Top 10 NFL Free Agents of 2017: Defense

After I so kindly helped Mr. Belichick begin prepping for the 2017 season with my top ten free agents on the offensive side of the ball, Bill gave me a call to send his thanks. He also said I needed to get the defense covered ASAP, though. I can only assume he’s concerned about which teams the Pats will be competing with for the services of his unrestricted free agent linebacker, Dont’a Hightower.

But Hightower isn’t the only Pro Bowl caliber defender set to hit the open market on March 9th. Eric Berry, Chandler Jones, Kawann Short and more are also looking forward to the impending zeroes headed to their bank accounts. If reading about Le’Veon Bell returning to the Steelers wasn’t very earth-shattering, not to worry, the defenders will provide you with a little more excitement.

(Disclaimer: I may have used some Trump-ian alternative facts when describing my interaction with Bill Belichick.)

1. Eric Berry, S, Chiefs

Eric Berry is the best safety in the league and he wants to be paid that way. After playing 2016 under the franchise tag, Berry has said he will not play 2017 without a long-term deal. Kansas City doesn’t have much cap space as it currently stands, but they can alleviate about $17 million by releasing Nick Foles and Jamaal Charles. That money needs to go towards re-signing Berry to a long-term deal.

If the two sides cannot agree on a deal, the Chiefs may try to call Berry’s bluff and place the franchise tag on him anyways. It would be absurd for KC to let Berry walk with no return, but if they are that far apart on a contract, it may be the only option. I do believe a tag and trade or even Berry sitting out 2017 are more likely, though.

Tennessee, Cleveland, Chicago, and Tampa Bay would headline the laundry list of teams vying for Berry’s services should anything crazy happen. All four have the cap space to give Berry whatever he wants, and all desperately need a leader in their respective secondaries.

Odds on 2017 team:

Kansas City Chiefs: 7/3
Doesn’t Play: 9/1
FIELD: 4/1

2. Chandler Jones, EDGE, Cardinals

In his first season with the Cardinals (traded from New England), Jones did exactly what Arizona brought him in to do, rush the passer. The former first-round pick recorded 11 sacks, and has now reached double-digit sack totals in every season where he has started at least 14 games. Good pass rushers cost a little more than a pretty penny in today’s NFL, so it’s a good thing Arizona has more than $35 million to work with this offseason.

Unfortunately, Bruce Arians has robbed us of the exhilarating discussion regarding where Chandler Jones will sign this offseason, as the Cards head coach stated the team will do whatever it takes to retain the talented edge player. Good one, Bruce.

Although, this makes the Calais Campbell (keep reading) and Tony Jefferson situations a little more interesting.

Odds on 2017 team:

Arizona Cardinals: 1/12
FIELD: 12/1

3. Kawann Short, DT, Panthers

Kawann Short pushes Kirk Cousins out of bounds.
By Keith Allison (flickr)

Remember when the Panthers let their best corner, Josh Norman, walk last year? Dave Gettleman was roasted worse than Norman’s replacements for the move, and he will do whatever it takes to avoid that same scenario with his stud defensive tackle. The franchise tag is coming here.

Odds on 2017 team:

Carolina Panthers: 1/7
FIELD: 7/1

4. Calais Campbell, DL, Cardinals

As promised earlier, we have arrived at the curious case of what will happen with Calais Campbell. The nine-year veteran has been an absolute force throughout his career, which has all been spent in Arizona. Excluding his rookie season, Campbell has averaged a little over seven sacks per season.

There’s no doubt Arizona would like to keep him, but they likely won’t be the highest bidders when the market opens. Chandler Jones sounds like their number-one priority, and the Cards have a number of other upcoming free agents they’d like to have back, as well. If Campbell is willing to take a hometown discount, he’ll remain a Cardinal. If not, look for the Raiders, Broncos, and Buccaneers to be in heavy pursuit.

Oakland’s defense needs a lot of help after ranking 26th in total defense, and Campbell would remedy many issues. Denver needs to patch-up their 28th-ranked run defense, and the Colorado native would fit well opposite Derek Wolfe. Campbell would also form a scary duo in Tampa Bay, where he has ties, playing next to Gerald McCoy. The Raiders and Bucs would be able to outbid most when money starts getting tossed around.

Odds on 2017 team:

Arizona Cardinals: 5/2
Oakland Raiders: 3/1
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 4/1
Denver Broncos: 9/1
FIELD: 5/1

5. Dont’a Hightower, LB, Patriots

When the Patriots traded Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, it was to give them the financial flexibility to re-sign Hightower, right? Hold on, because the Pro Bowl linebacker isn’t the only Patriot in need of a new deal. Sebastian Vollmer, LeGarrette Blount, Martellus Bennett, Logan Ryan, Alan Branch, and Chris Long are all unrestricted free agents, while Malcolm Butler is restricted. With $63 million in cap space, New England should be able to re-sign most of these players, and Hightower will be high on their priority list.

If the two sides can not agree on a deal, expect the Colts, Dolphins, and Titans all to make strong pushes to acquire the two-time Super Bowl champion. Tennessee has enough money to do whatever they please this offseason, and Hightower’s combination of run-stuffing and pass-rushing capabilities make him a unique talent. Hightower’s presence would also immediately bolster the laughable Indianapolis and Miami run defenses – allowed 4.7 yards per carry and 4.8, respectively.

Odds on 2017 team:

New England Patriots: 1/3
Indianapolis Colts: 15/1
Miami Dolphins: 15/1
Tennessee Titans: 19/1
FIELD: 12/1

6. A.J. Bouye, CB, Texans

Top 10 NFL Free Agents of 2017: Defense
By Jeffrey Beall (flickr)

The 2016 season couldn’t have gone much better for Bouye. He not only thrived in his nickel corner duties, but also excelled in his opportunity as the number two guy with Johnathan Joseph missing time due to injury. Now the undrafted 25-year-old is viewed as the top corner available in the free agent pool.

Houston is going to have a tough decision to make with Bouye. Re-signing the four-year pro is not going to come cheap, and the Texans don’t have a ton of cap space ($26 million). Considering what Bouye is going to command on the open-market, bringing him back likely locks Brock Osweiler in as their starting quarterback for 2017. But Johnathan Joseph is getting older (he’ll be 33 in April), and Bouye seems like the ideal replacement. I foresee Bill O’Brien giving Osweiler one more chance in order to keep his defense intact.

If Bouye decides to chase the money, there will be a handful of teams offering it. Cleveland, Chicago, and Washington need upgrades at their second corner spots, while Oakland, Green Bay, and Tennessee need to find someone who can cover. All have a lot more money to spend than Houston. Oakland’s desire to win now with a roster entering its prime will ultimately lead to them throwing whatever it takes at a top corner, giving them the inside track here if Bouye leaves Houston.

Odds on 2017 team:

Houston Texans: 7/3
Oakland Raiders: 8/1
Cleveland Browns: 9/1
Tennessee Titans: 9/1
Green Bay Packers: 10/1
Chicago Bears: 12/1
Washington: 12/1
FIELD: 6/1

7. Brandon Williams, DT, Ravens

If your team is in need of a run-stuffing defensive tackle, look no further. Williams has become one of the best nose tackles in the league since entering in 2013. His 340lb frame and ability to eat-up blockers makes him a very valuable commodity.

Oakland and Washington ranked 23rd and 24th, respectively, against the run in 2016, and both need much more from their nose tackle spot. The Broncos run defense slipped last season, and the team appears to be moving on from Sylvester Williams. Williams would return their defense to its dominant ways of 2015. The Texans are another team in the market for Williams, as Vince Wilfork is likely to retire, but may not have the funds to afford him.

Odds on 2017 team:

Oakland Raiders: 4/1
Washington: 4/1
Denver Broncos: 5/1
Baltimore Ravens: 6/1
Houston Texans: 8/1
FIELD: 9/2

8. Melvin Ingram, EDGE, Chargers

Ingram has found his game over the last two seasons, recording a combined 18.5 sacks, compared to just six in his first three seasons. All of that success came as a 3-4 OLB, though. If Ingram returns, it’ll be to Gus Bradley’s 4-3 scheme. Compounding the issue, the Chargers do not have a ton of cap space to play with and are in need of some upgrades on the offensive line.

In the end, the Chargers will do what it takes to retain their edge rushing duo of Ingram and Joey Bosa. Add in one of the premier safeties with the seventh-overall pick in the upcoming draft, and Los Angeles will have a defense they can lean on. If Ingram does slip away, the likeliest destinations would be Indianapolis, Detroit, or Green Bay. The Lions recorded the second-fewest sacks in the league last season, and the Colts and Packers will both be looking to replace their respective edge rushers – Robert Mathis (retired) and Julius Peppers (basically retired/ineffective).

While there are a lot more teams who need an edge rusher, many may hold-out for the deep crop that’s about to enter the league in April.

Odds on 2017 team:

Los Angeles Chargers: 2/3
Indianapolis Colts: 8/1
Detroit Lions: 8/1
Green Bay Packers: 13/1
FIELD: 9/1

9. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants

Top 10 NFL Free Agents of 2017: Defense
By Mike Morbeck (Wikimedia Commons)

Just like the first man on this list, JPP has said he will not sign a franchise tag. Unfortunately, New York doesn’t have too much cap space to work with, and their offensive line should be their main focus this offseason. The Giants were given a glimpse at what their defense would be without Pierre-Paul this year, as the seven-year pro missed the final four games of the season. Outside of a playoff game where they were torched in the second-half by a red-hot Aaron Rodgers, the defense didn’t miss a beat.

The Giants will address areas of need with their cap space, and go into the season with either Romeo Okwara or a first-round rookie starting opposite Olivier Vernon. So where will the disruptive defensive end play in 2017? His market will be similar to Melvin Ingram’s (above), but add in a couple teams who desire a bigger body to play their 4-3 end spot.

JPP would be a perfect fit for Dallas, if they can find a way to alleviate the cap space to bring him in. The Dolphins may also move on from Mario Williams, and Pierre-Paul would help solve some of their issues against the run. There is a lot of pressure from other Giants players for the team to re-sign him, though.

Odds on 2017 team:

Detroit Lions: 4/1
Miami Dolphins: 9/2
New York Giants: 7/1
Dallas Cowboys: 15/2
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 9/1
Indianapolis Colts: 9/1
Jacksonville Jaguars: 12/1
FIELD: 9/1

10. Trumaine Johnson, CB, Rams

If Bouye stays in Houston, all the cornerback needy teams will turn their attention to Trumaine Johnson. The 27-year-old played 2016 under the franchise tag, so his salary would jump to nearly $17 million for the 2017 season if he and LA can’t reach a long-term deal, and the Rams don’t want to see him follow Janoris Jenkins out of town. There’s no doubt the former third-round pick can cover, but the issue with Johnson is his inability/unwillingness to play the run. After spending the last two seasons with Aqib Talib and Chris Harris at corner (two physical players), new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will demand Johnson be better in that facet.

If the Rams decide not to pay big money for a corner who doesn’t tackle, the market will look very similar to that of Bouye. There will be a few teams that shy away, though, due to his lack of toughness. New Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will surely be asked for his thoughts on Johnson, as he coached him for three seasons in LA.

Odds on 2017 team:

Los Angeles Rams: 5/3
Cleveland Browns: 5/1
Green Bay Packers: 7/1
Oakland Raiders: 7/1
Washington: 9/1
FIELD: 8/1

(Photo Credit: Thibous (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)


Perry is a regular contributor to MTS and a die-hard Broncos fan. Yes, he does remember the five Super Bowl losses, but likely remembers all your teams shortcomings, too. Consider yourself warned. Though his love for the Broncos may seem unconditional, Mr. Port never mixes his emotions with gambling.

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