NFL Free Agency 2017: Handicapping Jason Pierre-Paul & Pass-Rusher Free Agents

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterFebruary 16, 2017

Forget all of those big-name quarterbacks on the free-agent market and trade rumor mill for a moment.

Take a look at all of the big-name pass-rushers available this offseason instead. 

If a team wants an immediate upgrade at a fraction of the risk of, say, offering Kirk Cousins a $100 bazillion contract or trading a first-round pick for Jimmy Garoppolo, it can dip its feet into a deep, diverse class of defensive ends and outside linebackers.

This year's draft class is also overflowing with pass-rushers. That could depress the free-agent market. It could also convince bad teams with high picks and lots of cap space to double down. Imagine the Browns or 49ers coming away from the offseason with Myles Garrett and Jason Pierre-Paul. They wouldn't score many points, but they sure would be taken seriously.

After all, if you can't solve your quarterback problem, causing your opponent to have quarterback problems is the next best thing.

Let's break down this year's free-agent pass-rusher crop: the big names, the big risks, the best fits and some under-the-radar players who could provide the most bang for a team's buck.

(Note: All cap figures courtesy Over the Cap.)

        

Jason Pierre-Paul

Heading into free agency…Pierre-Paul regained confidence in both his damaged hand and his overall abilities last season, taking over the Bears and Browns games (5.5 sacks combined) before a groin injury ended his season.

While Pierre-Paul is one of the most gifted natural 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL, the 28-year old has been plagued by injuries, calamity and inconsistency for most of his career. JPP has recorded just two double-digit-sack seasons in seven years. Even last season was quiet until he broke out against a pair of weak opponents.

The skinny: The Giants released Victor Cruz and Rashad Jennings to clear cap space and are reportedly working to re-sign Pierre-Paul, according to NFL Network's Mike Garafolo. Staying put may be the best option for JPP: He can rejoin Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison on a stacked front four and remain part of an organization that was patient through his many ups, downs and what-were-you-thinkings.

There is scuttlebutt about the Cowboys making a run, but they need to settle their Tony Romo tab before engaging in any serious bidding wars. Pierre-Paul is also likely to draw interest from bad teams with cap space to burn seeking an instant upgrade. The guy calling the shots in Jacksonville, for instance, is very familiar with JPP.

The Pierre-Paul price tag is likely to be exorbitant, so buyers beware. JPP is the kind of player who can help a contender turn the corner, but he could also ruin a weak team that overpays for him.

   

Chandler Jones

Heading into free agency…A 26-year old with three double-digit-sack seasons in five years with two different organizations? Where's my checkbook?

The skinny: Sorry, folks, he's taken: the Cardinals will franchise-tag Jones.

The roughly $15 million tag on Jones will shape the market for other pass-rushers. It will also limit what the Cardinals can do in free agency, even for their in-house veterans.

      

Calais Campbell

Heading into free agency…Campbell isn't like the other pass-rushers. He's a "3-4" defensive lineman. The "3-4" is in quotes because most traditional 3-4 teams now use just two down linemen on passing downs, which represent about 65 percent of NFL downs these days.

Campbell, who turns 31 before the start of the 2017 season, generates sacks and big plays at a position where the usual responsibilities include gap filling and blocker occupying. That makes him a rare talent, one who is about to hit the market because the Cardinals lack the cap space to keep him.

The skinny: Campbell is multitalented enough to fit in a variety of systems. He can play defensive end in a traditional 4-3, move all over the place in a multiple defense or just keep doing what he has been doing. He'll be sick of the sound of his ringtone by the end of March.

Some folks in Denver are drooling over Campbell. He could transform the Broncos defense from contender-caliber to historic status. And after the Broncos sign both Campbell and Tony Romo, they can buy some Caribbean islands and charge those to the salary cap too.

If Campbell is looking for a team on the rise that can also afford to win a bidding war, the Titans are an intriguing possibility. A line anchored by Campbell and Jurrell Casey, with Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan rushing the edges, could lead the Titans to a 12-win season in the AFC South.

      

Melvin Ingram

Heading into free agency…Ingram isn't strictly a pass-rusher. He's an all-purpose outside linebacker who plays the run well and can drop into coverage without getting lost. Still, most of the big plays in the last two seasons came when he was either lined up as a traditional edge-rusher or a "Joker" attacking an interior gap.

The skinny: The team that signs Ingram must scheme to get him many of his sacks and will have to live with some lunge-and-whiff missed tackles. But Ingram's ability to fit a variety of systems and contribute in the running game and in pass coverage make the 27-year old a worthy investment.

Bleacher Report's Chris Simms believes the Colts should pursue him. That makes sense. Ingram knows the Pagano family defense, and the Colts need to renovate their defense with multidimensional building blocks. Indianapolis also has the cap space to make a splash and several pass-rushers (Erik Walden, Trent Cole, Robert Mathis) to replace.

The Chargers have $20 million in cap space, so they have the wiggle room to retain their highest-priority in-house free agent, possibly by franchise-tagging him. The Chargers also nickel-and-dimed eventual Defensive Rookie of the Year Joey Bosa last season and volunteered to play second fiddle to the Rams in a glorified high school stadium for the next few years. So we should just assume they have no idea what they are doing.

As long as Ingram's next employer knows it is getting a versatile complementary star, not the next Lawrence Taylor, it should be a satisfied customer.

   

Lorenzo Alexander

Heading into free agency…The 33-year-old longtime special teams standout recorded 12.5 sacks and earned his first Pro Bowl berth as a defender for the Bills in 2016. He earned the Pro Bowl MVP award for his fourth-quarter red-zone interception. Yes, Pro Bowl awards are silly, but Alexander was clearly one of the guys who was happy to have the chance to participate.

Now to splash some cold water on the feel-good story. Alexander's sack log features Case Keenum (three), Ryan Fitzpatrick (two), Robert Griffin III (1.5), Jacoby Brissett, Colin Kaepernick plus some great quarterbacks playing behind notoriously awful defensive lines (Carson Palmer and Russell Wilson). His highlight reel mixes some impressive pass-rushing moves with cleanup sacks, hustle sacks and sacks where he beat some backup Dolphins tight end or terrible Rams guard on a blitz.

Alexander had a heck of a year, but he was a six- or seven-sack defender whose numbers were inflated by circumstances. And he's not exactly a young pup.

The skinny: Alexander has made soothing sounds about staying in Buffalo. As someone who has been earning the veteran minimum for years, a modest deal in the $10-15 million range over two or three years may look good to him.

Some weak team on a drunken sailor splurge offering "elite pass-rusher" money that sets him up for life will probably also look pretty good to Alexander.

A capable all-around linebacker, complementary pass-rusher, crackerjack special teamer and clubhouse leader can be a bargain at one price point and a disaster at another.

   

Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long

Heading into free agency…The Patriots have a long list of in-house free agents to sift through, and this pair of pass-rushing mercenaries fit neither the budget nor the team's philosophy of bargain hunting for role players.

Sheard will soon turn 28 and is the more effective, versatile defender of the pair. But a midseason benching and a reduced late-season role will be yellow flags for potential suitors.

Injuries have pushed the soon-to-be 32-year-old Long into the "situational pass-rusher" stage of his career, though he is younger and more dynamic than the codgers lumped in the Old-Timers category below.

The skinny: Sheard fits best as a rotational-situational player in a defense that uses multiple fronts, complex blitzes and lots of shifting. Many of the teams most likely to make best use of his talents—the Packers, Cardinals, Chiefs, Steelers and, well, the Patriots—are either cap-strapped or reluctant free-agent bidders.

Long could end up in Cleveland. Gregg Williams knows him from their Rams days and may be looking for a squad leader for his young defense. Long is also a good fit for 4-3 teams on the verge of contention in need of a designated pass-rusher, like the Lions.

Also, it's hard not to love the idea of a Long return to the Raiders. Papa Howie is tearing up just thinking about it. Just kidding! HOWIE LONG DOESN'T CRY.

The usual "don't overvalue Patriots role players" warnings apply. Sheard and Long suitors will probably ignore them.

       

Charles Johnson and Mario Addison

Heading into free agency…Johnson is a soon-to-be 31-year-old 4-3 end with just five sacks in the last two campaigns. Addison, who will turn 30 at the start of the season, is a situational pass-rusher who led the Panthers with 9.5 sacks last season.

Defensive tackle Kawann Short is at the top of the Panthers' offseason free agent to-do list, so despite GM Dave Gettleman's commitment to building deep defensive lines, one or both of these guys is likely to go.

The skinny: Many of the Lorenzo Alexander caveats apply to Addison. He's not young, he has plenty of Case Keenum and Blaine Gabbert sacks on his recent resume, and he's probably not a 60-snap, double-digit-sack producer. Don't be surprised if the Panthers find cap room to keep Addison as Johnson's replacement after they accommodate Short. Carolina learned last season what too much Moneyball can do to a defense.

Johnson remains an effective run defender and a better pass-rusher than his 2016 sack total suggests. Pro Football Focus credits him with 31 hurries last year; in addition to creating opportunities for others, he sometimes arrived a split second after some receiver got wide-open against the miserable Panthers secondary.

Johnson may fit Jerry Jones' "War Daddy" model as a defensive lineman, as well as the Cowboys owner's love of big names. After two down years, he also fits the Cowboys budget better than Jason Pierre-Paul.

   

Nick Perry

Heading into free agency…Perry has grown into the ideal fit as an outside linebacker in a modern 3-4 defense, which is really a 2-4-5 or 2-3-6 defense. He's a fine edge-rusher, but he is also stout enough against the run to hold his own with only two down linemen on the field.

 

The skinny: Perry turns 27 before the next season and remained effective while playing through a hand injury last campaign. The Packers will try to keep him—they have freed some cap space, and their organizational model is built on retaining young, homegrown talent—but suitors will also come calling. And GM Ted Thompson has a long history of sticking to his budget.

Perry's market value may hinge on whether teams that run 4-3 base defenses see him as a viable defensive end and how comfortable potential suitors are with his long injury history. Perry could be special in the right system, but he also could become an ordinary right defensive end making superstar money.

   

Erik Walden

Heading into free agency…Walden looks like an elite pass-rusher if: a) you are Ryan Grigson; or b) you look at his 11 sacks in 2016 and absolutely nothing else.

Think of Walden, who turns 32 in the summer, as the football equivalent of a mediocre slugging outfielder who bats fifth for a poorly run franchise all season. He ends the season batting .255 with 19 home runs and 85 RBI. The raw numbers look good because he got lots of opportunities. But a good organization would either use him as a pinch hitter or the cleanup guy at the AAA affiliate.

The skinny: Walden will either snooker some overmatched general manager into another eight-figure contract or begin a sojourn around the league on one-year "pass-rusher off the bench" deals. He has a little value in the latter role. If the 49ers sign him to the former, feel free to commence with panic attacks about the new regime.

   

The Old-Timers (Dwight Freeney, Julius Peppers, DeMarcus Ware, James Harrison, Robert Mathis, Trent Cole)

Heading into free agency…Aging pass-rushers often latch on to new teams as third-down specialists and locker room mentors. Freeney showed the Falcons just how valuable an old sack guy can be in 2016.

The skinny: Harrison will probably re-sign with the Steelers; it's hard to imagine his playing the market again at this point. Mathis is toast; Cole is close.

Peppers and Ware can still play the Freeney role, as can Freeney, and neither the Packers nor the Broncos can really afford to keep them as luxury items.

One potential bidder for members of the over-the-hill gang to keep an eye on: the Oakland Raiders. They have cap space to burn, need to find ways to make their defense achieve critical mass and have the kind of coaching staff that will make an old pass-rusher feel right at home. Even though we aren't sure where "home" is for the Raiders.

   

The Bargain Bin (Margus Hunt, Jacquies Smith, Jarvis Jones, etc.)

Heading into free agency…If you want to approach free-agent pass-rushers the way Bill Belichick does, look past the big names in search of overpriced, underused talent.

Smith missed nearly all of the 2016 season after a pair of promising years as a rotational 4-3 end for the Buccaneers. Jones is a speedy, one dimensional 3-4 outside linebacker who never developed into the Harrison clone the Steelers wanted him to be. Hunt was a reach by the Bengals in the 2013 draft, a 6'8" athletic wonder from Europe with rudimentary football skills.

There are other players of this caliber in the chipped-and-dented rack: Shaq Barrett, Corey Lemonier, Devin Taylor and so on. Some, like Taylor and Barrett, are likely to re-sign with their teams. Others will be seeking new opportunities.

The skinny: Smith is the most likely of these players to make an impact in 2017. He's also the most likely to remain with his current team. The Buccaneers have more than $60 million in cap space and can afford to make a competitive offer to an in-house free agent.

The others are what they are: square pegs, talented teases and failed prospects. Don't expect them to blossom into double-digit-sack producers in new locations. But don't be surprised if you see one of them come off the Patriots bench for a clutch sack next year.

      

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

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