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Which free agent edge rusher would fit best for the Titans?

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Some realistic options for the Titans to upgrade the pass rush.

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Washington Redskins v New Orleans Saints Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The 2018 Titans defense was really good in a lot of categories. They finished 3rd in points allowed, 8th in yards allowed, and 5th in points allowed per drive. Those are all great results. However, the defense wasn’t great at generating pressure and creating turnovers. The Titans finished 26th in pressure rate according to Football Outsiders, putting heat on the quarterback on just 27.6% of drop backs.

They were slightly better when it came to actually getting the quarterback on the ground, finishing 16th in the NFL with 39 team sacks, but 9 of those 39 came from defensive backs and another 10.5 were generated by off-ball linebackers. That’s exactly half of the team’s sacks coming from blitzers rather than dedicated pass rushers, a ratio that is almost unheard of. The Rams — the team with the highest pressure rate in the NFL — had just 2 of their 41 sacks come from off-ball defenders.

Getting pressure without blitzing is one of the most important things an NFL defense can do. There is a ton of evidence that pressure itself is nearly as valuable as the act of getting a quarterback on the ground. Pressure reduces the effectiveness of quarterbacks and increases interception rates by roughly 60%.

The Titans finished 23rd in the NFL with just 11 interceptions over the course of the 2018 season. For the defense to make the leap from very good to elite, they’ll need to find a way to turn the ball over more often. While the ability of a defense to force turnovers is a highly unstable and luck-driven variable, increasing pressure rate is the single best way to nudge takeaways in a positive direction.

With Brian Orakpo retiring and Derrick Morgan not expected to be re-signed next month the Titans are going to be left with an exceptionally thin group at outside linebacker. Harold Landry figures to be the team’s top returning edge rusher. The 2018 second round pick was inconsistent during his rookie season, but showed the freakish combination of speed and bend that had many believing he might be a top 10 pick this time last year. Kamalei Correa and Sharif Finch are the only other outside linebackers that took a regular season snap last year. Correa is a decent run defender with very limited pass rush skills. He would fit best as a rotational backup type player. Finch flashed tantalizing potential during limited reps as an undrafted rookie, but probably needs more experience before he’s ready to be thrust into a starting role.

So that leaves the Titans likely looking for an instant starter across from Landry and probably at least one more player who can work in a rotation at outside linebacker. Fortunately for Jon Robinson, both the upcoming free agent class and draft class are loaded with pass rushing talent. We will focus on the free agent class here since we are creeping up on the beginning of the “legal tampering” period of free agency on March 11th and it makes sense that the Titans would want to add at least one potential starter prior to the draft.

Most of the biggest names that are floating around right now are highly likely to return to their current teams via either a long term contract extension or the franchise tag. Premier pass rushers like DeMarcus Lawrence, Jadeveon Clowney, Dee Ford, and Frank Clark all seem likely to get hit with a franchise tag before the March 5th deadline if a long term deal can’t be reached before that date. If one of those guys was to reach the market somehow, I would expect a massive amount of competition for their services resulting in what would be a very hefty contract. Could the Titans be the team that outbids all the others? Maybe, but there will certainly be teams with more cap space involved.

Instead, I would expect the top realistic options to be found in the second tier of pass rushing free agency. The good news is that there will still be some really talented players available from that tier that can help add some bite to the Titans pass rush this fall. Here are some of the best fits for Dean Pees’ defense out of the group that I expect to hit the market.

Trey Flowers, EDGE, Patriots

I know, I know... linking the Titans to yet another Patriots free agent is getting old, but Flowers is likely to be the top edge rusher on the market once franchise tags and extensions are doled out over the next few weeks. The 25-year old former fourth round pick doesn’t have sack numbers that jump off the page, putting up 7 in 2016 as a part time player, 6.5 in 2017 as a full time starter, and then a career high 7.5 last season as a leader of the Patriots defense, but his pressure numbers are much better, finishing tied for 10th among all edge rushers in 2018 with 64 according to PFF. He’s also an outstanding run defender, checking in as the 4th best edge rusher in PFF’s Run Stop Percentage metric.

At 6’-2” tall and 266 pounds, Flowers is a player that certainly wins more with power and technique than speed and athleticism which makes him an interesting complement to Harold Landry as a long term piece of the Titans defense (this will be a theme of the players we are looking at here).

The Patriots often used Flowers as an interior rusher on passing downs, a role that he was extremely effective in. It’s not hard to imagine a 3rd down package featuring Harold Landry, Jurrell Casey, Trey Flowers, and Rashaan Evans as the primary pass rushers with Jayon Brown and either Wesley Woodyard or an extra safety playing at the second level behind them.

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The Patriots would surely like to have him back, but with just over $14M worth of cap room heading into the offseason they likely will be priced out of his market. Most projections seem to be pegging him somewhere in the $15-20M per year range and given Bill Belichick’s history with pending free agents in this price range (he almost exclusively avoids them), I’d be surprised if he’s back in Foxborough next fall.

I don’t know if the Titans would be willing to pay that premium either though. Given the amount of cap space they realistically have to work with — somewhere in the $30-35M range — and the number of holes they’re looking to fill — starters at left guard and wide receiver along with depth at several other spots — it’s hard for me to see them splurging for another former Patriot, even if he might be the best fit on the market.

Za’Darius Smith, EDGE, Ravens

Smith makes just as much sense as Flowers to me. He’s a similar style player — an edge rusher who wins with power and hands — and has a history with Dean Pees.

Pees scouted Smith at his pro day in Kentucky and liked his potential. Dean told me, ‘We’re going to make you a Raven,’” Smith said. “I respect Dean so much for that because it happened, you know?”

Smith enjoyed a breakout season in 2018, setting career highs in sacks (8.5), QB hits (25), tackles (45), and tackles for loss (10). He also ranked 12th out of 57 qualifying edge rushers in PFF’s Pass Rush Productivity metric. Like Flowers, Smith did a lot of his damage when lined up inside on pass rush downs.

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The Ravens are down to roughly $20M in cap space after the Tavon Young extension and they still have to work out an extension for C.J. Mosley, who is likely to become one of the highest paid inside linebackers in the NFL. Smith is likely to command an annual average salary somewhere around $12M per year on the open market so Baltimore would have considerable work cut out for them to afford both him and Mosley.

The risk with Smith is that he turns out to be a one-year wonder. His productivity and efficiency were both significantly higher in 2018 than they were in any of his previous three seasons. Whichever team signs him will be betting on that jump being the result of things finally starting to click for a young player. The Pees connection makes me think that Smith is probably the most likely option for the Titans in free agency.

Preston Smith, EDGE, Redskins

The “other Smith” on the edge rusher free agent market might be my personal favorite among the realistic options though. A former second round pick out of Mississippi State, Preston Smith has been a sneaky productive player over the past four seasons in Washington, posting 24.5 sacks.

Smith is taller, longer, and generally more athletic than Trey Flowers and Za’Darius Smith (and most other edge rushers for that matter).

He uses that blend of size, speed, and power to considerable effect as well. Despite a modest sack total, Smith finished 2018 tied for 13th among edge rushers with 38 QB hits per PFF charting in addition to being a plus run defender.

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The Redskins would probably like to bring Smith back, but similar to the situations with the Ravens and Patriots, they may not be able to. With less than $18M in available cap space — and little opportunity to create more given their current contracts — Washington will have a tough time retaining their own free agents, especially if they decide they want to sign a veteran quarterback to fill in for Alex Smith for the season (and possibly beyond). Spotrac projects an average annual salary of $11.2M for Smith and I think there is a good chance he ends up just a touch higher than that.

Preston Smith would be very interesting to me if I was Jon Robinson. His length and power bring an element that is currently missing in the Titans front seven. He’s been a durable and mostly very productive player during his first four seasons, but has stayed under the radar enough that he might not command the top dollar that his skill set suggests he should. This is one of my favorite potential free agent signings for Tennessee.

Anthony Barr, OLB, Vikings

Barr will be one of the most fascinating free agents to watch in the entire NFL this offseason. How many times do 27-year old four-time Pro Bowlers hit the open market?

Titans fans will probably remember Barr as a popular mock draft choice for Tennessee in the lead up to the 2014 NFL Draft. Minnesota ended up snagging him with the 9th overall pick, leaving the Titans to take Pro Bowl tackle Taylor Lewan.

The reason for Barr being connected to the Titans at the time — ironically —was his fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker in Tennessee’s brand new 3-4 defense (and the fact that his college defensive coordinator, Lou Spanos, had recently been added as the Titans linebackers coach). However, Barr headed to Minnesota to play as an off-ball linebacker for Mike Zimmer’s 4-3 instead and while he’s certainly not disappointed in that role, there are some who still believe that he’s best suited to be a full time stand up edge rusher.

Barr’s physical profile screams edge rusher with his ridiculously low 3-cone and short shuttle times with more than adequate length.

Barr is a twitched up freak of an athlete who could potentially turn into a monster edge rusher, but the risk with making this move is enormous. It’s been five years since the former UCLA Bruin has played edge on a full time basis and he’s only played the position for two years in his entire football career (Barr was a running back for his first two college seasons). To say he’s inexperienced as an edge rusher would be a massive understatement.

There are some reasons for optimism though. Barr’s Pass Rush Productivity was tops among all off-ball linebackers in 2018 according to PFF and his late season surge has largely been credited to the Vikings using him as a pass rusher more frequently.

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Succeeding as an edge rusher in the NFL involves far more than being super athletic — though that certainly helps — so if the Titans were to make a play for Barr it would be banking on the hope that Mike Vrabel (and Shane Bowen) could work some of his pass rush development magic to unlock that potential. However, his versatility would fit very nicely into the Titans stated goal of “front multiplicity” on defense.

It’s really hard to peg what his price tag might be on the open market, but I’d be pretty shocked if he ended up getting less than $10M per year. It’s even harder to see how the Vikings could manage to pay him anywhere near that. They currently have just $7M of cap space and while they certainly could make some room if needed, a rumored raise for Adam Thielen and an investment in some desperately needed offensive line help could quickly eat up any wiggle room created.

This would be a pretty massive boom or bust move for the Titans.

Dante Fowler Jr., EDGE, Rams

Speaking of former top 10 draft picks, Dante Fowler Jr. is another pass rusher set to hit the market next month. After being selected 3rd overall by the Jaguars in the 2015 NFL Draft, Fowler immediately tore his ACL during the first practice of rookie mini-camp. In two and a half healthy seasons in Jacksonville, he notched 14 sacks while mostly playing as a pass down specialist. The Jags declined the fifth-year option on Fowler’s rookie deal prior to the 2018 season and then traded him to the Rams for draft picks midway through the year.

Fowler still flashes the incredible blend of size and speed that made him such a high pick, but it’s inconsistent.

Fowler was largely ineffective during his brief time in LA, though he did make one of the biggest plays of the NFC Championship Game when he hit Drew Brees’ arm and forced the overtime interception that led to the Rams game winning field goal.

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Fowler has just seven career starts and rates as a below average run defender. Any team planning to sign him with designs on him being a full-time starter will be taking a pretty big risk that he can become the player he was thought to be coming out of college.

Fowler is another player with who could have a pretty wide ranging market. Will a team bet on the pedigree and give him a long term contract or will he have to settle for a one-year prove it deal? I think I’d look elsewhere if I was Jon Robinson.

Shaquil Barrett, EDGE, Broncos

The Broncos have a pair of young edge rushers heading to free agency in Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett. With Von Miller and Bradley Chubb entrenched as high quality starters, it seems likely that both Ray and Barrett will look for bigger opportunities elsewhere.

Both guys are a little shorter than ideal for the position, but that’s basically where the similarities end. Ray is an explosive straight line athlete with a first round pedigree after an extremely successful college career in the SEC. Barrett is a former UDFA who lacks top end speed, but makes up for it with outstanding change of direction and use of leverage.

My preference between the two Broncos is Barrett. He’s been more productive than his highly drafted counterpart despite fewer opportunities and he has a proven knack for making big plays. He has 7 forced fumbles on just 768 career pass rush snaps which is a pretty incredible rate and the proclivity to get the ball on the ground dates back to his college career so it doesn’t appear to be a fluke.

Barrett is a former state champion wrestler and it shows in his expert hand usage and understanding of leverage.

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Spotrac projects a modest four-year, $30M deal for him at an average salary of $7.5M per year. Even if he ends up topping that number, Barrett could prove to be a value if given an expanded workload for the first time in his career,

Justin Houston, EDGE, Chiefs

OK, I’m cheating with this one, but there are some serious rumblings coming out of Kansas City about the possibility of the Chiefs cutting long time star Justin Houston to help make room for them to keep their younger pass rusher, Dee Ford.

Houston just turned 30 and surprisingly hasn’t had a double digit sack season since nearly breaking NFL single season record in 2014. However, it’s not as if the former Georgia Bulldog has been a total slouch either. Houston has 30 sacks despite playing just 43 games over the past four years due to injuries (most substantially an ACL injury that cost him parts of the 2015 and 2016 seasons).

Houston’s game is a beautiful blend of length, speed, power, and technique, making him one of the league’s most complete edge defenders.

Houston ranked 5th in PFF’s Pass Rush Productivity metric in 2018, behind just Jerry Hughes, Khalil Mack, Dee Ford, and Frank Clark so he’s absolutely still got some gas left in the tank.

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Houston is not only be a perfect fit from a scheme standpoint for the Titans, but he would also and veteran leadership and mentorship for Harold Landry and Sharif Finch as they continue to develop.

There’s no telling what Houston might fetch on the open market. At age 30 with some recent injury woes he might not be quite as attractive from a long term perspective as players like Lawrence, Clowney, Clark, and Ford, but he’s every bit the player those guys are today. I think this is pretty similar to the DeMarcus Ware situation when he left his long time home in Dallas to join the Broncos late in his career. Ware signed a three-year, $30M deal with Denver back in 2014. If Houston gets a similar contract, that would equate to something like three-years, $43M deal in 2019. I think that’s a realistic expectation (maybe a touch on the high end) and I would have no problem with Jon Robinson choosing to make that move.

Other Options

I touched on Shane Ray above and while I think Barrett is the option I’d prefer between those two, Ray isn’t a terrible option himself.

There are also a few talented guys that might not be perfect scheme fits for the Titans defense. The best among that group are Ezekiel Ansah and Brandon Graham. Both those guys fit better as 4-3 defensive ends than they do as stand up outside linebackers in a 3-4. That qualification goes for Alex and Vinny Curry too.

Then you have the older options. Former greats who might have just a little juice left like Clay Matthews, Cameron Wake, and Terrell Suggs fit that category with Suggs being the best of the bunch at this point. These guys probably fit best as part of a rotation where they aren’t expected to play a full complement of snaps.

Robert Quinn and Vic Beasley are two other guys that could become cap cuts from their current teams. Beasley has failed to live up to the lofty standard he set in his second year and is viewed as a bit of a one trick pony.

My favorite possibilities, in order, would be:

  1. Justin Houston
  2. Preston Smith
  3. Za’Darius Smith
  4. Trey Flowers
  5. Shaquil Barrett

Which edge rusher would you most like to see in two-tone blue in 2019?