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Free Agency Defensive Ends by Dalton Davidson

The 2020 NFL season was the most proficient passing season in the league’s history. Records were set for league-wide statistics in completion percentage (65.2) and quarterback rating (93.6). The total points per game record was blown away by almost 3 full points and now stands at 49.6. Two other statistics paint the picture as well: fewest turnovers ever with 2.6 per game and fewest punts ever with 7.4 per game.

However, the kid Patrick Mahomes led one of the scariest pass offenses we have seen in recent memory with electric Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Notably, they had some relevant injuries on the offensive line. Many expected to see Mahomes pull through, make the amazing plays and find a path to victory.

Mahomes made many great throws, but the image that most Kansas City fans will remember from the Super Bowl is one of Mahomes scrambling for his life, forced to make impossible throws (sometimes nearly completing them). Despite Tampa blitzing far less often than usual during the season, they made Mahomes severely uncomfortable. He was not just ad-libbing as we are used to seeing; he was panicked in the way we are used to seeing from Russel Wilson and Sam “I see ghosts” Darnold. For the first time in his career, we were reminded that the offensive and defensive line is where the game is won at the fundamental level of football.

Many teams will be looking to counteract the offensive firepower of 2020, and the answer was written in the 2020 Super Bowl by Todd Bowles and the Tampa Bay pass rush. Talented pass rushers with creative rush packages are the key to frustrating the plethora of talented quarterbacks in our league, not to mention invalidating and embarrassing the less talented quarterbacks.

In lieu of good pass rush schemes being available in the 2021 free agency pool, we have compiled a breakdown of the top unrestricted free agents here, ranked by their 2020 AAV (average annual salary value), plus a couple honorable mentions. One of these players may be the key to your team making a Super Bowl run, and while everyone is in the pool to find J.J. Watt and his star power, there are some real difference-makers on this list that have been in far fewer commercials. Finding value at the Defensive End position is key. Who could your team find to stave off the division’s best quarterback without breaking their salary cap?

  1. J.J. Watt

The eldest Watt brother hardly needs an introduction. He has been the face of the Houston Texans franchise for years, and were it not for their unrivaled success in butchering a quality roster along with player relationships, he would likely still be there. He comes with easily the highest price tag on this list, but he is surely worth every penny to the right team. Watt is not leaving the Texans to join the Lions so he can get paid and be irrelevant. Any player leaving Houston wants two things: to be appreciated and to win a Super Bowl.

Watt has had some notable injury struggles throughout his career, but he is coming off a season in which he played all 16 games. He also leads the free agent defensive end class in 2020 snaps played. Has he found the fountain of durability, or is another injury looming on the horizon? Watt also had notably down numbers last year with only 5 sacks. However, he was 7th among free agents with 16 QB hits, and he was third among free agents with 52 tackles. The 32 year old seems to have some gas left in the tank, but is it enough for a Super Bowl run?

Watt’s 2020 season was a far cry from his 2018 All-Pro performance. His pressures and sacks are way down, though his QB knockdowns have stayed at around the same rate. The issue here is Watt’s price tag. Does Watt want more than the nearly $17 million he was paid last season? A team who is offering that is buying more into the hype and the star power than into winning a Super Bowl.

Best Fit: Cleveland Browns

  1. Leonard Williams

Williams has done his time in the dredges of the NFL while playing for the bottom-feeders known as the Jets and the Giants. However, he stands out as one of the premiere defensive lineman in the game now after a breakout 2020 season, and he enters this free agent market with many potential buyers despite his likely high price tag. He leads the class in tackles with 57 and is second in sacks with 12. The most encouraging statistic to defensive fundamentalists is his missed tackle percentage: 3.4% after missing only 2 out of 59 attempts.

J.J. Watt may be getting all the attention in the free agency class, but Leonard Williams should be just as highly coveted. The Giants noticeably improved over the course of the season on the defensive side of the football before collapsing in the end when the playoffs became apparently too scary of a reality for the floundering team. When added to a more relevant defense, Williams should promote it to the highest tier.

Best Fit: Indianapolis Colts

  1. Yannick Ngakoue 

Disappointed with his team’s success levels in Jacksonville, Ngakoue fled to the Dalvin Cook-led Vikings. He quickly found that though the team was able to afford him, it could hardly buy a win in the early parts of the season. Ngakoue spent the last 9 games of the 2020 season with the preseason Super Bowl favorites in Baltimore and was still able to post 8 sacks along with 4 forced fumbles. He will be seeking his 4th team in 3 years if he is unable to reach terms with the Ravens. Despite the heartfelt story of his return to his hometown of Baltimore, there has been no notion that he will resign with the Ravens.

As with any job applicant who has switched companies many times in recent history, employers will be questioning Ngakoue’s commitment level. If he is signed, can he be trusted after the first inevitable losing streak? If a team signs him to a multi-year contract, will he demand a trade if there is no Super Bowl after the first season?

Ngakoue has seen diminishing success over his five seasons after a hot start including a 2017 Pro Bowl nomination. He should not be signed with the expectation that he will lead a top defense in sacks, but he may fill a role as a strong auxiliary pass rush threat, as he did at Baltimore.

Best Fit: Baltimore Ravens (do it for your mom, man!)

  1. Jadeveon Clowney

Clowney was drafted 1st overall by the Texans in 2014 and touted as a once-in-a-generation pass rush talent (a phrase that is seemingly thrown at the top pass rusher every draft, but that’s another matter). He was able to record 9.5 and 9 sacks for the Texans in 2017 and 2018 respectively, which staved off the dreaded bust title. But that title is encroaching quickly once again after spending most of 2019 as an overpaid disappointment for Seattle, half of 2020 on the IR for Tennessee and successfully recording 0 sacks in the 8 games he did play.

One looks at that price tag and wonders if all his supposed talent is worth the headache or the cap hit. There may still be a revitalization in Clowney’s career, but teams need to be honest about what they are dealing with. Clowney has high upside and low production, which should be sending him near the bottom of their list of desired pass rushers. Of course, the Cowboys will overpay for him if no one else gives him what he wants, but he will have a difficult time getting $13 million on the open market.

Best Fit: Miami Dolphins

  1. Justin Houston