Ranking the 2013 Free Agents: Edge Defenders
Ben Stockwell offers a Top 10 list of free agent edge defenders and how they can impact your team.
Ranking the 2013 Free Agents: Edge Defenders
Every day last week we were breaking down the top free agents at each position, and we’ll continue this week. It’s more than just looking at our grades, but factoring in longevity, age, injuries and so much more in order to tell you who we think are the best gets out there.
We’re not going to insult your intelligence though when it comes to guys unlikely to hit the open market because of restricted free agency, so don’t expect to see names like Victor Cruz or Brian De La Puente in these pieces. Instead we’re focusing on guys with a real shot at dipping their feet into the free agent pool and making your team better.
You’ve been with us through the entire offense (quarterbacks, running backs, fullbacks, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive tackles) and a brief sojourn to the kickers & punters. Now it’s time to turn our attention to defense, starting with the edge defenders.
1. Michael Bennett – to SEA: 1-year, $5m
2012 Grade: +18.8
2012 Snaps: 985
Summary: Unlike recent years of free agency that featured elite defensive ends like Julius Peppers and Mario Williams, this year’s defensive end class is short on the upper echelon edge defender. Our top free agent here typifies what this year’s free agent class is all about (for the most part): quality run defense and inconsistent pass rush production.
Ever since the light went on for Bennett in the Bucs’ Week 4 Monday Night victory over Indianapolis in 2011 (+11.2) he has developed into one of the league’s best defensive ends on the left side. However, his performances have been blighted by inconsistency, particularly as a pass rusher. For the performances that you get such as his six pressure (two sacks, two hits, two hurries) effort against Dallas, you get games where he’s completely blanked by a divisional opponent (once each by Atlanta and New Orleans this season).
However, even considering this inconsistency as a pass rusher, Bennett is still a force in run defense. The one thing he does with real consistency as a pass rusher is take advantage of favorable matchups. As a young defensive end, Bennett has shown plenty to get excited about and has time on his side to iron out the inconsistencies and become one of the league’s top 4-3 defensive left ends.
2. Cliff Avril – to SEA: 2-year, $15m
2012 Grade: -11.6
2012 Snaps: 708
Summary: If a year with the franchise tag worked well for Anthony Spencer in Dallas it was less beneficial for Cliff Avril in Detroit. While he bagged double digit sacks for the second straight season, his overall productivity was down and his run defense was as ineffective as ever. Part of this can be attributed to the Lions’ defensive scheme which was much less effective this year than in 2011 (it wasn’t just the Eagles who suffered a downturn playing this scheme), but at the end of the day Avril simply didn’t perform in his “show me” season.
So now the question for Avril will come from Detroit and, should he hit the open market, from the rest of the league; “Why didn’t you go out and earn that big contract this season?” Avril clearly has talent as a pass rusher but his pass rushing grade is well down on his high-water mark of 2010 (+23.7) and teams will need to dig a long way back to find a reason to justify giving him a really big contract. He has age on his size and a track record of being able to get after the quarterback and finish plays so someone should pay him, but they will have work to do to help him re-discover his best form.
3. Paul Kruger – to CLE: 5-year, $41m
2012 Grade: +10.4
2012 Snaps: 1,068
Summary: After the Ravens’ wildcard victory over the Indianapolis Colts this January there was one pass rushers name on everybody’s lips and that was Paul Kruger. However Kruger then didn’t back that up with similarly dominating displays against elite pass protection offensive lines in Denver and in particular New England (-3.0 pass rush). To add to this, Kruger has an awful habit of blowing contain in run defense when he tries to crash down on run plays.
However, to his credit after a very up-and-down start to the season, from mid-season onward he was a force for the Ravens’ defense. The question teams will have to ask themselves when considering handing him the big contract he is surely in search of is whether he is a slow-developing player just starting to reach his peak or a player putting forth a massive effort in a contract season who might not live up to his next payday.
4. John Abraham
012 Grade: +22.1
2012 Snaps: 747
Summary: The Falcons, preparing for the future, cut Abraham to save themselves some serious cap room. Now there loss looks like being to the gain of another team. Abraham isn’t what he once was but let’s not kid ourselves-he was the only Falcon defender capable of generating consistent pressure, especially off the edge. Sure in the past year he’s done more and more of his best work against bad tackles, but with the league being filled with bad tackles don’t think he isn’t capable of hitting double digits with his sacks numbers and getting close to the 56 quarterback disruptions he managed this year.
5. Dwight Freeney
2012 Grade: -1.4
2012 Snaps: 768
Summary: How much does Freeney have left in the tank? At his best Freeney was, arguably, the most destructive defensive player in the league and his spin move would give tackles facing him sleepless nights in the run up to their encounter. However, we need to look back now to 2010 for Freeney’s last great and really consistent season and the question has to be asked as to whether he can repeat that?
Many point to the Colts’ scheme as a hybrid that didn’t suit Freeney this season, but in reality he rushed the passer predominantly with his hand on the ground. Of his 466 pass rushes, Freeney had his hand on the ground for 402 (86.2 percent) of them. The greater concern for Freeney is being able to overcome injuries and niggles for a full season. If you’re looking at a multi-year deal, Freeney is a massive gamble, but if he has a couple more top quality seasons in him someone could get some good value production out him.
6. Israel Idonije
2012 Grade: +17.8
2012 Snaps: 726
Summary: This free agent draft class on the edge defenders quickly runs out of steam and we’re either into big risks or players that you simply sign on a year-by-year basis to get production from them until they run out of steam. The classic example of this in recent seasons has been Vonnie Holliday who has consistently played out one-year deals and just played very well on whatever snaps he was given. After an excellent season on a one-year contract in Chicago, Idonije could be lining himself up as the 4-3 equivalent for the next few years.
With the size and ability to rush the passer from inside and out, Idonije is a valuable addition for any 4-3 team and his improved run defense this season (+7.5) only increases his value as you don’t have to carefully manage the snaps he plays. Returning to Chicago is a logical choice for Idonije but on a one-year deal anywhere, a team will be getting good value.
7. Osi Umenyiora – to ATL: 2-year, $8.5m
2012 Grade: +0.7
2012 Snaps: 653
Summary: Much like Dwight Freeney at No. 6, this is really a question of what’s left in the tank as to where you’ll rank Umenyiora and where teams will have him on their shopping list for free agency. Umenyiora can still get after the quarterback on a fairly consistent basis even if he isn’t going to tear off the edge and terrorize a left tackle as he once did.
Umenyiora was one of those players who in 2011 had a surge of form at just the right time for the Giants to help push them past the Patriots once again. His +13.3 pass rush grade that season was his best in the five seasons we have been grading games. If you believe that was not his final surge then you’ll kick the tires on a one-year deal and could potentially be well rewarded.
8. Juqua Parker
2012 Grade: +8.2
2012 Snaps: 549
Summary: Much like Idonije, Juqua Parker made his first step into settling into the Vonnie Holliday mold of one-year contract production last season. His run defense is nothing to shout about but he grades positively as a pass rusher every single season and until he stops doing that, he brings value to whichever team brings him in. Having seen his snaps whittled down to little more than 250 with the Eagles in 2011, he rebounded with more than 500 in Cleveland this season and was by far the Browns most productive pass rusher (one of only two defensive linemen to grade positively).
There won’t be any sort of immediate frenzy for Parker but someone will sign him. With the Browns heading to a 3-4 this season a return to Cleveland seems unlikely, and it would not be at all surprising to see him continue elsewhere as a productive situational pass rusher.
9. Antwan Barnes – to NYJ: 3-year, $4m
2012 Grade: -0.2
2012 Snaps: 189
Summary: This free agent class is long on run defenders and players that you’re playing a little bit of a guessing game as to what they have left in the tank. Now to round out our Top 10 we have a situational player who whenever he has been given the opportunity he’s been a tremendously productive pass rusher.
With the Chargers completely re-tooling their outside linebacker corps last season, Barnes was a victim of the numbers game, but teams should still be interested in just what he brings to the table. You only need look back to 2011 when Barnes was one of the most productive pass rushers, per pass rush, in the entire league. That season he recorded 45 total pressures on only 265 pass rushes including 11 sacks which gave him a Pass Rushing Productivity rating of 13.8. That number was bettered by only two edge defenders (Trent Cole and Aldon Smith). With so many teams starved of pass rushers they could do far worse than give Barnes some snaps to get after the quarterback in obvious passing situations.
10. William Hayes – stays in STL: 3-year, $10.25m
2012 Grade: +12.0
2012 Snaps: 378
Summary: Is Hayes more than a rotational defensive end? Possibly not, with the former Titan struggling back in 2011 when more was asked of him. But reunited with Jeff Fisher and moved into a backup role he excelled in St Louis, having a knack for bringing pressure (both from defensive end and from defensive tackle in their nickel and dime packages) and making stops in the running game. In fact his 18 defensive stops on 136 running plays gave him the best run stop percentage score of all 4-3 defensive ends. That shouldn’t go unnoticed.
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Ben Stockwell | 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.