By: Jake Leicht
Luckily for a team needing some defensive help, there are plenty of decent defensive free agents available right now. Some of these free agents were first or second round picks in the past. Some have even appeared in a Pro Bowl game or two. The fact of the matter is that there is still talent to be had on the defensive free agent market.
Here are the top free agents left at each position.
Defensive Tackle: Johnathan Hankins (Age 26)
Johnathan Hankins was drafted by the New York Giants in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft. While playing at Ohio State, Hankins did not have gaudy numbers, but he did show off his ability to take on double teams with his strength. When the Giants drafted him, they envisioned him taking up space in the middle of their defense to allow their linebackers to play freely in the run game. Over his four year career with the Giants, Hankins only played a full season twice. His best year came in 2014 when he had 7 sacks to go along with 30 tackles. After the 2016 season, Hankins signed a one year deal with the Indianapolis Colts. He started in 15 games for Indianapolis, but he only had 2 sacks and 24 tackles. The Colts did not attempt to bring him back this offseason.
Any team looking to add Hankins will need to be okay with the fact that he really doesn’t put up big time stats. His best attribute is his ability to take on blockers and clog up running lanes. He can play in a 4–3 front, but he is probably best served playing nose guard a 3–4 scheme. Hankins is still only 26 years old, so I am surprised that a team has not taken a chance on him yet.
Team Fits: Steelers, Broncos, Raiders
Defensive End: Robert Ayers (Age 32)
Robert Ayers has played for 3 different teams (Broncos, Giants, and Buccaneers) in his 9 year career in the NFL. Ayers was the 18th overall selection by the Denver Broncos in the 2009 NFL Draft. He played five years in Denver, but his tenure with the team was erratic. He never started more than 13 games for them in a season, and he only started double digit games in a season twice. Ayers’ best season in Denver came in his fifth and final season with the team when he recorded 5.5 sacks over 15 games. That was enough for the New York Giants to give him a 2 year contract during in 2014. Over those two years, Ayers accumulated 14 sacks and 49 total tackles, and was able to sign another contract (3 year, $21 million) with the Bucs. He only started 20 of the potential 32 games with them, and he had 8.5 sacks in those two years. The Bucs released him this offseason.
Robert Ayers has always been a decent pass rusher. He doesn’t seem to do much for his team in the run game, as he has only 195 tackles over his 9 year career. However, he has used a combination of speed and strength to get around opposing offensive tackles pretty effectively to get to the quarterback. Ayers has slowed down quite a bit over the years, but he can still give a team a veteran pass rusher with experience. Those type of players normally sign with a new team around training camp time, as they do not really need the structure of a normal NFL offseason. I look for Ayers to play for a 4–3 defensive team in 2018.
Team Fits: Vikings, Bengals, Bills
Inside Linebacker: Navorro Bowman (Age 30)
Navorro Bowman has been one of the better linebackers in the league during his 9 year NFL career. Bowman played his college ball at Penn State, where he showed his rare athleticism for an inside linebacker. Most mock drafts had Bowman as a potential first round pick in 2010, but he fell to the third round where the 49ers selected him with the 91st overall pick. Bowman did not play a ton during his rookie season, but over the next three years he was really good. Over that span, he had 327 tackles, 9 sacks, 7 forced fumbles, and 3 interceptions. At the end of the 2013 season, he blew out his knee and did not play during 2014. Many people believed that he would never be the same player that he was before the injury, but Bowman proved skeptics wrong by making 116 tackles and 2.5 sacks while starting every game for the 49ers in 2015. Over the past two seasons, he has battled some nagging injuries. His stats have gone down dramatically, and now he is looking for a job for this upcoming year.
Bowman is still a good linebacker. Although he will probably never have another 100 tackle year, he still has the ability to be a playmaker in the front seven for a 3–4 defensive team. He still looks athletic on the field, but he is not quite as fast from sideline to sideline as he once was. A team that needs a two down linebacker should have some interest. Bowman is entering his age 30 season, so his next contract will probably be his last one. I look for him to sign a one or a two year deal.
Team Fits:Steelers, Ravens, Rams
Outside Linebacker: Connor Barwin (Age 31)
Connor Barwin has had a very productive 9 year career. Barwin was drafted 46th overall by the Houston Texans in the 2009 NFL Draft. Through his first two years in the league, Barwin did not register one start, partially due to injury. But Barwin busted onto the scene in his third season with Houston, registering 11.5 sacks. The following season, he only had 3. He was still able to parlay those two seasons into a lucrative 6 year, $36 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. Barwin never registered a season with fewer than 5 sacks, and he even had a 14.5 sack season in 2014. Last season, Barwin signed a contract with the Rams. Although he missed three games due to injury, he was still able to attain 5 sacks yet again. Over his entire 9 year career, Barwin has had 55.5 sacks, 266 tackles, and 7 forced fumbles.
Of all the free agents still on the board, I am most surprised that a team hasn’t given Barwin a contract yet. Barwin has the experience to be a real contributor to a team not only on the field, but in the film room as well. He is a pass rusher who has been able to get to opposing quarterbacks in various ways, which has allowed him to maintain steady sack production nearly every year that he is been in the league. NFL teams are always looking for ways to bolster their pass rush. I think that Barwin has to stay in a 3–4 scheme in order to be the best player that he can. He could be looking for more money than teams are willing to hand out to 31 year old pass rushers, because there is no reason that he shouldn’t be on a roster at this point in the process.
Team Fits: Rams, Packers, Colts
Cornerback: Bashaud Breeland (Age 26)
Bashaud Breeland played multiple positions while at Clemson, and he has been asked to play multiple positions for the Washington Redskins over his first four years in the league. He was drafted by Washington with the 102nd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Breeland was thought to be a second round pick early in the draft process, but he quickly dropped down teams’ boards after his 4.62 40-yard-dash time at the Combine. He also did not have a clear position. In fact, most teams probably had him ranked as a safety on their board. After the Redskins drafted him they played him at both corner and safety, and he ultimately ended up finding a place as a starting cornerback with the team. Breeland never started less than 14 games for Washington in his first four years in the league, and has had 8 interceptions and 59 passes defended to this point in his career.
Standing at 5–11 and weighing nearly 200 pounds, Breeland has a chance to play multiple positions for a team in need. I would venture that a team signing him will do so with the mindset that he is a cornerback. Although he is not overly quick, he uses his instincts to jump routes and read quarterbacks. Breeland could easily slide into most defensive schemes. Like Barwin, I am confused as to why Breeland hasn’t received a tempting offer thus far. Many teams have depth problems at cornerback. Is this a case of Breeland wanting too much money or too many years on his next contract? That seems plausible. Recently the Indianapolis Colts have brought him in for a visit, so maybe he will be signing with a team sooner rather than later.
Team Fits: Colts, Redskins, Dolphins
Safety: Eric Reid (Age 26)
Eric Reid was a four star recruit coming into LSU, and he left as a first round pick. In a somewhat surprising move at the time, the San Francisco 49ers selected Reid with the 18th overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft. He was an immediate starter for the 49ers, starting all 16 games as a rookie. Unfortunately for Reid, his best season to date has been that rookie season. During that time, Reid had a career high 4 interceptions and 73 tackles. His tackle total dipped to 35 in his second season, despite starting in 15 games. Over the next two seasons, his tackle total went back up to the 50s. The problem then shifted to a dearth of interceptions and passes defended. In his fifth and final season with the 49ers, Reid was moved all over the field, playing both safety positions and linebacker. Although his production was lackluster, he did flash his versatility. Going into the 2018 offseason, many sites had him listed as a top 20 free agent.
Of course, Reid never signed with anyone. Many believe that he has not gotten much interest from teams due to the fact that he was one of the players that knelt for the National Anthem. I think there may be some truth to that, but the fact is that Reid hasn’t lived up to the hype of being a first round pick to this point in his career. Safeties have not gotten paid this year like they have in free agency in years past, which I think can be partially attributed to the emergence of nickel cornerbacks in today’s NFL world. Because of this, I do think that it was a positive for him that the 49ers used him at linebacker this past season. It allowed him to show his tackling ability, something he really wasn’t able to do as a free safety. Reid is the hardest free agent to try to find a team fit for in this class. Hopefully, he finds a team that will use his versatility and allow him to just be a football player.
Team Fits: Seahawks, Chargers, Saints