News & Analysis

Buying/Selling the top free agent pass-rushers in 2018

By Michael Renner
Feb 20, 2019

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MIAMI GARDENS, FL - DECEMBER 11: Cameron Wake #91 of the Miami Dolphins is introduced prior to the game against the Arizona Cardinals on December 11, 2016 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. Miami defeated Arizona 26-23. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

Ask different analysts, and you’ll get different opinions on the second-most valuable position in the NFL after quarterback. Ask old curmudgeon scouts, and they might say running back. Ask David Carr, and he might say left tackle. Ask the PFF analytics team, and they’ll say cornerback. Ask the pocketbooks of NFL owners though, and they’ll say edge. The biggest reason why edge defender is the second-highest paid position in the NFL, in my opinion, is because of the predictability. Pressures and pass-rushing grade at the position are some of the most stable year-on-year metrics we track at PFF. Put more simply, if they’ve been good in the past, they’ll be good in the future. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the edge defenders that are in the market for free agency and see whether or not we’d buy or sell them at their rumored price points.

Demarcus Lawrence – Buy

The elite do not come cheap, but they also change gameplans. Lawrence has double digit sacks and double-digit hits each of the past two seasons. It took him a few years to refine his pass-rushing chops at the NFL level, but at this point, he’s one of the league’s best hand-fighters off the edge. He’ll be 27 next year and likely to produce for the next half decade or so.

Trey Flowers – Buy

Versatile, productive, young – what more could you want? Flowers also doesn’t fit the profile of an edge rusher about to get paid with low draft status (fourth round) and limited sack production (7.5 was career high). Give me the 25-year-old that can affect the QB from every alignment along the line of scrimmage who has over 150 pressures the past two seasons including the playoffs.  

Brandon Graham – Buy

Of any of the top-six edge options on the market this free agency, I feel confident in saying Graham will command the smallest contract. Age (he will be 31) and sack production (zero double-digit sack seasons in career) being the reasons why. No matter, Graham is going to be racking up pressures well in his 30’s.

Jadeveon Clowney – Sell

There are three big reasons why Clowney is a ‘sell.’ The first is that he’s going to, rightly, ask to set the market. He was one of the most-hyped edge defenders of all time coming out of college and has made the last three pro bowls after being the number one overall pick.

The second is that he’s already had surgeries on both knees including the dreaded microfracture surgery on his right knee. While it’s been a few years since and he hasn’t had them flare up, it’s never the same knee as it was before.

The last – and by far the biggest – is that Clowney has not rushed the passer at an elite level. His 78.8 pass-rushing grade this past season was the highest of his career. While that was a career high, the uptick in his production hasn’t necessarily come from development as a pass-rusher. The Texans have simply gotten more creative and given him more opportunities to rush inside, where he was actually more productive than outside.

Frank Clark – Buy

Clark is young and consistent – a fantastic combo to project going forward. He’ll turn 26 later this year and has three straight seasons with 10-plus sacks. It’s not simply the yearly consistency, but also the game to game. He didn’t have a single game this past season with fewer than two pressures.

Dee Ford – Sell

Ford is the anti-Frank Clark at this point; the consistency over his career has been non-existent. Seemingly minor injuries have neutered his effectiveness over the years. His 84 pressures this season including the playoffs were 30 more than any other season of his career. The high end is there, but in such a deep free agent class, there’s no reason to break the bank for him. The franchise tag is nearly a certainty.

Shaquil Barrett – Buy

There is no shame in being replaced by a top-five pick like Barrett was this past year. Still, the NFL tends to pay starters like starters and backups like backups, regardless of if they were deserving of said role. Barrett has had a pass-rushing grade above 70.0 in every season of his career despite often limited playing time. I’ll take that consistency for a lower price tag than possibly anyone else on this list.

Preston Smith – Sell

The line above about paying starters like starters applies perfectly to why I’m selling Smith. He notched 750+ snaps each of the last three seasons, but never earned a pass-rushing grade above 70.0. A former second-round pick who certainly looks the part physically will be seen as an impact starter by many even if he’s never quite been that in our grading.

Za’Darius Smith – Buy

The great thing about one-year wonder type pass-rushers is that the reward can sometimes greatly outweigh the risk. Unlike Dee Ford, Smith has seen a consistent upward trend in his production throughout his four-year career before a breakout 2018 in which he racked up 60 pressures during the regular season. Also unlike Ford, he doesn’t have the first round pedigree or gaudy sack totals. That equals high risk to many GM’s, which only serves to drive his price tag down and drive his potential value up.

Ziggy Ansah – Sell

Ansah is nearly 30 years old, coming off the franchise tag, and been unable to stay healthy the past three seasons. That tag and his top-five draft status mean he’ll likely still be coveted as a top pass-rushing option even if he hasn’t had a pass-rushing grade above 75.0 since 2015.

Dante Fowler Jr. – Sell

There are two big positives in Fowler’s corner at this point: he was a top-five pick and is only 24 years old. They, unfortunately, don’t include much in the way of on-field performance. If the Rams traded a third rounder for a half season of Fowler is any indication, he’ll sign a fairly healthy deal this offseason. There’s really nothing from his performance on the field that can justify that. He’s yet to notch a pass-rushing grade of 70.0 for an entire season as he disappears for long stretches at a time.

Cameron Wake – Buy

If Wake were 10 years younger, his salary next year would triple. That being said, the 37-year-old has defied aging up to this point, what’s one more year? He still ranked second among all edge defenders in pass-rushing productivity this past season. Yes, his play could slip, or injuries could strike, but neither of those things are guaranteed at any age. If you’re a team playing for 2019, I’d rather have Wake for $10 million than take a risk on a few of the players above for more.

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