The biggest names — Le’Veon Bell, Nick Foles, Teddy Bridgewater — play on offense.
Unquestionably, though, defense is the area with the most depth in this year’s free agency class.
Proof? Look at the list of players hit with the franchise tag: pass rushers galore.
Edge rushers Demarcus Lawrence, Jadeveon Clowney, Frank Clark and Dee Ford were among the enticing possibilities. No longer.
One of the first defenders apparently headed elsewhere: Giants safety Landon Collins, staying in the NFC East with Washington.
New England’s Trey Flowers probably is the top edge threat remaining, but defense clearly is the place to spend in this class, though it’s one of the least-loaded groups of free agents in years.
“I think overall the whole offseason, if you count the draft and free agency, there is a solid depth at interior and outside defensive lineman or edge rushers, whatever you want to call them, and defense in general,” Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht said at the NFL scouting combine. “That’s where most of the players are in this year’s free agency and draft. Not that there isn’t (strong) offensive players, but I think that’s (defense) where the league will see the movement comes from.”
Versatility is available in linebackers C.J. Mosley and Anthony Barr, safeties Tyrann Mathieu and LeMarcus Joyner.
Seeking power in the trenches? With Grady Jarrett franchised by Atlanta, Ndamukong Suh might get the most attention. Defensive linemen form the strongest position in the upcoming draft, too.
Playmakers? Try DBs Earl Thomas and Kareem Jackson, and linebackers Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith.
Naturally, big-time free agents come at a hefty price, with the largest paydays for moving on likely to go to Bell and Foles because of the positions they play in the current offense-oriented environment. Some of those on the market are in prime negotiating territory as they reach their second pro contracts while still young and, for the most part, healthy. All four of the sackmasters mentioned above fit, and thus were franchised. Collins and Joyner also fit that description.
That every team seeks game changers on the defensive line — the best way to curb the galactic passing attacks remains getting steady and discomforting pressure on quarterbacks — probably will increase the money offered to guys such as Ziggy Ansah, Sheldon Richardson and Terrell Suggs. They all come with some sort of question marks, from injury history to off-field issues to inconsistency to age.
Teams with younger rosters or in a rebuild mode might look for veteran leadership. Forget how Thomas’ stint ended with Seattle, he could be a foundation piece for a retooling team. Same for Suggs, the active sacks leader with 132½ who has expressed strong interest in remaining in Baltimore.
“I’m healthy, and I still feel like I have some juice in the tank,” the 36-year-old Suggs said after the Ravens were eliminated from the playoffs. “I would love to be a Raven for life.”
But would he take a discount to do so?
Foles comes into free agency with a far more unusual situation than the other publicized quarterback available, Bridgewater, whose injury history is stark. Foles, of course, led the Eagles to the Super Bowl title over New England a season ago, and last year stepped in admirably again for injured Carson Wentz. So he has proven his worth in big games, and how well he fits in in an Andy Reid-style offense.
But in some other opportunities to be the No. 1 QB, Foles has been ordinary. He’s only 30, is a terrific teammate and has a strong grasp of his job. There will be offers — lucrative offers.
Which Bell will receive, too, despite his sitting out 2018 in a contract dispute with the Steelers, and despite being one violation of NFL drug policies away from a lengthy suspension. Remember, Bell has five busy seasons on his body, but he hasn’t been tackled in earnest for more than a year. He also is as productive and flexible as any running back.
It doesn’t hurt Bell one iota that he is, by far, the top RB in this class. Mark Ingram and Tevin Coleman are the other interesting names.
Several others likely to grab attention and a fistful of dollars: receivers Golden Tate and Randall Cobb, OT Darryl Williams and safeties Adrian Amos and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Fresh from a Super Bowl win, huge left tackle Trent Brown has agreed to move to the Raiders.