With about $40 million in 2017 salary cap space on the horizon, the New Orleans Saints are going to be players in free agency next spring. They’re currently projected to have the 18th-most resources to invest in new players, and with the second-most players already under contract they will be looking for upgrades rather than warm bodies to fill in the roster.
I’m continuing my 2017 NFL free agency forecast with a look at which defensive ends may be available next March.
The Top Tier
There are four defensive ends who may be available and could be considered blue-chip talents. My favorite of the bunch is New England Patriots end Jabaal Sheard. Sheard (6-foot-3, 265-pounds) joined the Patriots as a low-key free agent signee out of Cleveland, where he fluctuated between impressive years as a pass rusher and run defender, but never at the same time. Now he’s in his prime and only 27-years old.
I've yet to see Mingo show this level of a power rush. Could be a nice player for NE, but totally diff than Sheard pic.twitter.com/WAjvHyM0jz— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) August 25, 2016
In New England, Sheard has blossomed into possibly the team’s best lineman. He is a disruptive force off the edge and shows an ability to convert speed to power as well as great anchor to hold up against opponents blocking upfield. He leads the team in tackles for loss (6) and sacks (3.5), and should be a hot commodity if Bill Belichick lets him hit the open market. With a handful of other starters due to see free agency in the spring, there’s a chance that the Saints could court Sheard’s services.
After Sheard, the ideal free agent target would be his former teammate: current Arizona Cardinals end Chandler Jones. Jones (6-foot-5, 266-pounds) is a bigger end than Sheard and can play both the open- and closed-end positions in Dennis Allen’s defense. He’s got insanely-long arms (35 ¼-inch) that give him rare length as an edge rusher.
Jones has put up some monstrous numbers through the first few weeks for Arizona, ranking second-best on the team in sacks (4) and tackles for loss (6) while nearly doubling the next-best number of quarterback pressures; he’s on pace for a record-breaking 80 combined sacks, hits, and hurries. Jones won’t turn 27-years old until February 27th of next year, so he could very well be signed with his best years still ahead of him.
A controversial high-end option would be New York Giants edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul. The 27-year old JPP has rebounded from a widely-mocked fireworks accident that took several fingers from his hand. He returned to New York a starter in 2016 and has seen up-and-down production in Steve Spagnuolo’s defensive front (2 tackles for loss, 1 sack).
The Giants offered Pierre-Paul a reasonable contract extension last summer before his accident, and it’s hard to imagine him leaving after again finding success with a familiar face at defensive coordinator.
My dark horse pick to be a high-profile free agent at defensive end is San Diego Chargers co-captain Melvin Ingram. Ingram struggled through his first few years in San Diego as a man without a position, playing end almost as often as linebacker. But last offseason he finally dedicated to being an edge rusher and put a lot of effort into getting his body right, dropping his body-fat percentage to 8 percent while tipping the scales at a jacked-up 246-pounds.
So Melvin Ingram is converting speed-to-power now and it's scary. pic.twitter.com/W27tTVABw5— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) September 19, 2016
Ingram came on stronger as the season progressed, developing a killer swim move to pair with a great first step, and by all accounts has adopted a pro’s mentality. He’s taken on a leadership position on the team in absence of injured captain Manti Te’o and has dialed back his social media presence as well as his interview availability. With the flexibility to play both linebacker and end, Ingram seems exactly like the kind of player Sean Payton is looking for and could be available considering the Chargers’ bad salary cap situation in 2017.
The Middle Class
If the Saints can’t reel in any of those big names, they’ll probably look to go bargain-bin shopping. It’s important to develop the middle of your roster and either of the two guys I’ve identified could be an upgrade to who’s already on the roster opposite Cameron Jordan.
A breakout player this summer has been Houston Texans edge rusher John Simon (6-foot-1, 260-pounds). Just 25-years old, Simon has stepped into a starting role as former first round pick Jadeveon Clowney continues to work his way back from his latest injury. All-time great J.J. Watt is out for the year after re-injuring his back, which means an even longer look for Simon as a starter.
Simon has played the third-most defensive snaps of all the Texans’ players, setting the pace with 2.5-sacks and five hits through three games and chipping in two tackles for loss. He also plays special teams and has forced a fumble in his first year as a starter. Simon’s ability to line up anywhere along the defensive front provides some much-needed versatility. He’s starting to look the part of a playmaker, and may be peaking at the right time for a desperate team like the Saints to invest in him.
Atlanta Falcons defensive end Courtney Upshaw has been knocked for his lack of pass-rush ability, but he’s no slouch in run defense. Upshaw holds up well at the line of scrimmage and is plenty strong enough to disrupt offenses, but his lack of speed and refined hand-fighting techniques explains his low ceiling as someone to get after quarterbacks.
Upshaw is also up to 300-plus-pounds and playing three-technique defensive tackle these days, so I wouldn’t expect him to fill a pass-rush specialist role. He could be a backup for Jordan, though.
The Risky Gambles
After those guys, pickings are slim. NFL teams are scrambling to find the next great pass rusher and are stingy with the talent they can get in their buildings. However, two guys who may get some looks in free agency due to the abnormal depth on their rosters are Denver Broncos end Dekoda Watson and Arizona Cardinals backup Alex Okafor.
Dekoda Watson is an older player who has bounced around positions, but looks to have found a home at defensive end in Wade Phillips’ defense. He stood out in the preseason, though he hasn’t seen much time in the regular season (he has played only 38 snaps). The Broncos roll so deep at edge rusher that it’ll be hard for Watson to get many opportunities. Luckily for him, that’s not a problem in New Orleans.
As for Alex Okafor, he was a talented college player who has seen his opportunities in the NFL limited by injury. Now healthy, he’s not prioritized on a deep defensive front. He could well produce given a change of scenery, but his lack of experience so far is not encouraging.
A popular name to throw into the mix is Barkevious Mingo. The LSU product isn’t very good at football and hasn’t shown much improvement under Bill Belichick. I wouldn’t expect him to draw the Saints’ interest.