Tuesday, May 28, 2024

NFL insider notes: Free agency and draft swarming with top pass rushers, plus why Packers might dominate draft

It’s true that one can never have too much pass rush. But there is also suddenly plenty of it to go around this NFL offseason.

At least if you have enough cap space to make it happen and an owner with a predilection to spend. Or you are picking high enough in the draft, or are willing to part with abundant draft capital to get there. The league year has yet to officially start, and the franchise tag deadline hasn’t even passed yet (more on that a bit later), but this is already shaping up as a unique moment when it comes to adding individuals with an ability to get to the passer.

Some of the more accomplished edge players of their generation are about to hit the market, and the draft looks more loaded with potential impact pass rushers than many in recent years — certainly a far better crop than were going through this pre-draft process a year ago. And, while I wouldn’t suggest trying to duplicate everything in the Rams‘ unusual blueprint for winning a Lombardi Trophy, there is no denying that the addition of future Hall of Fame sack-master Von Miller had a massive impact on them winning it all. And with all of the young quarterbacks taking this league over, and with all of the rules favoring the offense (OK, almost all of them), the need to be able to get to the QB without blitzing is imperative.

Luckily for NFL general managers, help is on the way.

Chat with evaluators about this free agent class, and you’ll get a fair amount of groveling about its overall merits. It’s not particularly deep or star-studded, but it does offer an array of pass rush, both inside and outside, albeit a little bit older than one would like. Then again, players with the resumes of a Miller or Chandler Jones or Calais Campbell or Melvin Ingram or Justin Houston or Jadeveon Clowney or Jerry Hughes or Akiem Hicks do not hit the market in their prime; that’s just how it works. Sure, some of them will succumb to the ever-undefeated Father Time, but on the right pitch count, with the right teammates, in the proper schemes many of them can still flourish. And where they land could tell the tale of this offseason in which pass rushers and those who try to stop them along the offensive line will likely dominate.

Once franchise tags are doled out – a half dozen or so are expected – you won’t be able to make a top 10 list of available free agents that doesn’t include at least three of the above listed players on it. Go position by position and try making a top 30 free agent list that doesn’t include the players listed above, plus younger/healthier options like Haason Reddick and Emmanuel Ogbah. Even if some of these guys don’t do it for you, the reality is at a minimum 10 of the top 50 free agents in this class include the names listed here, and it may be a lot closer to 10 of the top 40.

And just as general managers are formalizing their pending offers to these veterans (because no one would dare float contract numbers ahead of the non-tampering window, of course) they sat and watched a ground of defensive tackles, ends and outside linebackers perform athletic marvels at Lucas Oil Stadium over the weekend at the combine. At this point, would it surprise anyone if at least half of the top 10 picks next month come from a group that includes Aidan Hutchinson, Kayvon Thibodeaux, Travon Walker, Jordan Davis and David Ojabo, to name a few?

Could some rebuilding team go out and outpace the market to secure the services of a more aging pass rushing presence to help show the way, and then double-down by using a top 10 pick to select one of the impact linemen/edge rushers as well? Wouldn’t shock me at all, whether it be the Jets or Lions or Giants of Falcons, to name just a few teams picking in that range with toothless defensive rosters at the moment (though the Falcons and Giants have salary-cap obstacles to overcome to be in position to recruit an elite free agent pass rusher).

Outside of that group, the Browns seem intent on finding someone to bookend their line with Myles Garrett, as they did with Clowney a year ago (and are in pursuit of interior help as well). The Chargers are no big spenders in general but have no excuse not to land a veteran to bookend Joey Bosa in free agency. There is a sense within the industry that the Eagles will be more active this year, and Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has shown in the past he will spend big for blue chip defensive lineman (like his then-record deal with Ndamukong Suh).

All things being equal, the pass rushers primed to make the most money, at this stage of their career, will prioritize winning operations and the opportunity to compete for a ring. I don’t see Miller leaving the Rams when it’s all said and done, the Cardinals would be wise to try to keep Jones fairly close to his Arizona home, the Ravens are cap handcuffed yet again but desperately need defensive linemen and proven pass rush, and after hitting the jackpot by trading for Ingram last year the Chiefs realize the import of having someone to help Chris Jones (while moving on from Frank Clark or slashing his salary significantly).

Stands to reason that we will be looking back at this group – in free agency and the draft – come next February when the 2022 season comes to end. They tend to make a difference. Especially in the postseason.

Franchise tags and a possible Adams trade

There were always a few sure things when it came to the franchise tag. For instance, the Chiefs made it very clear, publicly and privately, that they didn’t trade for left tackle Orlando Brown, Jr. a year ago to let him walk away. And every word coming from the Bengals made retaining play-making safety Jessie Bates a fait accompli, especially with few other pending free agents of note and with a ton of cap space at their disposal.

Things get somewhat murkier beyond that.

The Packers realize that Aaron Rodgers is not coming back without receiver Davante Adams in the fold, which will require a franchise tag. But they are in a massive cap crunch and if Rodgers leaves and they rebuild with Jordan Love, then moving on from Adams and using that money elsewhere would probably be in order. Because Adams might not be inclined to tie his long-term future to that QB. Some GMs are wondering about the timing of all of this, and when exactly Rodgers will let his intentions be know, and if it might end up leading to a tag-and-trade scenario for Green Bay.

This wide receiver free agent market is suspect, especially if Adams and the Chargers’ Mike Williams get tagged, and the Bucs find a way to keep Chris Godwin, as many in the industry suspect. League sources indicated Allen Robinson could seek $20M a year given the way this market sets up for him, and with Odell Beckham, Jr. not back from injury til November (and quite likely back with the Rams) and Antonio Brown a non-starter for most owners, and Cordarrelle Patterson now morphing into a running back of sorts at age 30 and JuJu Smith-Schuster coming off an injury-marred season and limited production the past few years, well, there ain’t much out there in terms of proven commodities. Kinda the opposite of the pass rush market.

Yes, things look more promising at this position in the draft, but if the Packers did get in a situation in which dealing Adams made the most sense for them, the market for arguably the best receiver on the planet would be sizable. And that, coupled with the returns of a potential Rodgers trade, could position them to dominate this draft.

Jags could benefit from pass rusher frenzy

Several executives suggested to me over the weekend that the Jaguars could benefit from the rock star performances of this group of pass rushers at the combine. The Jaguars are strongly expected to lean into beefing up their offensive line to protect Trevor Lawrence with the top pick, and are very open to moving down a few spots to do so (knowing the feeding frenzy for the top pass rushers elsewhere). They pick up some assets and still get one of the top two offensive linemen in the draft (and perhaps their pick of any of them). So many pass rushers standing out, and the performance of Travon Walker in particular perhaps muscling his way into conversation amid the top three picks, only helps their cause.

More insider notes

  • Getting the sense the free agent center market is deeper than many have given it credit for, and that salaries at that position are going to come in higher in free agency than many anticipated … 
  • Spoke to execs with three QB-needy teams over the weekend; none of them are operating as if Deshaun Watson is even an option pending the resolution of legal matters from ongoing investigations into sexual assault and misconduct allegations. None of them anticipated they would have closure on that until next month at the earliest and all were skeptical about anyone trading for the quarterback anytime soon.

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