(CBS Local/CBS Miami) The NFL’s new league year begins on Wednesday, March 13th, and teams can begin officially signing free agents at that point. (They can negotiate beginning on March 11th.) As with every year, there are some big names hitting the market. So over the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at the top free agents available at each position, while trying to pair them with the teams that need them the most.
We covered offensive line yesterday, which has always been integral to any team’s success. The same goes for the defensive line, as we have seen time and again that teams that can consistently pressure the passer with just four tend to win more often than not. This year, it looked like the pass rusher market was going to be stacked. But franchise tags for Ja’Deveon Clowney, DeMarcus Lawrence and Dee Ford took away some of the shine. Still, there are some solid candidates on the market. We’ll start in the middle, with a recently released young defensive tackle.
Timmy Jernigan, DT, Philadelphia Eagles
Jernigan is a recent addition to the free agent pool and the lone interior linemen that you’ll see here, as the tackle class is on the lighter side this year in free agency. The Eagles needed to make some hard decisions to open up cap space, and declining Jernigan’s option is one of those moves. Of course, it probably factored in that he played in just three games last season. After a strong 2017 season in Philly, the team is letting him test the waters.
At age 26, Jernigan is still young, and while he isn’t going to blow you away with numbers, that’s not really what he does. He’s a run-stuffing tackle that eats up blockers in the middle of lines, allowing others to make plays. In the Eagles final four games of the season (regular season and playoffs), Jernigan helped shore up a run unit that was getting gashed in the middle of the year. The Bengals, Falcons and Chiefs had the three worst defensive lines in the league against the run last year, and all could use a healthy Jernigan as a run stuffer. We’ll go with the Bengals though, who need someone to pair with Geno Atkins in them middle of that line.
Trey Flowers, DE/OLB, New England Patriots
Flowers is hitting the free agent market after racking up 21 sacks over the last three years in New England. And with the top names not available, he finds himself to be the best pass rusher available for teams this spring. After deciding not to tag him, the Patriots are reportedly hoping that he’ll go the same route as Dont’a Hightower and Devin McCourty and circle back to them after seeing what his market value is.
That is a risky play this year, because of Flowers’ standing in this particular free agent class. There is already noise that former defensive coordinator Brian Flores wants to bring Flowers to Miami with him. The Dolphins could certainly use the help in bolstering a pass rush that ranked 28th in Football Outsiders’ metrics last season. As they are the reported front runners at this point, and have his former coordinator as their new coach, they have to be considered the best fit.
Za’Darius Smith, DE/OLB, Baltimore Ravens
Smith is one of several young free agents that the Ravens decided not to use the franchise tag on prior to free agency, and their fan base is a bit divided on the value of these players. With 18.5 sacks over the last four years, largely in a rotational role, Smith has shown the ability to be an impact pass rusher. But Baltimore’s front office has done a solid job over the years of finding defensive contributors through the draft.
That said, Smith was rated as Pro Football Focus’ most under the radar free agent this year. According to their system, he garnered 60 pressures this past season (8.5 sacks), which was the 17th highest total of pressures in the league. If Baltimore doesn’t find a way to keep him, the Packers are expected to have interest, along with a host of other teams looking for pass-rushing help. Included in that are the Jets, Colts, Raiders, and Titans. Of those teams, the Raiders need him the most, but the Jets or Titans, with more of a 3-4 base scheme, are probably the best fit.
Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Detroit Lions
Ansah was shut down for most of last season due to a shoulder injury, so his production was limited. He has been a strong pass rusher in his career, compiling 48 sacks across six seasons in Detroit. The difference between Ansah and the rest of this list is age. He’ll turn 30 in May, so a longer-term deal is unlikely, but that doesn’t mean he still can’t be an effective pass rusher.
In addition to his sack totals in Detroit, Ansah tallied 110 quarterback hits in that time, showing that the sacks aren’t a fluke. He’s consistently around the quarterback. ESPN’s Rich Cimini tweeted that the Jets would have some interest in Ansah, while the Packers have been pegged as a potential destination too. Another pass rusher-needy team that would fit would be the San Francisco 49ers, who finished in the middle of the pack in Football Outsiders’ defensive-line pass-rush metrics last year and could certainly use a boost next season.
Shaquil Barrett, DE/OLB, Denver Broncos
Barrett, like Smith, has been mostly a rotational pass rusher for the Broncos. His comfort with that role has come to an end, as in December he stated that he wants to be a starter. That’s unlikely to happen in Denver, with Von Miller on one side and Bradley Chubb on the other. So, he’ll likely be finding a new team come next week.
When he does have the chance to play, Barrett has produced, totaling 8.5 sacks and 75 quarterback pressures over the last three seasons in Denver. He’s still young (26) and can argue that, given a bigger role, his production would increase. In a market flush with teams looking to add to their pass rush, he should have no shortage of suitors.