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 Edge Rushers with a little analysis to explain the logic behind where I think they will land next year.
VON MILLER | ARIZONA CARDINALS
WAIT, WHAT!? How on earth does he walk away from the Broncos? Let's think about this for a second. The Broncos will have about $20,000,000 in cap room once this offseason begins. Sounds like a decent amount, right? Sure. But you have to factor in the fact that the Broncos are going to have a huge decision internally as to whether they should re-sign soon-to-be Free Agent QB Brock Osweiler (which will take a big chunk of that cap room, since he's a QB), or if they want to stick with Peyton Manning next year, who is counting $21,500,000 against the cap. By cutting Peyton, the Broncos would save a net of $19,000,000 after dead cap, which sounds like a good decision, but again, if they do that, probably close to half of that amount will end up back in Osweiler's cap number. Not only that, but 5 of the starting front 7 of the Bronco's dominant defense is scheduled to hit Free Agency - Derek Wolfe, Malik Jackson, Brandon Marshall, Danny Trevathan. So the question becomes - do you break the bank to keep an elite player like Miller and put all your eggs in one basket, or do you split that amount up and retain maybe 4 players on defense who have built great chemistry playing together? There is, of course, a strong possibility that the Broncos cut Peyton and use some of their money at that point to franchise tag Von, but the Tag is the only way I see him staying put in Denver, since he can make a boat load more on the open market. Another contributing factor to this decision is Miller is one more strike away from being suspended an entire year, hence why I think the Broncos shy away from doing a long term deal. I have some more conjecture and facts pointing to why Miller is likely out of Denver further down in this article.
So let me catch my breath, whew. Ok. Arizona, huh? I think the desert would be the ideal landing spot for Miller for a few reasons. Number one - they are a contender. I don't see Miller wanting to go and play for a team like the Jaguars (no offense, Duval) and the Raiders already have Khalil Mack playing the rush OLB role. Number two - they have $21 million in cap room and pretty much zero starting impact players who are on the hook to re-sign for 2016. By the time Miller's cap number starts to become a problem, Carson Palmer will probably be ready to walk away, so the numbers will off set. Number three - GM Steve Keim has been quoted as saying that he would diagnose Hannibal Lechter with an eating disorder if he ran a 4.3 fourty, and he was bold enough to draft Tyrann Mathieu (not a bad choice in retrospect, I'd say), so the one more strike thing wouldn't scare him, especially with a strong coach like Bruce Arians in the locker room. Number four - he could wear his cowboy hats all the time with no judgment. All kidding aside, though, sticking Miller in that Cardinals defense can fast-track him on the road to Canton, and he can have sack numbers in the high 'teens for years to come.
ALDON SMITH | OAKLAND RAIDERS
Since the Von Miller analysis was so long, we can keep this short and sweet. The Raiders have over $60,000,000 in cap room and they really liked what they saw from Aldon before his suspension kicked in. Also, I believe Aldon wants to repay the Raiders for believing in him, and I don't think he minds the California weather. GM Reggie McKenzie and Jack Del Rio have already gone on record saying they would like Smith back, so unless he gets banned for life, or develops an insatiable apathy by hanging out with Justin Blackmon, I have a feeling he will be back in (silver &) black.
TAMBA HALI | INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
As well as Hali played this year (4th best 3-4 OLB, +30.0 grade according to PFF), the 32 year old's best days are probably behind him, and I don't see the Chiefs investing a long term contract in the veteran when they have players like Derrick Johnson and Eric Berry to re-sign. So which GM would be dumb enough to splash his cash on an old pass rusher like Hali... Hmm... I know, Ryan Grigson! I'm pretty sure that the Colts are running more of a retirement home than a football team these days, and this is the type of move that has Grigson written all over it. Plus - would Hali really be as dominant if teams didn't have to double Justin Houston on the other side all the time? Buyer beware.
SHAQUIL BARRETT | DENVER BRONCOS
I didn't mention Barrett in my Von Miller piece because I wanted to talk about him here. First off, I love me some Shaquil Barrett. In a limited role this season with only 393 snaps, Barrett has put up a +13.1 PFF rating, which is another contributing factor as to why I think the Broncos let Miller walk (they also have first-round pick Shane Ray and Lerentee McCray in the wings). Also, right before the trade deadline, the Broncos and Browns almost had a deal in place for Joe Thomas, but apparently the Browns "dealbreaker" was wanting Barrett, and the Broncos wouldn't budge on a player who's contract was up in a few months. For Joe freaking Thomas. What does that tell you about how much they value Barrett?
JUNIOR GALLETTE | TENNESSEE TITANS
Gallette only signed a one-year deal in Washington, but unfortunately it was cut short by injury. The Redskins have re-signed Ryan Kerrigan and have some pretty good depth at OLB with Trenty Murphy and rookie Preston Smith, so I think Gallette will be asked to take his talents elsewhere. Nashville, to be precise, pulling a Brian Orakpo 2.0. The Titans have ample cap room and Derrick Morgan, although a good player, just isn't a 3-4 OLB and needs to be freed. At worst, Gallette provides quality depth at a position where the Titans are very thin at, and you can probably count on Orakpo not being healthy forever.
NICK PERRY | SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
I originally had Perry staying in Green Bay, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that retaining Mike Daniels and Casey Hayward was going to make keeping Perry too difficult, and he isn't enough of an impact player to scramble to get something done. A team that can use depth at the OLB position who has cap room to spare? The San Diego Chargers, where he would replace free agent Cordarro Law's roster spot. Jerry Attaochu has actually played solid football on this defense, but Perry would provide the Chargers inexpensive insurance behind Melvin Ingram, who often gets bit by the injury bug.
COURTNEY UPSHAW | CLEVELAND BROWNS
The Browns are no strangers to adopting out-of-contract Ravens OLBs (Paul Kruger), and they need someone who is a little more stout against the run that Barkevious Mingo is. The Browns have around $18 million in cap room for this depth signing, and Upshaw's market should be relatively tame, so they should get him for a bargain.
CALVIN PACE | NEW YORK JETS
I wouldn't be surprised if Pace retires after this season, but if he doesn't, staying in New York at this point in his career seems like the most logical option. The Jets can get Pace back for probably the veteran minimum, and he fills an important role mentoring young edge rusher Lorenzo Mauldin and whoever else the Jets bring into the fold this offseason (*cough /Carl Lawson *cough).
SAM ACHO | CHICAGO BEARS
We are really going dumpster diving, huh? Unfortunately, the Edge FA class is strong at the top, but lacks depth. Speaking of depth, Acho provides the Bears with a lot of it. He's not the most jaw-dropping player, but he has a good understanding of the defense and is reliable. With over $60 million in cap room, bringing Acho back on a one year deal is a "sure, why not?" type of decision.
ANDRE BRANCH | OAKLAND RAIDERS
Let me be perfectly clear about this - the "Windmill" is not a good player. In fact, the Raiders would probably be better off signing an actual windmill. But as bad as Branch is, I don't see him being out of the league next year, and the Raiders might bring him in for a look after like the 60th wave of free agency since they have a similar defensive scheme to Jacksonville's with Ken Norton Jr. as the puppetmaster.
*All Cap Projections are from www.spotrac.com