Assessing deep NFL free-agent edge-rusher market
From left, free-agent edge rushers Jadeveon Clowney, Bud Dupree and Arik Armstead. USA TODAY Sports: Steven Bisig |  Philip G. Pavely | Kyle Terada

Free-agent pool overflows with edge-rushers. Here's where best could land.

This NFL offseason may feature borderline unprecedented movement at quarterback, overshadowing everything else in free agency. But the market for the NFL’s second-most valuable skill also features more dominoes than usual. 

An unusually large number of impact edge rushers are eligible for unrestricted free agency, and unlike most years, the bulk of this group has a good chance of escaping the franchise tag’s clutches and reaching free agency.

Franchises usually must allocate high draft choices to acquire this skill set. Once teams employ such talents, they mostly do not let them leave in free agency. But varying circumstances this year point to that being a genuine possibility for several franchises. Teams in need of pass-rushing help will not have to sacrifice prime draft capital to procure it, and even the ones that refuse to pay Khalil Mack-level money will have options to improve on the edge come March.

Thirteen players who registered at least eight sacks last season will be free agents. From 2017-19, just 15 players combined hit free agency after an eight-plus-sack season.

Jadeveon Clowney, who cannot be franchise-tagged by the Seahawks, will have high-caliber company on the market. Arik Armstead, Shaq Barrett, Bud Dupree, Dante Fowler, Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue join him on the top tier of this deep market.  Vic Beasley, Markus Golden, Shaq Lawson and Kyle Van Noy stand to be available as well. More experienced veterans Robert Quinn, Jason Pierre-Paul and Mario Addison are also free agents.

This collection of edge rushers includes players in the heart of their primes or early-30s defenders who should have good years left. The edge rusher market will change franchises' outlooks as well.

Ahead of a marketplace that will perhaps have half the league holding more than $50 million in cap space, here is a breakdown of the marquee free-agent edge defenders’ situations:

Arik Armstead, San Francisco 49ers 

Although GM John Lynch wants to keep Armstead in the fold, he must prioritize deals for the more consistent DeForest Buckner, a defensive tackle, and superstar tight end George Kittle. The 49ers have less than $13M in cap space. Applying an $18M franchise tag on Armstead will interfere with their agenda -– which could include re-signing safety Jimmie Ward and wideout Emmanuel Sanders. Armstead’s team-high 10 sacks in 2019 were more than his previous four seasons combined, making the 49ers’ decision to let their versatile 6-foot-7 rusher walk somewhat easier.

Predicted 2020 destination: Dolphins, who hold an NFL-most $89M in cap space and feature needs nearly everywhere on their depth chart

Shaq Barrett, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Barrett went from Broncos backup not known for his pass-rushing ability to shattering Warren Sapp’s 19-year-old Bucs season sack record with 19.5. He has an opportunity to far exceed the $4M deal he signed last March. Head coach Bruce Arians indicated the 27-year-old outside linebacker will be retained, and Barrett expressed a willingness to take slightly less to stay in Tampa (one of the NFL markets without a state income tax).

Predicted 2020 destination: Buccaneers via extension

Jadeveon Clowney, Seattle Seahawks

The former No. 1 overall pick is not a prolific sacker; his three sacks as a Seahawk give him 32 in six seasons. (2014 draft classmates Mack and Aaron Donald have 61.5 and 72, respectively.) But Clowney is incredibly versatile and would instantly upgrade a team’s pass rush. The Seahawks have major holes along their defensive line and possess $50.8M in cap space. But they employ the NFL’s highest-paid player (Russell Wilson) and just signed Bobby Wagner to a linebacker-market-topping $18M-per-year deal. That may lead to Seattle seeking a somewhat cheaper edge option.

Predicted 2020 destination: Jets. While Clowney did not want to spend a franchise-tagged season with a losing team, what happens when the long-edge-deficient Jets up the ante?

Bud Dupree, Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers already have a future $20M-plus-per-year deal with an edge rusher looming. Two-time Pro Bowler T.J. Watt takes precedence over Dupree, who did not really deliver on Pittsburgh’s first-round investment until his 2019 contract year. Dupree’s 11.5-sack season will result in a better offer from another team.

Predicted 2020 destination: Bills. They have nearly $82M in cap space and may cut disappointing defensive end Trent Murphy.

Dante Fowler, Los Angeles Rams

After his first contract year did not go especially well, Fowler re-signed with the Rams. He produced 11.5 sacks in 2019 and will want to cash in. Because of the Rams’ extensions for defensive tackle Donald, QB Jared Goff, RB Todd Gurley and WR Brandin Cooks -– and the forthcoming monster deal for cornerback Jalen Ramsey –- the team will not be in position to use its franchise tag on a role player or out-muscle other suitors on the market.

2020 destination: Giants, who have a dire edge need and may not be able to afford Clowney thanks to a bevy of deficiencies across the depth chart.

Matt Judon, Baltimore Ravens

Rid of Joe Flacco dead money and with Lamar Jackson still on a rookie contract, the Ravens made big payments in 2019, signing Earl Thomas and extending Marcus Peters. Baltimore releasing safety Tony Jefferson will only create $7 million in cap space on top of the team’s $24M figure. The Ravens have allowed pass rushers who have delivered big contract years to walk in recent offseasons (Paul Kruger, Pernell McPhee and Za’Darius Smith). Baltimore recouped compensatory picks for all.

Judon, however, offers more consistency. He has 24.5 sacks since 2017 and broke Elvis Dumervil’s Ravens quarterback-hits record with 33 last season. The Ravens will need edge help even if they keep Judon, making his retention more important than some recently departed outside linebackers.

2020 destination: Ravens via franchise tag

Yannick Ngakoue, Jacksonville Jaguars

Players like this are almost never allowed to hit free agency; the former third-round pick and “Sacksonville” cog has 37.5 sacks and 85 QB hits in four seasons. But the Jags made some bad investments in recent years -– headlined by the deals for Blake Bortles and Nick Foles -– and are currently $3M-plus over the cap. They will likely release defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, freeing a whopping $22.5M. Other cuts will ensue. GM Dave Caldwell is prioritizing Ngakoue, making him less likely to see free agency than his peers -– the Jags’ cap crunch notwithstanding.

2020 destination: Jaguars via franchise tag

For teams who miss out on the top class of pass rushers, the second wave brings immense intrigue and will generate a middle-class bidding war of sorts from franchises seeking sidekick sack artists. 

Altogether, the impending dispersal of this much talent across the league makes this one of the most interesting years for the pass rusher market since full-fledged free agency debuted 27 years ago.

Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.

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