasons looks pretty glaring. Even if Lawrence’s deal made sense at the time, Dallas now has to figure out how to re-sign Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, and others while paying Lawrence the 13th-highest cap hit at any position in the NFL.

Another consequence of the Lawrence deal (along with the Ezekiel Elliott and Jaylon Smith extensions) is that the Cowboys will have to let cornerback Byron Jones walk in free agency. As a 27-year-old former first-round pick, Jones doesn’t fit the profile of a player that typically hits the market. He has no interceptions over the past two seasons, but since moving to outside cornerback two years ago, Jones has emerged as one of the most consistent coverage players in the league. His market will be a fascinating case study of how the league currently values pass coverage.

As the price for pass rushers has slowly risen, the market for cornerbacks has mostly remained stagnant. Since Patrick Peterson signed his five-year deal with an AAV of $14 million in 2016, only one corner—Miami’s Xavien Howard—has inked a deal worth more than $15 million per year. Between those signings, the cap had risen by more than $33 million. Of the 20 highest cap hits in 2020, seven of them belong to edge defenders or pass-rushing defensive tackles. None are cornerbacks. At $18.7 million, reigning defensive player of the year Stephon Gilmore will carry the 27th-highest cap hit in the league—two spots behind Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short.

As smart people dig further into the pass rush–pass coverage debate, there’s an argument to be made that building a well-rounded secondary is better than building a pass defense around a single star. But as the Patriots and Ravens have shown, it’s possible to pay multiple stars on the back end if you skimp in other areas. Next week, Byron Jones will look to kick off the next stage of that thinking as he tries to reset the cornerback market for the first time in years. The league’s mind-set—and payrolls—may still indicate that pass rushers are the most valuable piece of any defense, but the 2020 free agency period could finally be the moment when the value of pass rush and pass coverage start to converge.