NFL News & Analysis

One defensive free agent each NFL team should pursue in the 2023 offseason

Arlington, Texas, USA; Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (55) leaves the field following a game against the Houston Texans at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

Buffalo Bills could target Leighton Vander Esch: The Dallas Cowboys LB is a cheap option who could pair well with Matt Milano.

Jadeveon Clowney fits the Kansas City Chiefs defense: Clowney could immediately improve Kansas City's run defense while taking some of the pass-rush load off interior defender Chris Jones.

New England Patriots could use Patrick PetersonThe 32-year-old proved that he still has a lot left in the tank in 2022, and his veteran presence could be useful to New England's young secondary.

Estimated Reading Time: 26 mins

We kicked things off earlier this week with a free agent fit for all 32 teams on offense, and now we switch our attention over to the defensive side — a group that looks to have more high-end talent set to hit the market. 

With NFL offenses more high-powered than ever, a few key additions in the offseason can go a long way between separating pretenders and contenders. It’s not always about making the biggest splashes but also adding versatility and depth to account for various matchups throughout the season. 

Here are some of our favorite team-player fits for this year’s pending free agency on defense:


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Arizona Cardinals: Interior defender Dre’Mont Jones

If Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph sticks around in Arizona, this would not be a reunion with one of his former players — he was the head coach of the Denver Broncos from 2017-18 (Jones was drafted in 2019) — but he certainly should have familiarity with Jones. While it seems like the Cardinals and interior defender Zach Allen should be able to work out an extension after a breakout 2022 campaign, perhaps they look in a different direction and add a player with a little more pass-rush juice.

Over the last three seasons, Jones’ 115 quarterback pressures rank 15th among interior defenders while his 14.8% pass rush win rate ranks 13th. He could stand to improve as a run defender, but 3-4 defensive ends with this level of pass-rush ability don’t hit free agency too often. 

Adding help in the secondary would go a long way for the Cardinals as well, but the best player in their front seven in 2022 was J.J. Watt, who is now retired. They need help all over this defense, and generating a consistent pass rush on the interior could be a good first step.


Atlanta Falcons: Edge defender Samson Ebukam

It’s almost impressive how little production the Falcons have gotten from edge defenders over the last three seasons, as their 229 quarterback pressures are the fewest in the NFL by more than 50 and well below the league average at 406. 

The Falcons could consider a bigger splash now that their budget looks a bit cleaner after completely purging the roster over the last two seasons — their $56.7 million in projected 2023 cap space is second in the NFL — but they may still be a year away from fully pushing their chips in once again, especially if they feel they need to address quarterback once more. 

Ebukam is coming off back-to-back seasons with 45 quarterback pressures, and he’s not just a pure pass-rusher, totaling 51 defensive stops over the last two seasons. With Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees retiring after this season, there could be changes coming to the structure of the Falcons defense, but Ebukam has shown flexibility as a bit of a tweener with his 6-foot-3, 245-pound frame between his days spent as a stand-up outside linebacker with the Los Angeles Rams and a defensive end in San Francisco.


Baltimore Ravens: Cornerback Jonathan Jones

Marcus Peters is a pending free agent, so it remains to be seen if he’ll be back in 2023; therefore, we went with a different free-agent cornerback here. With interior defender Calais Campbell and edge defender Justin Houston’s futures in the balance as well, adding more beef up front could make sense, but based on both of their comments after a wildcard round loss, it sounds like they want to be back in Baltimore in 2023.

Jones’ versatility as a cornerback who can play outside — as evidenced by a strong 2022 season — and in the slot makes him a good fit for a creative Ravens defense that does a lot of mixing and matching on the backend. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey and safety Kyle Hamilton will also rotate into the slot based on matchups, and Jones could allow them to continue to move defensive backs all over the formation. 

Jones played a career-high 914 snaps in 2022 — his first season playing primarily outside — and did see his performance tail off a bit down the stretch, but he still earned very respectable 68.1 overall and 67.9 coverage grades. Jones is also a good run defender and tackler, earning 75.0-plus run-defense grades in back-to-back seasons.


Buffalo Bills: Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch

This is by no means an indictment of Tremaine Edmunds, who is coming off a career year, but Buffalo has to start making tough financial decisions if it wants to keep its Super Bowl window open going forward. After extending linebacker Matt Milano in 2021, it’s probably not a great idea to spend around $30 million per year combined at the position when Buffalo may need to replace both starting safeties and address its offensive line. 

Vander Esch would be a cheaper option and great pairing alongside Milano as a bigger, more physical player. The former first-round pick earned his best overall and coverage grades since his rookie season in 2022, with 72.8 and 77.0 grades, respectively. Vander Esch also missed a career-low 5.7% of tackle opportunities in 2022 and showed up big time in the wild-card round with seven tackles and two pass breakups, one of which came in the end zone.


Carolina Panthers: Interior defender David Onyemata

Former top-10 pick Derrick Brown had a breakout 2022 season as a stout run-defending nose tackle with pass-rush upside, and bringing aboard a three-technique who can get upfield in a hurry could create a scary tandem on the interior. 

Over the last three seasons, Onyemata’s 11.4% pressure percentage ranks 11th among interior defenders, and his 113 total pressures rank 17th despite missing the first six games of the 2022 season due to a suspension. He’s also a solid run defender — his 45 run defense stops and 14 tackles for loss or no gain are both top 50 marks at the position over the span.


Chicago Bears: Interior defender Javon Hargrave

The Bears got downright bullied up front all season long, with opposing offensive lines doing whatever they wanted to whoever Chicago lined up in the trenches. While many expect Chicago to target Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter in the top five of the 2023 NFL Draft, that shouldn’t prevent a move like this from happening in free agency whatsoever. In fact, part of the idea here is a potential pairing with Carter.

Head coach Matt Eberflus has made it clear that the three-technique position is the most important spot on his defense, and Hargrave is in the midst of an incredible stretch over the last few seasons. What makes him a good fit with Carter is they are very different players with very different builds, but both can line up as one-technique nose tackles or as three techniques between the tackle and guard. 

Since 2020, Hargrave’s 92.2 pass-rush grade trails only Aaron Donald and Chris Jones among interior defenders, with his 18.8% pass-rush win rate also ranking third. He’s exactly what Chicago needs up front to help bring this pass rush along, a unit that ranked dead last in pass rush win rate and pressure rate in 2022.


Cincinnati Bengals: Safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson

The Bengals may lose both starting safeties this offseason in Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell, and it remains to be seen where they’ll play 2022 first-round pick Daxton Hill long term, but he has the versatility to play safety or at cornerback. So does Gardner-Johnson, who primarily manned the slot for the New Orleans Saints before moving to a full-time safety role with the Philadelphia Eagles. Cincinnati has one of the best slot cornerbacks in the NFL in Mike Hilton, so odds are Gardner-Johnson would be asked to play more safety in Cincinnati. 

Gardner-Johnson tied for the league lead in 2022 with six interceptions despite the position switch and while missing five games due to injury, earning his fifth-straight coverage grade above 60.0. He could stand to clean up his tackling a bit, and he may view his price point as well above a number Cincinnati is comfortable entertaining, but this could be a good fit for the team and player. 

Gardner-Johnson can reunite with his former Saints teammate in Bengals edge defender Trey Hendrickson, bringing his pesky edge to defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s defense.


Cleveland Browns: Interior defender A’Shawn Robinson

Cleveland does not have a ton of money to spend at any spot on the roster but desperately needs to upgrade the interior of its defensive line, as was the case coming into the season. The Browns fired defensive coordinator Joe Woods and recently announced the hiring of longtime defensive coach Jim Schwartz, who builds physical defenses that win with four up front, an alignment we believe is better suited for Robinson’s skill set than the Rams’ 3-4.

Robinson played in a 4-3 during his rookie contract with the Detroit Lions and had his best season in 2018 lining up primarily as the defensive tackle on the right side of the formation, a spot where Browns interior defender Jordan Elliott was graded 116th out of 124 qualifiers in 2022. 

Robinson’s 73.6 run-defense grade over the last two seasons is tied for 12th among interior defenders, with his 46 defensive stops ranking inside the top 20 despite missing the second half of the 2022 season. Over the same span from 2021-22, the Browns' interior defender unit ranks dead last with a 31.3 run-defense grade.


Dallas Cowboys: Linebacker Germaine Pratt

Dallas may bring Vander Esch back once again in 2023 after he played well on a one-year flier, but Pratt represents a potential upgrade coming off a career year. He is an early-down thumper who has steadily progressed as a coverage player, missing just 5.5% of tackle opportunities in 2022 — only four linebackers with as many tackles as Pratt missed fewer tackles on the year. 

While Pratt’s 90.1 coverage grade is undoubtedly impressive, there is a bit of a caveat here. The Bengals routinely took Pratt off the field on third downs because they didn’t love his coverage abilities, giving him very favorable looks compared to fellow linebacker Logan Wilson. It seems very likely he’ll reach the free agent and could continue his growth elsewhere going forward.


Denver Broncos: Linebacker Alex Singleton

Denver is another team that can’t afford to spend a ton this offseason, though it certainly helped itsbooks by trading away edge defender Bradley Chubb for a first-round pick and avoiding the five-year, $110 million payday he received from the Miami Dolphins. General manager George Paton will forever be tied to the Russell Wilson trade, and understandably so, but the Chubb trade was a slam dunk win for him just months later. 

Singleton has had quite the circuitous NFL journey before his stellar 2022 season. He was an undrafted free agent in 2015 who didn’t log a regular-season snap until 2020. In 2022, Singleton was one of just 10 linebackers to earn run defense and coverage grades above 70.0, missing just 6.5% of tackles in 2022 while racking up 224 total tackles from 2021-22. 

Singleton’s story of perseverance is one you want in your locker room for plenty of reasons, and he also represents the cheaper option Denver has to work with given their cap constraints over the next few years.


Detroit Lions: Cornerback Cameron Sutton

The Lions defense got better as the year went on, particularly the front seven as edge defenders Charles Harris and Romeo Okwara got healthy in addition 2021 third-rounder Alim McNeill playing better. Detroit has spent a lot of early picks on the defensive line, so while the Lions could still probably stand to improve, odds are they’ll try to do so by developing their young players. 

In the secondary, the Lions were nearly devoid of talent, going so far as to move safety Will Harris to cornerback. They need to add reinforcements to the secondary, and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn was a defensive backs coach in New Orleans before joining Dan Campbell in Detroit. 

Sutton earned a career-best 72.2 grade as a full-time starter in 2022, allowing just 0.76 yards per coverage snap, good for 11th among cornerbacks with at least 200 coverage snaps on the season. He offers inside/outside versatility as well, though he’s been a starter on the outside the last two seasons.


Green Bay Packers: Interior defender Zach Allen

The Packers notoriously spend very little in free agency, so this may be a bit too big of a move for their liking, but they need to add more help along the interior alongside nose tackle Kenny Clark, and Allen represents a good fit as a 3-4 defensive end who played well against the run and as a pass-rusher in his breakout 2022 campaign. 

Allen earned his first run-defense grade above 60.0 and pass-rush grade above 70.0 with a career-best 35 quarterback pressures and 8.3% pressure rate in 2022. Green Bay will be without edge defender Rashan Gary at least to start the 2022 season and will seemingly move on from pending free agents Jarran Reed and Dean Lowry along the interior. Allen slots in as a younger player that can operate well with Clark and 2022 first-round pick Devonte Wyatt.


Houston Texans: Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds

Houston’s linebackers earned the lowest cumulative grade of any unit in 2022, as the team allocated its resources to the secondary and on minor improvements up front. It remains to be seen who will be coaching the defense in Houston in 2023 after firing head coach Lovie Smith, and a change of philosophy is not out of the question by any means.

Edmunds had a breakout 2022 season and has begun to make the most of his off-the-charts athletic tools, making plays all over the field. During his five seasons in the NFL, Edmunds’ 121 run defense stops are the 10th-most among off-ball linebackers. 

The super young former first-rounder still has so much potential going forward, but his growth as a coverage player in 2022 was the biggest remaining question mark. Edmunds allowed just 0.69 yards per coverage snap, seventh-best among off-ball linebackers, with his 90.2 coverage grade tied for the top mark at the position.


Indianapolis Colts: Edge defender Melvin Ingram

The Colts will likely focus their offseason efforts on acquiring a starting quarterback and addressing the left tackle position, so a veteran edge rusher to pair with a young group would be a smart move just as it was for the Dolphins in 2022. Former first-round pick Kwity Paye and 2021 second-round pick Dayo Odeyingbo have both improved over their first two seasons, and a consummate professional in Ingram can help them take the next step. 

Ingram has earned 75.0-plus pass-rush grades in four consecutive seasons, putting to rest any notion that he’s slowing down as he gets older, though you do want to deploy him in more of a rotational capacity around 500 snaps on the season going forward. Over the past two seasons, Ingram’s 15.9% pass rush win rate and 12.0% pressure rate are both top 50 marks at the position, and his 79.3 run defense grade ranks 10th. He’s prone to the occasional missed tackle, but letting him focus primarily on pinning his ears back on passing downs is the perfect way to get the most out of him down the homestretch of his great career.


Jacksonville Jaguars: Interior defender Dalvin Tomlinson

The Jaguars defensive line took major strides in 2022 and became a formidable run defense unit but could still benefit from adding even more beef along the interior. Tomlinson showed great versatility going from playing a more pure nose tackle with the New York Giants to primarily three-technique with the Minnesota Vikings. He’s proven he can generate pressure from either alignment, and the Jaguars could stand to add more interior pass-rush juice going forward, especially since Arden Key is a pending free agent. 

Tomlinson has three straight seasons earning a pass rush grade above 70.0, with his 80.7 cumulative pass rush grade the eighth-best mark among players above 300 pounds. 

A slot cornerback could help in Jacksonville as well, but proactively reloading along the interior of the defensive line with Josh Allen and Travon Walker as the likely bookends at edge for years to come makes a lot of sense.


Kansas City Chiefs: Edge defender Jadeveon Clowney 

By trading away wide receiver Tyreek Hill and not spending much elsewhere during the 2022 offseason, the Chiefs provided themselves with a lot of flexibility going forward. Edge defender Frank Clark is almost certainly going to be cut, with his reworked contract still carrying a $20 million salary for 2023. The Chiefs will still need to upgrade significantly at edge defender, as interior defender Chris Jones has done the lion’s share of the pass-rush work over the last few seasons. 

Clowney remains one of the best run defenders one the edge across the NFL, with 70.0-plus run-defense grades in six of his eight full NFL seasons and a pressure percentage above 10% in six of eight as well. Clowney made it clear with his frustration toward the end of the season that he wants to go to a contender once and for all, and what better way to do that than by joining the Chiefs.


Las Vegas Raiders: Cornerback James Bradberry

A reunion with defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, who coached Bradberry on the Giants from 2020-21, makes a lot of sense here for a team in need of major help at outside cornerback. This past year's Week 1 starters at outside cornerback in Rock Ya-Sin and Anthony Averett are both pending free agents, and while the Raiders did get some solid play from younger cornerbacks down the stretch, it remains to be seen if they’ll slot in as long-term starters. 

Bradberry’s 80.2 coverage grade in 2022 was the highest of his career, just ahead of his best overall season in 2020 with the aforementioned Graham serving as the defensive coordinator with the Giants and good for 11th among cornerbacks on the season.


Los Angeles Chargers: Linebacker Anthony Barr

The Chargers defense has two huge edge defender contracts, the biggest safety contract in the NFL and cornerback J.C. Jackson earning $16.5 million per year on his deal signed last offseason, so we went cheaper here. Barr is a good fit in Brandon Staley’s 3-4 defensive front and could effectively serve as a Kyle Van Noy replacement if he looks for a bigger contract elsewhere, lining up off the edge as a Sam (strongside) backer and true off-ball linebacker in 2022 — Barr’s exact skillset over the years.  

Over the last five weeks of the regular season and through the wild-card round, Barr has earned a 65.6 overall grade and 71.9 run defense grade, which ranks 27th among linebackers. The Chargers have a lot of work to do to shore up their very poor run defense, but they’ve invested a ton of resources up front in that effort and need to methodically make small additions otherwise, which is what Barr represents here.


Los Angeles Rams: Edge defender Yannick Ngakoue

The Rams simply could not generate pressure off the edge in 2022, with the unit’s 13.6% pressure percentage ranking 30th. Ngakoue is a pure pass-rush specialist who offers little in run defense, but that might be just what this defense needs, as Leonard Floyd is one of the best run-defending edge players in the NFL.

Ngakoue has produced at least eight sacks in every season of his seven-year NFL career, and while he earned a career-low 56.9 pass-rush grade with a 10.8% pressure percentage in 2022 — 52nd out of 98 edge defenders with at least 200 pass-rush snaps — he could see favorable matchups playing alongside Aaron Donald. His underlying metrics indicate potential sack regression, but the Rams could find ways to creatively deploy him and keep those sacks coming. 

Ngakoue could be looking for a big payday coming off a 9.5 sack season in 2022 after logging 10 sacks in 2021, and that would probably price him out of Los Angeles, but he’s also made it pretty clear he’d like to play for a competitor, something he hasn’t really done since his sophomore season in 2017 on an absolutely loaded Jaguars defense. Of course, the Rams had a disastrous 2022 season that was far from contention, but with head coach Sean McVay returning once more and Donald seemingly still in the fold, they could bounce back quickly.


Miami Dolphins: Cornerback Mike Hughes

Miami has huge contracts all over its roster, including cornerback Byron Jones, who didn’t play a snap in 2022, though he’s almost certainly going to be cut this offseason. In addition, Miami is without their first-, fourth- and fifth-round picks in this year’s draft. Hughes offers inside/outside versatility and can hold up in man coverage, as evidenced by a career year in Kansas City in 2021 when he earned a career-best 79.6 overall grade and 78.8 coverage grade. 

Defensive staff changes are expected in Miami after a pretty significant drop off — the defense ranked 18th in EPA per play allowed after ranking in the top eight in 2020 and 2021 — so the planned schematics are a bit unknown, but that’s a part of the value here. The former first-rounder played college football at UCF, about four hours from Miami, and could be a low-cost addition with upside on a defense that can’t spend too much.


Minnesota Vikings: Cornerback Byron Murphy

Minnesota’s struggles in the slot were exploited by nearly every team it faced in 2022, and its best cornerback all year was 32-year-old Patrick Peterson, who is a free agent in his own right. Murphy’s 2022 season was cut short by a back injury, but the former second-rounder has otherwise been durable throughout his rookie contract. 

Murphy isn’t just a slot cornerback and earned a career-best 66.7 overall grade through Week 9 while playing primarily out wide, but his versatility will be an asset to a defense that has question marks throughout its cornerback room. Minnesota’s decision to run it back once more in 2022 was arguably a success depending on your perspective, but it will now have to deal with the ramifications of a tough salary cap situation and an aging and very porous defense. 

Furthermore, edge defender Danielle Hunter still needs his contract situation to be addressed, and he earned his third straight 75.0-plus pass-rush grade (not including 2020 when he missed the season due to an injury), racking up 70 quarterback pressures and 10.5 sacks. The Vikings front office will have to be methodical with how it improves the defense this offseason, and Murphy brings a lot to the table as a high-floor player with a diverse skill set.


New England Patriots: Cornerback Patrick Peterson

New England had to get very creative on the backend in 2022, with very little size at cornerback and a much more zone-heavy approach than Bill Belichick has historically utilized. Peterson, who is 6-foot-1 and around 200 pounds, had a great season in Minnesota at 32 years old and has shown the ability to play all different kinds of coverages over the years. 

Peterson earned the second-best overall and coverage grade of his career in 2022 with 80.7 and 82.5 marks, respectively. Peterson’s coverage grade ranked fifth among cornerbacks, with his 16.4% forced incompletion rate ranking 19th while his 11 defensive stops in coverage tied for 24th. 

With the expected retirement of longtime Patriots safety Devin McCourty, Peterson also fills the role of a savvy veteran in the secondary amidst an otherwise very young group. Bill Belichick will surely put Peterson in a position to succeed, and he showed this season he still has some good football left in him.


New Orleans Saints: Interior defender Larry Ogunjobi

The Saints are potentially set to lose interior defender David Onyemata and edge defender Marcus Davenport this offseason and will have more turnover on their defensive front over the next few years with future Hall of Famer Cameron Jordan nearing the end of his career as well. 

Ogunjobi signed a three-year, $40.5 million deal with the Bears last offseason that ultimately fell through after they had concerns during his physical examination, but he landed in a good spot with the Pittsburgh Steelers and earned a 61.7 overall grade, his best since his rookie season. While he’s not going to consistently win one-on-ones as a pass-rusher, Ogunjobi has 70 quarterback pressures over the last two seasons. 

With general manager Mickey Loomis saying during his end-of-season press conference that the Saints are going to “try to get back to the middle” with respect to their aggressive salary cap approach, Ogunjobi represents a solid addition who won’t break the bank.


New York Giants: Linebacker David Long

The young Giants defense showed flashes in 2022 but still has a lot of work to do under defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, and their biggest area of weakness is undoubtedly at off-ball linebacker. Long represents a perfect fit as a downhill, attacking linebacker with 18 quarterback pressures on 47 pass rushes in 2022, earning pass rush grades above 75.0 in each of the last two seasons. Martindale will dial up the occasional A-gap blitz, and Long will be a heat-seeking missile behind the elite interior duo of Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams

Beyond the occasional pass-rush rep, Long earned a career-high 76.2 overall grade in 2022 with an 89.0 run defense grade that ranked fifth among off-ball linebackers. He’s developed into a strong three-down linebacker who can win at every level; meanwhile, the Giants’ 35.2 cumulative grade at off-ball linebacker in 2022 ranked 31st. 

Help at outside cornerback opposite Adoree’ Jackson would go a long way as well, but New York has made more investments there in recent years. Long could be the single most impactful addition the team makes on defense this offseason.


New York Jets: Safety Marcus Epps

The Jets look to have made a very smart investment in signing safety Jordan Whitehead last offseason to a two-year, $14.5 million contract, so they pair him with a deep third ballhawk in Epps. Whitehead is a great player down in the box, and while solid in coverage, he would benefit from playing alongside Epps so he can focus on playing more downhill. 

Veteran Lamarcus Joyner earned a 57.0 overall grade at free safety for the Jets this past season, 70th out of 87 qualifying safeties, and the 32-year-old is a pending free agent as well. Epps could solidify the backend and remove the only remaining weakness from this Jets secondary, and he can also excel in single-high and two-high looks. 

Epps had a down year in coverage in 2022 operating as a full-time starter, but from 2020-21, his 76.4 coverage grade ranked tied for 24th. He’s also not afraid to step up and make plays in the run game, earning back-to-back 84.4-plus run-defense grades in 2021-22. He has rarely missed tackles throughout his career, an important note for a player who often finds himself as the last line of defense.


Philadelphia Eagles: Cornerback Emmanuel Moseley

If the Eagles don’t bring cornerback James Bradberry back in 2023, they could go younger at the position here with Darius Slay also entering his age-32 season in 2023, the last year of his current contract. Philadelphia’s defense could look very different next season with a ton of key contributors set to hit free agency. 

Moseley had a strong start to the 2022 season, picking up where he left off down the stretch in 2021, before going down with a season-ending injury late in Week 5. Since Week 9 of 2021, Moseley’s 76.0 coverage grade ranks tied for 20th among cornerbacks with at least 200 snaps, and his 16.7% forced incompletion rate is tied for 18th while his 1.4% rate of explosive receptions allowed on targets into his coverage ranks ninth.


Pittsburgh Steelers: Linebacker Kyzir White

Steelers linebackers coach Brian Flores helped former top-10 draft pick Devin Bush put together a bounce-back season in 2022 after a miserable start to his NFL career, and if he stays on with the Steelers in 2023 — not a certainty given he’s fielding interview requests for open defensive coordinator jobs — he could help White take that next step. 

If Myles Jack returns for Pittsburgh in 2023, which is no certainty, he pairs well with White as a 250-pound, big-bodied linebacker who, at this stage in his career, shouldn’t be relied upon to cover. White, on the other hand, is a great coverage linebacker in the modern NFL, matching up well with opposing running backs and tight ends, posting 60.0-plus coverage grades n every season of his career thus far. He’s not just a coverage backer though, demonstrating solid three-down ability with 181 tackles and 99 defensive stops over the last two seasons.


San Francisco 49ers: Cornerback Tavierre Thomas

While it’s difficult to find a weakness in the 49ers defense, the loss of longtime slot cornerback K’Waun Williams last offseason could be one to point to as a spot for a potential upgrade. 

Thomas is a good tackler in space, missing fewer than 10% of tackle attempts over the last two seasons, and he could round out a 49ers secondary set to lose a handful of players this offseason. 

The Texans secondary is loaded with viable options in the slot, which may lead to Thomas departing this offseason despite two seasons with 75.0-plus coverage grades. Thomas missed the first eight weeks of the 2022 season and has logged just over 1,000 snaps the past two years combined, which could keep his price tag more reasonable for a 49ers defense set to pay edge defender Nick Bosa $30 million or more per year in the next few months.


Seattle Seahawks: Interior defender Daron Payne

The Seahawks' defensive line was pushed around with relative ease for much of the 2022 season, with their -0.028 EPA per rush allowed 24th in the NFL. Poona Ford is a pending free agent, and though he’s still playing at a high level, longtime stalwart Al Woods is entering his age-36 season, so reinforcements are needed. 

Seattle showed various different alignments with their defensive front in 2022, not as beholden to head coach Pete Carroll’s typical 4-3 base as in years past, but Payne has also played in a 3-4 and 4-3 and can line up as a zero-technique all the way out to a three-technique depending on the front. Payne earned back-to-back 70.0-plus pass-rush grades over the last two seasons while his early career run defense prowess suffered, but he’s shown he can win in many different ways depending on what he’s asked to do, with 96 quarterback pressures and 16 sacks over the last two seasons. 

Edge defender Uchenna Nwosu’s great 2022 campaign, with another year on his contract for 2023, provides a little more flexibility at another position of weakness. Seattle’s top-five pick in the 2023 draft (via the Denver Broncos) seems like it will almost certainly be used on the defensive line in some capacity, and for our exercise, we predicted they’d go edge defender there and interior defender in free agency with Payne.


Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Interior defender Sheldon Rankins

The Buccaneers made a handful of additions along their defensive line to find a good fit next to nose tackle Vita Vea, but with Akiem Hicks and William Gholston both set to hit free agency at over 30 years old, they need to address it once more. 

Rankins had a strong 2022 season on a loaded Jets defensive front — his 73.1 overall grade was the best of his career since 2018. He’s earned 60.0-plus pass rush grades with 20 or more quarterback pressures in every season since 2017. The Buccaneers have quite the salary cap crunch ahead, and Rankins brings them a quality interior pass-rusher without having to break the bank.


Tennessee Titans: Cornerback Jamel Dean

The Titans ranked 28th in EPA per dropback allowed in 2022 at 0.078, which was through no fault of their defensive line’s ability to manufacture pressure on opposing quarterbacks, as it was because of shaky play at cornerback. Tennessee has thrown a lot of resources at the cornerback the past few offseasons, and may still have faith internally in 2021 first-round pick cornerback Caleb Farley turning the corner in his third NFL season, but they could also take a bigger swing at fixing their secondary by signing Dean. 

Dean has four straight seasons to begin his career with 74.5-plus overall grades and 75.6-plus coverage grades, and at 6-foot-1 and 206 pounds, he can match up with any wide receiver on the outside. 

Last year's second-round cornerback Roger McCreary appears to be a good young player, but outside of McCreary, there are no guaranteed 2023 starters at cornerback currently on the Titans roster.


Washington Commanders: Linebacker T.J. Edwards

The biggest question mark on the Commanders defense heading into 2022 was who would play middle linebacker alongside 2021 first-round pick Jamin Davis, which remains the biggest question mark on the defense heading into 2023. With potential big money extensions on the way for interior defender Daron Payne and edge defender Montez Sweat, not to mention Chase Young, it may be tough for Washington to spend on a premier off-ball linebacker free agent, but Edwards would be a huge addition for this Commanders defense. 

Edwards was finally trusted with a true three-down role starting in Week 8 of 2021, and since then, his 88.5 grade is the top mark among off-ball linebackers. Edwards was one of just four linebackers in 2022 to earn grades above 75.0 in both run defense and coverage, and the former undrafted free agent in 2019 may still not have a super strong market this offseason with just 1.5 seasons as an every-down starter. All evidence we have thus far indicates he can continue to play at an extremely high level going forward, and he deserves a strong multi-year deal that reflects that. 

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