Top 8 free agent edge defenders

In a pass-heavy league, getting to the QB has never been more important. Ben Stockwell identifies the the best edge defenders approaching free agency.

| 1 year ago
(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Top 8 free agent edge defenders

Last season saw a bumper crop of free agent edge defenders (4-3 defensive ends, 3-4 outside linebackers), and though half of our top 10 re-signed with their current team, there was still plenty of impact from the likes of Pernell McPhee (87.6) and Jabaal Sheard (88.6), who did change teams.

This season, we once again have genuine top-tier, game-changing pass-rushers set to hit the open market, with teams eager to tie up their own players, leaving other teams to find impact players ready to emerge from the second tier of free agency.

(Editor’s note: This list was updated on March 9, 2016.)

1. Olivier Vernon

2015 team: Miami Dolphins

2015 grade: 92.5

2015 snaps: 977

After the first seven weeks of the 2015 season, Olivier Vernon was nearing the end of his rookie contract in disappointing form, failing to build upon a solid 2014 season to position himself for a big payday. After Cameron Wake went down against the Patriots with a torn Achilles, everything changed for Vernon—and his free-agency outlook. Without Wake’s presence on the opposite side of the line, Vernon’s pass rushing production and performance exploded, earning the highest grade for an edge defender from Week 8 onwards, racking up 64 pressures (nine sacks, 26 hits, 29 hurries) in the process. The timing of Vernon’s explosion will have some questioning whether this is merely a contract-year high, but the timing of the streak when he lost a marquee pass-rusher on the opposite side of the line undermines that theory to some extent. Regardless of the circumstances, the level of performance and production Vernon showed over the final 10 weeks of the 2015 season is hard to overlook.

2. Robert Ayers

2015 team: New York Giants

2015 grade: 88.5

2015 snaps: 581

In spite of proving to be an extremely productive pass rusher since struggling in his first two years with the Broncos, Ayers hasn’t managed to parlay that into a more expanded role in the Giants’ defense, as he now heads north of 30 years of age. Ayers career-high in snaps came back in 2011, and tacking on his age, a lucrative multi-year deal may well be out of his reach. However, what Ayers does bring is relentless pass-rush when he is on the field, and that should be attractive to plenty of suitors if a big deal is off the table. In his two years with the Giants, Ayers has racked up 94 pressures (15 sacks, 25 hits, and 54 hurries) on 602 pass rushes—one of the most productive 4-3 defensive ends on a per snap basis over that spell. The Giants would be well served to retain Ayers’ services.

3. William Hayes

2015 team: St. Louis Rams

2015 grade: 85.8

2015 snaps: 597

There are only so many headlines to go around for any football team, let alone a defensive line as talented as the Rams’, but their most consistent performer over the last four years has been William Hayes. After hinting at his ability in Tennessee with up and down seasons, Hayes has been a consistent performer in a backup role for the Rams, topping 20 pressures every season and topping 40 pressures for the first time this season. Hayes has flourished in an expanded role in the last two seasons (554 snaps in 2014, 597 snaps in 2015) and will now seek the full-time starting role that has thus far eluded him in his career.

4. Derrick Shelby

2015 team: Miami Dolphins

2015 grade: 82.9

2015 snaps: 861

Olivier Vernon wasn’t the only player to capitalize on Cameron Wake’s absence due to injury over the second half of the season in Miami. Shelby almost matched his playing time from the last two seasons combined, while setting career-highs in sacks, hits, hurries, batted passes, and stops in the process. Crucially for Shelby, he proved himself to be more than just a stout run defender with a series of productive performances as a pass rusher over the second half of the season, earning multiple pressures in seven of his nine starts. This opportunity was perfectly timed for Shelby, who, with attention likely to be on Vernon in Miami, could well hit the open market.

5. Greg Hardy

2015 team: Dallas Cowboys

2015 grade: 81.9

2015 snaps: 610

Just as with a year ago, this is a balancing act for teams to measure Hardy’s on-field impact against his well-documented off-field baggage. Productive when he played this year, Hardy proved why teams are willing to bend for talented pass rushers. But even with Hardy’s remarkable pass-rushing skills, few teams seemed willing to entertain Hardy’s price tag a year ago, and he may not have any leverage to get anything more than another incentive-laden deal for 2016.

6. Nick Perry

2015 team: Green Bay Packers

2015 grade: 73.2

2015 snaps: 411

Perry has failed to live up to his billing as a first-round pick in Green Bay. He has never even played 500 snaps in a single season, and he has only topped 20 pressures twice in his four-year career. The one thing he does have in his favor is a knack for sacking the quarterback when he does generate pressure. Of his 78 career pressures, 20 have been sacks, and that conversion rate was even better this season, with eight of his 21 pressures converted into sacks. Capable of multi-pressure games in isolation, his lack of consistency from game to game should be a red flag for any team seeking a starter.

7. Jason Jones

2015 team: Detroit Lions

2015 grade: 76.6

2015 snaps: 556

Jones has never re-discovered the form he showed early in his career that peaked with a stellar 2010 season with the Titans, but he was productive over the last two seasons in Detroit, racking up 82 pressures (12 sacks, 17 hits, 53 hurries) on 748 pass rushes after seeing his 2013 season cut short (just 87 snaps). Jones’ run defense has never been up to the standards you might expect of a defensive end his size, and that may limit his value on the open market. A steady performer, Jones would benefit from being in a rotational role to maximize his effectiveness, rather than expecting him to be consistently productive in a full-time starters’ role.

8. Jeremy Mincey

2015 team: Dallas Cowboys

2015 grade: 72.9

2015 snaps: 386

Mincey was marginalized in Dallas this season with the arrival of Greg Hardy and DeMarcus Lawrence’s emergence, but his form in the previous five seasons—and isolated performances this season—would suggest that there is still some value for teams to get out of Mincey on a short-term deal. Mincey’s highest-graded season as a pass rusher came in 2014 for the Cowboys when he racked up 58 pressures as the unheralded leader of the Dallas pass rush as they clinched the NFC East crown. Don’t expect a heated battle for Mincey’s signature, but a shrewd team looking for production on a short-term deal will get good value from the former sixth-round pick.

Wild cards

Aldon Smith (OAK) and Junior Galette (WAS)

Both players have either off-field or injury headaches (both in Galette’s case), but in a quarterback driven league, teams need players that can get after the passer. Multiple teams have shown that they will do everything they can to accommodate talented, but troubled, pass rushers. Expect these two to get incentive-laden deals similar to the structure of Greg Hardy’s 2015 deal in Dallas that allows the player to earn their worth, but leaving the teams off the hook for longer term deals with more guaranteed money.


More positional free agent lists:


Running backs

Tight ends

Offensive tackles

Interior offensive linemen




Free agency tracker

Top 75 free agents

| Director of Analysis

Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.

  • Brad Ford

    where would vinny curry be if he wasn’t signed?

  • Mikey Balls

    Is AZ going to go after Vernon or nah?

    • Zachary Mills

      Doubtful. Vernon not only had a monster season and plays a premium position, but there are a bunch of teams that have STUPID cap space (Jax and Oakland for example) and I think one of those teams will overpay him. Arizona will probably be able to grab a good DE who won’t break the bank.

      • Jack

        Dolphins will also have over 40 million to play with. They are likely going to cut Cameron Wake to resign Olivier Vernon. It makes the most since.

  • Mike Riley

    Kind of wish they would post these lists after teams starting tagging their own free agents. I don’t see Von Miller making it to the open market. That way we get a better idea of who will actually be available. Of course makes these lists less interesting though.

    • Cant FixStupid

      They will. They’ll update everything as we go into free agency.

  • crosseyedlemon

    The Rams should do everything they can to keep their defense intact because that is going to be their meal ticket for at least another year until offensive help can arrive.

  • Nikrizzi17

    Giants gotta keep Ayers or JPP I wish they could retain both but I can’t see how. Hard to chose you don’t know if JPP can go back to a double digit sack guy, it’s definitely possibly he didn’t do too bad with one hand I wanna see how he does with 2, and as for Ayers he would be the “safer” play even tho he has a lot of injury history and upwards of 30 yrs old. FA will be very interesting especially for big blue

  • gbFan12

    What’s Perry’s run defense grade? I always get the feeling that he’s awesome setting the edge with his bull rush.

    • Cant FixStupid

      Run D is 78.2, pass rush 71.2 and coverage 49.6. Here’s a good link with a lot of players grades from this past season. I really hope we keep Nick Perry, if he can get beyond his injury issues the way Neal was able to, odds of him becoming a quality starter are pretty good. Can’t afford to lose the pass rush that he provides either. His grade in comparison to Neal is insane, 73.2 to 49.6. Perry better in Green Bay next year!!