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It’s a Down Year for Free Agent Pass Rushers

Yesterday, I examined the impending NFL free agency market, to see if the Green Bay Packers might be able to find a big, fast and athletic receiver – I came up empty.

The other big need of the team is for a dominant pass rusher. I’m limiting myself to edge rushers, not interior linemen, as that’s where the Packers have customarily concentrated their pass rush pressure. Based again on a list compiled by Sports Illustrated, I considered two guys that SI deemed to be “difference makers,” and eight others who they termed “significant” edge rushers.

The Cowboys DeMarcus Lawrence was one of the difference makers, but the Cowboys will reportedly assign him the franchise tag. Well behind him on SI’s list is the Lions’ Ezekiel Ansah. SI noted that though he had 12 sacks in 2017, he only had two in 2016. They also described him as injury-prone and enigmatic. That’s enough to turn me off – I’m eliminating these two from consideration.

That leaves Julius Peppers (Panthers), Alex Okafor (Saints), Trent Murphy (Redskins), Barkevious Mingo (Colts), Adrian Clayborn (Falcons), Connor Barwin (Rams), Jerry Attaochu (Chargers), and Kony Ealy (Jets). What happened to simple apple-pie names like Nick Perry and Jake Ryan?

My criteria here would be a proven and consistent record as a sacker or quarterback harasser, and having at least three good years left. That knocks out Peppers (38) and makes Barwin (32 in October) borderline.

Though borderline on age, Barwin meets the other prerequisites: eight years in the league 54.5 sacks, has missed only two games, both in 2017. The 6’4” 255-pounder has run up at least 54 tackles three times. The Rams got Barwin last year on one of those one-year deals that I hate for $3.5 million – a bargain. I’m interested, but would also like to track down his stats on hurries or pressures.

Listing them in order of experience, Adrian Clayborn has been in the league for seven years; he had 9.5 sacks in 2017, but in his previous six years he only totaled 20.5. He also missed almost all of two seasons, getting zero sacks in 2012 and 2014. Not promising.

Alex Okafor, the first of three 27-year-olds, who went from the Cardinals to the Saints in 2017, has had four years of meaningful time. Only once did he record more than 4.5 sacks. The Saints gave him just a one-year deal, for $2 million. At least he’s not expensive, but he’s also not productive enough.

Though 27, Trent Murphy has only put in three pro seasons, with sack totals of 2.5, 3.5, and 9 last season. His tackles also reflect a player on the rise: 32, 33, and 47. A second-round draft choice in 2014, he has intriguing size at 6’6” and 261 pounds. He could be a guy who’s ready to consistently get double-digit sacks.

Barkevious Mingo has only missed two games in his five seasons. Green Bay would be his fourth team in four seasons. His sack totals, however quickly eliminate him from further discussion: 5, 2, 0, 0, and 2.

Kony Ealy, at 26, has four years under his belt, and has never missed more than one game in a season. Alas, his sacks numbers were 4, 5, 5, and just one last year. This won’t do.

That leaves us with 25-year-old Jerry Attaochu. In his four years with the Chargers, his sack numbers are 2, 6, 2, and 0. And these are the 10 most “significant” pending free agent edge rushers?

Are there any potential cap casualties – guys that are under contract for 2018, but might be dropped for salary reasons by their current teams? Here’s SI’s full list of such edge rushers: Cliff Avril (Seahawks), Robert Ayers (Buccaneers), Allen Bailey (Chiefs), Elvis Dumervil (49ers), Tamba Hali (Chiefs), Clay Matthews (Packers), Shea McClellin (Patriots), Pernell McPhee (Bears), Brooks Reed (Falcons), Terrell Suggs (Ravens), Cameron Wake (Dolphins), and Willie Young (Bears). If some of these players are indeed let go, a number of them would appear to meet my requirements, but they would also come with high price tags.

Kyler Fackrell is suddenly looking like a superstar – three sacks in somewhat limited playing time (42% of defensive snaps) last year! Right on his heels is Dean Lowry, with two sacks (47% of defensive snaps).

And you’ve got to believe, or hope, that Vince Biegel is going to get, what, four to six sacks, in 2018?

Nope, with the possible exception of Connor Barwin, I don’t see the Packers getting a high-quality pass rusher through the 2018 free agency wars.


Everyone has gotten excited at the prospect of a new general manager wheeling and dealing in the free agency market. My brief look at receiver and edge rusher prospects paints a gloomy picture, however. Where’s the beef?

I think that the way the Packers can best utilize free agents is by acquiring guys who can plug roster holes or be key backups. We’re talking guys like Ahmad Brooks, Ricky Jean Francois, Quinton Dial, and Lance Kendricks. Jahri Evans was more than a fill-in guy, and at $2.25 million he was a steal of a free agent deal.

Here’s the real problem with any free agent signing, and particularly with respect to high-end free agents. There are 31 other teams participating in the auction. It only takes one of those teams to be more desperate or eager than you, and you’re engaged in a bidding war. This results in overpaying to acquire such players.

Not only that, but every year there are maybe three to five teams that have a huge excess of salary cap space – an extra $50 million or more sitting there waiting to be spent. Jacksonville was in this situation last year, and they were throwing money around lavishly on their way to picking off several of the best available free agents.

Right now Green Bay has $19 million in what is called “top 51 cap space” availability. The Browns have $110 million, the Jets and Colts have $79 million, and the 49ers have $78 million. Green Bay, 23rd on the list, can’t win bidding wars against teams like these.

The reality is that playoff-contending teams seldom have the money available to compete for free agents with the cellar-dwellers – who usually have less talented players and therefore lots of unspent money for pursuing free agents.

As to my quest for finding a desirable high-quality free agent wide receiver or edge rusher, I failed to locate any rock-solid candidates – and that’s before taking into account that some other team is likely to outbid the Packers even if there were any good prospects.

The trick to excelling at free agency is to find young players who were stuck being backups to healthy stars, aging veterans who still have something left in the tank, players coming off surgeries, players who weren’t properly deployed by their previous teams – you know who I mean – and other such diamonds in the rough.

Free agent contracts can be signed as of 4 p.m. Eastern time on March 14.

Rob Born

Smart drafters don’t select the best available players, they fill a team’s positions of greatest need.



  1. MJ February 20, 2018

    Well we just had two misused guys in Hyde and Hayward. Crappy teams (there are many worse than us) are the best candidates for having a good player being played out of position, or sorrounded by poor talent, so he doesn’t shine as much. That requires carefully watching Colts’ and Browns’ tape.

  2. MJ February 20, 2018

    I will add some points regarding the pass rush situation. It is clear that the position is hard to play. Look at how many sacks they collect over a season. Very good rushers reach the one sack per game average. That means that most of the time they don’t get to the QB (they can pressure him, though if the threat of a sack is near). Only very gifted individuals can cause disruption consistently from that position. There are not enough to go around, and as FAs that makes them pretty pricey. To make matters worse, if a team has a truly disruptive one, he won’t reach free agency till past his prime. And at that point is mostly a year to year scenario, not a long term fix. Even further, the just-drafted guys tend to need two seasons to become the frequent contributors (if ever happens) that we need right now. It is too wishful to expect them to come out all guns blazing from the get go. So, there you have it. No obvious or immediate solution besides a one or two year contract with a past-his-prime veteran.

    1. PF4L February 20, 2018

      Well said.

  3. cz February 20, 2018

    outstanding article. Thanks!

  4. Kato February 21, 2018

    Barkevious Mingo could be a name to watch for. Pettine coached him in Cleveland and would know him very well.