2014 NFL Free Agents: Exploring the Pass Rush Market
While everyone is occupied watching the NFL combine, plenty of teams are equally obsessed with free agency. Regardless of how much talent any draft has, you can't fill every need with rookies.
There are plenty of very talented players in free agency; some are still young, while others are experienced but nearer to the end of their careers.
Today we're looking at pass-rushers. In the present-day NFL, the pass is king, so you need to be able to stop it. One way is to pressure the quarterback and force him to rush his throws, hoping that he makes mistakes.
There are a bunch of very good free-agent pass-rushers available this season.
Here are eight names you'll hear a lot of after free agency starts on March 11.
Michael Johnson, Defensive End
Last season was a “good news-bad news” type of year for Michael Johnson’s production. On the “good news” side, he had a career year in tackles and forced fumbles. On the “bad news” side, he saw his sack total plummet from 11.5 in 2012 to 3.5 in 2013.
Of course, he also had 61 pressures total against the pass, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and knocked down nine throws.
Johnson continues to be incredibly productive against the run as well.
Ranked by Pro Football Focus as the No. 4 4-3 defensive end, Johnson had no negative totals in his overall grades.
In the right landing spot, we should continue to see good numbers from Johnson. You can also expect his sack total to go up, and he might benefit from being paired with another solid pass-rusher on his next team.
Brian Orakpo, Outside Linebacker
Without a doubt, Brian Orakpo is one of the best pass-rushers hitting free agency. Last season Orakpo had a career high in combined tackles with 60 and his second-highest sack total with 10. Coming off a 2012 season lost to injury, he put aside any doubts that he could still perform.
Orakpo continued to show he has the speed, power and technique to get past the offensive line and run down a quarterback, creating pressure and sometimes sacks. It’s no surprise he ended up as Pro Football Focus’ No. 4 3-4 outside linebacker (subscription required).
At age 27, Orakpo has a ton of gas left in the tank and will continue to have a huge impact in the right scheme. You can bet his numbers will keep climbing over the next few years.
Greg Hardy, Defensive End
Pro Football Focus’ No. 3 4-3 defensive end (subscription required), Greg Hardy is the top pass-rusher available in free agency. While the Carolina Panthers will want to keep him, they may not be able to afford the cap hit, with general manager Dave Gettleman calling the team "cap-challenged," per Jonathan Jones of The Charlotte Observer.
With several other areas of concern, the Panthers may have to let Hardy go.
If so, he will see a lot of interest. His 59 tackles (solo and assist combined) and 15 sacks were his second-highest total tackle total and highest sack total. It was the second year in a row Hardy logged double-digit sacks and the third year in a row he was over 50 combined tackles as well.
Assuming the team that picks him up doesn’t fix what isn’t broken, you could see him equaling the totals of the last couple of seasons.
Hardy not only brings some speed to his pass-rush abilities but also can beat blockers in a number of ways. He has numerous tools to work with, whether it’s with his hands or using a swim move.
For an in-depth breakdown of Hardy’s game, check out Cian Fahey’s examination of his 2013 season.
Michael Bennett, Defensive End/Defensive Tackle
That said, Bennett won't take a "hometown discount" to stay, telling NFL Network, "This is not Costco, this is not Walmart, this is real life," as reported by SeattlePI.com’s Nick Eaton.
Assuming the two sides fail to come to an agreement, Bennett will be another pass-rusher who finds a hot market for his services.
Bennett has now put together back-to-back seasons of impressive football and will never find a better time to make some cash.
Not only is he an exceptional edge-rusher, but he can also play in the middle just as effectively, as he did about a third of the time for Seattle this year. Bennett was able to stop the run inside, shift outside to bring pressure on the quarterback and then shift back inside.
He did see a slight dip in tackles this past regular season, getting 31 combined versus 41 the previous season, but came close to the same sack total (8.5 in 2013 versus nine in 2012). He added 1.5 sacks in the postseason and had 17 quarterback hits and 51 quarterback hurries, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Bennett needs to find the right fit to succeed, one that will allow him to take advantage of his skills to the fullest. If he lands on a team that can effectively shift him inside and out, he will easily hit totals along the lines of what we saw this year.
If not, don’t be surprised if you see a dip in his stat line.
Jared Allen, Defensive End
Last season was a tale of two halves for defensive end Jared Allen.
The first half featured a very slow start, with only five sacks over 11 games. He looked a bit slower, a bit weaker and overall a bit older.
The second half (or really, the last five games) saw Allen total 6.5 sacks to end the year with 11.5 sacks. He also logged 52 combined tackles and two forced fumbles.
Allen really appears to have begun slowing down, but he would still be an outstanding player for a number of teams for the right price. If brought in as a veteran presence on a young defense or as a role player who will put a veteran defense over the top, he would be a bargain.
Asking him to hold the edge on his own might be asking too much, though.
Justin Tuck, Defensive End
With the New York Giants allowing many veteran free agents to hit the market, per ESPN New York’s Rich Cimini, it isn’t a surprise that Justin Tuck is among them.
Tuck had a productive season in 2013, leading the team in sacks with 11 and forcing two fumbles.
Unfortunately, he turns 31 years old in March.
Aside from Jared Allen, the rest of the players above him on this list are younger and in the prime of their careers. So while his numbers were solid last season (especially considering the poor start to the season the defense had), he’s much more likely to decline over the next few years.
More than likely a team will sign him to a short contract and gradually reduce his number of snaps. He won't fall off a cliff this season, but it will happen soon.
Lamarr Houston, Defensive End
Defensive end Lamarr Houston was one of the few players to survive the purge in Oakland over the last few years. Houston is coming off a 2013 season where he had a career year in terms of production, including high marks in solo tackles (56), sacks (6) and forced fumbles (2).
The Raiders also have Jason Hunter as a free agent, which could potentially leave them thin at the position even if they keep one. So it’s possible one of the two will be tagged, but if not (or if Houston isn’t the one they tag), Houston will see a lot of interest.
While not your classic high-speed edge-rusher, Houston is more than capable of bringing pressure, even if his sack totals will likely never be high. What’s incredible is that he’s been getting better (and doing it consistently) while the talent around him has gotten worse.
He’s played both left and right defensive end effectively and has improved as a pass-rusher every single season. Houston is also a rock-solid run defender.
It’s not a sure thing that Houston can be an edge-rusher by himself, and he may be better off as part of a tandem with an effective rusher coming off the other edge. He can slide a bit inside as well if need be and bring pressure up the middle while also protecting against the run.
A team with a solid pass rush that needs a few more pieces will likely pick up Houston, assuming the Raiders do not franchise him.
If he’s in the right spot, his numbers should continue to trend upwards over the next few years.
Shaun Phillips, Defensive End
Last season, Shaun Phillips signed a contract over draft weekend for just one year. When injuries struck the Broncos, he had to pick up a lot of slack but played admirably well, totaling 10 sacks along with 35 tackles.
The sack total was the third-highest of his career, but the tackle total was his third-lowest.
Denver wants to add young talent, so other teams will get a crack at him, but as he is entering his 11th season, Phillips is unlikely to find a long-term deal in the NFL. He could see another one-year deal, this time with incentives, or perhaps a two-year deal.
Phillips is aging but clearly has something left in the tank, although not a tremendous amount. He could be a great veteran presence for teams who are a bit young and need experience or a team looking to add a guy who can be an excellent rotation player.
The latter is the most likely outcome regardless of whether Phillips stays in Denver. Chances are he won't play a huge role on a team again.
Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at FootballGuys.com and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him at @andrew_garda on Twitter.