2019 NFL Free Agency: DeMarcus Lawrence tops a deep list of explosive edge rushers

There is no more important position in the NFL than the quarterback. We've seen this proven time and time again over the years. But because the quarterback is so important to teams' success, that by default means that the guys who can directly affect quarterbacks' performance are vital as well. And no defensive players have the potential to effect quarterbacks as much as edge rushers. There's a reason why so many of the highest-paid defenders in the league are the quarterback-hunters, after all. 

This year's free agent crop features a very strong group of edge rushers, with an elite set of players leading the way, including one who seems very likely to get a contract at or near the very top of the market. The edge group isn't just top-heavy, though. It's also quite deep, with interesting options among the mid-career veterans, late-career former stars, and upside guys looking for a new situation. 

Let's break it all down. 

The bank-breaker

DeMarcus Lawrence

The man they call Tank is coming off just about as good of a two-season contract run as a player can have. After three seasons marred by injuries, suspensions, and inconsistency, Lawrence broke out as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate with 14 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks, and 26 quarterback hits in 2017, earning himself the franchise tag for the 2018 campaign. He willingly signed the tag and stated that he'd use the following season to prove himself worthy of a long-term deal, and that's exactly what he did. He was the best and most disruptive player on one of the best defenses in football, recording 15 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, and 23 quarterback hits in 2018. 

Lawrence turns 27 years old in April and should be in line for a deal at or near the top of the market, comparable to what Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack received last offseason. He's not necessarily quite as good as those two players, but he is damn close and is both the best available defender on the market this offseason and one with a ton of leverage. If Dallas franchises him again, the Cowboys may not be able to afford a long-term deal next year. They need to lock him in now before Dak Prescott's extension kicks in. 

One thing to note here is that Lawrence's agent also represented Olivier Vernon when the pass-rusher got a five-year, $85 million deal from the division rival Giants three years ago. Expect Lawrence to exceed that deal by several million dollars per year, and to meet or (more likely) exceed the $52.5 million guarantee Vernon was given at the time as well. The Cowboys have stated their intention is to pay Lawrence, but he could be a candidate for the franchise tag if that agreement can't be reached prior to free agency -- even though neither the team nor Lawrence himself wants that to be the result. 

The big-money stars

Frank Clark
Jadeveon Clowney
Trey Flowers
Dee Ford

This list contains the two most likely franchise-tag candidates of the entire offseason. 

Clark's agent flat out stated that his client would welcome the tag this offseason and is in no rush to sign a long-term deal, and it was recently reported that the Seahawks are indeed expected to tag Clark. Clark had some issues with violence while in college and they caused him to drop in the draft, but he has stayed out of trouble since being selected late in the second round by Seattle, and after a season as a rotational rusher, has racked up 32 sacks over the past three years -- more than all but eight players.

Similarly, Clowney is widely expected to be tagged by the Texans this offseason. His situation is a bit more complicated than Clark's though, as CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora explained late last season. Clowney moves around the formation as much as any player in football, playing a whole lot of linebacker, defensive end, and even defensive tackle, so there will presumably be a debate about how much his tag will be worth, even if there should be no debate about whether or not he's worth it. 

Flowers emerged as the best defender on the Patriots' front seven over the past two years, and he had a heck of a contract push in 2018. As Pro Football Focus noted: 

Flowers recorded an 18.5 pass-rush win percentage across his 443 pass-rush snaps in 2018, which is tied for third with Denver Broncos' Miller among edge defenders with 300 pass-rush snaps on the year. He recorded 65 total pressures (44 hurries, 12 hits and nine sacks) in the process, good for the fourth-highest pressure percentage (14.7%) among the same group of edge defenders.

...

Adding an 88.4 run-defense grade in 2018, which ranked third among qualifiers, Flowers' three-year run-defense grade (84.7) ranks ninth among the 61 NFL edge defenders with 500-plus run-defense snaps in that span. His three-year run-stop percentage (8.5%) also ranks 10th among the same group of edge defenders.

He is an absolutely perfect Bill Belichick player who is equally capable against the run and the pass and fills a bunch of different roles depending on the game-plan, and the Patriots are widely expected to make him a very well-compensated man this offseason.

Ford has expressed that he wants to return to Kansas City, but he's also been receptive to the possibility of being tagged. When healthy he has been an absolute stud for Andy Reid's defense, and new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will presumably be thrilled to get to use him along the defensive front. CBS Sports contributor and former NFL agent Joel Corry wrote in November that Ford could be worth as much as $20 million per year if he were to hit the open market, but the Chiefs could elect to tag him, save some money, and pay him next offseason.

Quality mid-career veterans 

Ezekiel Ansah
Markus Golden
Brandon Graham
Derrick Morgan
Alex Okafor
Preston Smith
Za'Darius Smith

Ansah has alternated spectacular seasons with injury-plagued, inconsistent ones over the past four years in Detroit, and now that he'll turn 30 this offseason, may not be able to be counted on as an every-down star. But he still has incredible upside and should be highly sought after on the market. Detroit will presumably want to retain him due to the lack of pass-rushing talent elsewhere on the roster, but as an unrestricted free agent unlikely to be tagged, he could be gettable for another team. 

Golden is now two years removed from his breakout campaign back in 2016 and he's struggled with injuries the past two years, including a torn ACL in 2017. The upside is still there and Golden clearly has a very high opinion of himself, but with the Cardinals seemingly in rebuilding mode it seems somewhat unlikely that they'll give him the kind of deal he seeks. That means he could be had for a mid-range deal. 

Graham is one of the most consistently and quietly effective defenders in football, and he's an incredibly valuable piece of the Philadelphia defense. He's stated an intention to "figure it out" with the Eagles and noted that he's not going to be silly in his contract talks. Him returning to the fold makes all the sense in the world but if the Eagles really low-ball him, someone is going to get their hands on an incredibly valuable player.  

Morgan averaged 6.7 sacks, 16.5 quarterback hits, and 13.7 tackles for loss per year from 2012 through 2017, but 2018 saw him take a dramatic decrease in playing time and effectiveness. He just turned 30, though, so some other team is likely to take a shot and see what he has left in the tank. If he returns to form, he could be an underrated signing this offseason. 

Okafor has worked as a rotational end for much of his career and should stay in that role in 2019 and beyond, whether it's in New Orleans or elsewhere. The Saints could definitely use him as part of their package of rushers opposite Cameron Jordan, where he has worked quite well the past two years, totaling 8.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, and 18 quarterback hits. 

Preston Smith has been a quality player for Washington ever since being drafted in 2015, picking up 24.5 sacks and 59 quarterback hits in four years. He's hitting the open market at only 26 years old and with Washington likely to lean on its defense to carry the team next year due to their dreadful quarterback situation, he's a must-have piece for them. He is unfortunately coming off a down year with only four sacks, but the team presumably knows he's an important piece of the puzzle and should proceed accordingly. 

Za'Darius Smith, also 26 and coming off his fourth season, is heading to the market on the back of his best season yet, with 8.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, and 25 QB hits. He split his time at edge rusher and defensive tackle, which makes him a perfect fit for Baltimore's flexible defense. That defense will presumably still have to carry the day in 2019 as the Ravens figure out what their Lamar Jackson-centric offense should look like, and Smith is necessary for that defense to remain strong. Baltimore has let rushers like him walk before (Pernell McPhee, etc.) but this is a bit of a different situation with the team's offense in transition.  

Aging but productive former stars

Clay Matthews
Terrell Suggs
Cameron Wake

The fit of Clay Matthews and the Los Angeles Rams is almost too obvious not to happen. The Packers need to move in a different direction with their defense and the Rams need to add edge rushing talent on the cheap and Matthews is from Southern California. Let's just make this happen right now. Suggs can presumably return to Baltimore if he wants, and the Ravens will be happy to have him back. He's remained wildly productive even at an advanced age and despite sustaining multiple serious injuries during the latter portion of his career. Wake, too, has remained productive into his late 30s and can presumably return to Miami if he wants, but if the Dolphins and new coach Brian Flores decide to inject some youth into the system then some lucky team is going to get a heck of a player along the defensive front. 

Youth with upside

Shaq Barrett
Anthony Chickillo
Dante Fowler
Aaron Lynch
Shane Ray

Barrett has made a nice career for himself as an undrafted free agent but the writing was on the wall for the end of his Broncos tenure when the team drafted Bradley Chubb last year. Still, there's upside there for a 26-year-old who has pretty much solely been used as a rotational rusher while picking up 14 sacks over the past four seasons. (He's stated that he wants to be a starter, which seems unlikely to happen in Denver.) Ray seemingly fell out of favor in Denver over the past two seasons and was even made a healthy scratch late in 2018, so he seems likely to move on as well. There's a reason he was a first-round pick a few years ago, and he was a productive player before a wrist injury and a trip to Vance Joseph's doghouse marred the end of his Denver tenure. There's value to be had. 

Chickillo has played as a rotational edge rusher in Pittsburgh and while he's not racked up a ton of sacks he has been solid against the run and a valuable special-teamer for the Steelers. Maybe that's all he is, but at 26 some team could decide it's worth taking a shot on him. Similarly, Lynch has never quite lived up to his pass-rushing potential but he was a valuable player for the Bears last season and if they can bring him back on a cheap, short-term contract, they should do so. If not, then he could provide much of the same stuff for some other team out there. 

Fowler is likely to prove too expensive for the Rams to retain given their other pending free agents (Ndamukong Suh, Rodger Saffold, and Lamarcus Joyner, among others), so he could be one of the more gettable, productive players on the open market. Like many of the players in this section he has not necessarily reached his full potential so far in his career but if put in position to succeed there's a lot of untapped upside there. 

Names of note

Connor Barwin
Vinny Curry
Kony Ealy
William Hayes
Bruce Irvin
Dion Jordan
John Simon

You've likely heard of all of these guys and any one of them could help a team looking for some help on the edge. They seem likely to get low-money, short-term deals. Some of them will work and some of them won't but they're all worth a shot.

CBS Sports Writer

Jared Dubin is a New York lawyer and writer. He joined CBSSports.com in 2014 and has since spent far too much of his time watching film and working in spreadsheets. Full Bio

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