Malik Jackson leads top 10 free-agent interior defenders

Gordon McGuinness ranks the best interior defenders hitting free agency this offseason.

| 1 year ago
(Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

(Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

Malik Jackson leads top 10 free-agent interior defenders

With the Denver Broncos defensive dominance in their recent Super Bowl victory, the saying “defense wins championships” is once again fresh on everyone’s mind. If you’re looking to build a good defense, what better place to start than on the defensive line? While the edge rushers get all the attention, a dominant player on the interior can make a huge difference. Here are the top guys on the market heading into free agency.

(Editor’s note: This list was updated on Feb. 29, 2016, following reports that the Jets would be placing the franchise tag on Muhammad Wilkerson, previously our No. 1 free-agent interior defender.)

1. Malik Jackson

2015 team: Denver Broncos

While the Broncos edge rushers did so much damage for them, it’s important not to forget just how good Malik Jackson (87.6) was on the interior. His biggest play of the year might have come in recovering a fumble for the opening touchdown in the Super Bowl, but over the course of the season he registered seven sacks, eight hits and 45 hurries. On top of that he was also solid against the run, and at just 26 years old, has put himself in position for a big payday.

2. Damon Harrison

2015 team: New York Jets

At 91.9, Harrison actually has the highest rating of any impending free agent on the defensive interior, with Jackson and Wilkerson more attractive options purely because of their ability as pass rushers. Harrison is one of the best run defenders in the NFL and has been an absolute rock in the middle of the New York Jets defensive line since entering the league. Once an undrafted free agent, he racked up an incredibly 51 defensive stops, including a rare sack for the run stuffing superstar.

3. Nick Fairley

2015 team: St. Louis Rams

Once a player who looked on the verge of superstardom, Fairley (82.0) found himself far less attracted than many expected as a free agent last year. Still, a one-season stint in St. Louis with the Rams proved to be his best in the league so far. His worst season so far came when he was asked to play 693 snaps, so perhaps the key to getting the most out of Fairley is limiting his usage. It might not be ideal to bring in a free agent who is best-suited to around 500 snaps, but if he can do as he did last year and rack up 19 total pressures and 17 defensive stops, he would make a very smart addition to a lot of defensive lines around the league.

4. Jaye Howard

2015 team: Kansas City Chiefs

Our 24th-highest rated player on the defensive interior, Howard (80.8) had a really strong season against the run for the Kansas City Chiefs. It’s a little bit concerning that his play tailed off in the second half of the year, but Howard will turn 28 in December, and had some performances that really grabbed our attention early in the year, particularly against Denver and Green Bay in weeks two and three.

5. Ian Williams

2015 team: San Francisco 49ers

It would be doing a disservice to Williams (85.6) to call him a poor man’s Damon Harrison, but the two are similar players, with the Jets nose tackle just taking it to another level. Williams is one of the best nose tackles in the league and finished the season strong, with huge performances against Cleveland and Cincinnati. Registering 38 total defensive stops, he’s a perfect fit for a team looking for a force in the middle of their defensive line.

6. Akiem Hicks

2015 team: New England Patriots

Hicks (76.3) arrived in New England via trade during the season, and turned in a really solid year for the Patriots after struggling to begin the year in New Orleans. He was solid in 2013 and 2014 when he played over 700 snaps in both seasons for the Saints, but seemed to really find his niche in a smaller role for New England. Including the playoffs he had 15 defensive stops, including three sacks, and was solid both against the run and as a pass rusher.

7. Brandon Mebane

2015 team: Seattle Seahawks

Mebane (71.4) isn’t the player he once was, but he can still fill a role and be a solid defensive lineman for a number of teams. Solid against the run, he was quite active as a pass rusher in 2015, racking up three sacks, a hit and 17 hurries. At 31 and with his play declining he’s unlikely to be a target for a long term deal, but he’s unlikely to struggle for interest either.

8. Terrance Knighton

2015 team: Washington Redskins

Knighton (74.3) left Denver after two impressive seasons, and failed to make the same impact in the middle of the Washington defensive line. That being said, for a player who turns 30 before the season begins, he was still slightly above average and looked good against the run. Perhaps he can regain his form with a new team, but in the very least whoever signs him is getting a solid run stuffer.

9. Haloti Ngata

2015 team: Detroit Lions

Traded on the first day of free agency a year ago, Ngata (76.9) didn’t enjoy as impressive a season as his final year with the Ravens in Baltimore and at 32 is definitely on the downside of his career. It’s not all doom and gloom though, as he actually had a fairly productive year as a pass rusher for the Lions with four sacks, four hits and 25 hurries. He comes with the versatility of having experience in both three- and four-man fronts and makes sense as a short-time signing as part of a defensive line in need of players to add to the rotation.

10. Mike DeVito

2015 team: Kansas City Chiefs

You know exactly what you’re getting with DeVito, who in nine seasons of being in the league, has registered just seven sacks and 74 total pressures. He’s not a pass rusher, but he is a very good run defender and has graded strongly in that regard throughout his career. In 2015, he made a tackle resulting in a defensive stop on 10.3 percent of his plays against the run, and is unlikely to suddenly drop off in 2016.

| Analyst, Lead Special Teams Analyst

Gordon has worked at PFF since 2011, and now heads up the company’s special teams analysis processes. His work in-season focuses on college football, while he is also heavily involved in PFF’s NFL draft coverage.

  • Zachary Mills

    I wish the Pats would grab Damon Harrison. Putting him on the line with Malcolm Brown would help the Patriots stuff the running game which has been a weakness for the last few years. Not going to happen though. Hopefully they at least grab one of the guys on this list. Ian Williams or retaining Hicks would be awesome.

    • Tyler Ferree

      Just did the numbers, Harrison is not leaving the Jets. The tag on Wilkerson is 14.785 mil, essentially it functions at the team’s Draft/in season cap hold until he is traded, cut Furguson, Cromartie, Giacomini, Carpenter, Folk, Kerley, Cumberland, and Smith (all of whom can be replaced easily) and the Jets are at about 22.5 mil in space, all of which is fair game due to the above approach to Wilkerson’s tag (I’m using OTC’s current 152.484m projection for the Jets, though it could be higher. Give Fitzpatrick 2 years 10 mil, 3m signing, 2.5m guaranteed y1 base with .5m roster bonus, 3.5m base y2 with .5m roster bonus. Harrison 4 years 24 mil, 7m signing, 3m y1 fully guaranteed, 4m y2 2m guarantee, 5m y3/4 with 1m roster bonuses. From there should just under 14m to work with it could be as low as 8-10 depending on how many in house players they keep, for now I’d say probably just Bilal Powell, Ryan Quigley, and Antonio Allen (he missed the season with a runtured Achilles, but had shown promise in the prior 2 seasons) maybe keep players like Kelen Davis, Erin Henderson, Zach Sudfeld, Chris Owusu or Kenbrell Thompkins for at worst depth.

      Long story short the Jets can easily realize enough space to keep Harrison (and this didn’t even require risking the PR crisis of cutting Mangold for 8.6m).

      • Tim Edell

        Assuming they bring back both Wilkerson and Harrison you can say goodbye to Sheldon Richardson next off season.

        • Tyler Ferree

          i still maintain Wilkerson is the one to be traded his immediate trade value is highest along with the highest cost to keep, the best time to extend Richardson is in a couple months once you pick up his option. The reason to extend then is that you get an extra year for Proration purposes that allows you to put a little more money into signing without as much long term negative impact, beyond this his off the field issues lower his asking price, where in a years time he could easilly be asking 12 to 14m a year if he keeps his nose clean and plays at least as well as he did in 2014 (remember when there was legitimate debate for which of the 2 was better, Richardson’s ability didn’t just disappear). Move now and you can potentially get him for as low as 8 though probably closer to 10, you’d obviously include protection if he gets into any more trouble, in the form of voiding guarantees and game active roser bonuses in the extension years, though you’d also have performance base escalators as to sweeten the pot for him (without that upside he’d be more inclined to be on himself).

          • Jack Casey

            How do you trade a free agent?

          • Tyler Ferree

            You can trade a player whose been hit with the franchise tag once they’ve signed their tender.

      • McGeorge

        I doubt Carpenter gets cut, he just here here. I think Geno Smiths contract is guaranteed and not that big, so he wont get cut.
        Dbrick will have to take a paycut, but they need someone to play the position, and the LT wont be working for the veterans minimum.

        I think Harrison will be leave.

        • Tyler Ferree

          tell that to Jason, i did those numbers in OTC’s cap calculator. Using that reference cutting Carpenter frees up just under 3m, and with the last three drafts including guards drafted between the 3rd and 5th rounds, its time to throw them at the wall and see who sticks. the last time Smith had guaranteed base salary was 2014 (this illustrates why drafting QBs in the second is so much safer).

          as for Brick at this point in his career he’s a liability, free up the 9m and sign someone like Donald Penn at about 6 a year while drafting a long term answer.

          also one last place for the Jets to pick up cap space, Revis restructure, moving 8 from base salary to signing frees up 6m, moving 16 or 15 and adding a dummy year to the end of the deal opens up 12m, meaning the Jets can get involved in free agency though should restrain themselves to short term players like Sean Smith and the aforementioned Penn.

          • McGeorge

            The Jets need OLinemen and Carpenter performed ok.
            If they cut him to save cap money, then who is going to start?
            You can have a terrible OLine and not be a poor team.
            Only Brady gets rid of the ball fast enough, and only Russel Wilson can scramble like he does. Those 2 aren’t available.
            If the Jets get rid of all Olinemen to save money (money for what ) they will look like the Patriots Oline against the Broncos in the AFC Championship.

          • Tyler Ferree

            Reality check, you are talking as if the Jets are running an Air Coryell or similar style offense, they are Running a Pro-style Spread offense, so yes the ball is coming out in 3 seconds or less. You don’t need a great line, just decent which, as currently constructed, the Jets don’t have. If you cut costs at guard you aren’t going to do much worse than move sideways with less money committed, while upgrading at tackle based on the starting point is pretty easy. so no gutting the line makes perfect sense.

          • McGeorge

            If you cut a decent guard then who are you going to replace him with, considering that you have other needs on the Oline, like the other guard, and one or or both tackles The Jets need more Olinemen. To have bad ones and a bad line isn’t going to be helpful in winning more than 5 games.

    • Mattia Rizzo

      The struggle against the run happened with Hightower on the sideline, I don’t think the line is at fault there. In my opinion the priority should be to get Hicks back because Easley will never be a full time starter due to injuries.

      • Jack Casey

        I don’t see the Patriots resigning Hicks. He will probably go to Seattle and put up 7-9 sacks next year. Loved him this year though.