Analysis

Top 25 NFL free agents of 2019: Defenders dominate rankings

The most interesting free agent this offseason, like most offseasons, will probably never make it to free agency. Freedom in the NFL is always relative, and Nick Foles' decision to buy his way into this market comes with a caveat.

The Eagles are expected to place the franchise tag on Foles and then see what kind of trade market he has. That would give the team some say in Foles' landing spot, with NFC East teams like the Giants and Redskinsout of the mix.

Foles tops a group of available quarterbacks, including Teddy Bridgewater, that is likely to grow as teams begin to prune their salary cap before the March spending spree. That's something to keep in mind when looking at my way-too-early list of the top 25 free agents in 2019. A lot of names will be added to the market because of cuts, and plenty of high-profile players (like Jadeveon Clowney) are unlikely to ever make it to free agency, because their current teams will use the franchise tag to keep them or strike a long-term deal. Players like Panthers safety Eric Reid have already re-signed.

That makes this initial list fun to consider, albeit a work in progress. It's a free-agent crop that is heavy on pass rushers and safeties while light on offensive linemen, wide receivers and cornerbacks. Chris Wesseling and I will publish our complete Top 101 Free Agents list later on. In the meantime, feel free to irrationally believe your team is going to sign all the players below and solve all of their problems.

Don't worry about his sack number dropping to 10.5. Lawrence backed up his breakout 2017 (14.5 sacks) with another season as a top-five pass rusher, solidifying his place as one of the league's best players.

This ranking isn't a prediction of how much guaranteed money Bell will earn. It's a reflection of his status as one of the transcendent players this century at his position -- and the fact that he's still just 26 years old.

Using the franchise tag to retain Clowney makes too much sense for Houston, even if Clowney won't be thrilled about it.

Foles needs to find the right system to play in, but isn't that true of any quarterback? His play late in the 2018 season showed that his Super Bowl run was no fluke. This ranking reflects the premium placed on any starting quarterback who becomes available during his prime because it happens so rarely. That position scarcity is one reason why the Eagles believe they can get a draft pick back for Foles despite a huge expected contract that he's due.

A 25-year-old game-wrecker from the interior who has improved every year. There's little chance the Falcons will let Jarrett get away.

While Flowers isn't a prototypical pure pass rusher from the outside, he can do everything well from a variety of positions, the perfect Swiss Army Knife for a modern defense. And he's already been the most disruptive presence on a Super Bowl championship team.

Thomas would be even higher on this list if not for two of his previous three seasons being marred by injury. He has maintained his high level of play as a potential future Hall of Famer and isn't yet 30 years old.

At a position where speed kills, Ford's first step is among the best in football. The Chiefs might use the franchise tag on him to make sure his monster breakout season can be repeated.

In many years, Clark would be the best pass rusher available. He isn't as complete a player as the guys above, but 32 sacks and 66 QB hits over the last three years speaks for itself.

Collins received some Defensive Player of the Year consideration in 2016, but his hard-hitting style has made less of an impact lately. And his 2018 campaign ended after Week 13, when he hit IR and underwent shoulder surgery.

Inside linebackers don't get paid in free agency, although Mosley could be an exception. A four-time Pro Bowler, Mosley is known for his smarts and his leadership.

The skill set and splash plays didn't always add up to excellent overall production, although his contract year went well. It's a bit of a concern that a great defensive coach like Mike Zimmer didn't consistently get more out of him.

Richardson started out his season like a man on fire before settling into another campaign that made his employers probably want just a little bit more. He's been stuck on the "prove-it contract" cycle for years.

A torn ACL will hurt Darby's value, but he's still the class of a soft cornerback crop of free agents.

It's unclear why safeties like Honey Badger didn't get paid well last offseason. There's an even better crop of free agents at the position this time around.

The Rams valued Joyner enough to use the franchise tag on him last year. There just aren't enough tough, versatile safeties who can cover slot receivers around.

Teddy's underwhelming Week 17 start was more about a rag-tag backup Saints offensive line that didn't protect Bridgewater than it was about anything else. He showed enough in the 2018 preseason to compete for a starting job somewhere.

If everyone thinks Smith is underrated, is he still underrated? Pro Football Focus' No. 8-ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2018 should get the contract of someone rated quite highly.

If he plays another game or two like the one he did in the Divisional Round, Suh's price tag could skyrocket.

Instinctive as a run-stopper and excellent in coverage, Wright looked good late in the season after missing 11 games with a lingering knee injury.

PFF credited Smith with 10 sacks, 17 QB hits and 33 hurries in the regular season, which is monster production for someone with 690 snaps. He plays with laudable fury.

One of the toughest players to evaluate in free agency. The Lions spent hefty franchise-tag money on a guy with just 662 snaps combined over the last two years.

Good tackles are so hard to find in free agency that Williams, a second-team All Pro in 2017, should still inspire plenty of interest despite missing nearly all of this season with a knee injury.

The Packers' opinion of Clinton-Dix and his so-so time in Washington after being traded there by Green Bay this season might have him pegged as just an above-average starting safety, but that should be worth something on the open market.

This ranking may look disrespectful for a player of Graham's caliber, but the track record of betting on soon-to-be 31-year-old pass rushers in free agency is rough.

Notable omissions (in alphabetical order):

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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