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?
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
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
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!)
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
Houston has had a storied career thus far. He has topped 10 sacks 4 times in his career, including a record-threatening 22.0 in 2014. Coming off a year with 8 sacks and 25 tackles for the Colts, one still has to have high expectations for this 32 year-old. He has started 44 regular season games in the past 3 seasons, so durability does not seem to be a factor even as he approaches the age of questionable reliability for his position. Indianapolis may be looking for a bigger name at the pass-rushing position, but any team would be happy to sign the aging Houston.
The most encouraging aspect regarding Houston is his apparent versatility. He has seamlessly transitioned from the outside linebacker role in his first 8 seasons to the down-stance defensive end in the past two. Not only have his numbers stayed relevant, but his missed tackle percentage has actually decreased since transitioning to a three-point stance. He seems able to play for any team who needs a veteran pass rusher.
Best Fit: Washington Football Team
Ryan Kerrigan was a monster pass rusher from 2014-2018, averaging 12 sacks a year over the five seasons. However, his numbers have slid over the last two seasons, especially in 2020 as he was transitioned into a primarily non-starting role. After 9 years as a stand-up pass rusher listed as a linebacker, it may have been a difficult transition to a 3-point stance. The Washington defensive front seven was also one noted for a plethora of talent, so finding a starting spot on that roster featuring Chase Young and Montez Sweat may have been a lot to ask of a 33-year-old with a new coach.
Kerrigan will be looking for a change of scenery that can take advantage of his experience and use him at his preferred position. The most shocking thing to note is that despite Ron Rivera being a touted defensive aficionado and the fact that he did successfully turn Washington into a stout defense, Kerrigan’s missed tackle percentage actually went up drastically from 7.4% in 2019 to 15% in 2020. Kerrigan has had a successful career, and it may not be quite up yet if he can find a team that utilizes his talents more efficiently.
Best Fit: Arizona Cardinals
Crawford has spent 8 seasons in Dallas and was once part of a respected and threatening defense. However, being named part of the 2020 Dallas defense is more of a mark of embarrassment. His numbers were what one would expect from such a historically awful defense. When one becomes one of three teams ever to give up 30 touchdowns at home, there is rarely room to record impressive statistics. He was reduced to a bench role, playing in 16 games though only starting in 3 for a weak defense. This is following a season that was primarily spent on the IR.
Crawford will be looking for a career revitalization in his next stop, but he is not the piece that will make a difference in championship hopes. He may still have some room to work as a role player, coming in on specialized packages. However, he does not have many individual playmaking skill sets, seemingly, to advertise to someone looking for a role player. He has never reached 6 sacks in a season. He has had woeful tackling efficiency the last 2 seasons as well, so he may not be dependable as a run-stopper either. If Crawford is looking for a deal, it will likely be near the league minimum.
Best Fit: Los Angeles Rams
Pro Football Focus named Solomon Thomas the 49ers’ biggest mistake in their past 5 drafts. Now, this is not all bad, because San Francisco has had a few major seeming hits such as Nick Bosa and Deebo Samuel. However, it means that Thomas is carrying the bust tag for the foreseeable future. The coveted pass rusher, once the third overall pick in the 2017 draft, has found his way to 6 sacks in 4 seasons and missed more games (34) than he has started (30). Thomas was overshadowed by Myles Garrett in his 2017 draft, and where Garret has found wild success and constant spotlight, Thomas has found the trainer’s room a bit too comfortable. Availability is metric, and a history of being injury prone rarely turns into being magically healthy for the rest of one’s career.
Thomas may still have some of the magic talent that made him so desired in 2017, but he will have a difficult time finding a buyer that will be paying him at even the same rate he earned on his rookie contract. Thomas will likely be looking at a single-year deal, hoping to prove himself and his talent so that he can work for a more lucrative contract the following year.
Best Fit: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Ten successful seasons in Minnesota left Griffen as one of the most reliable defensive linemen in the league. A rough 2020 may not indicate Griffen’s age, though 34 is not young for a free agent lineman, as much as the awful quality of the defenses he played on. Sadly, Griffen found himself on two record-setting defenses in the wrong way, as both were in the list of three teams that have given up 30 touchdowns at home.
Griffen has racked up 80.5 career sacks, so his resume should lead to him being regarded as a source of veteran leadership on the defensive line. With 6 sacks in 2020 on two bad defenses, he may still have some talent to exploit as well. If I were a team looking for a pass rushing veteran, I would take a chance on Everson Griffen.
Best Fit: Pittsburgh Steelers
Denico Autry ($5,933,333, 12th snaps: 631, 14 GP, t-5th sacks: 8, 31 y/o)
After three years in Indianapolis following being drafted by Oakland in 2014, Autry is looking for his third team. The veteran lineman seems to be having some of his best years later in his career as well, showing much more of his talent since playing for the Colts than he ever did as a Raider. Durability does begin to become a concern for the lineman as he enters the 2021 season at 31 years old, and he has missed multiple games in each of his seasons with the Colts. Yet, he still reliably posted 37, 32, and 33 tackles in each of those respective Indy seasons, and he was able to maintain a missed tackle percentage under 10% in each season as well.
Autry appears to be a reliable end who will attain strong numbers. He achieved 8+ sacks in two of the last three seasons, so if he is able to stay healthy the entire year, he should be able to help a team push to the next level.
Best Fit: Kansas City Chiefs
2021 has one of the most exciting free agency classes we have seen with many stars up for grabs. Romeo Okwara is the single most important free agent available.
Okwara played for a historically bad Detroit defense (I might have mentioned that defense was bad before). Despite how bad the rest of his defense was, despite the terrible coaching and despite often playing from behind, Okwara posted great stats. He played 748 snaps in 2020, and recorded 10 sacks with 44 tackles. The interesting part is he only started 9 games for the Lions in 2020. He has been notably underutilized in his first 5 seasons in the league before his breakout 2020. The biggest concern for Okwara is his large rise in missed tackle percentage in 2020 compared to the previous seasons, but this should be fixable.
The reason I say Okwara will be the most important free agent signing is not because I expect him to lead the league in sacks next year. Okwara will produce at the highest level over his expected salary cap hit. Spotrac estimates his market value places him at an expected contract of 3 years, $30 million. If he is able to produce at the level he played at for Detroit in 2020, he will be well worth that money. If he continues to play as a breakout star with more starts, he will be well worth the money far more than some of the big name players might be.
Best Fit: Green Bay Packers
Trey Hendrickson is ready for his payday after an incredible 2020 season with the Saints. He was able to post these numbers opposite Cam Jordan on a stout New Orleans defense, so if he is signed by a weaker defense, one has to wonder how he will do if he has to eat up double teams more often. However, one should never disrespect 14 sacks and 25 QB hits. Hendrickson not getting a Pro Bowl selection may have been a snub, but if he is able to post these numbers as the leader on the defensive pass rush, he may get more attention.
Hendrickson is being projected by Spotrac to make around $30 million over the next 3 years, so if he does produce at the same level he did in 2020, he will be rather underpaid. However, he may be transitioned from an auxiliary pass rusher opposite a star to playing the star role. I favor taking him into a situation similar to where he played in New Orleans, where he is able to play opposite a feared pass rusher, perhaps another one in the free agent pool.
Best Fit: Indianapolis Colts