Top 10 defensive players set to hit free agency in 2017

Nathan Jahnke takes a look at the top defensive players currently set to hit the free-agent market in 2017.

| 7 months ago
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Top 10 defensive players set to hit free agency in 2017

Yesterday, we shared the top 10 offensive free agents for next offseason, and today we move on to the defensive side. Here are the top players projected to be free agents in 2017, ordered by 2015 overall grade. Only players who are 29 or younger were considered, since they will likely receive the biggest contracts, and any 2013 first-round draft picks who could have a fifth-year option extend their contract were not included in this list. While you can expect plenty of these players to re-sign with their own team before free agency even hits in 2017, you can also look at this list as 10 players who should make a lot of money soon.

1. Von Miller, 3-4 OLB, Denver Broncos

Miller (94.0 overall grade in 2015) is now five years into the NFL, and seems to be better than ever. In every season he’s been in the league, he’s graded out very well in both run defense and pass-rushing, which led him to be the second-highest graded edge defender in 2015. He saved the best for last with a combined six sacks, one hit, and nine hurries over the AFC Championship game and Super Bowl. His 70 total pressures from the left side during the regular season were the most for any 3-4 outside linebacker.

2. Tyrann Mathieu, CB, Arizona Cardinals

Tyrann Mathieu has emerged as one of the more versatile defensive backs in the league, with the ability to play safety and slot cornerback. He played mostly cornerback in 2015 and earned our top CB grade (91.6). His 41 total stops led the position, and he was one of just four players with five interceptions and five passes defended. He is coming off of a season-ending injury, which might hurt his chances of getting an extension this offseason, but assuming he returns to 100 percent, he will be deserving of one of the top contracts for a defensive back ever.

3. Josh Norman, CB, Carolina Panthers

Josh Norman worked his way into the starting lineup in 2014, had a strong end to the season, and carried that momentum into 2015 with a breakout performance. When he was targeted, he allowed an NFL passer rating of 54.0. This was in large part because he allowed both a low 9.3 yards per catch (fourth-lowest in the league), as well as a 51 percent catch rate, good for top-10 among CBs. He doesn’t have as long of a history of great play as others on this list, and is 28 in a league where cornerbacks rarely make it past the age of 32, so it’s unlikely he gets the long-term deal he’s looking for. However, Norman is at the peak of his career now, and that peak is higher than others on this list.

4. Harrison Smith, S, Minnesota Vikings

Over the past two seasons, Smith (92.8) has become one of the most versatile safeties in the NFL. In coverage, he allowed a 43.3 NFL passer rating, which was second-best among starting safeties. His 94.8 run defense grade was the best for safeties. Even as a pass-rusher, he had seven combined sacks and hits, tied for the most among safeties. It’s not very often that safeties break the bank, but Smith will be one of the exceptions.

5. Kawann Short, DT, Carolina Panthers

There are many reasons why the Panthers improved from 2014 to 2015, and Short’s (90.7) development into a top interior pass-rusher is high on that list. At a bare minimum, he had at least one pressure in all 19 games in 2015. His 68 total pressures was third-most among defensive tackles. Short was also great as a run defender; his 9.8 run stop percentage was tied for 10th-best among defensive tackles. The Panthers already have other star players like Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly locked up for the next several years, and if they are able to add Short to that list, the future will remain bright in Charlotte.

6. Fletcher Cox, DT, Philadelphia Eagles

Before free agency began, the Eagles spent a lot of money to re-sign some of their own free agents. When that was done, there were reports that Cox’s extension would be next. A month has passed, and Cox (90.3) has yet to receive a new deal. With several players locked up for next season—unless Philadelphia is willing to release other big-name players—Cox might be one of the most likely players on this list to suit up for a new team in 2017. He had 77 total pressures in 2015, third-most for 3-4 defensive ends. If he does remain with the Eagles, he will likely move to defensive tackle in their new 4-3 scheme.

7. Jamie Collins, LB, New England Patriots

Ever since Collins (90.1) earned a starting job late in the 2013 season, he has been among the best linebackers in the NFL. Throughout his career, he’s been solid in coverage; his five passes defended in 2015 were tied for third-most among linebackers. Where he’s improved most over the years is run defense. After earning average grades during his rookie year, he was the seventh-highest-graded run defender in 2015 among linebackers. Throw in the eight sacks he had (which led all linebackers, excluding 3-4 outside linebackers), and you have a very valuable asset to a defense.

8. Muhammad Wilkerson, 3-4 DE, New York Jets

The Jets had one of the best fronts in football last year, with Wilkerson (89.2), Sheldon Richardson, Damon Harrison and Leonard Williams. They’ve already lost Harrison to the Giants, and Wilkerson and Richardson are slated to hit free agency next season. Wilkerson recorded 78 pass pressures in 2015, which was second best for 3-4 defensive ends, just behind J.J. Watt. He’s on the franchise tag currently, so there is a chance the Jets could sign him to a long-term deal to help their cap situation this year.

9. Dont’a Hightower, LB, New England Patriots

New England currently has the best pair of linebackers in the league, and once the 2017 season hits, they could be without either one of them. Like Collins, Hightower (88.6) is an asset against the run, when he drops back in coverage, and when he rushes the passer. His 0.56 yards per coverage snap was the second-lowest for 4-3 outside linebackers. His 17.4 pass-rushing productivity was third-best for 4-3 outside linebackers with at least 40 pass rushes.

10. Jabaal Sheard, 4-3 DE, New England Patriots

One of the likely reasons New England traded Chandler Jones to Arizona is that they knew they weren’t going to re-sign him next offseason. Jones became expendable, in part, because of how well Jabaal Sheard (88.6) played for the Patriots in 2015. His 14.1 pass-rushing productivity led all 4-3 defensive ends. Throughout his career, he would have one year as a great pass-rusher, followed by a year as a great run-defender—2015 was the first season he was great at both. With three players from their front seven on this list, the Patriots will be one of the most talked about teams heading into free agency next year.

| Director of Analytics

Nathan has been with Pro Football Focus since 2010. He is the Director of Analytics, an NFL analyst, and a fantasy writer.

  • Percy

    Why no Darius Slay? Seems like your 2nd ranked CB would merit a place on this list.

  • Zachary Mills

    Gotta lock up Collins and Hightower for sure. Sheard would be nice too but probably not going to happen.