GREEN BAY, Wis. – While some impact players remain as the second week of NFL free agency gets under way, the league mostly has moved into the bargain-hunting phase.
After making a series of big splashes last offseason, Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst settled on only a pair of midpriced veterans this year with linebacker Christian Kirksey and right tackle Rick Wagner. In the second of a two-part series (the offense is here), we find one under-the-radar player at each position on defense who could help the Packers, with the caveat of being age 28 or younger.
Mike Pennel, Kansas City (28): The Packers know Pennel well, having spent the 2015 through 2017 seasons with the team. In free agency, there might not be a better pure run defender than the 330-pound Pennel. He started five games in three seasons for the Packers and 10 games for the Jets in 2017 and 2018 before coming off the bench in eight appearances for the Chiefs in 2019. Among defensive linemen with at least 50 run-defending snaps, Pennel ranked No. 1 in ProFootballFocus.com’s run-stop percentage, a metric that essentially measures impact tackles.
Video: Free-agent linebackers are going, going, gone
Kamalei Correa, Tennessee (25): A second-round pick in 2016 by Baltimore – where Packers director of football operations Milt Hendrickson worked at the time – Correa set career highs in 2019 with five sacks, six tackles for losses, 37 tackles and five starts. According to Pro Football Focus, he had 14 pressures in the regular season but nine (with two sacks) in the playoffs. He is excellent in coverage, should the Packers be looking to replace Kyler Fackrell.
Darron Lee, N.Y. Jets (25): Even when there is years of NFL experience on film, draft grades matter. It’s a point Gutekunst has made a number of times. In the 2016 draft, Lee was considered one of the top off-the-ball linebacker prospects available. At the Scouting Combine, he ran his 40 in 4.47 seconds. He’s been decent, with 94 tackles, three sacks, nine tackles for losses and two forced fumbles in 2017 and 74 tackles, three interceptions and five passes defensed in 2018. In 2019, the Jets declined his fifth-year option and shipped him to the Chiefs for a sixth-round pick. He had 31 tackles in 16 games (two starts).
Ross Cockrell, Carolina (28): A fourth-round pick in 2014, Cockrell has played for four teams despite consistently solid play. In five healthy seasons, he has seven interceptions. After missing the 2018 season with a broken leg, Cockrell had two interceptions and eight passes defensed in 14 games (11 starts) in 2019. According to Sports Info Solutions, he’s allowed a career completion rate of just 51.4 percent. He has experience outside and in the slot. With 4.56 speed in the 40 at the 2014 Combine, he’s more a matchup player than a stopper.
Curtis Riley, Las Vegas (27): Riley intercepted a career-high four passes for the Giants in 2018. He took a free-agent visit to Green Bay but landed with the Raiders, where he had no interceptions and just one pass breakup in 16 games (three starts). At least he cleaned up his tackling after an appalling 22 misses in 2018, with his missed-tackle rate going from 23.4 percent to 13.2 percent, according to SIS. At Fresno State’s pro day in 2015, he measured 6-foot and ran his 40 in 4.49 seconds.
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