Ranking the 2014 Free Agents: Edge Rushers
Trey Cunningham looks into this year's crop of free agent edge rushers and finds a surplus of talent.
Ranking the 2014 Free Agents: Edge Rushers
You’ve been reading along with our Projected Lineups series on a daily basis and have checked the PFF Free Agent Tracker more times than you can count, so you’ll be happy to see that we’ve now set out to rank the top free agents available — the potential answers to the holes apparent on those team-by-team charts. We’ll be taking on a couple positions a day this week and discussing our Top 10 at each.
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.
Earlier today you saw the first of these lists, the quarterbacks, and now you get a breakdown of the top players charged with getting after those QBs. This includes defenders from both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes that primarily play as ‘edge rushers’.
In some cases the highlighted defenders not only play on the edge of the defensive line, but also occasionally on the interior (including Michael Bennett and Justin Tuck). The fact that they primarily line up as a defensive end puts them on this list.
Here are the 10 best available as the 2014 free agency period nears:
1. Michael Bennett – Re-signs with Seattle
2013 Grade: +36.2
2013 Snaps: 759
Once again Michael Bennett is the top-rated free agent Edge Defender; on what was a relatively light one-year deal considering his past production, the former Buccaneer played 226 fewer snaps than in 2012 despite the Super Bowl run and saw his overall grade go from +18.8 to +36.2. Obviously Seattle had significantly better players than the 2012 Tampa Bay defensive unit, but Bennett’s continuing dominant performance cannot be ignored. The downside is that it’s going to be difficult for the reigning Champions to hold onto him.
Perhaps the biggest compliment to Bennett’s 2013 performance is that he was the highest-overall graded defender on this stacked Seattle defense. The former 2009 undrafted free agent never received a ‘red’ grade in run defense or pass rushing, while earning a total of 16 combined ‘green’ grades in these areas. One aspect to improve would be penalties (-7.5 for 11 infractions).
2. Greg Hardy – Stays with Carolina, Franchise Tag
2013 Grade: +27.2
2013 Snaps: 954
Nicknamed “The Kraken”, Greg Hardy, a former 2010 sixth-round pick, has proven his worth. Faring well in limited snaps his rookie year (+4.7 overall in 402 snaps), Hardy received a significant bump in playing time the following year (just over 500 more snaps), but his production (especially in run defense), suffered. However, his third year (+20.2 overall in 769 snaps) suggested his sophomore season was more of a fluke than a sign of things to come, while last season reiterated that point and made him almost, if not quite, a household name.
In 2013, Hardy achieved the fourth-best Run Stop Percentage and Pass Rushing Productivity rating among 4-3 Defensive Ends. He also got better as the season progressed, earning a season-best +2.4 run defense grade in Weeks 12 and 16 (the crucial Saints rematch that helped win the NFC South title) and collecting seven sacks, nine QB hits, and 12 hurries in the final three regular season contests. Unlike some other defenders on this list, Hardy seemed to step it up a notch at the end of the season. Teams looking to add a 4-3 defensive end should notice that.
3. Brian Orakpo – Stays with Washington, Franchise Tag
2013 Grade: +24.9
2013 Snaps: 827
After being lost for the year to a pectoral injury just 87 snaps into the 2012 season, Orakpo had a lot to prove in 2013, especially after the Redskins managed to win a division title without him. He responded with a career-best +24.9 overall grade. He could not match his amazing 2011 production in pass rushing, but he set new highs in run defense and coverage grades, both areas which he had previously struggled in throughout his Washington tenure.
In fact, not including his brief 2012 stint, Orakpo had never earned a positive grade in run defense or coverage since entering the league in 2009. His struggles in coverage are at least understandable, but his weakness in run defense was harder to ignore; he simply lost far too one-on-one battles, sometimes even with tight ends. If last season is any indication, he has overcome that hurdle as he became a more complete defender, never receiving a ‘red’ grade defending the run. As noted, he also improved in coverage, where he allowed seven of 10 targets to be completed, but for only a total of 34 yards; he also collected a pick-six against Jay Cutler.
4. Michael Johnson – Signs with Tampa Bay
2013 Grade: +26.0
2013 Snaps: 976
Former third-round draft pick Johnson has never graded out as an elite pass rusher, but he has proven to be a force against opposing running games. With a +20.6 grade in this area and a Run Stop Percentage tied for fifth best among 4-3 DEs last season, teams looking for assistance in run defense should take a long look at Johnson.
As for rushing the passer, last season was the first time in his five-year career that we’ve given him a positive grade in this area (+3.5). While he only had five sacks, he did otherwise knock opposing QBs down 17 times, along with 41 hurries. His consistency is the problem, though. Although he was never blanked in this area of the stat sheet, he did have five red-graded performances, including three against each divisional opponent.
5. Lamarr Houston – Signs with Chicago
2013 Grade: +11.4
2013 Snaps: 1,049
Lamarr Houston, a 2010 second-round draft pick, was one of the bright spots on a weak Raiders defense. He was especially helpful in defending the run, earning the sixth-best grade in this area among 4-3 DEs and the best Run Stop Percentage among that group (with a minimum of 230 run defense snaps qualifying).
His production in terms of harassing signal-callers was not as impressive, though. In the first seven games he did contribute four sacks (including a rare strip-sack of Peyton Manning on Monday Night Football), nine QB knockdowns and 25 hurries. In the last nine games, however, he was much less of a factor, mustering seven QB hits but only a pair of sacks and 16 hurries. It is fair to wonder if opposing QBs would’ve been more uncomfortable against him if his team was still in playoff contention late in the year.
6. Justin Tuck – Signs with Oakland
2013 Grade: +15.4
2013 Snaps: 896
Justin Tuck is perhaps known best for his dominating performances in both of their recent Super Bowl victories. The veteran earned a +11.7 run defense grade that was the eighth-best among his 4-3 defensive end peers, and his 12 sacks were tied for fifth most with Carolina’s Charles Johnson. He also finished with the second-highest overall grade on the Giants defense in 2013.
His performance against the run is hard to dispute, but his pass rushing stats can be. His four-sack game against the Redskins in Week 13, for example, is a little misleading; he quickly beat a lineman for one sack, but the three others were a result of pressure created by others, the QB holding onto the ball too long, and him being unblocked. He was also shut out twice and earned five red grades in this area. This will be his 10th season in the league and, while he’s never graded negatively overall, it is fair to wonder if he will ever repeat his earlier dominance, especially for a new team.
7. Anthony Spencer
2013 Grade: -0.9
2013 Snaps: 38
Despite a superb 2012 campaign (+26.6 overall), many scoffed at the Cowboys’ decision to franchise tag Spencer for the 2013 season. Those concerns turned out to be valid as Spencer was unable to help a defense that became decimated by injury, playing in only one game. That single game came in Week 2 in Kansas City where he collected a hit and a hurry in 22 rushes.
If Spencer is indeed healthy, he should be able to contribute. Aside from health concerns, the biggest question will be whether he will play as a defensive end (which he was slated to in Monte Kiffin’s new 4-3 Dallas defense last season), or as an outside LB, which is what he played during most of his time with the Cowboys.
8. Everson Griffen – Re-signs with Minnesota
2013 Grade: +4.7
2013 Snaps: 717
Everson Griffen, a fourth-round draft pick out of USC in 2010, was not a starter, but was one of only four Vikings defenders to finish the season with a ‘green’ overall grade. It did take him four weeks into the season to record more than two pressures, and he only had one spectacular pass rushing performance (registering nine pressures against an underrated Washington offensive line in Week 10 on Thursday Night Football). But it’s worth noting he was never blanked in the 2013 season and his only overall-negatively graded season in his four-year career came in 2012 and was mostly due to penalties (he had eight). Any team looking for depth should take a look.
9. Willie Young – Signs with Chicago
2013 Grade: +7.0
2013 Snaps: 801
Former first-round draft picks Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley get most of the attention for Detroit’s defensive line, but starting right defensive end Willie Young has also been a factor. A seventh-round pick from 2010, Young earned the third-highest overall grade on that fearsome Lions DL, with only six penalties dragging that grade down. While he only recorded four sacks, he did register another 56 pressures and four batted passes.
Unfortunately, like the rest of his team, Young’s production (in terms of pass rushing) dropped as the season wore on. He earned a +6.2 pass-rushing grade in the first nine games, but could only manage a -1.3 in the final seven games. Like Lamarr Houston, teams will be asking about the late-season decrease in production.
10. Robert Ayers
2013 Grade: +11.6
2013 Snaps: 616
Like Orakpo, Robert Ayers was an edge rusher selected in the first round of the 2009 draft. Unlike Orakpo, though, Ayers, who was selected after Orakpo, has been criticized for his lack of production considering his high draft slot. With Von Miller missing the first six games (suspension) and six snaps shy of the last five games (ACL injury), Ayers was especially needed, and responded by earning the fourth-best run defense grade on this unit which included 17 Stops and only three missed tackles. While not near the top of the league in the category, he also contributed as a pass rusher, with his best stretch in this area coming between that Week 16 Houston game where Miller went down through the AFC Championship (+6.7). However, he was also blanked in this area in three games, and, like the rest of his team, failed in the biggest game of his career – Super Bowl XLVIII, where he could only muster a single hurry.
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