With the NFL set to begin a new league year two weeks from Wednesday, fans of teams across the league are getting even more excited about the potential for their favorite team to improve through the addition of impact players. Whether it’s one of the many quarterbacks who could change teams, a wide receiver or impact pass rusher, fans are getting excited. However, as has been the case in several recent seasons, many fans are beginning to realize one thing - most of the top pass rushers won’t be hitting the market.
Specifically, looking at the lists of top free agents from various media outlets, here is a sampling of some of the top pass rushers who are set to see their contracts expire at 4 pm New York Time on Wednesday, March 18.
- DT Chris Jones (#3 overall free agent)
- DE Jadeveon Clowney (#4 overall)
- EDGE Shaquil Barrett (#7 overall)
- DE Yannick Ngakoue (#15 overall)
- DL Arik Armstead (#19 overall)
- EDGE Dante Fowler (#24 overall)
- EDGE Bud Dupree (#25 overall)
- EDGE Matt Judon (#28 overall)
- Jones (7)
- Clowney (13)
- Barrett (25)
- Ngakoue (26)
- Armstead (28)
- EDGE/LB Kyle Van Noy (40)
Even the NFL published their own list of the top 101 free agents as they do each year (I stopped at 50 again, but just for those who are interested, NFL.com has Seattle Seahawks defensive lineman Quinton Jefferson as the number 54 free agent in the league.):
- Clowney (3)
- Barrett (4)
- Ngakoue (5)
- Armstead (9)
- Judon (17)
- Dupree (20)
- Fowler (26)
- DE Everson Griffen (36)
- Quinn (38)
- Van Noy (44)
Now, those lists were all published weeks ago, and as was seen on Monday, teams have begun leaking those players who will have the franchise tag applied, many likely in an effort to create negotiating leverage to sign a contract extension before the market gets reset in free agency. And, with the way things are going, a reset of the pass rusher market in free agency appears to be inevitable.
Specifically, consolidating the above names into a single list in no particular order, the following yields a ballpark list of the top 11 pass rushers on the market (reminder, there is no particular order to this list, so don’t waste your time jumping into the comments to scream about how Quinn would be more attractive than Dupree or Fowler):
- 1. Jones
- 2. Clowney
- 3. Barrett
- 4. Ngakoue
- 5. Armstead
- 6. Fowler
- 7. Dupree
- 8. Judon
- 9. Van Noy
- 10. Griffen
- 11. Quinn
From there, it’s worth removing the names that have been linked to the franchise tag being applied.
The #Chiefs are going to franchise tag star DL Chris Jones, sources say. Not a surprise, but Kansas City views him in their long-term plans and hopes to get a deal done at some point. The window opens officially today.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) February 27, 2020
Bucs are strongly considering placing their franchise tag on pass rusher Shaquil Barrett if the two sides are unable to reach a long-term deal, per league source.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) February 28, 2020
Also notable is this: Placing franchise tag on Barrett means there’d be no franchise tag left for Jameis Winston.
Jacksonville Jaguars will use their franchise tag on pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue, per league sources. The tag will allow them to try to trade him if that’s what they decide or are forced to do.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 2, 2020
The #Ravens are planning to franchise tag LB Matthew Judon.— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) March 2, 2020
The #Chargers plan to franchise tag Hunter Henry.
The #Steelers will franchise tag LB Bud Dupree
The #Redskins will franchise tag OL Brandon Schreff
According to @JennaLaineESPN
That’s a lot of pass rush off the market, however, there could be even more disappearing, as there have been reports that the San Francisco 49ers could franchise tag Arik Armstead. However, that may not be necessary as the two sides are reportedly working to reach an agreement on a contract extension prior to the March 12 deadline to apply the franchise tag.
Latest: #49ers want DL Arik Armstead back and are working on getting a deal done, per source.— ig: josinaanderson (@JosinaAnderson) March 2, 2020
In addition, while some have speculated that the Los Angeles Rams could use the franchise tag on Dante Fowler, including a prediction from ESPN to that effect, that seems unlikely give their cap situation and other roster needs.
ESPN predicts Rams will use franchise tag on Dante Fowler Jr. https://t.co/wbbVB7CEGU— Rams Wire (@TheRamsWire) February 24, 2020
This just in, the Cowboys are letting everyone free agent hit the market they don't sign or tag before start of the league year, exposing them to be poached by other teams. The focus is Dak, Amari and Quinn— Clarence Hill Jr (@clarencehilljr) February 29, 2020
Circling back to the list of the top eleven pass rushers, here is what it looks like after removing the players who are reportedly set to be tagged.
- 2. Clowney
- 5. Armstead
- 6. Fowler
7. Dupree 8. Judon
- 9. Van Noy
- 10. Griffen
- 11. Quinn
So, taking that list into consideration, and assuming the 49ers indeed reach an extension with Armstead, all of a sudden the list of top pass rushers on the market looks like this:
- Van Noy
And that’s before considering the reports that the Cowboys are making Quinn a priority and that the Miinnesota Vikings are expected to bring Griffen back.
So, the pass rushers set to hit the market basically come down to Clowney, Fowler and Van Noy. Fowler led those three with 11.5 sacks this past year, but that’s far and away the best season of his career, while Van Noy’s 2019 season saw him record a career high of 6.5 sacks.
That makes Clowney, whose 3 sacks in 2019 were underwhelming, but who recorded 18.5 sacks over the course of the 2017 and 2018 seasons potentially very attractive. In particular, it might make him particularly attractive to a team that would use him in a stand up role where he does not need to put his hand in the dirt as the Seahawks ask him to do. This is what Paul Alexander, who spent decades as an offensive line coach in the NFL, had to say about Clowney immediately upon after the Seahawks acquired him last fall.
Is JADEVEON CLOWNY a good fit for #Seahawks ?? Seattle is a 4-3 with traditional DE alignments. CLOWNEY is most dangerous as a HYBRID when he stands up like a LB and ROAMS around to BLITZ. Unless Seattle changes their scheme, CLOWNEY will have fewer explosive plays. pic.twitter.com/V0b2u4oU8A— Paul Alexander (@CoachPaulAlex) September 1, 2019
And Coach Alexander repeated his stance on Clowney’s usage in February.
This is what Clowney does best. Too bad he didn’t do much of this in Seattle this year. He’s a free agent and he should go to a team that will play him as a stand up OLB or Spinner (like he did in Houston) to be most effective. https://t.co/xJ8XBS4xps— Paul Alexander (@CoachPaulAlex) February 15, 2020
This brings things to Monday, when ESPN reported that the Seahawks are reportedly seen as unlikely to get into a bidding war for Clowney. Specifically, ESPN is reporting that “it’s unlikely Seattle goes to $18M to $20M per year for a player who had 3.5 sacks in 2019.” That, combined with how thin the pickings are expected to be in the free agent market for pass rushers, could easily combine for Clowney to completely reset the market.
All of the top defensive contracts around the NFL - Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, DeMarcus Lawrence and Frank Clark - were signed without the benefit of reaching free agency. At this point, it is now all but guaranteed that Jadeveon Clowney will hit free agency, and he will likely do so as the only under 30 pass rusher with at least two seasons of 9+ sacks. Fans can debate what that means for Clowney, but from a financial perspective, it means that if Clowney wants to reset the market for defensive contracts a la Mario Williams in 2012, there is absolutely nothing the Seahawks can do to stop him.
Beyond an inability to stop Clowney from reaching the market, while the Seahawks were top ten in the NFL in available cap space as recently as last month, according to OverTheCap.com, there are currently 16 teams projected to have more cap space in 2020 than Seattle. That means there are 16 teams with more cap space ammunition in 2020, and three of those teams were in the playoffs. That means that while Clowney has said he wants to play for a contender, there are three playoff teams that have more cap space than the Hawks. Further, the Seahawks need to worry about retaining or replacing not just Clowney, but also Jarran Reed, Quinton Jefferson, Al Woods, Branden Jackson, Germain Ifedi, George Fant and Mike Iupati. Of course, teams across the league have their own holes to address, but at this point, Seattle seems unlikely to not only not win, but not even be involved in any bidding war that goes above $20M per year.