With a few big names, some potentially very good high end players, and good depth, this looks to be an interesting year for teams looking for a defensive end, specifically teams who employ the 34 defense. I’ll take a look at who I believe may be the highest paid players in free agency and give a listing of everyone available this year.
Muhammad Wilkerson, Jets
Wilkerson needed a big statistical season to cement his argument that he is the second best 34 DE in the NFL and he is having that season. Wilkerson currently projects to be the only free agent defensive end to hit double digit sacks this year and will likely be right near the top in tackles and tackles for loss. He is also one of the rare players that will play almost every snap and you do not need to rotate in and out for certain situations because he is such a well rounded player. If there is something to nitpick about Wilkerson it is the fact that he is not as consistent a rusher as some others. He is able to turn pressures into sacks at a very high rate, but the pressure rate is not as high as some of the others.
The Jets have dragged their feet on re-signing Wilkerson which leads me to believe they will franchise tag him with the intent to trade. That doesn’t mean at the end of the day he will not remain with the Jets but it seems clear they don’t view him as a difference make the way the Bills perhaps saw a Marcell Dareus which someone else probably will.
I think it would be easy to picture the Redskins, Chiefs, Browns and 49ers all at least showing interest for the right price. Wilkerson will be looking to top Dareus’ contract if he gets the chance to sell himself in free agency. Though nobody is a sure bet in free agency he is probably as close to a sure thing as there is unless you convince yourself you are getting Watt when you make the signing.
Projected Value: 5 years, $73-79 million
Greg Hardy, Cowboys
There is no questioning Hardy’s talent, but his off the field issues and general attitude make him incredibly difficult to take a risk on. Hardy had limited interest last season which made the Cowboys decision to hand over an $11+ million contract surprising. Nothing Hardy did this year should change a team’s perspective on him. You would have thought that he would have acted contrite and been on best behavior but he basically flaunted the fact that he did not miss more than four games this season and then was seen in some heated conversations with coaches and others on the team. I’m not sure who gave him advice but if this was the advice they gave him he or she should be fired.
On the field Hardy is one of the better pass rushers in the league. Had he played 16 games this year he would have reached double digit sacks for the third consecutive year. He is not the complete player that some others are but he isn’t a liability in other aspects of the game either. He will be 28 next season which is a bit on the older end for first time free agency, but there are plenty of players in their late 20s and early 30s still playing out massive contracts.
Hardy must be banking on Dallas re-upping him because there is no other reason to explain his behavior in a walk year and Dallas has basically been an enabler for him. If Dallas does not sign him I have a hard time judging a salary range. Part of me believes he would wind up in the same place Michael Bennett did when he first signed with Seattle for just under $5 million when he had almost no market, but at the same time his talent level is so high that seems too low. The problem is 2015 was supposed to be his rehab season and he’s done nothing to rehab his image and the same off the field will follow him.
The projection will be based on Dallas fighting to keep him and raising the price high. If they don’t I think you look at another one year contract probably between $6 and $8 million.
Projected Value: 4 years, $47-$52 million
Jason Pierre-Paul, Giants
Pierre-Paul’s fireworks mishap cost him millions and leaves him as a difficult player to judge. If there is one player in the NFL that would benefit tremendously from making the playoffs it is JPP, who needs as many games as possible to show what he can do with that injured hand. Thus far we have seen some flashes and he has a pretty solid number of pressures in a short period of time, but he has yet to bring a QB down and the question with that hand is can he consistently get around tackles the way he used to and also bring down the QB. His tackles are down too.
If the hand is ok, Pierre-Paul brings a very unique skill set as a player who can go 90% of the snaps and play very well against the run while being a dominant pass rusher. JPP has struggled with consistency in the past with two big sack seasons and two relatively bland ones. That is not really the norm for a premier compensated player at the position and one of the reasons why he and the Giants were unable to come to a long term contractual agreement before the hand injury. The Giants seemed to be offering in the ballpark of $12 million a season which would probably be a fair number given the up and down nature of his career.
If he does not get going in these last few weeks of the year and the season ends without the playoffs Pierre-Paul is probably looking at another one year incentive laden contract in the ballpark of $8 million with another $4 million in incentivized upside. If that is the case he should remain in New York if the coaching staff on the defensive side remains the same. From what I have seen so far I can’t picture any team coming close to what he wants to make in free agency.
Projected Value: 1 year, $8-9 million
Malik Jackson, Broncos
Jackson has quietly put together a solid resume over the last three seasons playing along the Broncos defensive line and has been a solid player in the new defense that the team has run this year. He has certainly staked his claim as the best player on the Broncos line. While he has cooled off a bit in recent weeks he is still on pace for a pretty respectable 6 sacks for a 34 end and continues to play very strong against the run. Jackson is big and very capable of knocking passes down at the line.
Jackson will only be 26 next year which may be his biggest asset as he will be looked at to have more upside than others. He is playing in about 75% of his teams snaps which is in the top third of the league for the position. The best comparable for Jackson will be Allen Bailey of the rival Chiefs who signed this year for $6.25 million. Bailey, like Jackson, was young and considered to be a solid all around talent with upside. Jackson has proven more, is more well rounded and has better size which should lead to him landing a better contract. He should be a notch below the double digit APY players, though he may try to make an argument that he is as capable as Corey Liuget of the Chargers. Most likely he carves out a niche in between.
The Broncos may make a big push before free agency to lock him up before having to turn their attention to Von Miller. It actually may benefit the Broncos to use up some cap room on Jackson to try to show a more limited pool of money when dealing with Miller. If Jackson hits free agency expect the teams that miss out on Wilkerson or don’t want to spend top tier money on a 34 end to be very active in acquiring Jackson.
Projected Value: 5 years, $36-$40 million
Derek Wolfe, Broncos
Wolfe is one of the best players in the NFL against the run and the perfect player on a team that has a group of dominant pass rushers. Despite missing 4 games this year due to suspension, he is 7th among 34 defensive ends in tackles, tied for 5th in stuffs, and 11th in tackles for loss.
Wolfe can rush the QB a little bit and did have 6 sacks a few years ago, but he will most likely slot in with the run defender salaries who generally play on the inside, like a Tyson Jackson or Paul Soliai. If a team out there believes they can get more rush production from him they may push their offer thinking they could be getting the next Calais Campbell or Wilkerson at a lower cost. Given his suspension this year and his injury in 2013 my feeling is he will need to take some type of per game incentive in his contract.
If the Broncos don’t see any positive signs with Jackson they will quickly turn their attention to Wolfe. It’s possible they may prefer Wolfe if they had to choose one or the other though Jackson is probably the more expensive player with a bit more upside. If the Broncos don’t push to re-sign him, he should find a pretty robust market as he should be about as sure a bet as there is in free agency to fill a specific role as good as anyone else in the league. If Denver lets him go I would not be surprised if he lands with the Chargers.
Projected Value: 5 years, $33-$37 million
Mike Daniels, Packers
Daniels is a solid all around pro who has solidified his spot as a starter in the Packers defensive front. Daniels can provide a reasonable pass rush for the position and should consistently give a team 5-6 sacks each season, reasonable pressures, and be very proactive in trying to get to the football on run plays. He is an ideal player for this type of defense doing a great deal of dirty work while others get the credit in the press, but that work is noticed by coaches and scouts.
Daniels is reportedly seeking $10 million a season which is a number clearly based on what Liuget earned in San Diego. There is probably also the feeling from Daniels side that the Packers, who rarely venture into free agency, will overpay when push comes to shove to keep a player they like. The Packers recently did that with Sam Shields and to a lesser extent Randall Cobb. That said it is hard to see Daniels at that salary level. Liuget had the benefit of being a 1st round draft pick and was just 25 when he signed his extension. Daniels will be 27 next year and was a 4th round pick.
I would slot Daniels squarely in that $6 to $7 million tier of 34 ends. He probably has a little less upside than Jackson so I would watch that contract closely when putting a final value on Daniels. If Jackson hits the jackpot then expect Daniels to follow suit. Liuget benefitted the same way when the Chargers simply followed the trend of extensions that all seemed to hit around the same time. Daniels will have an easier time following the market than setting it if he hopes to hit big money.
Projected Value: 4 years, $25-$29 million
Olivier Vernon, Dolphins
Two years ago Vernon looked poised to be a break out star. He compiled 11.5 sacks and 46 tackles in 2013 at the very young age of 23. But he took a step back the following year and needed a big season in 2015, especially playing with Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake and it never happened. He’s on pace for just 35 tackles and 6 sacks and at times has looked poor on the field. He has a few weeks to produce at a higher level, but right now he has to sell himself on potential as a 26 year old free agent rather than a sure bet.
Selling on potential is not impossible at the position. Everson Griffen did just that a few years ago with the Vikings, but Griffen had less opportunity than Vernon did, which will hurt Vernon. Griffen signed for $8.5 million a season. Another possible comp would be Lamarr Houston who signed a surprising $7 million a year contract with the Bears a few years back that one could only assume was based on the assumption that players will be better outside of Oakland than in Oakland.
Vernon’s market is probably closer to that of Griffen’s teammate Brian Robison or Michael Johnson of the Bengals, unless there is a surprise team out there like the Bears with Houston that overpays. The rock bottom of the market for players like Vernon would be $3 million, but I think he’s proven to be much better than those players and it would require a real negative opinion around the league to fall that far. Miami may be his best chance to earn the most money.
Projected Value: 4 years, $20-$24 million
Vinny Curry, Eagles
Curry is the type of player that can be very difficult to put a price on. On the positive side he has shown an ability to be very efficient at getting to the quarterback and is versatile enough to play multiple positions. On the negative side he really has no defined role and can not find a way to get more playing time despite all his positives as a rusher. Such players sometimes are able to strike it big in free agency as teams look at the high efficiency and assume it will translate to double the snaps, but other times they find a limited market because of their inability to find the field with their current team. Curry will be 28 next year which also works against him.
Curry’s best chance at the big contract likely only would have happened if he duplicated his 9 sack season and came in around 50% of the snaps or greater. It was years like that that catapulted the Pernell McPhee’s and Paul Kruger’s of the league to big contracts. Being that he did not do that he will probably follow a similar pattern as his teammate Brandon Graham. Graham was a high efficiency rusher that had trouble seeing the field and that caused him to land a $6.5 million rather than a $9 million type contract at a higher pay position.
For Curry to break the $5 million mark he needs to convince a team he is capable of playing in at least half the snaps for his team. Most of the 30% snap types at this position are generally in the $3 million range, though Curry will have the benefit of being a 2nd round pick and more productive rusher. Getting on the field more these next few weeks would help him out tremendously.
Projected Value: 3 years, $11-$14 million
Best of the Rest
The market is certainly not short on names and there should be plenty of good players to fill situational roles available. A cast of young players such as Kendall Reyes, Andre Branch, Derrick Shelby and Jared Crick should all be available come March. Some have failed to live up to draft expectations and others simply don’t provide enough in all phases at the moment, but for a low cost may provide some value in a new situation…Proven veterans like Jason Jones should all grade out in the $2-$3 million range for one year of work….On the older end of the spectrum will be Antonio Smith and Justin Tuck, both of whom could opt for retirement at this stage of their careers.
The Free Agent Market
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Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.