NFL free-agent preview: Defensive ends

The free-agent class of defensive ends offers versatility and production and therefore will see a lot of big offers. However, it’s also a deep group.

The quality of defensive linemen scheduled to hit the free-agent market is impressive, but so is the depth there and in the draft. What will that mean for the contract offers the free agents could receive? If the franchise and transition tags are any indication, the money could be flying early.


The Miami Dolphins took the rare step of giving Olivier Vernon the transition tag instead of the franchise tag. That means Miami still holds the right of first refusal if he receives another big contract offer, but with the quality of defensive ends on the free-agent market and in the draft, how much would teams be willing to offer unless they were trying to get Miami to overpay? The Dolphins were wise enough not to do that last year when Buffalo overpaid for TE Charles Clay when Miami used the transition tag there. Vernon was the only free agent to get the transition tag this year. Last year, he had 7½ sacks and played the run nearly as well as the pass.


No doubt the Denver Broncos would love to retain Malik Jackson, but a week ago the two sides were reportedly far apart in negotiations. He is versatile enough to play inside or outside, producing five sacks last year. The problem for the Broncos is the amount of pending free agents they have, including Derek Wolfe. They won’t be able to pay them all and have already stuck the franchise tag on linebacker Von Miller. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Jackson investigate what’s available for him on the free-agent market before making a decision on his future.


Like Jackson, Muhammad Wilkerson could be considered a defensive end or tackle, making him a good fit for just about any team looking for a skilled presence along the defensive line. The New York Jets slapped the non-exclusive franchise tag on him at $15.7 million, meaning he is free to negotiate with another team, but that team would have to give up two first-round picks, a hefty salary and have the Jets decline to match their offer if they want him. In other words, Wilkerson and his 12 sacks from 2015 are almost certain to return to the Jets in 2016.


After starting sparingly the previous three seasons, Robert Ayers ended up with 11 starts in 12 games played in 2015, producing 9½ sacks and 41 tackles. Both were career bests for him. He will be 31 at the start of the season, but the NY Giants reportedly would like to re-sign him.


If the Dolphins do, indeed, end up with Vernon again, can they afford to commit much more to Derrick Shelby on the other side of the defensive line? Shelby had 37 tackles and 3½ sacks last year, and those were both career highs. He was slightly better at defending the run than rushing the passer, according to Pro Football Focus, and there are others better at pass rushing, but Shelby’s youth (he’s only 27) puts him near the top of the list over others like Greg Hardy and Jason Pierre-Paul.

The addition of Mario Williams to the class only deepens it, but as a release of the Buffalo Bills (as opposed to his contract expiring) he could be signed before free agency even begins, with the Dolphins and Giants reportedly showing the most interest.




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Defensive Ends

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