Draft replacement options for 5 big-name free-agent departures
The majority of the biggest free-agent moves are now in the books, leaving teams with the draft as their top option to fix roster holes – in some cases, those created by free agency.
We took a look at five teams that suffered a major personnel departure during free agency, and identified some draft prospects who could possible fill the void:
1. Miami Dolphins: DE Olivier Vernon
Replacement options: Shilique Calhoun, Emmanuel Ogbah
Vernon’s 81 quarterback pressures ranked second in the NFL among 4-3 defensive ends last season, meaning the Dolphins have a lot of edge-rushing production to replace now that he has moved on to the Giants. They added former Buffalo DE Mario Williams to help fill the void, but Williams is coming off a season during which he earned the lowest pass-rush grade among edge defenders, and he and fellow DE Cameron Wake (31 and 34 years old, respectively) are on the back ends of their careers.
If the Dolphins choose to address a different position at No. 13 overall, there are a pair of players in Michigan State’s Calhoun and Oklahoma State’s Ogbah who could be available with Miami’s second-round pick who could help replace Vernon as a speed rusher coming off the edge. Calhoun is quite a bit leaner than Vernon but had PFF’s No. 1 pass-rush grade among edge defenders last season, while Ogbah has been hit with the “talented but raw” label but still graded out very well in our system, ranking fifth in pass-rush grade among edge players. He has a very similar physical and athletic profile to Vernon, and could be the perfect fit in the second round.
2. Baltimore Ravens: G/T Kelechi Osemele
Replacement options: Laremy Tunsil, Cody Whitehair
Osemele primarily played guard for the Ravens, grading slightly above average in pass protection and dominating as a run-blocker. He filled in at left tackle to end the season, but earned negative grades at the position.
Kansas State’s Whitehair would be an ideal replacement if available with Baltimore’s second-round pick, as our top-graded college tackle last season who our PFF analysts project as a guard at the next level. He too graded better against the run while with the Wildcats, and at least has the experience to fill in at tackle when necessary. Ole Miss’ Tunsil will be awfully tempting for the Ravens if he’s available at No. 6 overall, however, particularly with incumbent left tackle Eugene Monroe coming off an injury-filled campaign. He is the top-ranked offensive lineman on PFF’s draft board.
3. Cincinnati Bengals: WR Marvin Jones
Replacement options: Sterling Shepard, Will Fuller
Our analysts are big fans of Corey Coleman and Josh Doctson, and either would be a good choice for the Bengals with the No. 24 pick in the draft. But instead we wanted to focus here on two receivers who could potentially be available in the second round.
Part of the reason why it made sense for the Bengals to let Jones walk, other than the fact that he was going to be severely overpaid based on the lack of wide receivers available on the open market, was that his strengths are as an outside receiver, an area that Cincinnati has well covered courtesy of A.J. Green. The combination of Green – a wideout with the ability to stretch defenses deep and serve as a true No. 1 receiver – and Tyler Eifert, a tight end who can stretch the seam and be a matchup nightmare for many NFL defense, means that the Bengals don’t necessarily need a prototypical outside receiver to replace Jones and Mohamed Sanu.
Shepard was the No. 1 receiver in our PFF grades, operating mostly out of the slot for Oklahoma, finishing first in the nation with an 82.5 percent catch rate from that position. His ability to challenge defenses underneath (he was very efficient when running deep patterns for the Sooners, too) could be a perfect complement alongside Green and Eifert.
Fuller was one of the nation’s top deep threats, backed up by his 4.32 40 time at the combine and his nation-leading 58.6 catch rate on deep throws (17 receptions on 29 deep targets, for 10 touchdowns). Pairing him with Green and Eifert could make things very difficult for opposing pass defenses.
4. Denver Broncos: DL Malik Jackson
Replacement options: Robert Nkemdiche, Adolphus Washington
The Broncos will likely have their choice of some traditional 3-4 defensive ends in Alabama’s Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson and Florida’s Jonathan Bullard with the No. 31 overall pick, but all three of those prospects are stronger against the run than they are as pass-rushers – and getting after the quarterback was Jackson’s biggest asset for Denver.
That’s why Nkemdiche out of Ole Miss is an intriguing option, if he were to drop that far – which isn’t far-fetched given the depth in this class at the position, and the off-field questions surrounding him. He was very disruptive to opposing offenses, using his excellent athletic ability to rank seventh in the class in pass-rush productivity among DTs, and has the versatility to play all along an NFL defensive front.
Washington, meanwhile, has mostly been cast as a 3-technique defensive tackle in a four-man front, but he is actually bigger and longer than Jackson and could be a versatile piece for the Broncos with the ability to play some defensive end in a 3-4 – just like Jackson was for them. He graded out very well as an interior rusher for Ohio State last season, ranking third in pass-rush grade at his position.
5. Chicago Bears: RB Matt Forte
Replacement options: Ezekiel Elliott, Kenneth Dixon
Ohio State’s Elliott is getting a lot of buzz, with colleague Sam Monson recently labeling him the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson for his all-around game. He merits consideration with Chicago’s No. 11 overall pick, given his top overall grade among running backs in this class.
But if Elliott is already off the board or the Bears would rather address another position with their first-rounder, an intriguing Day 2 replacement for Forte is Dixon out of Louisiana Tech. A lot of Forte’s success in Chicago was related to his abilities as a receiver out of the backfield, and that is an area in which Dixon shines. His yards per route run average of 2.28 as a pass-catcher ranks No. 1 among running backs in this class, and he also showed he could hold up in pass protection (just five total pressures allowed last year, good for the 11th-best pass-blocking efficiency among RBs). Dixon is also one of the most dynamic runners in this class, ranking second in elusive rating (PFF’s measure of how effective a back is independent of his blocking), fourth in forced missed tackles and fifth in breakaway percentage.