10 best defensive players about to hit free agency
While the song may say, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” right now there are a lot of franchises that want to get through the holiday season and put the year that was 2015 behind them. As their playoff hopes disappear, their attention turns to 2016,—with that in mind, we’re going to sharpen their focus a little.
The 2016 free agent group isn’t the most balanced one, but as we look at the 10 top free agent defenders about to cash in, it’s easy to see where the strength of this “class” lies.
(Editor’s note: Each players’ 2015 overall grade is noted in parenthesis. To see the best 10 offensive players headed for free agency, click here.)
1. Von Miller, OLB, Broncos (92.2)
Miller has taken the NFL by storm since entering the league, so much that it’s hard to imagine the Broncos letting him hit the open market. But with so much money in so much talent, it’s possible that our fourth-ranked edge rusher on the year does just that. This league demands pass rush, and in that regard, Miller, who has a better grade than all other edge defenders doing so, is explosive.
2. Josh Norman, CB, Panthers (91.3)
A year ago, Norman was something of an afterthought, despite finishing the 2014 season strong. Now he’s widely revered, with his play on the field as good as any other cornerback. Quarterbacks have a 39.9 rating throwing at him (worst for them, best for him) and he stands atop our coverage grades with his consistently excellent performances. No player has improved their stock as much as Norman in 2015.
3. Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, Jets (89.1)
Drafted a couple of hours after J.J. Watt, you wonder how much more praise Wilkerson would get if the Texan wasn’t around. The Jets’ defensive end has established himself as one of the premier lineman in the league, grading positively in every game in the 2015 season. A true every-down player, he brings with him the ability to wreak havoc against the run and put a hurting on the quarterback.
4. Eric Berry, S, Chiefs (93.6)
Our highest-graded safety on the year, it’s remarkable that Berry has come back from illness, and not just returned to his previous level of play, but surpassed it. One of a new breed of safeties, Berry is a true defensive weapon, one whom you can line up anywhere and ask anything of him. He’s a fantastic cover man who can match tight ends, and a force in the run game who has an instinct for ball carriers. It’s been tremendous to have him back in the league, and he’s earned his upcoming big pay day.
5. Mike Daniels, DE, Packers (92.7)
If you watch a Packers game, there’s one name you tend to hear quite a lot, and that’s Daniels. With the fourth-highest grade of all defensive interior lineman against the run (he’s eighth against the pass), he’s a wrecking ball at the line of scrimmage who makes a fool of offensive coordinators that think he can be single-teamed. He doesn’t get a lot of love when you’re talking about the best linemen in the league, but he’s been making a ton of plays since his breakout sophomore season.
6. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants (82.5)
What to make of JPP? By all accounts, his injury should have seriously derailed his career, but the upshot has seen Pierre-Paul return from injury seemingly determined on proving all the doubters wrong. In just four games, he’s scored a better pass rushing grade than he managed in 2014, with his return really adding a dimension to the Giants’ pass rush. His run defense hasn’t reached the pre-injury levels, but there’s been enough to show so far that he can still expect some big offers come his way in March.
7. Tamba Hali, OLB, Chiefs (88.1)
The emergence of Justin Houston has put the fantastic Hali into the shadow, somewhat. That, coupled with his age (32), might have people looking past him. Those people need to put on the tape of how well he’s playing right now. Hali has the sixth-highest pass rushing grade of any edge defender, rebounding very nicely from a slightly below par 2014.
8. Eric Weddle, S, Chargers (74.5)
Playing hurt and playing on a bad San Diego team hasn’t inflated Weddle’s stock in a contract year. But there are signs that Weddle is getting back to his best, with a strong performance against Denver; if he can finish the season strong, then the versatile safety is one player who will interest a lot of teams. Between 2010 and 2014, Weddle ranked in the top five of our safeties each season, including twice having the highest grade.
9. Adam Jones, CB, Bengals (86.7)
Would Jones leave Cincinnati? He’s not only found his best form there, but also the kind of structure that has kept his behavior off the field from becoming a headline. A match made in heaven, nobody could have seen him being quite so productive for so long in Bengals’ colors. But he has, and he’s a cornerback you can depend on, who brings the added bonus of being a major weapon in the return game.
10. Bruce Irvin, LB, Seahawks (80.6)
Playing the strong-side linebacker role in Seattle’s defense isn’t an easy one; and with the athleticism of Irvin, it’s no surprise that the team asks so much out of him when he’s on the field. It’s what makes him a slightly enigmatic player, with the question being how he might fare in a more pass-rush focused role (he spends a third of his passing snaps in coverage).
For the best 10 offensive players hitting the market after this season, click here.