Free Agency Draft Lesson: Prioritize Drafting Pass Rushers

This really has been an odd free agency period. The nature of the spectacle remained true in the sense that teams will always overpay for free agents to fill holes on their roster before the draft, but the way the league prioritized where their money went this year was the part I didn’t see coming.

Linebacker Kwon Alexander got a deal of $13.5M per year, which was the highest paid off-ball linebacker contract in the league in terms of yearly average until C.J. Mosley signed his $17M per-year deal the following day. That much capital into that position was far more inflated than what I thought would be the case. But linebacker wasn’t the only position that saw a healthy bump in reward. Safety Landon Collins got an unprecedented $45M guaranteed from Washington, which gave him the third-best defensive back contract in the NFL, cornerbacks included. Safety Tyrann Mathieu also got a nice deal of $14M per-year, which meant the two highest paid safeties in the league became the top two highest paid safeties in the league in this year’s tampering period.

Even though the cap ceiling does increase every year, the inflation for players at those positions was higher than I thought. I understand paying say offensive tackles and of course quarterbacks that kind of inflation with the cap increase because you always have to take risks on those players if you don’t have those positions locked down. But some of these other positions are gaining ground when it comes to total payoff – which is awesome for them.

That got me to thinking about pass rushers. As linebackers and box safeties were getting more money, did that mean that emphasis on defense as a whole was catching up to the emphasis on pass rushers?

The short answer to that is no, but the long answer to that is that even though the pass rush market in free agency is being eating into by some other positions, teams may be showing that their desire to draft top pass rushers is at an all-time high.

Think about it this way: none of the big-name pass rusher hit the market this year. Demarcus Lawrence, Jadeveon Clowney, Dee Ford, Frank Clark, they all were slapped with the franchise tag. That means that the value for pass rushers still holds true, as team who have good ones don’t want to lose them. But on the flip side, how teams are spending top money at defensive positions that aren’t directly related to pass rush got me to thinking that teams who don’t have franchise tagged pass rushers might actually be setting themselves up to draft top pass rushers even more so than before.

Let’s take the Jets, for example. The Jets went out and paid huge money to both C.J. Mosely and Anthony Barr, both of which are more off-ball linebackers than edge rushers. They could’ve gone after edge guys like Terrell Suggs or Za’Darius Smith or Preston Smith, but they didn’t. Why? Because I think they want to draft a pass rusher in the first round and get good years on young years rather than go out and try to pay for one, even at a depth or fill-in level.

It’s the same story in Oakland. The Raiders have a crying need at edge; it’s probably their biggest need. Yet they went out and made Trent Brown the highest paid offensive tackle in the league, a year after they just drafted two offensive tackles in the Top 65, and signed safety Lamarcus Joyner over reallocating their funds to some of the edge rushers I already named. Why? Because I think they are filling every need around pass rushers so they can draft one at the top and maybe even another later in the draft instead.

When you think about it, it may seem like a “duh” moment, but I think this year more than other years we’re seeing team fill needs around pass rusher (using a lot of money to do so) for the sole reason of creating the freedom to target one more in the draft – this way you can be paying pass rushers on a rookie wage scale as opposed to one overinflated by free agency.

If you thought pass rushers were coveted before, just wait until teams who don’t address the need at all in free agency know they have to grab one early to be a difference maker. This means that guys like Nick Bosa, Josh Allen, Rashan Gary, Brian Burns and Montez Sweat could be going even higher than we thought, as a whole, and players like Jachai Polite, Zach Allen, Wyatt Ray, Christian Miller and Chase Winovich could all have a shot at the Top 50.

Perhaps the quarterback class won’t control this 2019 draft.

Perhaps it will be edge rushers that cause the inevitable pandemonium. 

Written By:

Trevor Sikkema

Chief Digital Officer

CDO & Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Co-Host of the Locked On NFL Draft Podcast.