NFL News & Analysis

2021 NFL Free Agent Rankings: Defensive Linemen

Oct 25, 2020; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Shaquil Barrett (58) against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2020 NFL regular season officially in the books, it's almost team-building season for most franchises around the league. So let's get our first look at the 2021 free agent class.

The PFF free agent list is based upon our player evaluations and positional value — and it's a fluid list, as the 2020 season is still unfolding. We will continue to update this list as we head toward the March free agency period. 

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1. EDGE Shaquil Barrett

One of the more efficient pass-rushers in the league over the past few years, Barrett has put up solid production whether in a part-time or full-time role. He’s graded “in the green” as both a run defender and as a pass-rusher in all five years of his career, as he sets a hard edge in the run game and wins with good hands and a variety of moves when attacking the pocket.

Barrett had a 20-sack season in 2019, but don’t be fooled by the gaudy total — he was only slightly more effective that year than previous seasons. He’s spent most of his career playing in more of a classic 3-4 outside linebacker role, dropping into coverage at least 50 times a year and playing mostly from a standup role. Barrett’s best bet is in a similar system, as that’s what he’s been most familiar with in his six years in the league.

Contract Analysis: What a remarkable ascension for Barrett, who turned a one-year, $4 million deal with the Buccaneers into a one-year franchise tag worth four times that amount ($15.8M). With another strong campaign in 2020, next up is a multi-year deal good for over $16 million on an annual basis.

Prediction: Bucs sign Barrett for four years, $68 million ($17M APY): $40 million total guaranteed, $20 million fully guaranteed at signing.

2. DI Leonard Williams

One of the surest bets in the class, Williams has graded between 70.0 and 82.0 in all six years of his career. Run defense is his calling card, as he ranks in the 86th percentile in PFF run-defense grade since entering the league and with his best work coming as a B and C gap defender. Williams is an average pass-rusher and even with a career-high 13 sacks this season, he’s yet to break a 72.0 pass-rush grade for his career. Still, Williams has been one of the most valuable interior defensive linemen in the league since 2015, and his level of consistency is a plus for potential suitors.

Contract Analysis: Williams was traded from the New York Jets to the New York Giants in 2019 and had to move his locker across Metlife Stadium. He may be moving much further than that after the 2020 season unless he can agree to a long-term extension with the Giants coming off the franchise tag. A second franchise tag for Williams would cost the Giants $19,351,200 (120% of his current tag) and isn’t out of the question. That number also provides a solid floor for Williams in negotiations in terms of an average per year amount.

Prediction: Panthers sign Williams for four years, $80 million ($20M APY): $47.5M total guaranteed, $32.5M fully guaranteed at signing.

3. EDGE Carl Lawson

Lawson looked like a fourth-round steal in his rookie season after putting up a ridiculous 59 pressures on just 389 rushes. He’s yet to get back to those benchmarks, but he is still a good situational pass-rusher with a limited skill set in the run game.

Contract analysis: Lawson has put together a solid season in the fourth and final year of his rookie contract, already surpassing his previous season-high in snaps with 483 through 12 games. His playing time was up even before the Bengals traded Carlos Dunlap to the Seattle Seahawks, and he’s proven to be consistent against the run and in generating a few pressures a game with his increase in snaps. Cincinnati did initially claim former Falcons edge defender Takkarist McKinley, so they are looking to add pass-rush help. Still, that may not mean they don’t also have plans to keep Lawson around going forward.

Prediction: Bengals sign Lawson for four years, $55 million ($13.75M APY): $30 million total guaranteed, $17.5 million fully guaranteed at signing.

4. Edge Jadeveon Clowney

Just like any free agent signing, the key is understanding what a player is bringing to the table. Clowney has elite tools, but he’s never been an elite pass-rusher, as he has posted a pass-rushing grade in the 70s in each of the last three years and a 69.6 mark in 2020. The sack totals will fluctuate from year to year, so don’t let that change the narrative: Clowney is a good, not great, pass-rusher. He does his best work in the run game, using those elite tools and heavy hands to win at the point of attack. Since entering the league, Clowney is a 95th percentile run defender and a 77th percentile pass-rusher, so his future team should expect similar snap-to-snap production at this point.

Contract Analysis: Clowney’s offseason rollercoaster was a lot more interesting than anything he’s done during the season so far, and it looks like we may once again be in for a prolonged saga awaiting his team for 2021. There’s probably a decent chance that a wide chasm again exists between what Clowney thinks he’s worth and what NFL teams are willing to pay, but he did have at least four suitors we know of the last time around, so there’s always a market for the former No. 1 overall pick.

Prediction: Titans sign Clowney for one-year, $13 million, fully guaranteed at signing.

5. DI Dalvin Tomlinson

Tomlinson has a distinct profile as an above-average run defender and a below-average pass-rusher. He ranks in the 82nd percentile in PFF run-defense grade since 2017, and he knows how to finish plays — generating one of the best run-stop percentages in the league. As a pass-rusher, Tomlinson has only graded above 62.3 once — 74.7 this past season. He can play all over the defensive interior and represents one of the best run-stopping nose tackles in this class.

Contract Analysis: The Green Bay Packers were reportedly sending offers for Tomlinson at the trade deadline, but the Giants didn’t want to part ways with a player they envision as an important part of their future. Tomlinson and 2019 first-round pick Dexter Lawrence could form a formidable tandem on the defensive interior for years to come.

Prediction: Giants sign Tomlinson for four years, $52.5 million ($13.125M APY): $26.5 million total guaranteed, $16.5 million fully guaranteed at signing.

6. Edge Yannick Ngakoue

It’s all about setting proper expectations and carving out a role for Ngakoue, who has been a good, not great, pass-rusher throughout his career. He excels from wide alignments where he can threaten the edge and has the inside counters to keep offensive tackles off balance. Since 2017, Ngakoue has the eighth-best pass-rush grade in the league when rushing from wide alignments (89.1), but he grades out at just 68.3 from all other defensive line alignments. When combining that with a history of well below-average run-defense grades (he peaked with a 59.0 grade in 2018), Ngakoue has a limited skill set compared to other top edge defenders around the league.

Ngakoue’s best role is as a designated pass-rusher on a team with strong interior rushers and in a scheme where he can stay on the outside while limiting his work in the run game.

Contract Analysis: Eventually, a team that trades for Ngakoue has to pay him, right? Ngakoue shouldn’t be too confident in that happening, as Baltimore let Za’Darius Smith walk after 2018 and couldn’t come to terms with Matthew Judon this past offseason. They’re not afraid of losing edge rushers.

Prediction: Giants sign Ngakoue for four years, $70 million ($17.5M APY): $40 million total guaranteed, $30 million fully guaranteed at signing.

7. DI Shelby Harris

One of the most underrated players in the league, Harris has been an above-average player since starting to see significant playing time in 2017. The former seventh-rounder wins with good pad level and quickness in the running game and ranks in the top third of the league in run-stop percentage since 2018. Harris has also been one of the league’s best pass-rushers since 201,8 with the only reservations being that he has only two seasons with more than 500 snaps (636 in 2019, 516 in 2017). 

Contract Analysis: Denver signed interior defender Mike Purcell to an extension during the 2020 season after drafting McTelvin Agim in the third round and trading for Jurrell Casey from the Titans. The Broncos also drafted Dre’Mont Jones in the third round in 2019. All of this is to say, even though Harris is having a great 2020 season, he may be the odd man out on the defensive interior; it appears Denver planned accordingly.

Prediction: Cardinals sign Harris for three years, $33.375 million ($11.125M APY). 

8. Edge Melvin Ingram III

Ingram’s second contract went a lot better than his first in terms of his level of play. Once seen as a first-round disappointment, Ingram blossomed into an extremely effective NFL pass-rusher only enhanced by the arrival of Joey Bosa to the Chargers‘ defensive front.

Ingram racked up three straight seasons with 70 or more total pressures before injury broke that streak, and 2020 featured the best PFF pass-rushing grade he has posted since 2017, even if the sacks never materialized.

Ingram is a productive pass-rusher, but he was limited to just 361 snaps this season. And at this point in his career, he isn’t going to be the primary source of pass rush for anything other than a bad pass-rushing football team. Teams that already have that primary stud up front could dramatically improve their rush with the addition of Ingram as a second threat, however.

Contract Analysis: Ingram briefly held out of training camp before the season, presumably looking for an extension of some kind. But after making Bosa the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history, the Chargers were only willing to guarantee Ingram’s 2020 salary and not add any years onto his deal. Injuries kept him out of the Chargers’ final six games, and he appeared in just seven games total in 2020.

Prediction: Lions sign Ingram for two years, $20M ($10M APY): $16M total guaranteed, $14M fully guaranteed at signing.

9. Edge Bud Dupree

Dupree broke out with a 77.7 overall grade in 2019, good for 23rd among edge rushers. That marked trampled his previous performances, which ranged from 44.4 (2015) to 62.6 (2016) overall, and he came back down to Earth here in 2020 with a 60.2 overall grade prior to a season-ending injury.

The key with Dupree is not to get caught up in the sack totals, particularly this season, as most of his sacks have come down to quarterbacks holding the ball for way too long. Dupree does play hard, and his high motor allows him to get in several hustle plays and clean-up sacks, but high-end pass-rushers should be winning one-on-one against offensive tackles far more often than Dupree has shown over his career.

Given Pittsburgh’s blitz-happy scheme and supporting talent combined with Dupree’s mediocre career grades and subsequent injury, he’s a buyer-beware candidate on the open market.

Contract Analysis: Pittsburgh chose to let Bud Dupree walk in free agency the minute they extended defensive lineman Cameron Heyward before the 2020 season. Soon enough, T.J. Watt could be looking for the first $30M APY contract for a defensive player in NFL history, and the odds are that he’ll be worth it. Unfortunately for Dupree, a torn ACL in Week 12 may limit his options to one-year prove-it deals.

Prediction: Colts sign Dupree for one year, $10 million ($10M APY): $7.5M total guaranteed/fully guaranteed at signing.

10. EDGE Leonard Floyd

Floyd has been a solid player for the majority of his career, and 2020 was no different. However, don’t get caught up in career-highs in both pressures and sacks, as Floyd has posted pass-rush grades in the 60s in four of his five years in the league — including this past season. He’s an above-average run defender and is good in coverage, where he’s played over 100 snaps in each of the past three years. But the key for Floyd’s market will be expectations where he is more of a complementary pass-rusher than a “10-sack guy.” 

Contract Analysis: Leonard Floyd’s 2020 offseason featured the rare situation where a team exercised its first-round pick’s fifth-year option but then rescinded the contract before it vested to a fully guaranteed deal (the new collective bargaining agreement removed the ability for teams to do this going forward). The Chicago Bears and Floyd couldn’t agree on a multi-year extension, so he reunited in Los Angeles with his former position coach in Chicago — Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley. It was quite a reunion for both, and Floyd is back on the market looking for a long-term deal.

Prediction: Seattle signs Floyd for three years, $40 million ($13.33M APY): $22.5 million total guaranteed, $13.5 million fully guaranteed at signing.

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