2020 NFL Free Agency: Six teams that made the most interesting defensive upgrades

In the first few days of free agency, NFL teams spent more than $1.1 billion on players at just five positions: cornerback, defensive tackle, defensive end, and inside and outside linebacker. Much of that amount (more than $500 million) was in guaranteed money. 

In other words, a whole bunch of teams made it a priority to upgrade their defense. In the space below, we’re going to dig into a few of the signings (and extend-and-trades) we liked most — not just from a value standpoint, but because of how they’ll allow those teams to get creative with the ways they deploy their defense. 

Byron Jones and Kyle Van Noy, Miami Dolphins 

The Dolphins entered the offseason with more cap space than any team in the NFL, and they did not waste time spending it. There were other additions, of course, but the two most intriguing are right here. Jones was signed to a five-year, $82.5 million contract that contains nearly $55 million in guarantees, while Van Noy inked a four-year, $51 million pact with $30 million in guarantees. 

Adding Jones is a coup for the Dolphins, who now have one of the best cornerback duos in the NFL. Brian Flores appears to be emulating his former boss, Bill Belichick, in highly valuing shutdown corners as the basis of a top-flight defense. 

Jones is an incredible athlete with great size and length, which should allow him to excel in the man coverage schemes Flores favors. He played a lot of zone in Dallas, though, and should do just fine if the Dolphins want him to play that way as well. With two premier cornerbacks (Jones and Xavien Howard), Flores can have them play sides or use one or both to shadow receivers on the opposing team, allowing for more creativity in designing his coverage schemes. 

The Dolphins spent a decent chunk of change to make some upgrades up front, landing Emmanuel Ogbah and Shaq Lawson on sizable deals, but the key piece in the remaking of the team’s front seven is Van Noy. Miscast as something resembling a pure middle linebacker in Detroit, Van Noy found a home in New England as a flexible piece able to do a bit of whatever Belichick asked of him. (Though he played almost exclusively on the edge last season.) He should operate similarly in Miami, moving all over the formation and working as a traditional linebacker, edge rusher, and occasional interior lineman. 

There’s already been a ton of action in the NFL, and Will Brinson and the Pick Six Podcast Superfriends break down the best remaining free agents and more; listen below and be sure to subscribe for daily NFL goodness.

Javon Hargrave and Darius Slay, Philadelphia Eagles 

Hargrave (three years, $39 million, $26 million guaranteed) spent a ton of time in Pittsburgh working as a nose tackle, but did his best work as an interior penetrator. Moving from a team that operates out of a three down-lineman base set to one that uses four lineman should free him up to work almost exclusively as that penetrating type of player — and sliding into a defensive line that already features Fletcher Cox right next to him on the inside should allow him plenty of room to operate. The Eagles built their Super Bowl team around an incredibly deep and versatile defensive line. Last year, the depth broke down. Adding Hargrave to the mix is a heck of a way to regain it, and then some. 

Philadelphia’s secondary was an abject disaster last season, and it wasn’t much better the year before. Enter Slay, a perennial Pro Bowl-caliber corner still in the prime of his career. (It still makes no sense to me that he narrowly missed the cut on our staff Top-100 list last offseason.)  It cost draft picks and a monster extension (three years, $50 million, just enough to top Jones as the highest-paid corner in the NFL) to acquire him, but it’s well worth it for an Eagles team that just desperately needed help on the back end. The Eagles shouldn’t be done adding to their defense, but they acquired two key pieces in the early days of free agency. 

Michael Brockers and Calais Campbell, Baltimore Ravens 

The Ravens replaced Michael Pierce before he even officially left, snagging Campbell in a trade with the Jaguars and handing him a one-year extension. This is a legitimate heist for Baltimore, upgrading at a position where it didn’t even really need an upgrade and doing so for the price of just a fifth-round pick. Eric DeCosta is practically stealing. (They used the fifth-round pick acquired as part of the Hayden Hurst trade to land Campbell, so the deal effectively works out to Hurst and a fourth for Campbell and a second. Again, stealing.) Campbell is one of the most versatile defensive linemen in football, able to work inside and out, against the run and the pass. He’s enormous and yet almost always too quick for opposing offensive linemen. Good luck blocking him.

As if adding Campbell weren’t enough, the Ravens also snagged Brockers on an affordable deal. (Three years, $30 million, $21 million guaranteed.) Overshadowed by Aaron Donald over the past several seasons, Brockers is a really good player in his own right. He’s not quite as versatile as Campbell but he did make the switch with the Rams from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and he showed himself capable of playing any position on the interior of the defensive line. Use him as a penetrating tackle in a 4-3, a standard 3-4 end, or on the nose, and he can wreck some offensive linemen. 

Add these two guys to Brandon Williams and Chris Wormley, and figure out a way to make sure Matt Judon sticks around, and the Ravens are looking like one of the best defenses in football once again.

Chris Harris and Linval Joseph, Los Angeles Chargers 

Nobody got better value on the free agent market to upgrade their defense than the Chargers. Getting Harris on a two-year deal with a maximum value of around $20 million is practically criminal. He is flat out a better player than Jones and Slay, and he’s getting paid significantly less because he happens to be a few years older than them. It is going to be damn near impossible to throw on the Chargers, who will now counter opposing offenses with Harris, Casey Hayward, Desmond King, Derwin James, and Nasir Adderley. Good luck testing those guys. 

Similarly, the Chargers got a great fit in Joseph, who came at the cost of only a two-year, $17 million contract that doesn’t affect the Chargers’ compensatory pick calculation because he was cut by the Vikings earlier this week. LA moved on from Brandon Mebane ahead of free agency and replaced him with a superior player at a similar cost. Now, Joseph will work next to 2019 first-rounder Jerry Tillery on the inside, giving the Chargers a strong interior duo to complement Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram on the edge. 

DeForest Buckner, Indianapolis Colts 

Chris Ballard has been extremely patient with his cap space over the past few years. Righting the wrongs of the Ryan Grigson era has been a gradual process, with Ballard careful not to splash the pot just because he has the available cash. If he was waiting around for the right player, he found that guy in Buckner, who at times looked like the best player on the NFL’s best defensive line last season. 

In exchange for the No. 13 overall pick, Indy landed a 26-year-old star coming off of 19.5 sacks, 26 tackles for loss, 34 quarterback hits, two forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, five pass deflections, and 11 knockdowns in the past two seasons. The Colts handed him a four-year, $84 million extension to lock him up long-term, which likely makes him a cheaper option than Chiefs star Chris Jones, who had been another rumored target. Indy still needs to upgrade on the edge and to add some depth, but designing your defense around an athletic, penetrating tackle is a nice start. 

Gerald McCoy, Dallas Cowboys 

The Cowboys are crushing the compensatory pick game right now but they were willing to cancel out a potential fourth or fifth-round selection to add McCoy to the defensive interior. Losing Maliek Collins to the Raiders is something Dallas likely knew was coming, and the Cowboys pivoted quickly to bringing in McCoy. This is a relatively low-cost deal (three years, $18.3 million, $9 million guaranteed) and gives Dallas a needed interior presence to complement Demarcus Lawrence on the outside. 

The Cowboys still need to add talent on the edge after losing Robert Quinn, but with Randy Gregory potentially on the way back (as he told our own Patrik Walker), maybe they get lucky and add someone at that spot on the cheap. Adding McCoy at this price would also make it less painful for the Cowboys if they choose to move on from Tyrone Crawford, who is drawing a salary that outstrips his usefulness to them right now, even if he does bring much-needed versatility to the defensive front. 

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