NFL free agency preview: Defensive line

Monday February 27th, 2017

The 2017 draft is loaded with edge rushers. The 2017 free-agent class could be chock full of outstanding interior defenders.

Just how exciting the D-line group looks when free agency begins on March 9 (after the “legal tampering window” opens on March 7) will depend in large part on how many of the big-name defensive tackles actually make it to the market. Carolina used the franchise tag on Kawann Short, but Johnathan Hankins (Giants), Brandon Williams (Ravens), Bennie Logan (Eagles) and Dontari Poe (Chiefs) are among the others who may be allowed to walk.

Many of the possibilities off the edge technically qualify as linebackers—we’ll get to them in a separate post.

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2017 NFL draft rankings: Top prospects by position

More on the D-line group about to hit free agency:

Cream of the Crop: Calais Campbell

Now that the Cardinals have set aside their franchise tag for OLB Chandler Jones, it’ll be borderline impossible for Arizona to squeeze in a hefty contract for Campbell, too. A Pro Bowler in 2014 and ’15 and a consistent performer up front for the past eight seasons, Campbell (31 in September) will have no shortage of suitors as a free agent.

Campbell should be the top target for any base 3–4 team, as he spent the majority of his Arizona career excelling as an end in that scheme. However, he is a fit for any system, because of his experience playing out of a DT alignment.

Campbell has averaged 7.0 sacks per season since 2009, and he had 8.0 last year, with three fumble recoveries and six pass deflections. He remains an impact performer.

Ideal team fit: Titans. Again, name just about any team and Campbell makes sense. That said, the Titans have the money available to make a couple of big splashes this off-season. Nabbing Campbell certainly would count. A Campbell–Jurrell Casey combo would be hard for opponents to handle.

Bargain Bin: Alan Branch

Non-pass rushing tackles approaching their mid-30s tend to find the pickings rather slim when free agency calls. That will likely be the case for Branch, 32, should the Patriots fail to re-sign him. They might make it a priority in the coming days, though, considering how important the 350-pounder has been as an anchor inside for them.

Branch’s most notable contribution to the 2016 season came during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI, when he pounced on a fumble forced by teammate Dont’a Hightower. The Patriots trailed by 16 at the time, but the turnover flipped the game’s momentum for good. Of course, the Patriots’ defense may have been weaker all season were it not for Branch. With him filling up space inside, New England held its opponents below 4.0 yards per carry.

Per Football Outsiders, Branch played about 59% of the Patriots’ defensive snaps this season—second on the team to Chris Long’s 64%, but hardly an excessive workload. He is a rotational defender, built to force teams into third-and-long by wiping out early-down run plays.

There’s less a market for that type of player than for a dominant pass rusher, but Branch still appears to have gas left in the tank.

Ideal team fit: Broncos. Far too ineffective up the middle on defense last season, Denver was recently in the hunt for Earl Mitchell, who signed with San Francisco. Branch, who has about 50 pounds on Mitchell, actually has been the better player the past two seasons.

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Overpay Alert: Dontari Poe

The initial player listed here, Jason Pierre-Paul, reportedly was hit Monday with the Giants’ franchise tag, which would keep him in tow through the 2017 season at around $17 million—barring a restructured, long-term contract. That’s preferable to handing Pierre-Paul several years at $15 million or so per, but it’s still a hefty price tag. Pierre-Paul played well last season, yet also missed four games with a sports-hernia injury. For his salary, he needs to be an impact player for the entire season.

It’s going to be much the same conversation for Poe, and any player who commands elite-level money as a free agent. There is no denying Poe’s raw talent, nor how dominant he can be at times. He just hasn’t been as consistent a force the past two seasons as he was in years 1–3 of his NFL career.

That likely won’t stop him from cleaning up, if he gets out of Kansas City. Poe is still just 26 (he’ll turn 27 in August) and can handle a heavy workload—he led all Chiefs D-linemen by playing 73% of his defense’s snaps this past year. But he’s also coming off the least productive statistical season of his career (27 tackles, 1.5 sacks).

Ideal team fit: Texans. Even if Poe has to become more of a rotational player moving forward, how’s a Jadeveon Clowney–Poe–J.J. Watt front sound? Poe wouldn’t find more of an opportunity to make plays up front than the freedom those presences on the edge would provide. Vince Wilfork’s departure could leave the Texans searching for a little beef in the middle.

Teams most in need of defensive line help: Cardinals, Falcons, Bills, Bears, Bengals, Broncos, Lions, Colts, Chiefs, Patriots, Saints, Giants, Raiders, Eagles, Seahawks, 49ers, Buccaneers, Titans, Redskins.

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