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Getting defensive: A look at the NFL’s top dozen 2022 free agent defenders

By Emile Avanessian

Published: 14:00, 10 March 2022

The Super Bowl is now nearly two weeks behind us, and the NFL draft in Las Vegas is still weeks away. That means one thing – it’s time for free agency! With the March 16 ‘open for business’  date fast approaching – although ‘legal tampering’ begins two days earlier, we’re taking a look at 12 defensive players who may be on the move.

Akiem Hicks, Chicago Bears

Hicks was signed as a free agent by the Bears in 2016, and has since become the anchorman of a solid Bears defense. Hicks has racked up 32.5 sacks, 51 tackles for loss and 92 QB hits with the Bears – though much of that production came is his first three seasons – prior to numerous injury problems. Hicks amassed career-highs of 8.5 sacks, 15 TFL and 20 QB hits in 2017, after which he made the Pro Bowl in 2018, with 7.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, and 16 QB hits.

Initially signed on a two-year contract before re-signing on a further four-year, $48 million deal, Hicks, now almost 33, is a good bet suit up somewhere outside the Windy City in 2022.

D.J. Jones, San Francisco 49ers

A sixth-round pick in the 2017 draft, D.J. Jones has been present for the Niners’ most recent rebuild, helping the team to two NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl in that span.

Jones has had his injury problems, missing time in four of his five seasons since getting drafted. He became a Niners starter in just his second season, and put in career numbers during the 2021 season – which he played on a one-year, $3.5 million deal. Over the past three seasons he’s tallied seven sacks and 21 tackles for loss (TFL), Jones could be in line for a significant payday.

Calais Campbell, Baltimore Ravens

Though he’s not often discussed as such, Campbell is one of the greatest defensive tackles to ever play in the NFL.

Through 14 seasons, he’s accumulated 93.5 sacks, 566 solo tackles, 223 hits and 12 fumble recoveries, three of which he’s returned for touchdowns. By Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value metric, no defensive tackle who’s debuted since 1990 has offered greater on-field value (though Aaron Donald is closing in).

Campbell is no longer at his awesome 2016-17 peak, but the 35-year-old is still effective, having piled up with 47 tackles (10 TFL) and 5.5 sacks in two seasons with the Ravens. Campbell recently stated that he plans to return for a 15th season, and while a return to Baltimore could be on the cards, any contender would do well to add the veteran to its defensive line.

Von Miller, Los Angeles Rams

A certain level of caution is probably warranted in assessing Von Miller. After all, the man just completed his tenth NFL season in eleven years after missing the entirety of the 2020 campaign with an ankle injury. What’s more, in his last full season in Denver, Miller’s production had begun to show signs of slippage.

After a slow start post-trade in Los Angeles, Miller turned back the clock and reacquainted us with the player that headlined the legendary Broncos defenses of the last decade. In the four playoff games culminating with the Rams’ Super Bowl win, Miller registered 12 solo tackles, 6 TFL, 6 QB hits, 4 sacks, deflected a pass, forced a fumble and recovered a fumble.

Just shy of 33rd birthday and less than two years removed from a serious injury, there’s no denying that a healthy Von Miller still has plenty left in the tank. It’s a decent bet that Miller and the Rams work out a deal for one or two years. However, if a deal can’t be struck, the future Hall of Famer would be an attractive target for any would-be contender.

Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals

After six seasons in the desert – five of them involving 10+ sack season, three of them Pro Bowl-worthy, and two of them ending with First Team All-Pro honours – one of the top pass rushers of the past quarter-century is set to hit the open market.

Jones is much more than a single-minded sack machine. He is one of the NFL’s great disruptors from the defensive line. In his five healthy seasons (he played only five games in 2020), Jones has forced 23 fumbles, recovered seven, and registered 79 tackles for loss.

Though his production in 2021 wasn’t on par with his phenomenal 2015, 2017 and 2019 seasons, Jones – who turns 32 on February 27 – showed that he’s still among the best in the business, with 10.5 sacks, 12 TFL, 47 QB pressures, 26 QB hits and six forced fumbles.

Given the Cardinals’ recent propensity for late-season collapses and potential friction between the franchise and quarterback Kyler Murray, I’d expect Jones to test the market, in search of an opportunity with a legitimate contender. 

Jadeveon Clowney, Cleveland Browns

Clowney is coming off of exactly the type of bounce-back season he’d have hoped for when he signed his one-year deal with the Browns last offseason. In 14 games in 2021, Clowney, both taking advantage of and alleviating opponents’ focus on his superstar counterpart, Myles Garrett, recorded nine sacks (his career high is 9.5) and eleven tackles for a loss.

Clowney is immensely gifted physically and, on his day, an explosive and disruptive force. The main issue, of course, is that his day doesn’t always come often enough, as evidenced by his awful zero-sack 2020 season with the Tennessee Titans, which resulted in 2021 being his fourth consecutive season with a new team.

That being said, he offers an intriguing pass rushing option at a below-top-of-the-market price for teams dipping into the market this offseason. There is a decent chance he returns to Cleveland, or reunites with one of his former teams – the Titans, who are now coached by Mike Vrabel, with whom Clowney worked (and thrived) in Houston; or the Seattle Seahawks, who are in need of pass rushing help, and were keen on retaining Clowney’s services in 2020, before he opted to signed with Tennessee.

Update: In light of the Russell Wilson trade (barring a huge deal to bring a new quarterback even remotely comparable in quality), it’s probably safe to assume that the Seahawks’ window for contention has been pushed at least a few years down the line. However, that’s not to say that the franchise won’t pursue quality pieces in the meantime. And Clowney, at the right price, on a one- or two year ‘prove-it’ deal, could be very interesting. However, the likelihood that he finds a more lucrative offer with a team closer to contention is significant.

De’Vondre Campbell, Green Bay Packers

Timing is everything. After a pair of excellent, though unheralded seasons with the Falcons and Cardinals, former fourth-round pick signed a one-year ‘prove it’ deal with the Green Bay Packers. And prove it he has!

In 2021, Campbell established himself as one of the best off-ball linebackers in the NFL. In 16 games, he allowed just 4.9 yards per target and recorded a whopping 146 tackles (102 solo, with just four missed tackles), 6 QB hits, two interceptions, two sacks and recovered a fumble – all of which either matched or far exceeded his previous career highs. Campbell’s advanced stats were also excellent.

The First Team All-Pro and the NFC’s Defensive Player of the Month in December is the best in the business, and a lock to receive a contract – likely not with the cap-strapped Packers, but maybe the Seahawks, Lions or Titans – that dwarfs the $12.8 million he’s earned in six NFL seasons thus far.

Update: Campbell actually makes a lot of sense as a natural replacement for just-released veteran middle linebacker Bobby Wagner. However, whether the Seahawks are eager to go to towards the top of the middle linebacker salary market ($10-$12 million per year) to secure Campbell’s services remains to be seen. Also, like Clowney, Campbell is a decent bet to find similarly (if not more) lucrative offers in more competitive situations.

Update: Campbell actually makes a lot of sense as a natural replacement for just-released veteran middle linebacker Bobby Wagner. Now, whether the Seahawks are willing to go to towards the top of the middle linebacker salary market ($10-$12 million per year) to secure the First Team All-Pro’s services remains to be seen. And, like Clowney, Campbell is a decent bet to find similarly (or more) lucrative offers in more competitive situations.

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Dont’a Hightower and Devin McCourty, New England Patriots

Hightower is one of a number of Patriots – along with Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater, James White, Ted Karras and J.C. Jackson – about to hit free agency. Jackson, who is just 26 years-old and one of the best cover corners in the NFL, is a good bet to be retained via the franchise tag. Karras, who’ll be 29 and is a solid and reliable guard, will likely be re-signed.

However, the two most recognisable names to NFL fans, Hightower and McCourty, are likely on their respective ways. There’s not much room for sentimentality in Bill Belichick’s world, particularly for players over the age of 30, and especially when the Patriots are short of cap space.

Thus, Hightower, despite playing in 16 of 18 regular season and playoff games in 2021, is likely on the way out. At nearly 32 years of age, what speed he did have at his peak (not elite) is dwindling, and though he remains one of the better off-ball linebackers in the NFL, his is a position that is simply not a top priority for defenses these days.

Similarly, McCourty, remains an excellent safety, but is no longer the elite force that he was in his prime, and will be 35 years-old when the 2022 season kicks off. McCourty is the free agent that the Pats will least want to lose. However, given their tight cap situation (just $8 million of space before any maneuvering or, conversely, re-signings), they simply may not have the capacity to retain him. Despite his age, McCourty will garner plenty of interest on the open market, and the Pats may see the price of bringing him back exceed their budget.

Stephon Gilmore, Carolina Panthers

A name more synonymous with the two above than with the team he’s actually leaving.

Another Patriots’ stalwart from the past decade, Gilmore was traded to the Panthers at the start of the 2021 season, while angling for a new contract. Though he is more than three years younger than McCourty and, less than three years ago turned in one of the best seasons by a defensive back in the history of the sport, there is a case to be made that Gilmore is the riskier proposition, as he’s missed 14 regular season games over the past two seasons with a torn quadriceps muscle (McCourty has missed 5 in 12 years), and that his incredible two-year peak (2018 and 2019) increasingly looks like an anomalous spike from a very good player, rather than a baseline. 

Having just completed a five-year, $65-million contract, Gilmore hits the market alongside Carolina’s other starting corner, Donte Jackson, who is 26 and performed at a comparable level in 2021, and thus may be a high priority for the Panthers. Look for Gilmore to get a one- or two-year deal with the same average salary, though probably incentive-driven, as a second or third corner.

Tyrann Mathieu, Kansas City Chiefs

On the heels of a three-year, $42-million contract, Tyrann Mathieu returns to free agency, as one of the best and most versatile defensive backs on the market. Though his 30th birthday is approaching, the ‘Honey Badger’ remains a genuine difference-maker, as evidenced by the fact that the Chiefs’ defense was one of the NFL’s worst when he was out of the lineup, and a net positive with him in it.

Mathieu will certainly be looking for an average annual salary at least equal to that of his last deal, and the Chiefs will maneuver as best they can to retain the three-time Pro Bowler and First Team All-Pro. A return to K.C. is the likely outcome here, though Mathieu will not lack for suitors – the Ravens, Eagles, 49ers and Dolphins all make sense – one of whom may break the bank to attract the elite playmaker.

Quandre Diggs, Seattle Seahawks

Even without considering whether Russell Wilson wishes to remain with the team in 2022 and beyond, the Seahawks are staring down the barrel of a stressful offseason. This, of course, is because, in addition to having sent their first-round pick in the upcoming draft (#10 overall) to the Jets as part of a deal to acquire safety Jamal Adams, they have a plethora of players hitting the open market.

Left tackle Duane Brown, center Kyle Fuller, tackles Brandon Shell and Jamarco Jones, backup quarterback Geno Smith, tight end Gerald Everett, running backs Rashaad Penny and Alex Collins, defensive tackles Rasheem Green and Al Woods, and cornerback D.J. Reed are all set to hit free agency.

You may notice a big name missing from that laundry list: free safety Quandre Diggs. Diggs’ has been mentioned as a possible franchise tag candidate, though the current Seahawks regime seldom uses it. To use it on Diggs, who’s extremely popular with his teammates, rather than offering long-term security would create disharmony in the locker room. Add to that the fact that Diggs is one of the best ballhawks in the NFL (13 interceptions in 36 games and two Pro Bowl selections since being acquired via trade from Detroit in 2019), and it’s easy to see why he is a top priority.  

Perhaps including him on this list is premature, as he and team have , but it is worth bearing in mind that, should those talks break down, Diggs would immediately become one of the most sought-after players on the market.

Update: A couple of weeks ago the debate surrounding Diggs centered around whether he was a candidate for a franchise tag or a long term extension. As the franchise tag deadline has come and gone, the question now is whether the long-term deal that Diggs and the Seahawks had reportedly already begun negotiating come to fruition.

The team and Diggs are seemingly still in negotiations. Given Diggs’ quality, you’d expect a deal to get done. However, if the asking price is too high and the team foresees an uncompetitive stretch ahead, it’s possible that the 29-year-old hits the open market.

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