Schultz: 25 defensive players to watch in free agency
The NFL offseason is about to pick up in a big way. Our NFL insider Jordan Schultz looks at 25 defensive players you need to keep an eye on.
Yannick Ngakoue: All he does is produce. The 27-year-old is an excellent pass-rusher who uses his speed and power to find the quarterback. After racking up 9.5 sacks last year, he'll have multiple suitors in free agency.
"I liked him a lot with the Raiders. I still think there's another level for him, 12-13 sacks," one scout told me. "He has a lot of moves and counters that offensive linemen struggle with because of his quickness."
Dre'Mont Jones: He's a huge priority for Denver GM George Paton and new defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, though I'm told he plans to test the open market. A disruptive interior lineman with a big-time motor - hence a career-best 6.5 sacks - Jones will be one of the highest-paid defensive players in free agency.
Charles Omenihu: He's coming off his best season, tallying 16 quarterback hits and 28 initial pressures. Plus, Omenihu's only 25 years old and ranked sixth in pass-rusher win rate and first when lined up inside, per PFF. "He's a problem," the scout said. "He's a three-down guy who's getting better."
Zach Allen: Allen is an excellent young player who played his best football in his fourth year. His ceiling keeps going up because of his effort and motor. Allen's seven batted passes in 2022 tied for the second most among all defensive tackles. He's about to get paid.
Germaine Pratt: As consistent as they come, Pratt started 54 games in four seasons for Cincinnati. A stellar coverage backer, the former NC State standout also tied for second among all linebackers with 10 pass breakups last season. Everyone I spoke with at the combine raved about Pratt.
"He hurt us a lot last year," the scout said. "He's around the ball, he's sound, he's gonna have a big market."
Lavonte David: One of the most productive backers in football since entering the league in 2012, David remains a valuable asset for any defense. He's very smart, very steady, and very helpful for your defense, especially on third down.
Bobby Okereke: A run-stuff menace who can also cover, Okereke comes off a stellar season, amassing 151 tackles, six tackles for loss, five pass breakups, and two forced fumbles. He's only missed two games over the past four campaigns. Keep an eye on the Bears with a mid-teen number.
"One of my favorites in this free agency class: Versatile, smart player, I think he's priced himself out for us, but that just means he's gonna get paid," the scout said.
Drue Tranquill: The former Notre Dame standout was a crucial second-level asset for the Chargers and should be rewarded in a major way come free agency. Several teams have told me they value Tranquill's range and toughness.
T.J. Edwards: He's coming off his best season, in which he became a reliable tackler and playmaker for the Eagles. Edwards compiled 159 tackles, including 10 tackles for loss, plus five QB hits and seven passes defended in 17 games. Opposing signal-callers also posted a mere 82.1 passer rating when targeting him.
Leighton Vander Esch: Only 27 and a guy who can really run, Vander Esch ranked second on the Cowboys with 90 tackles last season, proving to be a highly capable focal point in Dan Quinn's dominant defense. The former first-rounder out of Boise State will command a strong number regardless of where he lands - although I know Dallas would like to bring him back.
Alex Anzalone: He's a sure-handed tackler who was a focal point for Detroit's defense all last year. Anzalone never misses time either, a trait teams are coveting more and more.
Alex Singleton: Singleton comes off a super productive season in Denver, amassing 163 tackles, good enough for fifth in the NFL. The Broncos gave him a one-year, prove-it deal last offseason, and Singleton did not disappoint.
Denzel Perryman: Perryman is one of my favorite players on this list. A Pro Bowler in 2021, he brings a lot to the table as a top-tier tackler who can also blitz and is willing to cover.
E.J. Speed: Simply put, Speed is a starting-caliber linebacker. Teams I've spoken with value his coverage ability, and one scout mentioned he'd like to see him more in a blitzing role. Indianapolis would prefer to keep him.
James Bradberry: He earned second-team All-Pro honors last season in Philadelphia. His 34 passes defended over the past two seasons are tied for second behind Cowboys superstar Trevon Diggs.
Jonathan Jones: The former undrafted free agent posted career bests last season in both completion percentage allowed (53.3%) and QB rating when targeted (73.9). Jones is a great locker-room guy and will field a ton of interest league-wide.
Jamel Dean: One of the premier corners in the league you haven't heard of, Dean is a top target for several teams due to his true No. 1 corner upside. Better yet, he's only 26 years old and still getting better. "We love him," the scout told me. "But I know a lot of people feel the same way."
David Long Jr.: The 26-year-old has improved every season and is a legitimate weapon because of his versatility. He plays the run and covers with the best of them.
Emmanuel Moseley: He's a quality young corner the Niners probably can't afford. Moseley can play in different schemes by deploying his length and intelligence. San Francisco would prefer to keep him if the price is right.
Jordan Poyer: Still a ball-hawking menace just one year removed from a first-team All-Pro campaign for Buffalo, Poyer remains one of the most feared safeties in the league.
Donovan Wilson: Wilson earned himself a lot of money last season. Following injuries in the secondary, the Cowboys deployed him in various ways, and all he did was make plays. He finished with a team-high 102 tackles, not to mention five sacks. Wilson's a menace to your offense because of his immense skill set on and off the ball. There's lots of interest here, and I doubt Dallas can afford him.
Juan Thornhill: The two-time Super Bowl champ has rare athleticism that jumps off the screen every time you watch him. The former second-rounder hit career bests last season with 71 tackles and nine PBUs. Plus, he can play the ball. Thornhill's three picks tied for the Chiefs' team lead.
Marcus Epps: He made himself a nice chunk of change after a strong season in Philadelphia. The former sixth-round pick out of Wyoming plays with a huge chip on his shoulder. Teams I've spoken with especially value his toughness in the run game.
Adrian Amos: Amos is as steady as they come and has been one of the Packers' best defensive players over the past six seasons. He solidifies the back end with his ability to cover different positions and anticipate certain throws.
Jimmie Ward: Every team wants good DBs, and Ward has proven his worth in coverage and as a consistent tackler in DeMeco Ryans' league-leading 49ers defense.
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