NFL’s most intriguing free agent moves on defense: Chargers address needs, Broncos and Bills bolster pass rush

NFL teams have already splashed the pot to the tune of several hundred millions dollars in free agency. We’ve dedicated plenty of news stories and analysis to each of those signings, but it’s time to take a more holistic look at how specific teams have attacked their needs through these first few days of the signing period.

Today, we’ll be breaking down the most interesting teams in the early days of free agency. In the space below, we’ll look at the teams who made significant moves on defense. For the same analysis on offensecheck right here.

Note: We’re only looking at teams that acquired outside free agents.

player years Total (mils) AAV (mil) GTd (mil)
IDL Folorunso Fatukasic 3 $45.0 $15.0 $28.0
LB Foyesade Oluokun 3 $30.0 $10.0 $20.0
CB Darious Williams 3 $30.0 $10.0 $18.0

The Jags spent a bit more money on offense than on defense, but just a bit. They finished last season third-to-last in expected points added (EPA) on defense, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com’s calculations, and second-to-last in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, so they definitely needed quite a bit of Help. They did better, value-wise, on this side of the ball than they did on offense.

Fatukasi has become a quality interior defensive lineman. Oluokun has more tackles than any player in the NFL over the last two seasons, and while tackles are not the best way to determine player value, it does show that he is around the ball quite often. You do need one of those “fly sideline to sideline” types if you’re going to play the style that new defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell (a Todd Bowles disciple) presumably wants to play.

Williams, meanwhile, turned himself into a nice player over the last couple seasons in Los Angeles, excelling in Brandon Staley’s and then Raheem Morris’ schemes. He can play on the perimeter despite his size, and he can bump inside to the slot on occasion as well. (Jags GM Trent Baalke even noted that Williams did a great job against his team’s big-money receiver signing, Christian Kirk).

The Jets were also on our offensive line, like the Jaguars. Just as they did on the other side of the ball, New York brought in an old friend in Reed. He spent the first two years of his career as a rotational player in San Francisco before he was waived and then caught on with Seattle. The 2021 season was his best yet, and it earned him a chance at a big payday and a role as one of the top corners for his old defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh.

Whitehead was a solid, if not necessarily spectacular safety during his time in Tampa, and with all its various spending elsewhere, the team probably just could not afford to retain him. With Marcus Maye leaving town, the Jets needed a replacement at one safety spot, and Whitehead fits the bill. Martin, meanwhile, has excelled as a rotational pass rusher, and could do more if thrust into a larger role. New York should get last offseason’s big signing (Carl Lawson) back on the field this year, and Martin could be a nice complementary rusher on the opposite side.

These guys are really cooking with gas.

The Chargers were routinely undermined by their defense last season, for one reason or another. On the biggest play of the season, their run defense let them down. Well, that shouldn’t happen anymore. Joseph-Day and Johnson are two of the league’s premier run-stoppers, and both have familiarity with Staley’s system. The Joseph-Day signing might have been the single most predictable deal of the offseason, given the Chargers’ needs and his own breakout having coincided with Staley’s arrival with the Rams.

LA’s pass defense left a lot to be desired as well. Staley likes to play with light boxes and encourage the run, but also let his corners man up on the outside so the safeties can roam and make plays. They didn’t have good enough man coverage last year. With Jackson on board, that should change. Team him with Asante Samuel Jr. on the outside, and Derwin James will be able to do a lot more, in many different ways.

Oh, and this team also traded for Khalil Mack. He and Joey Bosa should form one of the best pass-rush duos in the league. Not bad for a week’s work.

After trading for Russell Wilson to save their offense, the Broncos set about upgrading their defense.

They thought they’d have an elite pass-rush duo in Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, but the two of them could never get on the field at the same time. Now, they get to try again with Chubb and Gregory. Oh, and they got to steal another edge rusher from the Cowboys, after they did the same with DeMarcus Ware a bunch of years ago. As I recall, that worked out pretty well. Jones is a graduate of the 49ers Defensive Line Academy, and his role grew with each passing season he spent in San Francisco. He’s primarily a run stopper, but has shown a little bit of pass-rush verve these last few seasons as well. Either way, he should be a good fit for Ejiro Evero’s defense.

Miller’s contract is really more like a three- or four-year deal, but it’s still a notable one. holy cow. The Bills tried to go the volume route in upgrading their pass rush last offseason, making a few bargain signings and using their first two draft picks on edge rushers. This time, they’re swinging for the fences by adding one of the league’s best. Buffalo also continues to shop in the bargain bin for interior defensive linemen, adding two quality contributors to its ever-growing rotation up the middle.

Other notable signings:

Baltimore’s reunion with Za’Darius Smith fell apart at the last minute, but the Ravens had already made a big splash earlier in free agency by signing Williams on what seems like a discount deal in comparison with what some other safeties are being paid. He’s a bit of a different fit than what Baltimore has had on the back end in recent seasons, but with aggressive cornerbacks like Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey playing in front of him, having Williams patrolling the deep portion of the field is a great security blanket .

This deal reunites Jones with some former Patriots compatriots, as GM Dave Ziegler, head coach Josh McDaniels, and defensive coordinator Patrick Graham all have ties to New England. Graham, in fact, was once Jones’ position coach. Jones is a better fit for Graham’s multiple defense than was Yannick Ngakoue, whom the Raiders traded to Indianapolis for cornerback Rock Ya-Sin.

Philly definitely needed to add some spice to its pass rush, and Reddick certainly qualifies. After the Cardinals initially tried to use him as a hybrid linebacker, he’d spent the last two seasons as a pure edge, racking up 23.5 sacks along the way. Teaming him with Josh Sweat will definitely add some juice for defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon. (His signing also likely means Derek Barnett is on his way out.)

The Chiefs signed Reid to replace the likely departing Tyrann Mathieu. It’s a much different look for Kansas City on the back end, with Reid more of a center field type while Mathieu’s strength was his versatility, such as the ability to slide into the slot.

Ward is another player leaving the Chiefs. Kansas City originally acquired him from Dallas in a trade for a little-used offensive lineman, and he turned himself into a really nice player. It’s interesting to see the 49ers spend significant money on a cornerback considering the success they had cobbling things together at the position over the last couple years, but he definitely fits the scheme as a physical corner who can play receivers up the sideline in zone coverages.

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