• Falcons add a key piece to their rebuilding defense: Jessie Bates III helps jumpstart a struggling coverage unit in Atlanta.
• Browns grab one of the best available pass rushers: Myles Garrett gets help along the defensive line as Cleveland adds another player with a 90.0-plus pass-rush grade.
• Sometimes, things just make sense: Chauncey Gardner-Johnson to the Raiders checks a lot of boxes.
Estimated Reading Time: 10 mins
As the NFL playoffs move into the conference championship round, it means nearly 90% of the league has their eyes set on the offseason — first and foremost, to free agency. This list considers 10 defensive players from PFF's top 50 free agents.
(Thank you to PFF's Brad Spielberger for lending his expertise and insight to help put this article together.)
S Jessie Bates III
Best fit: Atlanta Falcons
Bates’ future with the Bengals seems to be nearing an end. He played this season on the franchise tag, and the team doesn’t seem entirely serious about negotiating a long-term extension to keep him around.
The Falcons, meanwhile, finished in the bottom five in yards allowed per coverage snap (6.74) and defensive stops against the pass (72) this past season. In the midst of a rebuild, they can solidify their backend by locking up a top safety like Bates to pair with 2021 second-round pick Richie Grant, who is coming off his first season in a full-time role. Bates is just two seasons removed from earning the highest overall grade at his position in 2020 (90.1), and after a down year in 2021, he was able to bounce back in 2022 to a level of play that most expect from the former second-round pick.
Bates finished in the top 15 at his position in overall grade (76.8) and run-defense grade (84.8) while posting a strong 72.9 coverage grade (tied for 21st). The Falcons do not have a shortage of team needs this offseason, but the rebuild could pick up speed, especially on defense, with the addition of the 26-year-old Bates.
DI Daron Payne
Best fit: Dallas Cowboys
Payne is coming off a career year after posting his highest pressure (49) and sack totals (11.5) in five NFL seasons. The franchise tag is still a possibility for the former first-round pick, but assuming he walks in free agency, the Cowboys could fill a significant need by adding him to the roster.
Dallas’ interior defensive line, outside of Osa Odighizuwa, was relatively ineffective this season, ranking 28th in overall grade as a unit (48.1) while generating just five sacks (27th) — four of which came from Odighizuwa — and 64 total pressures (29th). With Odighizuwa on his rookie contract until the end of the 2024 season, paying for Payne's production isn’t out of the realm of possibilities for the Cowboys as they seek to fill the one hole in an excellent pass-rush unit.
Payne has never played fewer than 750 defensive snaps in his NFL career, which is more than any Cowboys interior defensive lineman has played in each of the past three seasons, making his reliability and availability another key trait to consider.
EDGE Marcus Davenport
Best fit: Kansas City Chiefs
The New Orleans Saints continue to deal with cap issues, which means the former first-round pick who they traded up to get in 2018 likely heads elsewhere this free agency after not quite reaching his expected ceiling. In 2022, Davenport was unable to build on his career-best 2021 season during which he totaled nine sacks, an 82.0 pass-rush grade and an 88.8 overall grade. He managed just a half-sack and 34 pressures this season while playing a rotational role behind Carl Granderson in the back half of the year.
While the production wasn’t necessarily there, Davenport’s underlying metrics, such as his 75.0 pass-rush grade (tied for 24th among edge defenders) and 76.8 overall grade (27th), provide evidence that he’s a piece worth adding for a contending team in need at the position.
Although the Chiefs spent a first-round pick on George Karlaftis this past offseason, he’ll need time to develop to reach his full potential after an uneven rookie season. Kansas City's edge unit ranked 26th in pass-rush grade (61.5) this year, and with Frank Clark, who played more than 700 defensive snaps, a likely cut candidate and Carlos Dunlap, who played 571 defensive snaps, a pending free agent, the need for experience and potential will be even greater for the team this offseason.
CB Jamel Dean
Best fit: Arizona Cardinals
Among cornerbacks who have played at least 500 coverage snaps and more than one season over the past four years, only Jaire Alexander (91.7) and Jalen Ramsey (90.4) have a higher combined coverage grade than Dean (89.9) heading into 2023. With the Buccaneers likely up against the cap this offseason, Dean will potentially earn the biggest contract of his career elsewhere.
The Cardinals are on track to lose nearly 1,300 defensive snaps at cornerback with Byron Murphy, Antonio Hamilton and Jace Whittaker all set to become free agents this offseason. Dean not only fills a need but a scheme-fit, as well, in Vance Joseph’s zone-heavy defense — specifically one that heavily relies on Cover 3, which was also the case in Tampa Bay.
LB Tremaine Edmunds
Best fit: Houston Texans
The former first-round pick is coming off the best season of his career in PFF grade (79.0), which he achieved on his fifth-year option. Edmunds also earned the third-highest coverage grade (88.1) at his position. He'll be highly coveted this offseason, and the Texans arguably have the greatest need at linebacker.
Houston’s linebacker corps earned a combined league-worst overall grade (33.3) and coverage grade (29.8) while also finishing 31st in run-defense grade (34.0). Christian Kirksey is under contract for another season, but the team would surely benefit from not having to rely on the nine-year vet for another 1,100-plus snaps in 2023. Christian Harris, a 2022 third-rounder, will also benefit from playing behind a player like Edmunds after posting a league-worst 28.3 overall grade on 711 defensive snaps.
Edmunds turns just 25 in May and could help the Texans rebuild a franchise in need of a new identity.
LB Germaine Pratt
Best fit: New York Giants
Assuming Don “Wink” Martindale doesn’t get a head coaching job somewhere else, his blitz-heavy, man-heavy Giants defense should be excited about the prospect of adding Pratt to lead the linebacker unit. Pratt was among the best linebackers this past season in man coverage, earning an 82.5 coverage grade (sixth) and a 90.1 coverage grade overall (first).
The Giants relied heavily on Jaylon Smith in the lead role this season, but he finished with jusy a 44.9 coverage grade (tied for 81st) and is now expected to be a free agent this offseason. 2022 sixth-round linebacker Darrian Beavers could also be in the mix next season, but Pratt should still be considered an upgrade for this defense. Pratt had significant coverage success this year while additionally showing an ability to blitz, which is something he was effective at during his final year at North Carolina State. He even earned a 73.2 pass-rush grade this past season (19th).
DI Dalvin Tomlinson
Best fit: Chicago Bears
The Bears' defensive line needs significant help, and adding a player like Tomlinson who has had success as both a pass rusher and a run defender in his career is a strong place to start. Chicago ranked 31st in run-defense grade (34.9) and 32nd in pass-rush grade (52.2) in 2022, and with just over $100 million in cap space to utilize, the defensive line should be considered a unit to significantly upgrade.
Tomlinson has seen his career run-defense grades slowly decline over the past few years but at the same time reached a new career high in pass-rush grade (79.1) and total pressures (29) in 2022 despite missing three games. However, even as his run-defense grades slightly declined, he has made a significant impact with 36 tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage against the run, which is the sixth most at his position over the past four seasons.
The Bears are likely to be busy this offseason, and stealing a key piece from an NFC North rival could be one of their many moves as they look to revamp the defensive line.
DI Javon Hargrave
Best fit: Cleveland Browns
The Browns have one of the best pass rushers in the NFL in Myles Garrett, but unfortunately for them, he is on a bit of an island by himself. No other Cleveland defensive lineman has any real history of being an effective pass rusher, especially with Jadeveon Clowney headed to free agency himself.
Hargrave could be considered the best pass rusher available in free agency this offseason, as he is coming off back-to-back years of 90.0-plus pass-rush grades, including a combined 18.5 sacks (tied for 18th among defensive linemen) and 118 pressures (tied for 11th) since 2021. New defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz also has some familiarity with Hargrave during his final season in Philadelphia (2020), as he signed him over from the Steelers the offseason prior.
This could be a similar situation this offseason if Hargrave joins the Browns and brings his elite pass-rush ability to a defensive interior unit that ranked 30th in pass-rush grade (58.3) and combined for just six sacks in 2022.
S Chauncey Gardner-Johnson
Best fit: Las Vegas Raiders
During his time with the Saints, Gardner-Johnson was used almost exclusively as a slot corner (67%) and performed well in that role, having never earned a coverage grade below 60.0 in three seasons. With the Eagles in 2022, the former Florida Gator got more experience as a typical safety, playing all over the defense and earning the best overall (65.2) and coverage grade (65.9) since his rookie season.
The Raiders and Gardner-Johnson feels like a perfect match, not just stylistically, but because there is a need, as well. With the team cutting former first-round pick Johnathan Abram this season, and after having to rely on a near-32-year-old — and soon-to-be free agent — Duron Harmon for more than 1,000 defensive snaps, bringing in a young and productive defender like Gardner-Johnson should provide more life to the team’s secondary.
Gardner-Johnson’s six interceptions this past season were as many as the entire Raiders defense had all year. Pairing him with 2021 second-round pick Trevon Moehrig would create a stable safety duo for the next few seasons in Las Vegas.
EDGE Jadeveon Clowney
Best fit: New England Patriots
The former first overall pick is set to join his fifth NFL team this offseason, and the Patriots could be the perfect fit. It’s become clear over the years that one of Clowney’s greatest strengths is his ability to stop the run, more so than his pass-rush prowess. While Clowney is still a very good pass rusher, he doesn’t have to rely on that as his only asset, which fits into Bill Belichick’s heavy rotation along the defensive line. With Matthew Judon and Josh Uche carrying the bulk of the pass-rush load off the edge, Clowney can be brought in to relieve those two when needed, especially on early downs.
The Patriots have earned a top-10 run-defense grade in three of the past four seasons, and Clowney can help them build on that strength. The former South Carolina product has earned a 91.0 run-defense grade for his career, which ranks fifth for his position since 2014. With Bill O’Brien also joining the Patriots coaching staff as offensive coordinator, Clowney would have the chance to reunite with the coach who helped draft him first overall eight years ago.