The NFL free-agent period can be the culmination of a cosmic football ballet.
For players, merely being talented sometimes isn’t enough to get paid, or at least not in a way that pushes the water level of your position’s Scrooge McDuck money pool to new unseen levels. Plenty of skilled veterans get paid well, but they don’t reshape the market.
That’s because the highly sought after free agents are paid for more than who they are now. They’re paid for who they’ll become, and if they can keep being that future player for a long time, too. Often, they’re paid a precedent-setting amount, because three twinkling stars—age, overall talent and peaking at the right time—lined up perfectly.
Which is why outside linebacker Melvin Ingram is about to be the ascending young pass-rusher who’s showered with cash by a team rich in salary-cap space. Or if you prefer, he’s about to be the 2017 version of Olivier Vernon.
And he’ll deserve every damn nickel after what we’ve seen over the past two seasons from a healthy Ingram. He just probably won’t get anything more than nickels from the Los Angeles Chargers, the cap-strapped team that still employs him until March 9. The Chargers currently have only an estimated $21.9 million in cap space, according to Spotrac.
As ESPN Stats & Information quite rightly noted, there won’t be much room for the Chargers to improve elsewhere given the contract negotiating baseline set by Ingram’s projected franchise-tag value.
Off he’ll likely go to free agency then, and his timing couldn’t be better. Ingram is an explosive and athletically gifted edge-rusher who bends around corners to bring down the quarterback or just blows by opposing tackles with his raw speed.
That skill set makes him one of the league’s fastest-rising pass-rushers, and now he’ll offer himself to the highest bidder and then celebrate his 28th birthday in late April. The first-round pick in 2012 is just entering his prime and is the kind of free-agency prize who can single-handedly change the character of a defense’s pass rush.
Early in his career, it didn’t seem like Ingram would ever be worthy of being called a franchise-changing defender. He often showed flashes of the potential that made him rise up the draft board as a prospect to 18th overall. But then those high-ceiling hopes would be replaced by durability concerns.
Ingram tore his ACL during the 2013 offseason and then miraculously mended himself fast to return for the Chargers’ playoff push and postseason games. Over only six games that year, he recorded 13 pressures along with a sack, and he even snatched an interception.
The future was blindingly bright heading into his third NFL season in 2014. So of course he suffered a hip injury and was placed on injured reserve.
Ingram’s swing between two extremes—young pocket-collapsing speed rusher on one end and constantly broken disappointment on the other—was enough to give the Chargers permanent whiplash.
A critical question remained unanswered though: What would happen if Ingram stayed in one working piece for a long period of time and didn’t break, tear or bend any body part against its intended design?
He’s emphatically provided the answer over the past two seasons, leading to a different label. The top free agent label:
Ingram recorded 60-plus tackles in both the 2015 and 2016 seasons. He did that while also playing 16 games in back-to-back years, stomping on any whispers about him being too breakable.
He’s positioned himself as one of the league’s most promising outside linebackers because of both the sacks he’s collected during that two-year stretch and the sacks sure to come with how often Ingram camps out in the opposing backfield.
His 18.5 sacks over the past two seasons rank seventh among all linebackers, according to Pro Football Reference, putting Ingram ahead of more established pass-rushers like the Titans’ Brian Orakpo and the Packers’ Julius Peppers.
|Most sacks since start of 2015 season among linebackers|
|Pro Football Reference|
But as always, it’s important to remember that while sacks are juicy and great, and they’re the gooey cherry filling in the pass-rusher donut, they’re also only one aspect of being a complete player.
The best pass-rushers in the league will record a sack on only a tiny percentage of their snaps. What defines them as feared defenders, though, is how often they can disrupt the pocket and the natural flow of a play. Thriving in that area consistently has been another source of year-to-year improvement for Ingram.
In 2015, he finished tied for 10th among all 3-4 outside linebackers with 56 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. Then in 2016, that pressure production climbed, pushing Ingram further up the leaderboard at his position.
|Most pressures among OLBs in 2016|
|Linebacker||Pass rush snaps||Pressures|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
Ingram finished fourth in pressures after just his second full and healthy season as a starter. But pay attention to the first column in the table above as well and to Ingram’s high pass-rushing production on comparatively few opportunities.
Ingram is a dynamic player and can be used in a variety of ways. Which is what the Chargers did while deploying him as a run defender and even dropping him back in coverage for a handful of snaps each game. The latter use is what really separated Ingram from the other names on that list, showing he’s a multi-faceted defender.
Ingram spent 106 snaps in pass coverage during the 2016 season, per PFF. To compare, the Raiders’ Khalil Mack dropped back 41 times, the Broncos’ Von Miller dropped back 81 times and the Redskins’ Ryan Kerrigan dropped back 24 times. So suddenly the gap in pressures between Mack and Ingram doesn’t feel so wide, and he finished only narrowly behind Kerrigan.
Ingram moves fluidly and has the natural athleticism to play multiple roles when needed. That includes shutting down running lanes. He finished with 19 run stops in 2016, which also ranked among the top 10 at his position, again per PFF.
He excels as a pass-rusher though, and that shines through in Ingram’s 2016 game film. Picking the definitive Ingram moment is difficult during a season filled with displays of power and speed. But a Week 10 strip sack of Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill stands out as the shining example of why Ingram is worth a hearty slice of salary-cap pie.
The open market always places a premium on speed because it can’t be taught. Just ask any high school football coach who has his dusty bible of cliches handy. And Ingram’s burst off the line of scrimmage often has opposing tackles scrambling to catch up immediately.
That leads to sloppy footwork and a breakdown in fundamentals, which then gives Ingram an advantage and all the leverage he needs. On a third down in the first quarter against the Dolphins, he created that situation, and tackle Branden Albert was left only to be a spectator.
Ingram lined up wide to the left side. His desired path to the quarterback was clear: the tightest corner possible. He’d need to explode first and then bend around Albert to keep that turn tight without giving Tannehill time to release his throw.
Ingram took care of the first part with that natural burst and didn’t allow Albert to make contact until he was even with him. The left tackle’s attempt to push off against Ingram and alter his route to the quarterback was weak. His target was moving too fast, and Ingram dipped his left shoulder at precisely the right moment, getting Albert even more off balance.
Even semi-strong contact from Albert could have still disrupted Ingram’s sprint to the quarterback. So he kept that shoulder low, showing the agility to stay away from the tackle’s strength and maintain the leverage he had earned.
His pursuit was both low and direct now as Ingram planted his left foot for an abrupt turn toward Tannehill.
There was still one last bit of contact to avoid. Every movement is intricate, so if Ingram didn't have the proper strength and balance, Albert’s final push could have also altered the play.
But the 6’2” and 247-pound linebacker shed that with ease while still surging forward. He had the timing and field sense to finish the job by getting both Tannehill and the ball on the ground.
The Dolphins recovered the fumble, but the damage was still done when they were pushed out of field-goal range.
That kind of ability comes with a large dollar sign and a whole lot of zeros. Especially for Ingram now with the pool of high-end edge-rushing talent expected to be dangerously shallow.
The Arizona Cardinals have been very open with their intention to franchise-tag Chandler Jones if a long-term deal can’t be worked out. And Jordan Raanan, who covers the New York Giants for ESPN.com, thinks there’s a possibility Jason Pierre-Paul gets tagged as well.
Ingram’s age, recent production and the yearly leaguewide salary-cap spike give him a viable case for top-market pass-rushing dollars, particularly if both Jones and Pierre-Paul are kept from becoming free agents. In 2016, Vernon reset the market with his five-year deal that pays an average of $17 million annually and is worth $85 million overall. He did that as a 25-year-old after logging 81 pressures and 7.5 sacks in 2015.
Ingram is a little older, but he’s still in his prime. His contract-year output was either equal to or not far behind Vernon depending on the category, and it came during a season when he wasn’t asked to be a pure pass-rusher as an outside linebacker. He's more of an all-around defender who sometimes even finds himself in coverage.
Ingram will approach Vernon-like money if the cap-thin Chargers let him walk. And in return, he has the potential to quickly inject life into a stagnant pass rush, just as Vernon has for the Giants.