The top defensive NFL free agents and their best fits By Ryan Kanne
NFL free agency begins March 17 at 4 PM ET, leaving only a few days until we see some of the top free agents begin to find new teams to play for. We’ve already discussed the top offensive free agents, but who are the top free agents on the defensive side and where could they land?
DT Dalvin Tomlinson
Different schemes across the NFL make it hard to narrow down just about any position in the front seven, but especially defensive tackle. In general, this position includes interior defensive lineman. This year the interior defensive line class is weak, especially after Leonard Williams was franchise tagged.
His return to the New York Giants leaves his 2020 teammate Dalvin Tomlinson as the top free agent at the position. There are other free agents at the position that could get a bigger payday, but Tomlinson should be a candidate for any team with interior defensive line needs.
Tomlinson may not bring the type of pass rush ability other free agent defensive tackles like Larry Ogunjobi or Sheldon Rankins can, but his consistency and age will earn him a fine contract. Tomlinson’s improved sack total of four in 2020 is probably the best pass rush you’ll see from him, but as a defensive tackle who’s never had a PFF grade below 75 Tomlinson defines consistency at the position.
Tomlinson has stated that it would be interested in a Giants reunion, his services could be used to help a rising Cleveland Browns team. The former 55th pick in 2017 Tomlinson would replace the 65th pick of the same draft in Ogunjobi to solidify a Browns defensive line that finished 9th in rushing yards given up.
EDGE Shaq Barrett
After only seeing a backup role in his career with the Denver Broncos, Shaquil Barrett has blossomed into one of the best pass rushers in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The 29-year-old pass rusher helped lead the Buccaneers top defensive unit to a dominant Super Bowl performance against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Barrett led all pass rushers with 24 quarterback hurries to compliment eight sacks and 42 pressures. Even in what could be considered a down year following a 19.5 sack 2019 season, Barrett proved himself as a top EDGE defender.
So far, this production hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Buccaneers. Since the offseason began, the Buccaneers have resigned their longtime linebacker Lavonte David and franchise tagged standout wide receiver Chris Godwin. After a contract restructure from Tom Brady, the 2021 Super Bowl Champions have a real opportunity to bring Barrett back.
Other teams would have interest in the star pass rusher, but the Buccaneers have shown the most initiative in resigning Barrett. If the Buccaneers fail to resign him, Barrett could look at teams like the Browns, Tennessee Titans, and Indianapolis Colts could jump into a bidding war to replace their free agent departures.
LB Jayon Brown
Jayon Brown is a good inside linebacker, but his most valuable asset in acquiring a big deal is his age. The 26-year-oldlinebacker is one of the youngest available linebackers in addition to being one of the classes best. Brown is best as a pass defender with his 10th graded pass coverage for a linebacker according to PFF.
After a breakout season in 2018, Brown has been a solid contributor to a Titans defense that’s been up and down the past three seasons. Browns career with the team has gone similarly since that 2018 season. While his production hasn’t cratered, you hope that Brown can continue to improve into a more consistent tackler and presence in rush defense.
Even with his shortfalls, Brown will be a highly coveted free agent. The Titans would be smart to resign the young defensive star with hopes of improvement. Teams like the Carolina Panthers, Browns, or Green Bay Packers could try to bank on the same upside to improve the middle of their defenses.
CB Chidobe Awuzie
The Dallas Cowboys defense went from one of the league’s best units to one of its worst in a matter of a year. While it’s hard to pin the decline on one player, but the loss of Byron Jones in free agency certainly had an effect on the defense, especially with Chidobe Awuzie having to step up in the secondary.
Awuzie became the de facto top cornerback on the Cowboys while competing with rookie Trevon Diggs and Jourdan Lewis. Awuzie did his best but the 25-year-old couldn’t become the lockdown cornerback Byron Jones was. But that doesn’t mean Awuzie can’t be an effective cornerback, especially in zone coverage.
Overall, Awuzie is an average cornerback with good physical tools to be a good second cornerback. After a career worst year in 2020, any team that signs Awuzie is hoping for a return to his 2017-2019 form. There have even been rumors for a switch to safety which could capitalize on Awuzie’s better play in zone coverage.
While some teams could look to sign Awuzie to be their top cornerback, his best fits include teams like the New Orleans Saints and Buffalo Bills where he can play opposite a solidified top cornerback. The Bills would be the most interesting destination to add to an already great defensive backfield.
FS Anthony Harris (post tag deadline)
After top free safeties like Marcus Williams and Justin Simmons were franchise tagged, the best remaining target at the position is veteran Anthony Harris. Harris broke out in 2019 with a league leading six interceptions. Outside of that year, the 29-year-old has been a solid veteran presence in the Minnesota Vikings defensive backfield.
After being a longtime backup for the Vikings, Harris was given a chance to start in 2018. His next two seasons were phenomenal as Harris graded at 89.0 and 90.5 in PFF’s grading system. A down year in 2020 shouldn’t diminish his value, but he likely won’t command top money for the position as teams fear his decline is already beginning.
With that in mind, Harris’s best fits lie with playoff contenders like the Browns and Ravens where he could fill an immediate defensive hole. Both teams aren’t likely to get the Anthony Harris that was one of the league’s best safeties for two seasons, but Harris should have no problem adding value to any defense he joins.
SS John Johnson
John Johnson has been one the leagues most underappreciated defenders. It’s easy to see why when he shares the field with the likes of Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald, but Johnson could see a huge payday as one of the league’s best safeties.
When he’s been healthy, Johnson has been a model of consistency at defensive back when not a lot can be. His three full seasons graded out at 82.9. 84.1, and 85.6 in PFF’s grading system. This consistency is impressive, especially for someone hitting free agency at only 25 years old. Johnson adds to his consistency while being versatile as a defender, logging snaps at both safety positions, the box, and the slot. His versatility could land in him in just about any vital role on a defense, but his best fit is at safety.
The Rams would like to keep their young defender but could be priced out of negations barring some restructured deals. Because of the Rams cap issues, the best fits for Johnson include teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars looking to find the missing piece to a young but emerging defensive unit. Johnson could also take shorter deals to play on contending teams, but with the chance for the former third round pick to cash out it’ll be hard to turn down a contract.