Although the NFL regular season still has 4 weeks to go, we are getting to the point of the year where collegiate players are declaring for the NFL Draft, teams are starting to become mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, and the Draft order itself is starting to settle.
Of course, before the Draft comes Free Agency, and we will be doing a Team-by-Team Offseason Blueprint feature immediately at the conclusion of the NFL regular season on what each NFL franchise needs to do from top to bottom this upcoming offseason to become more competitive in 2016 and beyond.
We don't know what will happen between now and Free Agency in March, and now until the Draft in April is even murkier waters, but what we do know is how much estimated cap room each team is slated to have going into this offseason and which players are set to hit the open market.
So with that being said, let's think through it. I have identified the Top 10 upcoming Free Agent DEs with a little analysis to explain the logic behind where I think they will land next year.
MUHAMMAD WILKERSON | CHICAGO BEARS
The Bears are slated to have over $60,000,000 in cap room heading into this offseason. Although franchising/re-signing Alshon Jeffery is priority number one, they will still have a blank check to work with this offseason. GM Ryan Pace made a nice move by snagging Pernell McPhee in FA last year (PFF has McPhee as the 8th highest rated EDGE defender in the NFL this season), and NT Eddie Goldman has shown he is going to be a tremendous anchor for Fangio's 3-4 defense. What they need are Ends. Jarvis Jenkins has played extremely poorly, Ego Ferguson isn't the impact defender that they need, and Will Sutton is just a bad fit in this scheme. Muhammad Wilkerson is one of the best 3-4 DEs in the NFL and it's rare a player of his caliber walks, but the Jets have other needs and have a good player in the wings in Leonard Williams. They selected Williams fully knowing they wouldn't be able to retain Wilkerson, and it's the Bears who benefit, as they get to add another Pro Bowl impact player to this front 7.
MIKE DANIELS | GREEN BAY PACKERS (CONFIRMED)
You can book this - Daniels is staying in Green Bay, and I fully believe they are prepared to use a huge chunk of their $26,601,962 in projected cap room to make sure that happens. As of Week 14, Daniels is the second-rated 3-4 DE in the NFL after J.J. Watt with a +41.2 overall grade, and Green Bay is known leaguewide for their "Internal Free Agency," aka re-signing the players that they draft and develop. BJ Raji is also expected to become a free agent, but I think the way the draft board is shaping up, they will be able to replace Raji with an Alabama defensive lineman at the bottom of the first round.
GREG HARDY | DALLAS COWBOYS
Let's face it, there aren't a ton of teams that will touch Hardy and Jerry Jones and the Cowboys have already expressed an interest in bringing Hardy back. If you dissect his play alone, Hardy played a huge role in the Cowboys pass rush this season, and 4-3 ends who can rush AND set an edge in run defense are difficult to find. There is a caveat, however. I believe there will be a litany of offset language in Hardy's contract proposal that will protect the Cowboys from any poor behavior off the field, and at this point in Hardy's career, he is going to have to take it and behave.
OLIVIER VERNON | JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
If only Jacksonville had a pass rush, they could have picked up as many as 3 more wins this season with how well the offense played, so I would expect pass rush to be a top priority for the Jaguars. Miami would love to keep Vernon, who despite a slower start to the season, currently is the 3rd highest rated 4-3 DE according to PFF (+28.1 rating), but with Suh eating almost all the cap and a -$4,960,282 2016 projection, it's not going to happen. The Jaguars are rolling in cap room ($44,177,658, likely more with cuts of players like Chris Clemons and Zane Beadles) and they are going to dedicate most of it to rushing the QB. Also, I fully expect Vernon's former teammate Jared Odrick to play a big role in recruiting Vernon to Duval. LEO Dante Fowler Jr. is going to return from an ACL tear, but he hasn't played a snap in the NFL yet despite being a #3 overall pick, so I think it's unfair for Jaguars fans to expect him to come in and be Khalil Mack from the offset. Vernon helps take some of that pressure off. And who knows? It might open the door to show some exotic pass rushing looks with Fowler standing up at Otto on 3rd and long. Fun stuff.
JASON PIERRE-PAUL | NEW YORK GIANTS
Another player staying put? BORING! Sorry, but I'm trying to keep it realistic. The Giants have both starting DEs slated to hit free agency, and they will likely only keep one of them. Although Robert Ayers has played very well this year (5th highest rated 4-3 DE, +20.6 rating), JPP is their guy and he's been playing inspired football despite missing most of the season due to incendiary medical issues. The Giants will hope that Damontre Moore and/or Owamagbe Odhigizuwa can help fill the void on the other side, and they'll likely pick up another pass rusher in the Draft, but expect the Giants and JPP to get something done with their healthy $38,241,292 cap space.
ROBERT AYERS | TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
We just talked about Ayers when breaking down JPP, so we'll keep this short. The Buccaneers need a good balanced DE to add to their defensive line next to Gerald McCoy, and they have the cash to splash to corral Ayers with almost $50,000,000 in cap room available to them next season. The Bucs are closer than many people think as a team, but I also think they are farther away than people think when it comes to their defense, and Ayers would be a huge upgrade.
MALIK JACKSON | CHICAGO BEARS
Ryan Pace going back to the well at DE? You betcha! We explained how much cap room the Bears have to play with, and the Denver -> Chicago connection here is obvious with John Fox. Malik Jackson is an extremely consistent 3-4 DE, won't cost an arm and a leg, and will be the perfect compliment to Muhammad Wilkerson. Malik Jackson, Eddie Goldman, Muhammad Wilkerson - this can be a front 3 that can challenge the Jets as one of the best in the NFL and help open up the ILBs behind them, which is a position group that lacks talent right now for the Bears.
VINNY CURRY | JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
I told you they were going to be aggressive for pass rush help. Vinny Curry has played excellent football this season (11th best 3-4 DE, +13.9 rating) and the most impressive thing about it is he is totally playing in the wrong scheme for his skillset. In Jacksonville, he would play the Michael Bennett "big" end role that the Jaguars currently have Jared Odrick playing, allowing Odrick to kick inside to tackle on 2nd and 3rd downs and generate more pressures from the interior. You hear the old adage "You can never have enough pass rushers," and the Jaguars are going to prove that true this offseason.
DEREK WOLFE | SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
Wolfe is a curious case in terms of where his market value will be due to his past with PED violations, but since coming back from suspension, he has played lights out. The Broncos aren't going to have enough cap space to keep everyone around next season, and I think they will be OK with Wolfe walking and getting a comp pick in return. The Chargers ($33,054,603 projected 2016 cap space) would be a perfect landing spot for Wolfe, with Kendall Reyes and Ricardo Mathews not expected to be on the roster next year. With Liuget and Wolfe, this defensive line would be much improved.
WILLIAM HAYES | ST. LOUIS RAMS
Hayes may not be a household name to most NFL fans, but he has actually been the Rams' most consistent edge rusher this season. That's saying a lot considering this Rams defensive line has Robert Quinn and Chris Long. Speaking of Long, he is most certainly set to be a cap casualty this offseason, saving the team a net of $11.75 million against the 2016 salary cap, which is a big reason why I think they bring back the more effective Hayes at a fraction of the salary. Hayes is currently PFF's 8th highest rated 4-3 DE with a +15.9 overall grade for the season.
*All Cap Projections are from www.spotrac.com