The first wave of free agency brought fast, furious action. Teams gobbled up free-agent additions left and right to quickly fill voids on their roster and upgrade critical spots.
But the flurry of signings died down several weeks ago, hindered by the travel restrictions imposed by a global pandemic that has threatened so much for so many. Yet, the NFL continues to march forward, optimistic teams will not see their season derailed this fall in the same way that basketball, baseball, soccer teams (and countless other sports) have. That march towards starting on time has come for a number of free agents at the cost of finding a home for the upcoming season.
There's still plenty of time for deals to get done, but something is going to have to give. Who are the best available free agents on defense? And which of them will go on to have the biggest impact on their team this year?
Here are four top candidates:
Logan Ryan, CB
Logan Ryan enjoyed arguably the best season of his NFL career as a member of the Titans in 2019. He logged a career-high 113 combined tackles, 18 passes defended, 4 1/5 sacks and four forced fumbles; he also recorded four interceptions and yielded a passer rating of 88.7 on 103 targets.
Ryan’s versatility to play both inside and outside in coverage should afford him value to most teams in the league. There's just one problem: He hasn't found his market yet. Ryan signed a three-year, $30 million contract with Tennessee in 2017, and he's earned a higher salary than that based on his play.
His value on the back end is obvious too. There is a growing belief that secondary play is more valuable than front seven play in today's NFL climate.
Jadeveon Clowney, DE
Jadeveon Clowney's situation is amplified by his status as a household name courtesy of being a former No. 1 selection in the NFL draft. Clowney looked to be finally living up to that billing towards the end of his career in Houston but saw a significant dip in production in 2019 as a member of the Seattle Seahawks.
Clowney's initial hopes to "reset the market" for pass rushers are as good as gone. But if he's able to visit team facilities and convince someone that he'll be back to full health in 2020, his physical skills will still demand a high price.
Damon "Snacks" Harrison, DT
Damon Harrison reached the end of the 2019 season with the Lions and was so frustrated that he was even considering retirement. Instead, he was released and now looks to find a new home to continue his playing career.
It isn't often a nose tackle finds themself on a list of candidates as the most high-impact defender, but Harrison isn't like most nose tackles. He can still play at a high level and for teams looking to free up athletic linebackers. Harrison can be an asset in 2020.
Everson Griffen, DE
Has anyone more quietly tallied 74 1/2 sacks over nine seasons of play? Everson Griffen has 10 years of NFL tenure but has logged all of his sacks over the last nine seasons after a quiet rookie year. With eight sacks last season, and just two years removed from a 13-sack campaign, Griffen clearly has something left in the tank.
His departure from Minnesota was as much a byproduct of a troublesome cap situation as anything else. Griffen may not be on the right side of 30, but if you put him into a situation similar to the one he was in with the Vikings as the "other" featured pass rusher, he can be a problem in 2020.
Regardless of the environment each of these four talents lands in, Ryan feels like the one best positioned to make an impact on his new team. Ryan's versatility in coverage and as a support defender means he's going to have a little something to offer everyone who comes calling; and if he's asked to play in a number of roles, he should see himself stay on the field.
Whereas Harrison is a top producer at his position, nose tackle is still at the end of the day a much less valued position. And both of the pass rushers come with notations: Clowney must have a role that is crafted to milk his talent to optimum production — he hasn't had success as a "plug and play" rusher off the edge — and Griffen should not be relied on as the featured pass rusher at this stage in his career.
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