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By the Numbers

Evaluating Key Defensive Free Agency Signings

by Ian Hartitz
Updated On: March 24, 2020, 9:07 am ET

The majority of key free agents have been signed after a hectic week of moves.

Rotoworld has you covered with everything that's gone down throughout the week:

What follows is a breakdown on some of the week's biggest signings on the defensive side of the ball. This will focus more on the biggest signings across the defensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary, with plenty of honorable mention notes along the way. Lastly we'll take a quick look at some of the biggest names that remain unsigned.

Note that the only signings discussed are players joining new teams, and the players aren't listed in any particular order.


Defensive line

Falcons DE Dante Fowler

Fowler is a prototype edge defender that has been terrorizing opposing QBs since grade school:

  • 6-foot-3 and 261-pounds
  • 4.6-second 40-yard dash
  • 92nd-percentile Speed Score (Player Profiler)
  • No. 3 overall pick of the 2015 draft

The Jaguars and Rams veteran has totaled 27.5 sacks in 63 games, but showed signs of becoming a consistent disruptor in 2019. Overall, Fowler's 67 pressures were tied for the 12th most among all edge defenders last season. He has the type of bend and talent to be this year's sneaky-great upside signing and could help the Falcons Defense *maybe* inch back towards average in 2020.

Bengals DT D.J. Reader

Reader started 52 games for the Texans over the past four seasons, regularly helping fortify the interior of the line to complement J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. PFF graded him as their No. 40, No. 31, No. 38 ... and most-recently No. 5 best interior defender.

The former fifth-round pick has the type of size (6-foot-2 and 327-pounds) and versatility (played 58% snaps in 2019) to rarely leave the field for a Cincinnati defense that needs all the help they can get.

Still, it's tough to give either defense the benefit of the doubt at this point. The Texans and Bengals were the only two defenses to allow more than six yards per play last season.

Bears DE Robert Quinn

2020 will mark Quinn's 10th year in the league. He totaled at least 10.5 sacks from 2012-2014 to earn himself a fat payday, but fell off in his later years with the Rams, and struggled to get much going with the Dolphins.

Then 2019 happened, and the NFL was reminded about how terrifying a locked-in version of Quinn can be roaring off the edge.

Overall, Quinn's 57 pressures from Weeks 3-17 were tied for the 13th-highest mark in the league. He should continue to see plenty of single blocks while offensive lines are worried about Khalil Mack.

Eagles DT Javon Hargrave

The Steelers got the most out of their former third-round pick, as Hargrave played 63-of-64 potential games over the past four seasons. It remains to be seen how life will be without the likes T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, but Hargrave at least appears to carry a decent floor thanks to his proven ability to improve over the years:

  • 2016: PFF's No. 68 overall interior defender
  • 2017: No. 37
  • 2018: No. 23
  • 2019: No. 8

Luckily, Hargrave will again be surrounded by plenty of talented teammates in Philly. The Eagles needed to address both the interior of their defensive line as well as cornerback this offseason – and they've managed to achieve both goals in style.

Ravens DT Michael Brockers

Brockers started 121 games with the Rams after they selected him with the 14th overall pick of the 2012 draft. Obviously he's benefited from playing next to Aaron Donald over the years, but there's plenty of talent here as well. Brockers has regularly ranked among the league's more disruptive interior pass rushers, most recently totaling 36 pressures in 2019 (No. 19 among all interior defenders).

The Ravens blitzed on a league-high 54.9% of their opponent's dropbacks last season. Tampa Bay (43%) was the only other defense that surpassed even the 40% threshold. Continuing to add pieces like Brockers should help this pass rush continue to improve, and ideally they won't have to leave their secondary so isolated in the future.

Honorable mention

  • Bills DE Mario Addison: Addison played on five teams during his first two seasons in the league before hunkering down with the Panthers since 2012. Any team could use a pass-rushing stud like Addison. Only Chandler Jones also has at least nine sacks in each of the past four seasons.
  • Bills DT Vernon Butler: Butler played 52 games with the Panthers since being drafted with the No. 30 overall pick in 2016 draft. He set career-high marks in pretty much everything in 2019, although PFF ultimately graded him as just the league's No. 95 overall interior defender among 121 qualified players.
  • Raiders DT Maliek Collins: Only Chiefs DT Chris Jones had a better pass rush win rate with a similar double team rate among all interior defenders who were in the last season of their contract in 2019 (per ESPN's Seth Walder). Collins is still just 24 years old and possesses extremely underrated pass-rushing ability.
  • Bills DE Quinton Jefferson: The ex-Seahawks DL is capable of lining up all over the defensive front and provides some pass-rush prowess to go along with solid run-stuffing ability. Jefferson will provide depth in Buffalo behind Ed Oliver and Star Lotulelei.
  • Chargers DT Linval Joseph: Joseph started 134 games with the Giants and Viking from 2010-2019. He's not a great bet to dominate on all three downs these days, but Joseph will still provide a run-stuffing presence that the league's No. 20 defense in adjusted line yards allowed per rush will surely appreciate.
  • Dolphins DE Shaq Lawson: The former No. 19 overall pick of the 2016 draft was largely a bust in Buffalo, totaling a middling 16.5 sacks and 38 QB hits in 50 games. The good news is that he showed some progression in 2019, grading out as PFF's No. 43 pass-rushing edge defender among 123 qualified players.
  • Cowboys DT Gerald McCoy: The former No. 3 overall pick of the 2010 draft failed to live up to past expectations during his lone season in Carolina, serving as a middling starter on the league's single-worst run defense. The Cowboys need McCoy to resume his old ways in order for their defense to get back to the dominance they showed in 2018.
  • Raiders DE Carl Nassib: The former third-round pick underwent a bit of a career resurgence in Tampa Bay, totaling 12.5 sacks over the past two seasons after racking up just 5.5 sacks from 2016-2017 with the Browns. The league's No. 27 ranked pass rush in adjusted sack rate can use all the help they can get.
  • Dolphins DE Emmanuel Ogbah: The No. 32 overall pick of the 2016 draft found more success in Kansas City last season than he did in Cleveland from 2016-2018. Still, Ogbah played fewer than 50% of the defense's snaps in all but five games last season and shouldn't be relied on for a full-time role.
  • Cardinals DT Jordan Phillips: Phillips is absolutely massive (6-foot-5 and 329-pounds) and racked up nearly twice as many sacks in 2019 (9.5) as he did in 2015-2018 combined (5.5). The Cardinals' pass rush could get scary in a hurry if they can find a consistent interior penetrator to complement Chandler Jones.
  • Cowboys DT Dontari Poe: The former No. 11 overall pick of the 2012 draft has started 118 games for the Chiefs, Falcons and Panthers over the past eight seasons. Poe typically played a near every-down role prior to joining Carolina; it's unclear if his role in previous seasons is more indicative of his current skill or the scheme. At the very least, Poe remains a proven option in the interior that can be relied on against the pass and run alike.
  • Rams DT A'Shawn Robinson: The former second-round pick was a productive run-stuffing DT for the Lions over the past four seasons, but just 14 QB hits in 58 career games paints the picture of a true two-down player. The good news is he should see more single blocks while playing next to Aaron Donald.
  • Lions DT Danny Shelton: The former No. 12 overall pick of the 2015 draft played in 29 games with the Patriots over the last two seasons after flaming out in Cleveland. Shelton is one of many former-Patriots defenders that joined the Lions this offseason to team up with former-Patriots DC Matt Patricia.

Linebacker

Raiders LB Cory Littleton

There aren't many defenders that have Littleton's three-down ability. The play-making LB has ranked among the leaders at his position in combined pressures, pass deflections, interceptions and forced fumbles since becoming a full-time player in 2018:

  • 2018: 25 (No. 6 among all LBs)
  • 2019: 27 (tied for No. 5)

The Rams will miss Littleton's coverage ability dearly, while the Raiders will now cherish it. Overall, Gruden's grinders ranked poorly against No. 1 WRs (29th in DVOA), No. 2 WRs (31st), other WRs (13th), TEs (18th) and RBs (31st) alike in 2019 (Football Outsiders).

Jaguars LB Joe Schobert

The former fourth-round pick from the 2016 draft will be 27 in November. He's played in all but three games over the last four seasons. Schobert has performed admirably in recent history, ranking 12th and eighth over the past two seasons, respectively, in combined pressures, pass deflections, interceptions and forced fumbles among all LBs.

The importance of this signing for Jacksonville can't be understated. Six LBs finished last season on injured reserve, and the Jaguars were easily the league's second-worst run defense behind only the Panthers.

Giants LB Blake Martinez

The Packers' 2016 fourth-round pick has totaled at least 140 tackles in each of the past three seasons. Martinez has flashed the ability to work as a true three-down LB over the years, although it's tough to give him too much credit for his recent performance. Overall, only the Dolphins allowed more adjusted line yards per rush than the Packers in 2019.

The good news is Martinez fills a major position of need for the Giants after free-agent bust Alec Ogletree was released. Nobody entered free agency with fewer 2020 cap dollars devoted to the defensive side of the ball than the Giants.

Lions LB Jamie Collins

This career has been quite the tale of what Bill Belichick can do for a talented defender. Let's take a look at Collins' timeline:

  • 2013: Drafted 52nd overall to Patriots
  • 2016: Traded to Browns for 2016 third-round pick after making a Pro Bowl
  • 2017: Signed four year, $50 million contract with Browns
  • 2019: Cut by the Browns after failing to live up to expectations
  • 2019: Re-signed with the Patriots on a pedestrian one year contract with just $250,000 in guaranteed money
  • 2020: Signed three year, $30 million contract with Lions after balling out with the Patriots again the previous season

Collins possesses rare ability to thrive in all facets of the game when properly motivated and used. Look for his former defensive coordinator in Matt Patricia to get the most out of this LB's ridiculous physical talents.

Honorable mention

  • Titans OLB Vic Beasley: The former No. 8 overall pick racked up 15.5 sacks back in 2016 and has missed just two games during his five-year career. Still, Beasley is a prime example of a pass rusher that might rack up some sacks, but doesn't get enough consistent pressure to be considered a legit game-changing talent.
  • Redskins LB Thomas Davis: The 37-year-old LB will team up with coach Ron Rivera in Washington. Davis racked up 112 tackles and 16 starts in his lone season with the Chargers, although it's fair to wonder how much longer this two-down LB is capable of making a (positive) difference.
  • Cardinals OLB Devon Kennard: The former fifth-round pick started 31-of-32 games for the Lions over the past two seasons, managing to rack up 14 sacks along the way. Ideally the Cardinals' improved pass rush will help a defense that was bad against No. 1 WRs (27th in DVOA), TEs (32nd) and RBs (30th) alike last season.
  • Packers LB Christian Kirksey: Injuries have largely been the only thing to hold Kirksey back during his six-year career, as he's played in just nine games over the past two seasons after suiting up in 64 straight games from 2014-2017. He provides much needed assistance to the league's second-worst defense in adjusted line yards allowed per rush.
  • Bills LB A.J. Klein: Klein started 30 games for the Saints over the past two seasons after spending the first four seasons of his career in Carolina. Still, expectations should be managed for PFF's No. 84 overall LB from a season ago.
  • Dolphins OLB Kyle Van Noy: Van Noy had a bit of a breakout season in 2019, setting career-high marks in sacks (6.5), QB hits (15) and forced fumbles (3). He'll be familiar with former-Patriots coach Brian Flores' scheme. The Dolphins need all the help they can get at all three levels of the defense.
  • Panthers LB Tahir Whitehead: Whitehead has started 87 games for the Lions and Raiders since 2012. He's racked up at least 100 tackles in each of the past four seasons, but graded out as one of PFF's worst coverage LBs in 2019. Still, the Panthers' league-worst run defense can use all the help they can get.

Continue to the next page for free agency's key signings in the secondary as well as a look at some of the top remaining unsigned defenders.

Ian Hartitz

All things NFL. Great day to be great. You can follow Ian on Twitter @Ihartitz.