Trailing only quarterbacks, edge defenders are the next highest-paid position in the NFL. Led by Myles Garrett, Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack, edge players are paid at a premium to try and slow down the elite quarterbacks of the NFL.
Edge players are 4-3 defensive ends or 3-4 outside linebackers and have the primary role of rushing the quarterback from the edges of the defensive line — hence the name.
The Kansas City Chiefs are in dire need of more edge talent. Frank Clark has been unspectacular since the Chiefs traded for him two years ago and Mike Danna is a fine role-player, but it is hard to project him as anything more than that. Other than Clark and Danna, all the remaining Chiefs defensive ends who played meaningful snaps in 2021 are free agents. There are murmurs that the Chiefs will be looking to this free agency class at edge to try and fill out the pass-rushing room and give the defensive line a serious third pass rusher to pair with Clark and defensive tackle Chris Jones.
Along with the edge position, the interior defensive line players will also be covered in today's installment of The Seven Days of Free Agency. While the players on the interior of the defensive line are not as exciting as the edge-rushers, building a quality middle elevates a defense as well.
So now, on day four of The Seven Days of Free Agency series, it is time to examine what players are available on the defensive line in the 2021 free agency class.
Note: The abbreviation "TFL" stands for "tackles for loss" while "iDL" stands for "interior defensive line."
The Cream of the Crop
Shaquil Barrett - (Buccaneers, EDGE, 15 games played/8 sacks/57 tackles/11 TFL)
Dalvin Tomlinson - (Giants, iDL, 16 games played/3.5 sacks/49 tackles/8 TFL)
Shelby Harris - (Broncos, iDL, 11 games played/2.5 sacks/32 tackles/4 TFL)
Carl Lawson - (Bengals, EDGE, 16 games played/5.5 sacks/36 tackles/4 TFL)
The franchise tag deadline has come and gone, and the Buccaneers have chosen to franchise tag Chris Godwin. This means that Shaquil Barrett is a free agent. While it seems likely that Barrett will remain with the Buccaneers, teams will be lining up Brink's trucks in Tampa to lure him away.
While Carl Lawson's 2020 season is not too impressive on the stat sheet, Lawson did accrue an impressive amount of pressures last year with 44. Factoring in his age and athletic profile as a player, Lawson could land a monster contract from an NFL team looking for a 4-3 defensive end.
Shelby Harris and Dalvin Tomlinson are the interior defensive linemen that stand above the rest in this class. Harris has been an impressive pass rusher over his career and he pairs those pass-rushing chops with good run defense. Tomlinson is cut from a different cloth; Dalvin is a 1-tech. Even though it is rare to see a 1-tech defensive tackle rush the passer well, Tomlinson is able to do so while also stonewalling running backs that enter his gaps. Both players are under 30 years old and should see big paydays this year.
The Quality Starters
Melvin Ingram - (Chargers, EDGE, 7 games played/0 sacks/10 tackles/0 TFL)
Trent Murphy - (Buffalo, EDGE, 10 games played/2 sacks/19 tackles/3 TFL)
Matt Judon - (Ravens, 14 games played/6 sacks/50 tackles/9 TFL)
Carlos Dunlap - (Seahawks, EDGE, 15 games played/6 sacks/32 tackles/8 tTFL)
Olivier Vernon - (Browns, EDGE, 14 games played/9 sacks/36 tackles/12 TFL)
Yannick Ngakoue - (Ravens, EDGE, 15 games played/8 sacks/23 tackles/7 TFL)
Justin Houston - (Colts, EDGE, 16 games played/8 sacks/25 tackles/8 TFL)
Lawrence Guy - (Patriots, iDL, 14 games played/2 sacks/57 tackles/4 TFL)
Denico Autry - (Colts, EDGE/iDL, 14 games played/7.5 sacks/33 tackles/9 TFL)
Derek Wolfe - (Ravens, iDL, 14 games played/1 sacks/51 tackles/6 TFL)
Sheldon Rankins - (Saints, iDL, 12 games played/1.5 sacks/20 tackles/3 TFL)
Tyson Alualu - (Steelers, iDL, 15 games played/2 sacks/38 tackles/4 TFL)
Compiled mostly of veterans, this group of players will provide a certain level of play for whoever signs them.
The only player with a question mark going into 2021 is Melvin Ingram, who dealt with a bad knee injury in 2020 and basically lost the season to it as he tried to play through the injury. When healthy, Ingram has proven himself as a capable pass-rusher and the NFL is always in demand for capable QB-disruptors.
For a few of the players in this group, like Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue, this will be their first chance at a big payday. These players coming off rookie deals could leverage their age and resume to sign a contract with a healthy amount of money and years.
All the players in this group have established themselves in the NFL and their contracts will probably reflect that fact. If a team signed Olivier Vernon, for example, that team knows they are getting an above-average pass-rusher who is an excellent complementary piece to an elite pass-rusher on the other side of the defensive line. There is value in that security.
The Older Guys with Juice
Ryan Kerrigan - (Washington, EDGE, 16 games played/5.5 sacks/17 tackles/5 TFL)
Ndamukong Suh - (Buccaneers, iDL, 16 games played/6 sacks/44 tackles/9 TFL)
Everson Griffen - (Lions, EDGE, 14 games played/6 sacks/33 tackles/7 TFL)
Johnathan Hankins - (Raiders, iDL, 16 games played/1 sacks/48 tackles/1 TFL)
Markus Golden - (Giants, EDGE, 16 games played/4.5 sacks/33 tackles/6 TFL)
Pernell McPhee - (Ravens, EDGE, 15 games played/3 sacks/34 tackles/3 TFL)
Corey Peters - (Cardinals, iDL, 9 games played/2 sacks/15 tackles/3 TFL)
Kawann Short - (Panthers, iDL, 3 games played/0 sacks/6 tackles/0 TFL)
Steve McLendon - (Buccaneers, iDL, 15 games played/0 sacks/31 tackles/2 TFL)
Mike Daniels - (Bengals, iDL, 11 games played/0 sacks/17 tackles/1 TFL)
Barkevious Mingo - (Bears, EDGE, 16 games played/2.5 sacks/35 tackles/3 TFL)
Adrian Clayborn - (Browns, EDGE, 15 games played/3.5 sacks/12 tackles/3 TFL)
Even though the players in this group are over the age of 30, they do provide some juice along the defensive line. On a cheap one-year deal in the right system, many of these players can be pass-rush specialists, dedicated run-stuffers, or quality backups for most teams in the league.
After almost a decade with the Washington Football Team, Ryan Kerrigan looks likely to take his talents elsewhere. Kerrigan is not the player he once was, but as a pass-rushing specialist, he will perform adequately for where ever he goes next.
In the same vein as Kerrigan, Markus Golden and Everson Griffen will be very useful for a team looking for a pass rush specialist. Golden has been floating around the league for many years now turning in quality seasons rushing the passer and it does not seem like that will stop in 2021.
Many of the interior defensive linemen will be relegated to depth or run-defense duties at this point of their career. Only Ndamukong Suh has real upside as a pass-rusher on the inside. Kawann Short would be an intriguing name if not for his shoulder injuries that has limited Short to only five games played in the last two years.
The Players with Upside and Question Marks
Bud Dupree - (Steelers, EDGE, 11 games played/8 sacks/31 tackles/8 TFL)
Romeo Okwara - (Lions, EDGE, 16 games played/10 sacks/44 tackles/11 TFL)
Aldon Smith - (Cowboys, EDGE, 16 games played/5 sacks/48 tackles/5 TFL)
Jadeveon Clowney - (Titans, EDGE, 8 games played/0 sacks/19 tackles/4 TFL)
Jurrell Casey - (Broncos, iDL, 3 games played/0 sacks/14 tackles/1 TFL)
Leonard Floyd - (Rams, EDGE, 16 games played/10.5 sacks/55 tackles/11 TFL)
Larry Ogunjobi - (Browns, 15 games played/2.5 sacks/35 tackles/3 TFL)
Kerry Hyder - (49ers, iDL, 16 games played/8.5 sacks/49 tackles/10 TFL)
Tarell Basham - (Jets, EDGE, games played/3.5 sacks/36 tackles/5 TFL)
Trey Hendrickson - (Saints, EDGE, 15 games played/13.5 sacks/25 tackles/12 TFL)
Haason Reddick - (Cardinals, EDGE, 16 games played/12.5 sacks/63 tackles/15 TFL)
This group of players is the most intriguing of the 2021 free agents on the defensive line. Many of these players had good-to-great 2020 seasons but, for various reasons, there are question marks whether they will repeat that performance in 2021.
It is hard to tell if Jadeveon Clowney and Jurrell Casey can return to form after terrible 2020 seasons. Both players had a lot of expectations placed on them going into the year, but their seasons missed those expectations by a mile. Either player could provide a team a low-risk, high-reward signing if the money it takes to sign them stays low.
The Dallas Cowboys signed Aldon Smith in 2020 as a low-risk, high-reward addition and it paid off for both the Cowboys and Smith. Smith had missed the four years prior to 2020 because of various drug and behavioral suspensions by the NFL. Smith did not miss a beat on his return to the NFL and turned in a solid year that should earn him a decent second contract somewhere.
The trio of Hendrickson, Okwara, and Reddick all had the best year of their careers, by far, in 2020. All three hit double-digit sacks for the first time. The concern is the fact that this career year happened in the last year of these players' rookie deals. Was the increase in production because the player finally had things click for them, or was it for a shakier, flukier reason? It will be up to teams to figure out why these three balled out, but if teams do their homework and figure out which player is here to stay, the rewards could be huge for a manageable price.
The Low-End Starters
Tyus Bowser - (Ravens, EDGE, 16 games played/2 sacks/34 tackles/4 TFL)
Jordan Jenkins - (Jets, EDGE, 12 games played/2 sacks/32 tackles/3 TFL)
Roy Robertson-Harris - (Bears, iDL, 8 games played/0 sacks/10 tackles/1 TFL)
Brent Urban - (Bears, iDL, 16 games played/2.5 sacks/36 tackles/2 TFL)
Samson Ebukam - (Rams, EDGE, 16 games played/4.5 sacks/33 tackles/6 TFL)
Henry Anderson - (Jets, EDGE, 16 games played/0.5 sacks/42 tackles/4 TFL)
Jeremiah Attaochu - (Broncos, EDGE, 13 games played/5 sacks/31 tackles/6 TFL)
Deatrich Wise - (Patriots, iDL, 16 games played/2.5 sacks/49 tackles/2 TFL)
If a team needs a contributor on the defensive line but does not have a ton of money to spend, this is the group of players to be interested in when free agency starts.
Most of these players are younger and are proven as depth or rotational defensive linemen over the first few years of their careers. Roy Robertson-Harris, Brent Urban, and Deatrick Wise, especially, have shown their ability as mainstays in the middle of their team's defensive line. The current state of the NFL does not value these big guys with limited upside on passing downs, however, so they will be cheaper to acquire.
Tyus Bowser and Samson Ebukam are at the end of their rookie deals with the Ravens and Rams, respectively, and while the two players are not dominant edge-rushers, they are at least adequate and could continue to evolve as a player into an every-down edge rusher.
The Rotational/Backup Depth
Margus Hunt (Bengals), Tyrone Crawford (Cowboys), DaQuan Jones (Titans), Stephen Weatherly (Panthers), Maliek Collins (Raiders), Kyler Fackrell (Giants), Allen Bailey (Falcons), Brennan Scarlett (Texans), Adam Butler (Patriots), Benson Mayowa (Seahawks), Alex Okafor (Chiefs), John Simon (Patriots), Damion Square (Chargers), Christian Covington (Bengals), Rakeem Nunez-Roches (Buccaneers), DeMarcus Walker (Broncos), Jack Crawford (Titans), Tanoh Kpassagnon (Chiefs), Jabaal Sheard (Giants), Mike Pennel (Chiefs), Dawuane Smoot (Jaguars), Xavier Williams (Bengals), Angelo Blackson (Cardinals), Adam Gotsis (Jaguars), Steven Means (Falcons), Isaac Rochell (Chargers), Jaleel Johnson (Vikings), Carlos Watkins (Texans), Al-Quadin Muhammad (Colts), Antwaun Woods (Cowboys)
Need a couple of depth players to fill out the defensive line? Look no further than the players listed here.
This list is an amalgamation of various types of defensive lineman. From long-time journeyman like Margus Hunt to unknown depth players like Carlos Watkins, this list has all types of defensive line players that NFL teams would need. Not all of these players will sign on to a team in 2021, but some will and it is entirely possible one of these players is a slam-dunk addition for a team.
Who should the Chiefs target?
There are a lot of defensive linemen in free agency, as there always is. That does not mean all the players listed will fit the Chiefs' scheme.
On the interior, the Chiefs would be looking for a backup to Derrick Nnadi if they signed anyone. Re-signing Mike Pennel or going for an interior defensive lineman from The Low-End Starters or The Rotational/Backup Depth would fill this spot on the depth chart. With Chris Jones and Derrick Nnadi locked in as starters, it is hard to see the Chiefs making a play at a player like Shelby Harris.
When it comes to scheme fit at defensive end, it seems difficult for a player like Leonard Floyd to play well with his hand in the dirt as a Steve Spagnuolo defensive end. Floyd comes in at only 240 lbs and has played standing up as a 3-4 outside linebacker for his whole career in the NFL. Floyd is also not the type of player that Steve Spagnuolo likes at defensive end anyway, so the point is moot.
So what players are built from the mold that Steve Spagnuolo prefers at the edge?
Three names jump out at defensive end: Ryan Kerrigan, Romeo Okwara and Tarell Basham. Why do they fit? They can stick their hand in the dirt, they are at least average height for the position, they possess good power for a defensive end, and they have long arms. Steve Spagnuolo loves defensive ends with long arms.
Of those three, Romeo Okwara would be the splashiest signing. There are rumblings that Okwara is drawing a fair bit of interest as free agency nears. With the news that Detroit is officially not franchise-tagging him, the fit with the Chiefs makes too much sense to ignore. Okwara's first two years in the NFL, after all, were with the New York Giants when Steve Spagnuolo was coaching there in 2016 and 2017.
Basham and Kerrigan are solid options for the Chiefs to pursue if they are unable to court Okwara. The Chiefs lack bodies in the defensive end room as it stands and they could do far worse than these two edge defenders. In Basham's case, he is also an excellent run defender to pair with his decent pass-rushing chops, so he could start at defensive end if needed.
The defensive line class is set to be a good one, but the number of players that fit individual team's schemes is smaller than the pool as a whole. There is a reason the distinction between 3-4 outside linebacker and 4-3 defensive end exists. For the Chiefs, a team in desperate need of edge help, the pool is not large, but still has intriguing options in the depths.
With how aggressive it seems like Brett Veach will be to get an edge rusher in free agency, it feels a bit telegraphed that the Chiefs might go for a player like Okwara. Any defensive end that fits the Spagnuolo mold will be looked at by the Chiefs, as it seems like the organization is not content with the production they have gotten out of the position the last few years.
It is hard to see a world where the Chiefs do not come out of this free agency with at least one, possibly two, defensive lineman signed. The players are out there in this class of defensive line free agents, it's now up to the Chiefs to win the hearts of the player(s) they desire.