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Breaking down the potential free agent edge rushers the Titans could target next month

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There are plenty of good pass rushers that could see the open market in March. Which ones make sense for the Titans to pursue?

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Seattle Seahawks Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

For years and years — decades even — Titans fans entered the offseason with one thing on their mind...

How can we land a legitimate WR1?

A.J. Brown’s rookie breakout season felt like a five gallon bucket of ice water after years of walking through the wide receiver version of the Sahara. With Corey Davis and Adam Humphries set to return alongside Brown in 2020, wide receiver has finally been pushed down the wish list for Titans fans heading into a fresh offseason.

The position that has replaced receiver at the top of Needs Mountain? Pass rusher.

The Titans have had their fair share of decent pass rushers over the last twenty years — Kyle Vanden Bosch, Jurrell Casey, Albert Haynesworth, Brian Orakpo, Derrick Morgan, and one season of Jason Babin all provided solid sack and pressure numbers at times in their Titans careers — but they’ve lacked a truly dominant rusher since Jevon Kearse piled up 36 sacks in his first three seasons in the league.

Harold Landry looked like he was going to be the team’s first double digit sack producer since Orakpo in 2016, but after piling up 9 sacks in the first 12 games, Landry went silent down the stretch. While Landry didn’t break through the 10-sack barrier, his performance was solid for a second year pass rusher and ESPN had him tied for 8th in the league in sacks created for teammates.

Between Landry and Casey, the Titans have a couple interesting pieces in the pass rush to build around, but the team as a whole struggled to get consistent pressure. Tennessee ranked 21st in the NFL in ESPN’s Team Pass Rush Win Rate metric, getting to the passer in under 2.5 seconds on just 41% of snaps. Pro-Football-Reference.com had them with a pressure rate (sack + hits + hurries per dropback) of just 21.1% which was good for 24th in the league.

When it came to raw sack numbers, things weren’t quite as bad. The Titans were middle of the pack with 43 total sacks ranking tied for 13th most in the league. Again, not terrible, but not what you want either.

The Titans will bring back Landry and Casey in 2020 and you can expect some development from 2019 first round pick Jeffery Simmons as a pass rusher with a healthy offseason to work on building his skill set rather than rehabbing. You could also see some development from young guys like UDFA Derick Robersonextremely small sample size qualifier aside, he did finish with 3 sacks, 2 hits, and 5 hurries in just 81 total pass rush snaps over five games — and fifth round pick D’Andre Walker, but again, they’re far from sure things to make the impact that the Titans need.

Cameron Wake says he has no plans of retiring and that he would love to be back in Tennessee next year, but whether or not the team decides that they want him more than they want the $5.6 million in cap space that they could free up by releasing him. His 2.5 sacks (all in the very first game of the season) weren’t what the Titans were hoping for when they signed him, but he still ranked very highly among metrics that keep track of pressures. For the 8th consecutive season, he finished among the top ten in PFF’s Pass Rush Productivity metric, creating a sack, hit, or hurry on 18% of his pass rush snaps before getting hurt in Week 12.

One quick sidenote on Wake’s contract... according to Spotrac.com, $2.5 million of his 2020 salary guarantees on the 5th day of the new league year (March 22nd) and a $1 million roster bonus also locks in which would eat up the majority of the cap savings that the team would realize by cutting him. So if the team is going to move on from Wake in 2020, it’s going to happen in the next month and a half. That five day gap does give them a chance to see what they can get on the free agent market while keeping Wake as a fallback plan if they want to.

Kamalei Correa came on strong down the stretch, but I think it’s unlikely that the team brings the pending unrestricted free agent back and goes out to sign an a high end outside free agent at this position. Reggie Gilbert was mostly a non-factor, but he might be back on a cheap deal due to his status as an exclusive rights free agent.

There is certainly a chance that the Titans sit pat at this position in free agency. After all, they have plenty of money that is set to be spent on some of their own free agents. Bringing back Wake and developing guys like Landry, Roberson, Walker, and a high draft pick is a viable option. However, if they want to bring in some immediate help in the form of a free agent edge rusher, this is set to be a pretty loaded crop (even if some end up getting re-signed or franchise tagged between now and mid-March).


The Bank Breakers

We should start by saying the obvious. Edge rushing help is really expensive, especially on the open market. As a position group, only quarterbacks average a higher annual salary than the guys who chase them for a living. The top guys at this spot are likely going to command somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million per year.

Only 18 players hit double digit sacks last season and four of them are currently scheduled to be unrestricted free agents next month so the number of big pass rush contracts going out in the next month and a half is going to be enormous. I’ve got seven pass rushers that I believe are very likely to end up clearing the $15 million per year mark. All these guys are in their prime currently and are either coming off a highly productive season or have a strong track record of pass rushing success.

Jadeveon Clowney, Seahawks

Age: 26

Spotrac Contract Projection: 6 years, $120M ($20M AAV)

2019 Stats: 3 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 7 tackles for loss, 30 total pressures

Clowney has the highest projected contract among all non-quarterbacks in Spotrac for this free agent class and with Seattle agreeing not to use the franchise tag on him as part of the conditions of the trade that sent him from the Texans to the Seahawks last offseason, he’s guaranteed to get a long term deal from somebody.

I have conflicting feelings about Clowney. On one hand, he’s about to be 27 years old next week, has never reached double digit sacks in a season, and has a long history of injury issues — including a core muscle injury that he played through this year that may require offseason surgery to repair — that could sap his athleticism as he gets into his late 20s. On the other hand, he’s an undeniable force on the football field when you watch him play and his history with Mike Vrabel makes this an intriguing fit.

Clowney’s impact reaches beyond raw sack numbers. He’s consistently rated higher by advanced metrics that measure pressures and other ways that pass rushers can affect a quarterback beyond getting them on the ground. In 2019, he ranked 7th among all edge rushers in ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate at 24%. Clowney is also a major plus as a run defender and a versatile piece that would allow Vrabel to create mismatches for him all over the line of scrimmage.

Clowney says that he wants to play for a winner and the Seahawks have publicly stated that they’d love to have him back in Seattle so the chances of his signing back with his current team are certainly still in play. However, if he did decide to test the market, the Titans seem like a natural fit after coming one game short of a Super Bowl appearance this season and being led by the coach that he’s already got a good relationship with. It would also give him the added benefit of being able to stick it to the Texans twice a year after Bill O’Brien shipped him out shortly after taking control of the roster.

Ultimately, I don’t think the Titans are going to end up having the money available to shell out the $20 million-plus salary that Clowney is going to command unless they choose not to bring back a couple of their own big name free agents. I’m also not sure that he’s a guy that’s going to prove to be a great investment as he ages out of his prime years from an athleticism standpoint.

Yannick Ngakoue, Jaguars

Age: 24

Spotrac Contract Projection: 5 years, $86M ($17.2M AAV)

2019 Stats: 8 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 13 tackles for loss, 27 total pressures

Ngakoue’s age and consistency at a premier position will give him a chance to command the a massive contract on the open market. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up getting more money than Clowney at the end of the day. There simply aren’t many 24 year olds with four straight seasons of 8-plus sacks (and 37.5 career sacks) already under their belt who hit free agency.

Reports are that the Jaguars are inclined to make sure that their star pass rusher doesn’t end up somewhere else next year. Jacksonville will have a lot of cap maneuvering to do to even make room for the $19.3 million franchise tag work. Currently about $1.5 million over the projected 2020 cap according to Spotrac, the Jaguars will be parting ways with several players currently under contract to make some room for Ngakoue.

The downside here is that A) Ngakoue is going to be incredibly expensive if he does reach the market and B) he’s always been a minus as a run defender. The pass rushing is what you’re paying for obviously, but for the prices he’s going to fetch, you’d like to get a more well-rounded defender. My guess is he ends up back in Jacksonville either way.

Bud Dupree, Steelers

Age: 26

Spotrac Contract Projection: 5 years, $83M ($16.6M AAV)

2019 Stats: 11.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 16 tackles for loss, 28 total pressures

Dupree picked a great time to have a career year. The former 22nd overall pick nearly doubled his previous career high in sacks and put himself in a position to get paid top dollar this offseason. One of the most cap strapped teams in the league, the Steelers are going to have to get very creative to find a way to afford either Dupree or defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, two key components of their dominant defense this past season.

There is obviously considerable risk in paying big bucks for a guy whose only really elite season came in a contract year, but Dupree does carry a first round pedigree and freakish athleticism for a 6’-4”, 269-pound edge rusher so somebody is going to pay the price to bring him in. He would fit the Titans defense well, but how repeatable is that performance without T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt, Cameron Heyward, and Javon Hargrave rushing alongside him?

Matthew Judon, Ravens

Age: 27

Spotrac Contract Projection: 4 years, $65.3M ($16.3M AAV)

2019 Stats: 9.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 14 tackles for loss, 31 total pressures

Judon also set a career high in sacks this season with 9.5, but he was a consistently productive rotational player for Baltimore prior to stepping into a full time starting role for the first time in 2019. The Ravens reportedly want Judon back, but have publicly admitted that it will be “pretty hard” for them to free up enough money to pay him what he is likely to command in the open market and still be able to make the other moves they want to make to improve their roster heading into 2020.

The Titans fit would have seemed more natural if Dean Pees was still around, but with the veteran defensive coordinator enjoying retirement, there are no real ties between Judon and anyone in Tennessee besides fellow free agent to be, Kamalei Correa (whose roster spot Judon helped make expendable in Baltimore). He does fit the defense here however, and his production — including 33 quarterback hits in 2019, good for 4th in the entire NFL — make him an interesting name to watch on the market if the Titans choose to make a big splash at edge.

Shaquil Barrett, Buccaneers

Age: 27

Spotrac Contract Projection: 4 years, $63M ($15.7M AAV)

2019 Stats: 19.5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, 19 tackles for loss, 51 total pressures

A year ago, Barrett signed a one year, $5 million deal with the Bucs in free agency as an afterthought in the 2019 edge market. After leading the NFL in sacks (19.5) and quarterback hits (37), Barrett made himself a lot of money.

Out of this tier of players, I think Barrett is the most likely to be back with his former team. Tampa Bay has over $85 million in cap space and the Pro Bowler has been adamant about wanting to be back with the team that invested in him last offseason. I would expect Barrett to sign a long term extension before free agency starts, and even if he doesn’t, it’s a virtual lock that he gets hit with the franchise tag.

Dante Fowler, Rams

Age: 25

Spotrac Contract Projection: N/A

2019 Stats: 11.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 16 tackles for loss, 35 total pressures

Spotrac doesn’t have a market value contract projected for Fowler, but I’d expect it to be in the range of the other players on this list. Like Dupree, Fowler is a former top pick who took a while to get going. Playing on a one year, $12 million deal signed last offseason, he easily eclipsed career highs in sacks (11.5), tackles for loss (16), quarterback hits (16), and pressures (35) in 2019 for the Rams.

The Rams will probably want Fowler back in the fold, but the rumor is that the former third overall pick wants to go to Atlanta to reunite with Dan Quinn, the coach who recruited him to the University of Florida almost a decade ago. Like many of these other guys, Fowler would be a good fit for the Titans, offering good enough athleticism to plug into Mike Vrabel’s multiple front defense and giving Harold Landry a worthy counterweight on the other side of the defense.


The Second Tier

If the Titans choose to bring back three or more of their “big four” free agents, they likely won’t be able to afford the $15-20 million per year contracts that the guys above are going to command and still be able to fill out the remainder of the roster with quality depth pieces. However, this is a deep pass rushing market that still offers value beyond the headliners.

Most of the players in this tier are older players that are on the back nine of their careers, but still have enough juice to get it done. Others are simply lesser known talents that don’t have the production and/or pedigree of the top group. This is probably the more realistic shopping list for the Titans unless they let some of their own top free agents walk.

Robert Quinn, Cowboys

Age: 29

Spotrac Contract Projection: 3 years, $35.5M ($11.8M AAV)

2019 Stats: 11.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 13 tackles for loss, 35 total pressures

Quinn could make an argument for being in that top tier, and frankly, I think it’s a pretty good one. I ended up listing him at the top of tier two simply due to his age. He’ll be 30 before the start of the 2020 season which means that the odds of him getting a four or five year mega-contract are pretty slim.

However, he could end up being one of the best value options available coming off a year that saw him return to double digit sack form for the first time since 2014 and also lead the entire NFL in ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate at a ridiculous 33% (the next closest was T.J. Watt at 28%). You could make an argument that he was among the top five most efficient pass rusher in the NFL last season.

In case you haven’t heard, the Cowboys have some big contracts to work on this offseason with Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, and Byron Jones so Quinn likely ends up being the fourth in line for a contract extension. How much Dallas wants to tie up in him after paying Demarcus Lawrence top of the market money last offseason will be interesting to see.

The downside to Quinn is that he’s got a lot of miles on his body as he heads into his 10th season as a professional and he’s never been anything more than an average-at-best run defender. The Titans would need to complement him with more of an early down edge setter to keep him fresh and allow him to focus on getting after the passer — like they did with Wake this year — if they were going to bring him in.

Markus Golden, Giants

Age: 28

Spotrac Contract Projection: 4 years, $54.2M ($13.5M AAV)

2019 Stats: 10 sacks, 0 forced fumbles, 13 tackles for loss, 44 total pressures

Golden has had an interesting career to this point. After breaking out with a 12.5-sack season in his second year after being drafted by the Cardinals, injuries and ineffectiveness led to him accumulating just 2.5 sacks in 2017 and 2018 combined. Like Barrett, Golden signed a one year “prove it” deal with his former defensive coordinator, James Bettcher, in New York and produced an excellent season that has him set up to cash in this offseason.

His age and inconsistency will keep him out of that elite tier, but Golden has proven to be capable of being an impact pass rusher at the NFL level.

Jason Pierre-Paul, Buccaneers

Age: 31

Spotrac Contract Projection: N/A

2019 Stats: 8.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 9 tackles for loss, 24 total pressures

JPP missed the first six games of the 2019 season due to a neck injury, but after he returned he got right back to his usual disruptive self, tallying 8.5 sacks in just 10 games. At age 31, he’s unlikely to break the bank, but he’s still disruptive enough to command close to eight figures on the open market. The Bucs are unlikely to tie up big money in both Barrett and Pierre-Paul so chances are he ends up playing somewhere else this fall.

JPP has put up 29.5 sacks in just 42 games over the past three years and has a very long track record of success as a pass rusher. If you’re looking for instant impact without having to spend crazy money, he would be one of your best bets.

Mario Addison, Panthers

Age: 32

Spotrac Contract Projection: N/A

2019 Stats: 9.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 6 tackles for loss, 22 total pressures

Addison just completed his fourth straight season with at least 9 sacks, but at 32, he’s unlikely to get top dollar on the market. His relatively high sack-to-pressure rate makes me feel like this is a particularly risky buy.

Everson Griffen, Vikings

Age: 32

Current Contract: N/A

2019 Stats: 8 sacks, 0 forced fumbles, 11 tackles for loss, 35 total pressures

Griffen had a clause in his contract that voided the final three years of his deal if he got at least 6 sacks in 2019, likely in the hopes of getting one last bite at the free agent apple while his value was still high. He cleared that mark and is now set to become a free agent if Minnesota doesn’t re-sign him before March 18th.

Griffen says he wants to be back, but the perennially cap strapped Vikings may not be able to find the room to pay him. If they can’t, Griffen would slot into this second tier of free agent edge rushers.


Reclamation Projects

Last season the Bucs and Giants both had a lot of success after giving one year, low cost deals to Barrett and Golden late in the free agent cycle. If the Titans wanted to spend their money on their own players and then try to find a diamond in the rough like those two, these could be some of their best bets.

Vic Beasley, Falcons

Age: 27

Spotrac Contract Projection: 3 years, $22M ($7.3M AAV)

2019 Stats: 8 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 8 tackles for loss, 18 total pressures

The Falcons former 8th overall pick won’t be back with the team in 2020 — as the team bizarrely went out of their way to make clear earlier this week — and it’s no secret that Atlanta hasn’t been thrilled with the production that they’ve gotten out of Beasley since his break out 15.5-sack season in 2016. They reportedly tried to trade him prior to this year’s trade deadline and didn’t find much of a market.

Beasley is a ridiculously explosive athlete who is slightly undersized — at 6’-3” and 246 pounds — to be a 4-3 defensive end as he was often asked to be in Atlanta. Could his career be revived under Vrabel? Maybe, but I don’t know that you’d want to go into a season relying on him to be the answer to the pass rush problem.

Shaq Lawson, Bills

Age: 25

Spotrac Contract Projection: 4 years, $30.7M ($7.6M AAV)

2019 Stats: 6.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 13 tackles for loss, 28 total pressures

Lawson was the 19th overall pick in the 2016 draft, but he’s never come close to living up to that lofty status. Coming into this season he had yet to top 4 sacks in a season and only served as a full time starter in one of the four years he spent in Buffalo.

He produced at a decent level as a rotational piece in the Bills defensive line this year, but didn’t do enough to likely command top of the market money. Titans fans might remember him from the back and forth he had with Taylor Lewan on Twitter following the Titans-Bills game in 2019 so some fences might need to be mended if Tennessee decided to roll the dice on trying to unlock his untapped potential.

Jordan Jenkins, Jets

Age: 25

Spotrac Contract Projection: N/A

2019 Stats: 8 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 9 tackles for loss, 16 total pressures

Jenkins isn’t quite a “reclamation” project. He’s more of a developmental player that has shown some promise over the last couple seasons, posting 7 sacks in 2018 and 8 in 2019.

The odds of him becoming a gamechanger are pretty small, so if that’s the goal, the Titans are going to need to set their sights higher. However, if they are simply looking for a solid, productive veteran to pair with Landry that would be a small step up from Kamalei Correa, Jenkins could be a fit.

Kyler Fackrell, Packers

Age: 28

Spotrac Contract Projection: N/A

2019 Stats: 1 sack, 0 forced fumbles, 2 tackles for loss, 12 total pressures

Fackrell has had a strange career. He had a break out 10.5-sack season in 2018, but promptly got buried on the depth chart for Green Bay after they spent big money to bring in Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith last offseason. The move certainly worked for the Packers, but it left Fackrell without much of a role.

So was the 2018 season a flash in the pan or is that something that could be recreated elsewhere with a bigger opportunity? My hunch is that it was the former.

Emmanuel Ogbah, Chiefs

Age: 26

Spotrac Contract Projection: N/A

2019 Stats: 5.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 6 tackles for loss, 14 total pressures

Ogbah was the 32nd overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft, one spot ahead of Kevin Dodd. While he’s nowhere close to the level of bust that Dodd was, he also hasn’t lived up to his draft slot with just 18 career sacks over four seasons.

Ogbah was in the midst of having a career year in 2019 before a torn pectoral ended his season in Week 10. He’s an extremely long edge rusher at 6’-4” and 275 pounds with 35.5-inch long arms and that could be an interesting contrast for a Titans team that could use some length along the defensive front.


What should the Titans do?

Investing in edge rushers does make some sense. It’s one of the most important positions on a football field and a pass rushing skill set is something that has proven to be pretty translatable from scheme to scheme and team to team. It’s relatively rare that a player is a highly productive pass rusher for one team and then gets signed and flops at his next stop.

The most recent free agent pass rusher “bust” is probably Olivier Vernon, but his perceived failure was more related to the fact that the Giants grossly overpaid for him than a regression on his part. Vernon was a 6-to-8-sack player in Miami and that’s what he ultimately was in New York as well. The only problem was that he was getting paid like a 15-sack player.

Last offseason featured a relatively strong free agent class of pass rushers. The Lions paid top dollar (five years, $90 million) for Trey Flowers and got about the same production that he’d provided for the Patriots during the last few years. While 7 sacks, 8 tackles for loss, 21 QB hits, and 35 pressures is a solid stat line, it’s probably not an $18 million per year stat line.

The Packers investments in Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith paid off much more substantially. “The Smith Brothers”, as their known in Green Bay, accounted for a combined 25.5 sacks, 28 tackles for loss, 70 QB hits, and 84 pressures. That’s absolutely unbelievable production, even at the price tag of a combined $29.5 million per year.

Usually, you get close to what you’re paying for when it comes to pass rushers and every now and then you get a case like the Packers did with the Smiths or the Buccaneers did with Shaq Barrett. So if the Titans want to chase the top of the market guys, they’re likely going to get results that look pretty similar to the numbers those guys have put up over the last few years.

I think it would be exceedingly tough for the Titans to sign one of the players from the top tier of edge rushers and bring back Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, Jack Conklin, and Logan Ryan. I’ve gone over the numbers in depth here, but while there is an outside chance that the Titans could arrange to pay all of the “Big Four” plus a high end pass rusher, it’s far more likely that they’ll have to choose to prioritize four of those five spots and leave a hole to be filled early in the draft.

The Titans are more likely to find instant impact in free agency than they are in the draft, particularly at edge rusher where the 2020 NFL Draft appears to be lacking in high quality options, however that impact probably costs them one of their own players in free agency and would potentially cancel out a 2021 compensatory pick that the team might have coming.

So what are you doing at edge if you’re Jon Robinson, and if you’re signing a big name player, who are you letting walk?