NFL free agency is upon us. Last week, I examined the unprecedented QB movement that could unfold this spring and dug into the best offensive players hitting the market. Today, we’re taking a long look at the best defensive players set to enter free agency. With several young pass rushers and some truly elite cover guys hitting the market, we’re bound to see some massive numbers this week. Let’s dive in.
Chris Jones, IDL
Scouting report: Jones is one of the most impactful defensive players in the NFL. Full stop. He’s tallied 24.5 sacks over the past two years, and in both of those seasons he finished second only to Aaron Donald in total pressures among interior defensive linemen. At 6-foot-6, Jones is huge for a defensive tackle, and he consistently shocks guards with his length. Jones has a devastating arm-over move that he uses on shorter, ill-equipped offensive linemen, but his dominance comes from more than just his size. He uses his hands extremely well for a big man, and his best pass rush move might be the two-hand swipe he uses to throw linemen off balance during their initial punch. After Jones gets penetration, he shows great flexibility, deftly bending back toward the quarterback and finishing off plays.
Jones belongs in the tier of defenders just below guys like Donald, Khalil Mack, and Bobby Wagner, and I expect him to be compensated like it this offseason. As of this writing, the Chiefs haven’t slapped Jones with the franchise tag, but they might have to if the sides can’t hammer out an extension before Monday’s tag deadline. Kansas City has limited cap space in 2020, but there are plenty of moves at the team’s disposal that could keep Jones around long term—especially now that the new CBA is in place. If the Chiefs decide that rostering two $20 million pass rushers (Frank Clark being the other) isn’t prudent with a market-shattering Patrick Mahomes deal on the horizon, Jones would fetch Kansas City a ton on the trade market. The 25-year-old Pro Bowler is worth at least a first-round pick. With expensive deals for Clark, Tyrann Mathieu, Sammy Watkins (for now), and Eric Fisher already on the books, general manager Brett Veach could decide that a cost-controlled high draft pick is more valuable to the Chiefs in the long term.
Possible landing spots: Colts, Giants
Indy has the cap space to be a major player for several of the top free agents on the board. The Colts are typically a low-spending team that doesn’t have the cash to be overly aggressive in the market, but Jones fills a position of need and could be their lone big-ticket target on defense. Jones would also fill a hole for the Giants if they decide not to retain Leonard Williams. General manager David Gettleman loves interior linemen, and Jones is the rare defensive tackle who’d be worth Gettleman’s adulation.
Update: Kansas City used its franchise tag on Jones on Monday.
Byron Jones, CB
Scouting report: Wading into NFL free agency is usually an excursion into shark-infested waters. The guys who reach the market get there because the organization, front office, and/or coaches who know them best decide they’re not worth retaining. Players generally hit free agency for a reason, and that reason often leads to buyer’s remorse for whatever new team forks over a monster deal. But Byron Jones is an exception to that rule. The Cowboys aren’t letting Jones walk because they want to—but because they simply have no recourse to keep him. In the past six months, the Cowboys have handed out extensions to La’el Collins, Jaylon Smith, and Ezekiel Elliott. They still need to figure out new deals for Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper. Dallas just doesn’t have the cash to retain Jones, and its loss will be another team’s gain.
Since moving to outside cornerback full time in 2018, Jones has blossomed. His skill set meshed perfectly with former passing game coordinator Kris Richard’s Seattle-inspired scheme. Jones is a ridiculous athlete, and his physical abilities were on full display in the Cowboys’ system. When Jones is asked to turn and run with a receiver in Cover 3, he’s one of the best corners in the NFL. He’s fluid in coverage, has excellent recovery speed, and knows how to use the sideline to his advantage. Jones can struggle at times when asked to play in space or stick with quick receivers on in-breaking routes, but he’d be an ideal fit for a team that plays a lot of single-high coverage and would allow him to stay close to the boundary. The cornerback market has remained relatively stagnant for years, but Jones has an opportunity to change that this week. With multiple offers on the table, he can top the five-year, $75 million deal that Xavien Howard got from the Dolphins last spring.
Possible landing spots: Eagles, Broncos
It feels like a union between Jones and the Eagles is meant to be. Philadelphia’s cornerback situation is brutal. Despite all the draft capital that executive vice president of player personnel Howie Roseman has pumped into the position in recent years, Philly could still use an upgrade at both outside spots. The Eagles use mostly single-high safety looks in coordinator Jim Schwartz’s defense; Jones has excelled in those looks with Dallas over the past two seasons. The fit in Denver’s scheme wouldn’t be quite as seamless, but the Broncos are losing Chris Harris Jr. in free agency, and Vic Fangio could use some reinforcements in the secondary.
Anthony Harris, S
Scouting report: Watching Harris transform from an unknown backup to an All-Pro–caliber player over the past two seasons has been a real treat. Harris had only eight career starts to his name during his first three seasons, but from the time he took over for an injured Andrew Sendejo midway through the 2018 season, he’s been among the best safeties in football. He finished tied for the league lead with six interceptions last season, and while some of those picks came on tipped passes, Harris’s turnover numbers are no fluke. He always seems to be around the ball. Playing the deep half in Minnesota’s split-safety looks, Harris consistently showed off his impressive range and ability to cover ground. His route recognition is apparent on tape, and he uses that awareness to make quick, decisive breaks on the ball. Maybe more impressive, though, is the way Harris makes adjustments in real time based on a quarterback’s eyes or the way a certain route combination unfolds. He’s a smart, rangy, instinctive defender who would be a worthwhile addition to just about any secondary in the league.
Harris is hitting the market, in part, because he snuck up on Minnesota. The Vikings typically do an excellent job of planning their cap strategy years in advance, earmarking funds for homegrown players and creatively fitting more second-contract guys onto their books than most other teams. But as a former backup, Harris wasn’t a part of those plans. Even after cutting Xavier Rhodes and Linval Joseph last week, the Vikings only have about $15 million in projected space. Minnesota doesn’t like to convert player salaries into signing bonuses to create extra room and push possible dead money onto further years, which means that Harris will probably hit the market. As a former undrafted free agent who’s only been a starter for a season and a half, he may not have the name recognition or pedigree that guys like Landon Collins and Tyrann Mathieu did when they reset the safety market last season, but considering the way he’s played over the past couple years, he’s worth a sizable payday.
Possible landing spots: Raiders, Saints
The Raiders have a glaring hole opposite 2019 first-round pick Johnathan Abram, and Harris would feel right at home in their scheme. Oakland defensive coordinator Paul Guenther spent six seasons coaching under Mike Zimmer in Cincinnati and eventually took over as the Bengals’ defensive coordinator when Zimmer was hired by the Vikings in 2014. Oakland’s use of split-safety looks would allow Harris to settle into a similar role to the one he filled in Minnesota. The fit in New Orleans isn’t quite as obvious, but Vonn Bell is set to hit free agency and Harris would pair well with budding star Marcus Williams.
Chris Harris Jr., CB
Scouting report: During his nine seasons with the Broncos, Harris established himself as the football nerd’s favorite cornerback. As teams around the league shifted their base defenses to nickel packages, he became the face of the slot-corner revolution. Before Harris came onto the scene, slot guys had been derided as a team’s “no. 3” cornerback, but he proved the value of a top cover guy who could smoothly move inside and outside depending on the situation. At his peak, Harris was unlike any other cornerback. No one in football has a better feel for the position. His short-area quickness equips him to stick with great route runners out of the slot, but he’s also able to match up with a true no. 1 option on the outside. In Antonio Brown’s prime, Harris consistently gave him more problems in man coverage than anyone else, and when I asked Keenan Allen last summer which corner has given him the most trouble in his career, Harris was the first name out of his mouth.
Harris is coming off the worst season of his brilliant career, but that shouldn’t deter teams that need slot corner help. Under Vic Fangio, Harris spent his first season ever in a full-time outside cornerback role, and it was clear for most of the year that he wasn’t happy on a middling Broncos team. He’ll be 31 by the time next season starts, but he still has a ton to offer a contender that needs both a quality corner and great locker room presence.
Possible landing spots: Texans, Eagles
Harris to the Texans is one of my favorite free agent pairings in this entire class. Even after signing Bradley Roby to a three-year, $36 million extension on Sunday, Houston still needs to add a slot cornerback, and Bill O’Brien has plenty of cap space at his disposal to bring Harris aboard. With veteran presence Johnathan Joseph moving on after nine seasons with the franchise, Harris would also fill a leadership void in the cornerback room. He fits everything the Texans could want on multiple levels.
Jadeveon Clowney, Edge
Scouting report: Consider me a Clowney convert. I’ve had a difficult time evaluating the former no. 1 pick throughout his NFL career. Clowney doesn’t play like the sort of edge rusher I’d typically want on my team. He doesn’t have many go-to pass rush moves; he doesn’t use his hands particularly well; he doesn’t bend the corner; his style is anything but traditional. Yet somehow, the guy still makes a ton of plays. He may do it in a different way, but Clowney just wrecks shit. When he’s healthy, he might be the most physically gifted defensive lineman in the entire league. His movements are hard for offensive linemen to account for. Certain techniques and schemes that work against nearly every other player in the league just can’t account for Clowney’s power and burst. When teams leave him unblocked on jet sweeps, outside runs, or screens, they do so at their own peril. The play design may call for it, but treating Clowney like you’d treat other defenders is a risky game.
Clowney’s best plays—against both the run and the pass—come when he darts inside an offensive tackle. No edge defender in the league is more dangerous on those moves. When Clowney makes his initial step inside, he explodes laterally. It’s amazing to watch how many offensive linemen—even good ones—get surprised by how fast he gets from one gap to another. The concern, though, is that those inside rushes are his only move. On a per-snap basis, Clowney finished as the 45th-most-disruptive pass rusher in the league last season, according to Pro Football Focus. He also finished with the 12th-highest run-stop percentage among edge defenders. Those are solid numbers! And they reflect the sort of impact that Clowney has had over his career when healthy. But I’m not sure that production warrants a top-of-the-market deal.
Clowney is a splashy play waiting to happen, but down after down, his contributions as a pass rusher don’t compare to the best edge defenders in football. The team that signs Clowney will need to use him on a lot of twists and stunts to maximize his change-of-direction ability, and I’d like to see a defensive coordinator try putting him inside to take advantage of slower guards one-on-one. But even the perfect scheme would have a hard time turning Clowney into a pass rusher worth $20 million a year. His name and draft status will earn him a massive deal this spring, but I’d be wary about giving it to him.
Possible landing spots: Cardinals, Colts
Arizona needs an injection of defensive talent, and with Chandler Jones roasting offensive tackles on the other side, Clowney wouldn’t have to shoulder the load as the team’s no. 1 pass rusher. The Cardinals need someone who just makes plays, and Clowney fits that bill. General manager Steve Keim has already allocated some of his free agent money to left tackle D.J. Humphries, but Arizona has enough cap space (and, for the first time in a while, possibly enough cash) to be a player in the first wave of free agency.
Cory Littleton, LB
Scouting report: Cory Littleton’s game was built for the modern NFL. The 26-year-old former undrafted free agent is arguably the best cover linebacker in the entire league. At 228 pounds, Littleton is a bit undersized, and his testing numbers at the combine in 2016 didn’t wow anyone. But he’s proof that you don’t need to be an explosive athlete to be great in coverage. Littleton was excellent against the pass last season, tallying two interceptions and nine passes defended, but his tape from 2018 is way more fun. That was his first season as a starter, and it was hilarious to watch team after team try to take advantage of him. Three of Littleton’s 16 pass breakups that season (regular season and playoffs combined) came on plays out of empty sets designed to put him one-on-one with a running back in space. He easily shut down slants to Ezekiel Elliott and David Johnson, casually checked Mike Davis on a double move, and stuck with Devontae Booker on an angle route out of the slot.
Littleton is so good in coverage that he forces offensive coordinators to change their understanding of what a mismatch is. When Littleton is on the field, a running back against a linebacker is no longer an offensive advantage. My favorite Littleton play from 2019 came in Week 16 against the 49ers. With San Francisco deep in Rams territory, the Niners tried to find George Kittle on a popular red zone concept that has the tight end fake a crossing route before getting vertical to the end zone. Littleton does a masterful job of recognizing the route, adjusting in real time, and getting his hands up at the last second to knock the ball away. Like those snaps against Elliott and Johnson, that Niners design is supposed to be a mismatch—and a touchdown—for the best tight end in the league. Against Littleton, it’s an incompletion.
Watching a guy like Littleton walk in free agency would be a tough blow for the Rams, but it was hard to financially account for an undrafted free agent who burst onto the scene two years ago. This team already has Jared Goff, Aaron Donald, Brandin Cooks, and Todd Gurley tied up with huge contracts—with a market-setting extension for Jalen Ramsey likely on the horizon. Paying Littleton while there are multiple holes to fill along the offensive line would be difficult to rationalize.
Possible landing spots: Packers, Giants
The Packers have needed an influx of coverage skills in their linebacking corps for years. Littleton would help transform Green Bay’s entire pass defense and make guys like Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos even better. The Giants have a similar need. Littleton is the guy that Dave Gettleman thought he was getting when he traded for Alec Ogletree in 2018.
Shaquil Barrett, Edge
Scouting report: Barrett was the best signing of the 2019 offseason, and it wasn’t particularly close. After a solid but unspectacular five-year run with the Broncos, the former undrafted free agent signed a one-year, $5 million prove it deal with Tampa Bay last spring—and then proceeded to play like one of the best defensive players in football. Barrett led the NFL with 19.5 sacks, and his 81 pressures—which tied T.J. Watt for the fourth-highest total in the league—back up that number. When I turned on Barrett’s tape from last year, I expected to poke some holes in that gaudy sack figure and come away thinking that giving him a market-setting deal based on one year of production would be a mistake. But after watching a handful of games, I actually came away more impressed with his game.
He was an absolute terror coming off the edge last season. His bend as he turns the corner is textbook stuff, and his flexibility makes it hard for offensive tackles to even get a hand on him at times. It honestly reminded me of another no. 58 that used to be Barrett’s teammate: Von Miller. I know that’s high praise, but last season, Barrett played the position exactly the way you’d teach it. He showed excellent burst, used his hands well, and displayed a variety of moves. Players have gotten bigger deals than Barrett probably will for doing less. Depending on what happens with Jameis Winston, I think the smartest move Tampa Bay could make would be to use the franchise tag on Barrett and see what he does this season. Even if he has another big year, regression suggests that he won’t hit 19.5 sacks again. Keeping him on the roster would allow the Bucs to see whether 2019 was an outlier while also giving them a chance to negotiate with him next offseason when his value isn’t at an all-time high.
Possible landing spots: Titans, Jets
Tennessee could use a true no. 1 pass rusher to pair with 2018 second-round pick Harold Landry, and the Titans’ scheme would allow Barrett to play standing up where he’s comfortable. After signing Ryan Tannehill to a jaw-dropping new deal on Sunday, the Titans have made it clear that they’re looking to win right now, and Barrett would add some teeth to a talented front four. The Jets are going to be in the market for a pass rusher until the end of time. The Curse of John Abraham still haunts this team. They haven’t found a true difference-maker on the edge in more than a decade.
Update: Tampa Bay used its franchise tag on Barrett on Monday.
Arik Armstead, DL
Scouting report: Calling Armstead a disappointment through his first four seasons might be a bit harsh, but over his first 46 games, the former first-round pick tallied only nine sacks and 29 quarterback hits. Part of the problem was the Niners’ old defensive scheme, which asked the 6-foot-7 defensive end to play a read-and-react style that limited his pass rushing production. That all changed last season when San Francisco hired Kris Kocurek as its new defensive line coach. Kocurek is a disciple of former Titans and Lions defensive line coach Jim Washburn, whose scheme emphasizes an attacking mind-set that encourages players to get after the quarterback. When I talked with Kocurek at the Super Bowl this year, he told me that no one in the defensive line room took to the new approach faster than Armstead. That change in systems turned Armstead into an entirely different player, as he finished with more sacks (10) in 2019 than he’d recorded in his entire career.
Looking like a giant around other NFL players isn’t easy, but somehow, Armstead manages. At 6-foot-7 and 292 pounds, he’s one of the more imposing players in the league. When I saw him in person during the playoffs this year, I had trouble even processing how big he was. Last season, Armstead got to unleash that frame for the first time. He’s big and strong enough to absolutely bully tackles on the edge and quick enough to torment guards on the inside. Not many players can bounce between defensive tackle and defensive end and not miss a beat. CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora reported on Sunday night that the Niners and Armstead were making significant progress on a long-term deal that would keep him in San Francisco, which seems like a smart play from both sides. The Niners’ system is the best place for Armstead, and his versatility helps to unlock guys the rest of San Francisco’s deep, talented line.
Possible landing spots: Seahawks, Jets
If Seattle doesn’t bring Clowney back, Armstead would be a movable piece along the defensive front that could give the Seahawks the pass rush juice they lacked last season. Pete Carroll has always been willing to use guys inside and outside, and he’s one of the rare coaches outside San Francisco who could get the most out of Armstead’s talents. That being said, I expect him to be back with the Niners.