Paul Sancya/Associated Press

NFL Free Agency 2020: Predicting Where the Top Defensive Players Will Land

Kristopher Knox

This year's edition of NFL free agency, which officially begins on March 18, could be league-shifting.

Notable quarterbacks such as Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers are all slated to hit the open market. However, quarterback isn't the only deep position in free agency this year.

Teams looking for defensive help will have numerous top-tier players from which to choose. Led by NFL sack leader Shaquil Barrett and Super Bowl champion Chris Jones, the defensive free-agent class is both talented and deep.

Here, we'll run down the most enticing defensive free-agent options based on factors like production, age and upside. We'll also identify potential landing spots based on schematic fit, production potential and cap constraints.

     

S Anthony Harris

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

The Minnesota Vikings will have trouble keeping safety Anthony Harris, who is coming off a career-best six-interception campaign. They're projected to be more than $11 million over the cap, and Harris isn't their only notable free agent.

Harris may have to sign a prove-it deal since he has only two seasons of starting experience, but he isn't going to be cheap. The team that signs him will need to have a fair amount of cap space and perhaps some familiarity with him as well.

The Cleveland Browns fit on both counts. New head coach Kevin Stefanski comes from the Vikings, as does new defensive backs coach and pass game coordinator Jeff Howard. The Browns are also projected to have roughly $49.6 million in cap space and are likely to use it.

"We want to aggressively acquire talent because that is the name of the game from an NFL front-office perspective," new Browns general manager Andrew Berry said, per Jeff Risdon of Browns Wire.

With Browns safety Damarious Randall also set to become a free agent, expect Cleveland to aggressively pursueand ultimately landthe 28-year-old Harris.

Prediction: Browns sign Harris to a three-year deal.

CB Byron Jones

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

Byron Jones is likely to be the hottest cornerback on this year's free-agent market. The 27-year-old was a Pro Bowler in 2018 and is coming off his fifth season as a starter for the Dallas Cowboys.

While the Cowboys would likely love to keep their No. 1 corner, doing so will be difficult. They're projected to have roughly $77 million in cap space, but they need to work out a deal with quarterback Dak Prescott and could make wideout Amari Cooper their next priority. Giving out a third big deal may not be realistic.

Jones should at least get a crack at the free-agent market, where he'll likely go to the highest bidder. The early buzz suggests the Denver Broncos could be that bidder.

"There have been rumblings since the Senior Bowl that CB Byron Jones could be top target for Broncos in free agency," Cecil Lammey of 1043TheFan.com tweeted. "Worth keeping an eye on as Cowboys trying to get Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper and perhaps even Jones signed/sealed."

Denver, which is set to have nearly $62 million in cap space, can afford to make a serious run at Jones. Expect him to be the new centerpiece of head coach Vic Fangio's defense if the Broncos get their way.

Prediction: Broncos sign Jones to a five-year deal.

CB Chris Harris

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

If the Broncos do land Jones, they're unlikely to bring back 30-year-old cornerback Chris Harris Jr. That would likely make the four-time Pro Bowler one of the top targets in free agency.

Not only has Harris proved himself as a quality cover corner, but he's also shown the ability to do so from a variety of positions and roles. He can move from the slot to the perimeter and still be effective, and he's also capable of excelling in zone or man coverage.

This sort of schematic versatility should appeal greatly to Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia. The Lions ranked 32nd in pass defense last year, and they reportedly made an offer for Harris before the trade deadline.

"Lions were only team that made offer for Chris Harris Jr. Their offer was not as good as 3rd-round pick," Mike Klis of 9News Denver tweeted. "... By keeping him, Broncos figure to get 3rd compensatory draft pick for Harris in 2021."

Armed with a projected $45.8 million in cap space, the Lions can afford to bring Harris into the fold.

Prediction: Lions sign Harris to a three-year deal.

LB Shaquil Barrett

Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

Shaquil Barrett had a breakout season for the ages in his first year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The former Denver defender produced only 14 sacks in his first four active seasons (he didn't play as a rookie). In 2019, he led the NFL with 19.5.

Sack leaders rarely reach free agency, and there's a chance that Barrett won't, either. He has expressed his desire to remain in Tampa and even said he would take less money to do so.

"I'm not going to take drastically less, but I am open to doing what I think is best for my career, and I think that would be staying in Tampa," Barrett said on SiriusXM Radio (h/t JoeBucsFan.com).

Since he has only one season of elite production, Barrett isn't likely to reset the market for pass-rushers. However, the Buccaneers should have close to $80 million in cap space and can afford to offer him a lucrative, incentive-laden deal.

Prediction: Buccaneers sign Barrett to a three-year extension.

DE Jadeveon Clowney

Chris Szagola/Associated Press

Though he has yet to have a season like Barrett's 2019 campaign, Jadeveon Clowney is still a premium pass-rusher. The Seattle Seahawks traded for the soon-to-be 27-year-old just before the start of the 2019 season, and they could be interested in retaining him.

However, Clowney's top priority in free agency will be to land with a title contender.

"I just want to win," he said, per ESPN's Brady Henderson. "I'm trying to get to the Super Bowl by any means. That's what I'm looking for: Who's going to get me there? I ain't looking to get on no sorry team for no money."

While Seattle was a playoff team this past season, Clowney could be intrigued by the possibility of playing for the Baltimore Ravens. Baltimore had an NFL-best 14-2 record and should be poised to compete in the AFC for the foreseeable future.

Baltimore is also looking to add pass-rushers in the offseason.

"The Ravens are expected to go after pass-rushers who can attack the opposing offense once Lamar Jackson and Co. build a lead," B/R's Matt Miller wrote in early January.

The Ravens are expected to have roughly $24.4 million in cap space, so while money isn't the most important factor for Clowney, he should still be able to get a fair amount from Baltimore.

Prediction: Ravens sign Clowney to a four-year deal.

DE Yannick Ngakoue

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Though he isn't as prolific as Clowney nor as productive as Barrett in 2019, Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue has quietly become one of the NFL's best young defenders. The 24-year old has missed only one game in four seasons and has averaged roughly 30 tackles, 9.5 sacks and three forced fumbles per year.

Ngakoue should be right up there with Clowney and Barrett for teams seeking an edge-defender. However, the Jaguars are hoping to retain him.

"It's a deal that we feel like could take a little bit of time but should be done hopefully relatively easily," Jaguars general manager David Caldwell said, per John Oehser of the team's official website.

Cap space will be an issue, as the Jaguars are currently projected to be $3.4 million over the cap. However, Jacksonville can clear $20 million in space by releasing defensive tackle Marcell Dareus.

The presence of 2018 first-round pick Taven Bryan makes Dareus expendable. Expect Jacksonville to release Dareus and to sign Ngakoue to a long-term deal.

Prediction: Jaguars sign Ngakoue to a four-year extension.

DT Chris Jones

Steve Luciano/Associated Press

Chris Jones is coming off a 9.0-sack season as a defensive tackle, produced 15.5 sacks in 2018 as a defensive end and is only 25 years old. He will be one of the most sought-after free agents this offseason.

Jones helped the Kansas City Chiefs win their first Super Bowl title in 50 years and has been the centerpiece of their defensive front for the past two seasons. However, Jones is going to get paid in free agency, and Kansas City is expected to have just under $14 million in cap space.

With quarterback Patrick Mahomes due for a new contract at some point in the near future, it may not be feasible for the Chiefs to sign Jones to a long-term deal. That could open the door for the division-rival Las Vegas Raiders to step in and snag their former foe.

"The Raiders will definitely go after Jones hard if the Chiefs don't give him the money he wants or franchise-tag him," The Athletic's Vic Tafur wrote.  "That's a fact, according to me."

Adding Jones would make a lot of sense for Las Vegas. A defensive line centered around him, Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell would be formidable. With nearly $52 million in projected cap space, the Raiders can also give Jones the sort of deal he figures to be seeking.

Prediction: Raiders sign Jones to a five-year deal.

DT D.J. Reader

Michael Wyke/Associated Press

While Jones has earned a reputation as one of the league's most disruptive defensive linemen, Houston Texans defensive tackle D.J. Reader has largely flown under the radar. As more of a traditional nose tackle, his numbers aren't eye-popping—he has 154 tackles and 6.5 sacks in four seasons—but he's a force at the point of attack.

"The former fifth-round steal has developed into one of the game's best nose tackles, setting him up for a substantial payday at age 25," NFL.com's Gennaro Filice wrote.

Pro Football Focus gave Reader a higher overall grade than Jones and ranked him as the No. 1 interior defender in the upcoming free-agent market.

While Reader may not be a fit for every team, those running a 3-4 base defense should have him high on their wish lists. The Texans should also hope to retain him, as replacing him with a draft pick would be difficult after they surrendered two first-rounders and a second-round pick to bring in offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil.

With more than $55 million in projected cap space, the Texans can afford to give Reader a lucrative extension.

Prediction: Texans sign Reader to a five-year extension.

LB Cory Littleton

Gregory Payan/Associated Press

Los Angeles Rams linebacker Cory Littleton is one of the NFL's top young defenders. He's a tackling machine—he had 134 total tackles in 2019—and is one of the league's best pass-defenders at the second level.

"He now gets to enter free agency coming off the best season of his career, with a proven track record in the most valuable area of linebacker play," Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus wrote.

The Rams are projected to have less than $15 million in cap space, and they have several other key players  set to become free agents such as Greg Zuerlein, Andrew Whitworth and Dante Fowler Jr. Littleton may get an offer elsewhere that the Rams can't afford to match.

That offer might come from the New York Giants, who should have nearly $62 million in cap space and who could potentially part with middle linebacker Alec Ogletree.

"There's a chance the Giants cut middle linebacker Alec Ogletree," Darryl Slater of NJ Advance Media wrote. "The move would make a lot of sense. Ogletree struggles in pass coverage—a huge issue for an inside linebacker in today's NFL. Coverage is Littleton's strength."

The Giants could save more than $8 million against the cap by cutting Ogletree, which would make it easier for them to give Littleton a can't-refuse offer.

Prediction: Giants sign Littleton to a five-year deal.

S Justin Simmons

Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

Though Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons is not a household name, he could become one during free agency. The 26-year-old has emerged as an elite free safety and is coming off a stellar 2019 campaign.

This past season, Simmons racked up 93 tackles, a career-high 15 passes defended and four interceptions. He will be a hot name on the open market if Denver allows him to reach free agency.

The Broncos have the cap space (nearly $62 million) to make him a competitive long-term offer, or they otherwise could use the franchise tag. Tagging Simmons would prevent from reaching the market while the two sides negotiate a long-term deal.

Simmons wouldn't necessarily object to the franchise tag, either.

"I don't know if I'm the type of guy who would sit out. Playing is my passion and if it happens, it happens," he said, per Mike Klis of 9News Denver. "Obviously, we'd like to get a long-term deal done and speaking with [general manager John] Elway and all the guys there, they're great and I love the system. I think the system fits for both parties."

Expect the Broncos to tag Simmons by the March 10 deadline.

Prediction: Denver gives Simmons the non-exclusive franchise tag.

    

All cap and contract information via Over the Cap.

   
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