2015 Top Free Agents: Edge Defenders
You’ve surely had a flip through the PFF Free Agent Tracker by this point, so this set of articles will build nicely on what you’ve already seen. This, our yearly effort to sort the top free agent options at each position, will present a position a day and offer a Top-10 of what’s available.
It’s more than just looking at our grades, but factoring in longevity, age, injuries and so much more in order to tell you who we think are the best gets out there.
We kick off the series with a look at the edge defenders.
1. Justin Houston – Franchise Tagged by Kansas City
2014 Grade: +51.1
2014 Snaps: 1057
Ever since his rookie season back in 2011, Houston has shown the potential to be one of the league’s elite defenders, but he has raised his game every season from then. That culminated in a dominant and remarkably consistent 2014 campaign that will see him be arguably the most prized free agent available with the Chiefs needing to pay him his worth to keep him off the open market.
His +51.1 overall grade last season is the highest a 3-4 outside linebacker has ever earned from PFF (topping team-mate Tamba Hali’s +48.1 in 2010) and saw Houston earn a positive grade in all but two of his 16 starts last season. A dominant pass rusher (shutout only once all season), Houston more than holds his own in run defense as well and provides a rare all-around defender on the edge. The Chiefs will surely do everything they can to keep hold of him; players of Houston’s caliber don’t often make it to the market.
2. Jason Pierre-Paul – Franchise Tagged by New York Giants
2014 Grade: +16.9
2014 Snaps: 981
After his breakout season in 2011 (+25.6) to help the Giants to their second Super Bowl win over the Patriots, you might have expected Pierre-Paul to flourish into one of the league’s elite edge defenders, but that hasn’t happened. Pierre-Paul’s workload has been high since he entered the starting lineup in his second season and he remains a consistently strong presence on the edge, but also consistently short of the top bracket.
That consistency on the edge, however, and being among the league’s best run defenders in that spot is what would make him a wise acquisition at the right price point. If you’re hoping for one of the league’s most dominant pass rushers, then you are looking in the wrong place, but as a player capable of maintaining a productive level of play with an extremely high workload, Pierre-Paul would be a dependable addition for a 4-3 defense.
3. Greg Hardy – Signed with Dallas
2014 Grade: +1.7
2014 Snaps: 52
Only Robert Quinn earned a higher grade among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013 than Hardy’s +25.6 overall mark but legal troubles from the offseason took him off the field for all but 52 snaps this year. Purely looking at Hardy’s performance on the field, he sits much like Houston as a player who showed glimpses from Year 1 but has (more slowly) grown into one of the league’s top edge defenders — and his 2013 campaign looked like a spring board to become one of the league’s elite.
Though his legal proceedings now appear to be resolved, the NFL may yet impart their own punishment on Hardy which any team interested in signing him will have to weigh, but strictly looking at the player on the field, if Hardy can build on his 2013 campaign his talent and production is hard to turn down.
4. Brandon Graham – Re-signed with Philadelphia
2014 Grade: +22.8
2014 Snaps: 524
Few players have made more of their playing time in the last five years than Brandon Graham. Injuries limited Graham in the first two years of his career, but since then Graham has been one of the league’s most productive pass rushers on a per-snap basis. In 2012 he posted the highest Pass Rushing Productivity mark among edge defenders (17.3), in 2013 he finished 12th (11.9) and last season he led the league for the second time in three years (17.7).
To put his playing time into context, he has rushed the passer only 588 times in those three years combined, while Cameron Jordan rushed the passer 561 times in 2014 alone. In spite of that, Graham has racked up 120 pressures in the last three years and has far and away the best three-year PRP (16.0) among edge rushers.
5. Derrick Morgan – Re-signed with Tennessee
2014 Grade: +14.6
2014 Snaps: 1029
The 2010 draft class proved a rich one for edge defenders, even though a number got off to relatively slow starts either through playing time or production. Morgan’s rookie season lasted only four games and his sophomore season was a write off as he struggled in his first year back from a torn ACL. Since 2012, however, he has been the Titans’ most consistent defender and one of the league’s better edge rushers.
He maintained his production as a pass rusher in spite of the team’s switch to a 3-4 defense, rushing from a linebacker position more than 50% of the time. Morgan’s run defense isn’t the strongest, but he makes up for that as a pass rusher — in the last three seasons, only nine edge defenders have recorded more than Morgan’s 64 combined hits and sacks.
6. Pernell McPhee – Signed with Chicago
2014 Grade: +28.4
2014 Snaps: 616
A wildcard in this list and a wildcard on the field, McPhee is a player who is difficult to pigeon hole and if you try to do that you won’t maximize what he can bring to a defense. Entering the league as a down lineman in 2011 McPhee was immediately a productive interior pass rusher as a rookie, but has shifted towards becoming a more versatile pass rusher in the last two seasons.
Productive off the edge, McPhee still sees time on the inside and rushed from a plethora of alignments for the Ravens last season and, much like Graham, his per-snap production (64 pressures on 347 pass rushes) is terrific. The question mark for McPhee is how (and whether) you can slot him in to a full-time role anywhere on the defense or whether he is limited to being a sub-package defender.
7. Jerry Hughes – Re-signed with Buffalo
2014 Grade: +9.7
2014 Snaps: 807
Another 2010 late bloomer, Hughes found opportunities hard to come by behind Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney in Indianapolis, but his strong displays for the Colts in 2012 (five straight positive pass rush grades from Week 2 to Week 7) were the hint of the potential he proved with the Bills in the two years since.
In his two seasons in Buffalo, Hughes has kept pace with or bettered the more heralded Mario Williams in almost every measure of pass rushing production. A positive run defense grade in a full-time role this season shows Hughes as more than just a one-dimensional pass rusher and being shutout only once as a pass rusher in two seasons with the Bills highlights his consistency.
8. Jason Worilds – Retired
2014 Grade: +9.7
2014 Snaps: 1049
A late bloomer from the 2010 draft class Worilds showed precious little until exploding in the second half of 2013, racking up 33 pressures in six games to wrap up his rookie contract. That earned him a one-year deal to stay with the Steelers and he produced a season that will tantalize and perplex evaluators and decision makers in free agency this season.
There were as many dominant games as there were performances that flattered to deceive; even against the same opponent within the space of a month (-3.6 and only one hurry at Cincinnati; +5.1, 1 Sk, 4 Hu vs Cincinnati four weeks later). The inconsistency of Worilds’ performances since his breakout midway through 2013 will make him a polarizing and fascinating free agent to track.
9. Brian Orakpo – Signed with Tennessee
2014 Grade: +5.2
2014 Snaps: 401
A strong 2013 earned Orakpo the franchise tag from Washington last year but another injury-shortened season will likely see him hit the open market, but with a reduced market on a year ago. For the second time in three seasons Orakpo didn’t make it to midseason and that question over durability will likely be his biggest negative.
Any time he finishes a season he is always productive as a pass rusher, though his run defense occasionally leaves something to be desired. Orakpo’s recent record with durability implies a gamble on his health but his consistent production as a pass rusher makes him a worthwhile gamble with a well-structured contract.
10. Jabaal Sheard – Signed with New England
2014 Grade: +8.2
2014 Snaps: 690
Sheard is an edge defender who has a flair for the dominant performance but is often let down by his consistency. In his first three years with the Browns, Sheard earned single game grades of +4.0 or above in each season but only finished with a positive overall grade once. In his rookie season, his run defense let him down while in his sophomore season his production as a pass rusher evaporated.
Since the Browns moved to a 3-4 defense in 2013 Sheard’s run defense has improved but, aside from a couple of displays in 2013, his pass rushing has never returned to the heights of that rookie year (+14.0; 55 pressures). A return to a 4-3 defense could reignite his flagging fortunes as a pass rusher and teams will hope that he can sustain his improvement as a run defender with that.
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