It’s the plethora of impending free-agent quarterbacks that are dominating offseason speculation right now, but that shouldn’t discard the talent-rich pool of defensive options potentially set to hit the open market.
Between the elite pass-rushers, run-stuffers and veteran defensive backs, we’ve taken a look at five of the best options to keep an eye on in the coming months.
Jadeveon Clowney – Seattle Seahawks
The chances of the Seattle Seahawks bringing back Jadeveon Clowney look uncertain, with the veteran defensive end seeking “market-setting money” per Matt Miller of Bleacher Report.
Clowney has swatted at the prospect of playing for teams unable to compete for a Super Bowl, which rules out quite a few potential landing spots. One factor in the decision to pay the 27-year-old is his injury record, which has seen him miss six games over his last four seasons, including three in 2019.
Nevertheless, there is undisputed and ferocious talent to exploit for any side prepared to invest in him. The 2014 No 1 overall draft pick registered 31 tackles, three sacks, one interception and a career-high four forced fumbles – including one recovered for a touchdown – last season.
Were it not for Clowney, the Seahawks’ pass rush would have been relatively non-existent on their journey to the playoffs. The former Houston Texans star will come at a high price, but perhaps a worthwhile one for win-now teams.
Chris Harris Jr. – Denver Broncos
Harris represents one of the more fascinating offseason options, with his potential immediate impact drawing comparisons to Kansas City Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu and his influence after arriving from the Texans.
The cornerback will be 31 when the new season gets under way, however he offers proven adeptness in both man and zone coverage. His experience allowed the Broncos to entrust him on the outside last season having lined up in the slot for much of his career.
He will cost teams around $11m per year, according to Spotrac, after recording 56 tackles, six pass defenses, one forced fumble and one interception in his more unfamiliar outside role.
Despite his age, Harris is still among the top cornerbacks in the league and could prove a useful commodity to teams carrying youthful secondary units.
The Detroit Lions loom as a possible destination in light of the news they are seeking a trade partner for Pro Bowl cornerback Darius Slay. Joe Judge’s New York Giants could certainly benefit from a veteran presence in the backfield, while the Philadelphia Eagles may also be in the market for a pass-breaking playmaker of his guile.
Shaquil Barrett – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Shaquil Barrett is likely to attract a host of suitors this offseason, although it seems the 27-year-old is more than happy to stay with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Barrett led the NFL in with 19.5 sacks last season, as well as chipping in with 58 tackles, six forced fumbles, two pass defenses and one interception.
The unrestricted free agent is valued at just under $16m per year by Spotrac having signed a one-year contract worth $5m back in March 2019.
Speaking on Sirius XM Mad Dog Radio, Barrett said: “If [other teams] offer me more than Tampa, I’m going to look at the places, if they offer me more than Tampa, I’m going to look at what their taxes is compared to Tampa’s. Because I ain’t going to live in L.A. and get taxed crazy.
“I’m not going to take drastically less but I am open to doing what I think is best for my career, and I think that would be staying in Tampa.”
Whether they turn to their franchise tag or opt to stump up on a long-term deal, Tampa appear to have first dibs on the former Bronco.
Yannick Ngakoue – Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville Jaguars general manager David Caldwell spoke confidently in January about the team’s chances of re-signing free agent defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, labelling the deal as an offseason priority for the organisation.
The Jaguars’ estimated cap space stands at $22,865,754, per Spotrac, after they declined defensive tackle Marcell Dareus’ $19.5m option for the 2020 season. That said, it remains to be seen whether the team will be prepared to sacrifice other areas in order to bring back their 2016 third-round draft pick.
One option they are faced with is applying the franchise tag to Ngakoue, who recently hinted at a possible departure with the words “Next stop…” on Twitter.
In a tough season in Jacksonville, Ngakoue produced 41 tackles, a team-high eight sacks, six pass defenses, one interception and four forced fumbles. He has a total of 122 tackles and 37.5 sacks as a leading influence in his four seasons with the team, which promises to leave the Jaguars facing some costly offseason business.
If the Jags don’t pay him, there are others who certainly will.
The Giants again pose as a logical landing spot given their desperate need for a pass rusher and the team’s cap space. Should the Buccaneers lose Barrett they too could find themselves in search of a replacement, particularly Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul set to hit free agency.
Having addressed their pass rush with the signing of Justin Houston last year, the Indianapolis Colts could look to bolster their win-now team again with the addition of another defensive playmaker.
It will take shifting some contracts, but the Jags appear in the driving seat should they wish to keep Ngakoue.
Byron Jones – Dallas Cowboys
The ears of cornerback-needy teams across the league will have perked up after Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News reported the Cowboys were planning to let Byron Jones hit free agency this offseason.
Jones, who turns 28 in September, had been in franchise tag contention, however the Cowboys appear ready to relinquish his services in order to pay wide receiver Amari Cooper and ensure they are well-positioned to tie down quarterback Dak Prescott.
According to Spotrac, Jones will cost teams around $14m per season, which would put him alongside some of the highest-paid corners in the league such as the Baltimore Ravens’ Marcus Peters and the New York Jets’ Trumaine Johnson.
Jones supplied 46 tackles, six pass defenses and one forced fumble last year and has missed just one game in his five seasons in the NFL.
Staying in the NFC East is a possibility as the Giants look to find a veteran replacement for Janoris Jenkins, who was released in December before signing for the New Orleans Saints.
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