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2021 NFL free agency: Shaquil Barrett leads a loaded edge rusher class set to cash in this offseason

With the offensive explosion taking place in the NFL, having a dominant pass rusher is more important than ever. Getting to the quarterback is the easiest solution toward stopping offenses, as the teams that put pressure on the quarterback force mistakes and create turnovers. The top four teams in pressures and seven of the top 10 teams in sacks made the playoffs this season, so having a strong pass rush is paramount to success. 

Five of the pass rushers in this year’s free agent class ranked in the top 10 in sacks this season, so there’s plenty of talent to go around for a team to improve its pass rush. These players will command a high salary, as the price is worth it to immediately improve the defense and make a run at the playoffs — and perhaps a deep postseason run. 

Free agency is a month away, but teams are already looking at their salary cap space in order to get their hands on these pass rushers set to hit the open market (you can also take a look at our rankings of the top free agent quarterbacks, wide receivers, running backs, and offensive tackles). This is a deep class of free agent pass rushers, and here are the top ones available come March 15, when teams can start negotiating with them: 

(Note: Market value is ranked by Spotrac)

  • Free-agent ranking: 1
  • Age: 28
  • Market Value: $19.7 million

Barrett didn’t have the dominant sack season like he had in 2019 when he led the NFL with 19.5 sacks, but the outside linebacker is due for a huge payday come March. Barrett ranked sixth in the NFL with 42 pressures despite having just eight sacks on the year — and he tied for the NFL lead in hurries with 24. Barrett made his money in the postseason, having four sacks and 14 pressures for the Super Bowl champions — including 11 combined pressures between the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl LV. 

Barrett has 27.5 sacks since joining Tampa Bay at the start of the 2019 season, the second-most sacks in the NFL in that span. He’s going to get one of the biggest contracts for a pass rusher in free agency and is the premier player at his position on the market. 

  • Free-agent ranking: 2
  • Age: 26
  • Market Value: $11.2 million

Williams signed his franchise tag last season and earned every penny of that $16.1 million he received from the Giants. Williams, listed as a defensive tackle on the Giants’ depth chart, was one of the best interior defenders in the NFL — finishing with a career-high 30 quarterback hits and 11.5 sacks in his first season under defensive coordinator Patrick Graham. Williams’ 42 pressures and 12 hurries were third amongst all defensive tackles (behind only Aaron Donald and Chris Jones) and his 30 quarterback hits led all players at his position. 

One full season with the Giants made trading a 2020 third-round pick worth it for Williams. Williams deserves to get a huge contract in New York, but will it happen? If not, some team will be paying top dollar for one of the best interior pass rushers in the NFL. 

  • Free-agent ranking: 3
  • Age: 28
  • Market Value: $13.1 million

Four disappointing seasons in Chicago wasn’t enough for Los Angeles to give $10 million to Floyd, who appears to be in line for a bigger payday after a career year for the Rams. Floyd finished with career highs in sacks (10.5), tackles (55), quarterback hits (19), and pressures (30) — as an excellent complement to Aaron Donald on a Rams defensive line that finished second in the NFL in sacks (53) despite only blitzing 159 times. 

Floyd was ninth in the NFL in sacks, but was his 2020 a sign of what’s to come — or just a flash in the pan? Staying with the Rams may be Floyd’s best option, but he’s set to get a huge contract next month. 

  • Free-agent ranking: 4
  • Age: 28
  • Market Value: $18.2 million

Dupree is one of the most underrated pass rushers in the free agent class, as his 19.5 sacks over the last two years are the eighth-most in the NFL. After coming off a career-high 11.5 sacks and 68 tackles in 2019, Dupree’s numbers dipped to eight sacks and 31 tackles in 2020. Dupree finished with 28 pressures and 12 hurries for a Steelers defense that finished first in the NFL in sacks (56) and were the only team with over 200 pressures this year. 

Teams that run a 3-4 and need a pass-rushing linebacker will find great value in Dupree, who has the ability to thrive outside of Pittsburgh. Dupree will cost a lot, since he earned $15.8 million playing on the franchise tag this year. 

  • Free-agent ranking: 5
  • Age: 26
  • Market Value: $10.3 million

Hendrickson always had a ton of talent, especially as he put his massive frame together this year for a dominant season at defensive end. Playing on the final year of his rookie deal, Hendrickson finished tied for second in the NFL with a career-high 13.5 sacks with 33 pressures and 25 quarterback hits. Hendrickson started 15 games this year after starting just three in his first three seasons. A raw talent, Hendrickson (6-4, 270) provided much-needed help opposite of Cameron Jordan — ranking ninth in quarterback hits and eighth at his position in pressures. 

Henderson earned just $825,000 in base salary last season. A big raise is coming, but it will be hard for the Saints to retain him. 

  • Free-agent ranking: 6
  • Age: 25
  • Market Value: $15.5 million

Ngakoue takes a lot of heat for not posting up big sack numbers, but he’s one of the most consistent pass rushers since entering the league in 2016. Ngakoue has 45.5 sacks, 96 quarterback hits and 18 forced fumbles in his career — and is one of just three players with eight-plus sacks in each of the last five years (Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack are the others). His 18 forced fumbles since 2016 trail only Mack (20).

Ngakoue was traded by the Vikings to the Ravens after only six games and finished with eight sacks and a career-low 11 quarterback hits — but had four forced fumbles. The 26 pressures were the lowest since Ngakoue’s rookie year, but the sack numbers and forced fumbles will be enough to get Ngakoue paid by some team this offseason. Another year in the Ravens defense could get Ngakoue back to his 2017 numbers (12 sacks, six forced fumbles). 

  • Free-agent ranking: 7
  • Age: 26
  • Market Value: $11.6 million

Reddick was a disappointment in his first three years with the Cardinals, but his 2020 output (12.5 sacks) eclipsed his career sack total prior to this year (7.5 sacks). Reddick had five sacks and three forced fumbles in one game to inflate those numbers — but that shouldn’t take away from a three-game stretch where he had 7.5 sacks and six forced fumbles. Reddick proved he can play at an elite level without Chandler Jones in the lineup, making his free agency price tag even higher. 

Reddick’s six forced fumbles led all pass rushers and 12.5 sacks were tied for fourth in the league. His 34 pressures and 16 hurries were also career highs. The Cardinals made Reddick a pass-rushing specialist in defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s scheme this year, allowing him to cash in this offseason.

  • Free-agent ranking: 8
  • Age: 31
  • Market Value: N/A

Watt is arguably the NFL’s best pass rusher over the last decade, so why is he so low on this list? For starters, Watt is 31 years old and has just 26.5 sacks over the last five seasons. Injuries have marred Watt’s opportunity to surpass Bruce Smith for the all-time sack record, but Watt played all 16 games this year and finished with just five sacks, 17 quarterback hits, two forced fumbles, and 29 pressures.

A team signing Watt is getting a good pass rusher, but not the three-time Defensive Player of the Year he once was. Watt is the definition of a low-risk, high-reward signing if the price is right (he earned $15.5 million last year). Watt wasn’t worth what the Texans paid him, but he could put up numbers similar to 2017 in the right system (16 sacks, 25 quarterback hits, seven forced fumbles).

  • Free-agent ranking: 9
  • Age: 28
  • Market Value: $15.6 million

Judon was more than deserving of earning his franchise tag of $16.8 million going into 2020, but he didn’t play up to that contract number last season. He only posted six sacks and 21 quarterback hits, Judon’s lowest sack total since his rookie year in 2016 and quarterback hits since 2017. Judon did improve his pressures from 31 to 32 and hurries from four to 11, which leaves some hope the sacks just didn’t come for him last year. 

Judon has 30.5 sacks since his rookie year in 2016, the 10th-most for an outside linebacker in the league. A very good pass rusher, Judon may not be worth the $15.6 million he’s projected to get. He will improve any team that needs a pass rushing linebacker. 

  • Free-agent ranking: 10
  • Age: 32
  • Market Value: N/A

No matter his age, Houston just continues to produce at a high level. Houston had eight sacks at the age of 31 with 25 pressures and 12 quarterback hits. While Houston may not be the elite pass rusher he was with the Chiefs, his 28 sacks over the last three years are 13th in the NFL and he is just one of eight players with eight-plus sacks in each of the last three seasons. Houston has three safeties over the last two seasons, which leads the NFL. 

There may be younger and cheaper options than Houston — who made $9 million last season — but his production and ability to get to the quarterback is worth a short-team contract. A team won’t find a better leader for its defense than Houston either. 

  • Free-agent ranking: 11
  • Age: 30
  • Market Value: N/A

Vernon is ranked low on this list because of offseason Achilles surgery that will diminish his market value. There’s no denying how much money Vernon could have received if he entered the free agency period healthy. Vernon was a force on the Cleveland defense in 2020, finishing with nine sacks (the second-highest total of his career) with 16 quarterback hits, 28 pressures and 12 hurries. 

There are so many options in the pass rusher market that Vernon may have to wait until the second or third wave of free agency to sign, as a team will get Vernon at a great price on a cap-friendly deal. Some team will be more than pleased with Vernon, who had nine sacks over his final eight games. The only downside with Vernon is he may not be ready to play until late-September at the earliest, as Achilles injuries usually take nine months to recover. 

Best of the rest 




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