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2018 NFL Free Agency: Evaluating the Defensive Linemen and Edge Rushers

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We continue our Titans-centric look at the upcoming free agent class.

Houston Texans v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

We continue our Titans-centric look at the upcoming free agent class today with defensive linemen and EDGE rushers. If you missed the breakdown of the guards, inside linebackers, or wide receivers you can check them out via the links below.

2018 NFL Free Agency: Evaluating the Guards

2018 NFL Free Agency: Evaluating the Inside Linebackers

2018 NFL Free Agency: Evaluating the Wide Receivers

I’m kind of blending multiple positions here for a few reasons. First, there are not very many interesting options that will realistically be available on the free agent market at EDGE. But also because I feel like this is all part of one discussion: how the Titans can find a way to generate more pressure with less blitzing in 2018 and beyond.

Per PFF the Titans blitzed on 40% of passing snaps in 2017, the third highest rate in the NFL. Those blitzes were effective, helping the Titans finish tied for 5th in sacks and 7th in pressure rate according to Football Outsiders. The problem arose behind that pressure. Too often the Titans blitzes left huge holes in the back end for quarterbacks to exploit. All that resulted in a pass defense that was far more talented in the secondary than their 2016 counterparts, but only improved from 27th to 24th in pass defense DVOA.

The Titans struggled to get pressure with four throughout last season. Certain games made that all too clear. The Monday Night Football matchup with the Colts is the best example. During the first half the Titans laid back and tried to get pressure against a bad Indy offensive line with four rushers. That allowed Jacoby Brissett to pick them apart, leading three straight scoring drives of 52, 73, and 69 yards to open the game. After halftime the Titans racheted up the pressure with a seemingly constant array of blitzes and shut the Colts offense down, allowing just one scoring drive in seven second half possessions.

Blitzing a young quarterback like Brissett can be quite effective as we saw throughout 2017, but blitzing veteran guys like Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and Russell Wilson is a totally different matter. They are too good at picking up a blitz pre-snap and making an adjustment to exploit the hole created by it.

If you want to beat these types of quarterbacks that you find in the playoffs year after year, you have to find a way to get pressure with four or fewer pass rushers. I don’t think the Titans starters up front are bad, but they also aren’t difference makers outside of Jurrell Casey and it takes more than one elite talent to really create a disruptive defense in the modern NFL. The Broncos were at their best when they had Von Miller AND Demarcus Ware. The Eagles have Fletcher Cox AND Brandon Graham (not to mention Timmy Jernigan, Vinny Curry, and Derek Barnett who are also very good). The Texans at their peak had J.J. Watt AND Whitney Mercilus. You get the picture.

Brian Orakpo is still playing pretty well heading in to his 10th NFL season, but as we’ve mentioned before his contract is up after the 2018 season and its fair to wonder how much longer he can keep his play considering he will be 32 years old at the start of next season. With no clear successor currently on the roster its imperative that the Titans find one this offseason to avoid a potential crisis in 2019. Derrick Morgan is in the same boat with a contract set to expire at the end of next season, however at just 29, he may have a little more gas left in the tank. His successor on the roster should have been Kevin Dodd, but obviously the Titans can’t be comfortable putting all their eggs in that basket based on his first two years.

While I think the Titans have to draft and sign players this offseason as if Dodd will not be key part of the roster moving forward, I do think there is a chance that he could jump start his career this year. The training, practice, and game time he missed over the past two seasons due to a foot injury that required two different surgeries to repair have left a player that looks slow and out of shape. Dodd finally gets a healthy offseason in 2018 for the first time in the NFL — which is a massive deal — along with a fresh start under a new coaching staff. Mike Vrabel has been credited with being a major influence behind the development of edge rushers Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney in Houston. Neither of those guys set the NFL on fire upon arriving in the league either — though admittedly neither of them ever looked as pedestrian as Dodd has for much of these past two years. However, if he’s ever going to turn in to anything close to what the Titans drafted him to be, this is the year.

Aaron Wallace flashed at the end of his rookie season in 2016 and again in the 2017 preseason, but ended up missing the entire 2017 regular season due to a herniated disc that required surgery to correct. He’s a fantastic athlete and it will be interesting to see what this coaching staff wants to do with him. He has played both inside and outside linebacker at times for the Titans. His size at 6’-3” and 240 pounds would line up better with the inside position, but his pass rush skills and speed around the edge are something the Titans could really use as well. He’s a guy that I was really high on in preseason and I hope we see him come back full strength in 2018.

Josh Carraway looked pretty solid at times during the preseason, but he shouldn’t be counted on to be much more than a camp body until he proves otherwise. Erik Walden is set to be an unrestricted free agent so we will get to him later.

On the defensive line, the Titans return Casey — their one true difference maker up front — along with Sylvester Williams, Austin Johnson, Karl Klug, and David King. Williams was a 2017 free agent signing who came in and played decent during his first year, trailing just Casey and free-agent-to-be DaQuan Jones in snaps along the defensive line. Johnson did a really nice job filling in for Jones after he went down with a torn biceps. He plays with a violent, heavy hands and became one of my favorite under-the-radar players to watch towards the end of last season. Klug wasn’t quite his normal self in 2017 as he was returning from a torn Achilles suffered late in 2016. The hope is that he gets back closer to his usual disruptive form with more distance from the injury next season. King only played 112 snaps last year and didn’t really make much of an impression.

The Titans have a couple players hitting free agency out of this group in March so we will take a look at those guys and then get in to other options that could be available on the market.

INCUMBENTS

DaQuan Jones | Titans

Jones is a player who has quietly gotten better season after season throughout his rookie contract. He was supposed to be a plus pass rusher though and he isn’t. He is, however, an excellent run stuffer and a big reason for the Titans outstanding run defense the past couple years. That still holds value, even in a passing league. He’s not a total non-factor as a pass rusher, picking up 3.5 sacks in 2017 before going down with a season-ending biceps injury in Week 13, but that’s never going to be a strength of his game.

Jones is a 26 year old player who has been durable for the most part and has a plus skill in the NFL, but his injury is likely to depress his value a little bit. How the Titans view him will be interesting. They have a very viable starting option available in Austin Johnson, but depth is critical on the defensive line and if the Titans were to let Jones walk, they would suddenly be very thin up front. Karl Klug and David King are both very different types of players compared to Jones so they would be down to just Johnson and Williams as big body linemen who can be anchors against the run.

Jones is not going to be a solution to the Titans pass rush issues, but he’s an outstanding run defender and a great locker room presence. His ability to play nose or end gives him additional value. Tennessee could do far worse than retaining him this offseason.

Erik Walden | Titans

Walden was a last minute free agent addition right before training camp last season and ended up playing a pretty major role for Dick LeBeau’s defense. He played 655 total snaps, primarily as a pass rush specialist and at times appeared to be the best pass rusher on the team. However, he will be 33 at the beginning of next season and the Titans really need to find some youth at this position. The only scenario where I could see Walden coming back is if the team decides to skip out on the edge rushers in the 2018 draft class and kick the can down the road at this position for another year. I’m not crazy about the draft class at this spot, but leaving yourself with two aging starters heading in to their contract seasons and nothing behind them is a scary proposition at one of the most crucial positions on the field.

THE FRANCHISE TAG EDGE RUSHERS

Demarcus Lawrence | Cowboys

Lawrence is the gem of this year’s edge rusher free agent class coming off a 14.5 sack Pro Bowl season in Dallas. However, teams don’t let 26 year old difference making pass rushers walk in the NFL so the Cowboys are certain to give him the franchise tag if they don’t reach a long term deal before the March 6th deadline.

Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah | Lions

Ansah has already been tagged by the Lions so he is off the market barring an unexpected trade. He is going to be 29 to start the 2018 season and is coming off a couple seasons that have seen him struggle to stay healthy. Ansah getting the franchise tag is proof that you can’t count on the free agent market as a route to obtaining a premier pass rusher. The trade market would cost an arm and a leg so that puts a ton of pressure on teams to find pass rushers in the draft.

TROUBLED EX-JETS

Sheldon Richardson | Seahawks

The two ex-Jets are the most talented players that have a chance to realistically reach the open market but both come with significant red flags. Richardson is reportedly not going to be franchise tagged by the Seahawks so he seems poised to hit the market on March 14th. The Seahawks certainly haven’t closed the door on bringing him back though so there is a chance that they consider the transition tag or reach a long term agreement before that time, but as of now it seems like a good chance that he gets to the market.

Richardson is just 27 years old, but he’s a tough guy to evaluate. He came in to the league as the 13th overall pick in the 2013 draft and immediately was a difference maker for the Jets, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2013 and then becoming a Pro Bowler in 2014. Since then things have gone downhill for Richardson. He was suspended 4 games at the start of the 2015 season for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Shortly after the announcement of his suspension was announced, he was arrested for multiple traffic violations and resisting arrest when an officer found him going 143 miles per hour with a 12-year old child, a loaded gun, and a smell of marijuana in the vehicle. He narrowly avoided a felony child endangerment charge. That incident resulted in a one game suspension to start the 2016 season.

In addition to his suspension issues, Richardson was a divisive presence in New York as his frequent public shots at wide receiver Brandon Marshall helped contribute to (and may also have been a symptom of) a toxic locker room situation. As these issues continued to pile up, his play on the field diminished as his sack total dropped from 8 in 2014 to 5 in 2015 and 1.5 in 2016 before he was finally traded to Seattle before the 2017 season. With the Seahawks he managed to stay out of the headlines. He only managed a single sack on the season, but PFF credited him with 36 pressures and had him ranked 7th among all defensive tackles in their Pass Rush Productivity metric.

Richardson can still be a disruptive force on the interior and after a season of good behavior teams will have to decide whether they feel like they can be comfortable committing to him long term. In the Titans defense he would likely play in DaQuan Jones’ 3-4 DE spot in the base defense, but would also give the team a pair of extremely dangerous interior pass rushers when they go to their four man fronts in nickel. That would probably mean bumping Austin Johnson inside to nose tackle in base fronts creating a formidable and versatile trio of defensive linemen for Dean Pees to work with.

Spotrac is projecting a 5 year, $60M deal for him and that sounds about right. Given his off field issues I would expect teams to protect themselves with a contract that won’t cripple them if he returns to his off field and locker room antics. Richardson certainly doesn’t fit the “J-Rob type” when it comes to free agency, but his talent is rarely available so it may be something that’s worth looking in to for the Titans.

Muhammad Wilkerson | Jets

Richardson’s former teammate also finds himself looking for a new home this offseason after being released by the Jets last week just two years in to a 5 year, $86M extension. Like Richardson, he’s a former 1st round pick and Pro Bowler who fell out of favor with the Jets. Wilkerson was one of the best in the game in 2015 when he finished with a career high 12 sacks, but his 2015 season ended with a fractured leg in Week 17 that required surgery to repair. That injury hampered him throughout a disappointing 4.5 sack 2016. He followed that year with another poor season in 2017 finishing with just 3.5 sacks, the fewest since his rookie season. His year was cut short as a Week 15 suspension for “chronic tardiness” followed by back-to-back healthy inactive designations.

Wilkerson hasn’t been the same disruptive force since he got injured at the end of the 2015 season and paid the following offseason. The question with him isn’t one of talent. Its all about whether he’s healthy and motivated at this point in his career. The Jets have plenty of cap room, so while this move certainly created some additional space for them to work with, they could have easily retained Wilkerson if they thought he could bounce back. Make no mistake about it, this was the Jets giving up on him. He feels like a prime candidate for a one year prove it contract.

Similar to Richardson, Wilkerson would probably slot in to DaQuan Jones’ spot and slide inside next to Casey on pass rush downs. If the Titans were to find a healthy, motivated Wilkerson that would give them among the most dynamic pairs interior rushers in the NFL on passing downs.

NOSE TACKLES

Dontari Poe | Falcons

Poe was a free agent last offseason and ended up settling for a one year deal in Atlanta after failing to find a long term deal on the market. He played well for the Falcons in 2017 and should find some interest this offseason at age 27.

At 6’-3” and 346 pounds, Poe is a prototypical 3-4 nose tackle who also offers a surprisingly high level of pass rush for a man his size. The Falcons are not expected to bring him back due to cap concerns as the team gets ready to give quarterback Matt Ryan the next mega-contract. Poe would be a great fit in Nashville in my opinion.

I was all-in on Brandon Williams last offseason and the Titans were reportedly one of the teams to offer Williams last March before he decided to remain with the Ravens. I like Poe this year for the same reasons. While I don’t think he’s as good as Williams, he does similar things. In the run game he uses his tremendous size and strength to anchor the middle of the defense, while his surprising quickness allows him to provide some juice as a pass rusher.

Poe’s market is reported to include the Broncos, Colts, Bucs, and Redskins so there will be significant competition to signing him. If the Titans are interested, they could get a bit of an edge from the fact that Poe grew up down the road Memphis and went to college at University of Memphis. However, Poe knows this is likely his last big payday so I’m sure he will be looking to make the most of it. A man of his size with multiple back injuries in his past makes me incredibly nervous when it comes to the idea of a long term commitment, but I’d be very interested in a potential short term deal to land Poe in Nashville.

As a fit, he clearly slots in as a nose tackle in the base defense who can also slide inside and function as a pass rusher in sub-packages.

Haloti Ngata | Lions

This category gets dicey real quick after Poe. Ngata is an extremely accomplished player, but at age 34, coming off a season ending elbow injury, its worth wondering whether he can still be an effective player at the NFL level. He is a true nose tackle though and played his best football under Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees in Baltimore so he could be worth keeping an eye on. He would be a veteran voice that could help make the transition from LeBeau to Pees smoother and his locker room presence has always been highly regarded in the NFL. With his age and declining level of play, he’s unlikely to command anything more than a modest one year deal so the cost would be very low. However, it would make far more sense for the Titans to re-sign Jones than it would to make a one year run with Ngata despite some of the advantages to bringing in a player familiar with Pees’ system.

Star Lotulelei | Panthers

Lotulelei is more name recognition than production at this point. He’s a former first round pick of the Panthers, but after a very strong rookie campaign, his play has dropped precipitously. In 2017, he graded out as PFF’s 109th best interior defender, struggling as both a run stuffer and a pass rusher. Lotulelei is a guy that I would have little interest in. DaQuan Jones is a vastly superior player at this point in their careers.

Bennie Logan | Chiefs

Logan was Poe’s replacement in Kansas City last season after starting his career in Philadelphia, but he’s nowhere near the talent that his predecessor was. Logan is your typical run-stuffing nose tackle who offers very little as a pass rusher. Frankly, the Titans have two guys in Austin Johnson and Sylvester Williams who do what Logan does as good or better than he does. While he’s not a bad player, he does nothing to help the Titans pass rush. I would much rather bring DaQuan Jones back than add Logan.

ROTATIONAL EDGES

Junior Galette | Redskins

This group has several players that are pretty good NFL edge rushers, but none of them are the elite game wrecking type presence the Titans need. Galette is a guy who posted double digit sacks in his only two years as a full time starter in the NFL in 2013 and 2014, but their are lots of issues with him that have dampened what could have been an excellent career. His 12 sack season in New Orleans in 2013 earned him a big 4 year extension worth $41.5M, but while he continued to produce on the field in 2014 posting 10 sacks for the Saints, questions about his attitude and off field concerns loomed. During the offseason following the 2014 season the Saints decided to move on and cut Galette and eat the wasted cap space to get him off the team. After his release he caught on in Washington, but his 2015 and 2016 seasons both ended in training camp due to Achilles tears — one to his left and one to his right. He finally was able to get healthy for the Redskins this year and turned in a pedestrian 3 sack campaign in a reserve role.

I really only bring Galette up here because he’s a name that people will recognize. He has no business being a member of the Titans in 2018. His off field and locker room concerns combined with his injury risk far outweigh his talent level as he enters his age 30 season.

Trent Murphy | Redskins

Galette’s teammate in Washington makes a little more sense though. He’s a former 2nd round pick who had been trending in the right direction until a 4 game PED suspension and a torn ACL/MCL ended his 2017 before it began. When we last saw Murphy on the field he was racking up 9 sacks in 2016 as part of a three man rotation with Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith at outside linebacker.

Coming out of Stanford, Murphy was known as a physical, high motor player with limited athleticism. His production in college was outstanding as he finished with 32.5 sacks, including a NCAA-best 15 in his final season. He sounds a lot like a Jon Robinson type prospect and at age 27 he could still offer some upside as a rotational edge rusher. The Redskins are expected to try to retain him, but if he does hit the market I would expect him to have a good amount of interest. He’s not someone who I would expect to push Orakpo or Morgan out of a job, but he would be an upgrade over Walden or Dodd as a situational player.

Alex Okafor | Saints

Okafor was originally drafted by the Cardinals in the 4th round of the 2013 draft. During 4 seasons in Arizona he was in and out of the starting lineup, peaking with an 8 sack 2014. Last offseason he signed a one year deal with the Saints and was off to an excellent start before an Achilles tear ended his season.

Now he goes back on the market, but coming off a serious injury that will likely limit his participation in the offseason program and may delay his start to the season, it is hard to see him getting a big commitment from a team. The Saints seem to want him back and my guess is that is where he ends up.

Willie Young | Bears

Young was released by Chicago in a cap clearing move last week. At age 32, he’s realistically more of a rotational piece, and frankly, I’m not sure he’d be an upgrade over Erik Walden.

Pernell McPhee | Bears

McPhee was also made a cap casualty as the Bears cleaned house over the last few weeks. He was a prized free agent addition in Chicago three years ago when they gave him a 5 year, $39M deal to lure him away from Baltimore. He never quite lived up to his big contract, but he was still a solid piece of a stout front seven during his time in the windy city.

McPhee is of particular interest to the Titans for a couple reasons. First, he started his career playing for Dean Pees in Baltimore so he would bring experience working in a similar defense to what the Titans will likely run. He originally broke through with the Ravens as a versatile pass rusher who could line up anywhere from outside linebacker to nose tackle — yes nose tackle — to create mismatches for Pees’ defense.

The drawback with McPhee is his injury history over the past three seasons. After missing just 4 games in his first 4 NFL seasons, he’s missed 12 over the last 3 and could be found on the injury report for many of the games he did play. Shoulder and knee injuries have popped up multiple times each and that’s troubling for a 29 year old player.

McPhee wouldn’t be the long term answer for the Titans at the edge position — that answer won’t be coming from free agency — but he could be an interesting fit to take over the role that Erik Walden played last year. He is known as a great locker room guy who plays extremely hard. Add to that his experience with Pees and his versatility that would fit well with Vrabel’s self-described “front multiplicity” defense and you get a guy that would make a lot of sense for the Titans to bring in.

ROTATIONAL DEFENSIVE ENDS

Jared Crick | Broncos

Crick missed the 2017 season due to a season ending back injury that required surgery to correct. Outside of that massive red flag, Crick has starting experience as a 3-4 defensive end and offers a little bit of pass rush thanks to his above average athleticism. He overlapped with Vrabel in Houston during the 2014 and 2015 seasons before he headed to Denver so there is some familiarity there. But I think DaQuan Jones is the better player and is recovering from a far less troubling injury.

Mitch Unrein | Bears

Unrein is a 30 year old former undrafted player who has bounced around the league for years. He is a high motor player who won’t offer much of anything as a pass rusher — as his 4.5 career sacks in 7 seasons will attest to — but is coming off the best season of his career in 2017.

He doesn’t solve the Titans pass rush needs and likely wouldn’t start over Austin Johnson anyway. Again, I’d prefer to have Jones back.

Adrian Clayborn | Falcons

Clayborn is coming off the best season of his career as he notched 9.5 sacks for the Falcons in 2017. Those numbers are skewed by his incredible 6 sack performance against the Cowboys in Week 10. Dallas was without star left tackle Tyron Smith and Clayborn took advantage of his backups, but it is still quite an accomplishment.

Clayborn is a good, versatile player, but heading in to his age 30 season he likely won’t command top dollar on the market.

CAP CASUALTIES

Vinny Curry | Eagles

A last minute addition to this list as Curry is reportedly going to be released as the cap crunched Eagles look to make some room on their books. He was the Eagles 2nd round pick in 2012 and has spent his entire 6 year career in Philadelphia up to this point. He has been a backup up until the 2017 season when he finally took over a starting role as a hand in the ground defensive end in Jim Schwartz’s 4-3. He’s been exceedingly durable over the last four years, never missing a single game. His 22 career sacks are underwhelming and he hasn’t come close to matching his career high of 9 from the 2014 season in the three years since.

Curry would be a bit of an odd fit here. He’s not athletic enough to play as a stand up outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme so he would probably have to play as an extremely undersized end at 266 pounds. I would imagine that some 4-3 team will offer him a far better contract than what the Titans would be willing to for a guy who isn’t a great scheme fit.

Ndamukong Suh | Dolphins

Suh has not been released so he technically doesn’t belong on this list, but I am making an exception. The Dolphins are reportedly at least considering the idea of trading or outright releasing their star defensive tackle to get out from under their cap problems.

I would be far more interested in acquiring Suh if he’s released rather than trading for him. In addition to the obvious aspect of parting with an asset to acquire him, the Titans would also be stuck with the ridiculous contract the Dolphins handed him in the 2015 free agent cycle. Restructuring that contract will also be difficult due to the fact that the Dolphins have already restructured it once and the dead cap money remains in eight figures untils until after the 2019 season.

If he’s released, on the other hand, the Titans would have more competition, but it is hard to see him getting anywhere near the $26.1M cap hit he’s set to count for in 2018 on the open market at age 31. Suh is still a premier talent even after 8 years in the league. He’s had some issues in the past with violent outbursts on the field and has an introverted nature in the locker room that rubbed some the wrong way. However those issues have seemed to subside with age. His massive talent always outweighed his troubles anyway. Even past 30, Suh is a top 5 defensive tackle who could fit in any scheme. If the Dolphins move on from him, I could see the Titans having some interest. They do have his former position coach on staff in Terrell Williams that would give him a bit of a built in support system in Tennessee. That’s something that could be important for a guy like Suh.

RECOMMENDATION

The Titans aren’t going to find their edge rushing solution in the free agent market. That answer is going to have to come from the draft. Players like Trent Murphy or Pernell McPhee would make some sense as rotational options in place of Erik Walden, but none of them are displacing Orakpo or Morgan. If the new staff feels like they can coax anything out of Kevin Dodd, Aaron Wallace, or Josh Carraway, they may be better off going young, drafting a player, and foregoing the free agent market here altogether.

On the defensive line, I could see Sheldon Richardson or Muhammad Wilkerson being a difference maker for this team if the coaching staff and front office feel like they can handle their big and often controversial personalities in the locker room. Either of those two would create a formidable interior pass rushing presence when combined with Jurrell Casey. Suh, if he becomes available would be easily the best player on the market even if his age puts him outside the range for getting a massive contract. Outside of Suh and the ex-Jets, I think DaQuan Jones is the best defensive linemen in this free agent class and would prefer to bring him back.

Adding McPhee on a one year deal and bringing back Jones makes a lot of sense to me. You could have McPhee in camp to help with the install of Pees’ defense, but if the Titans find younger answers either through Dodd, Wallace, Carraway, or draft picks they could release him and move on without issue.