© Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
For an edge rusher-needy team, the 49ers are in luck.
The upcoming free agency period, starting March 13, has plenty of options that should intrigue the 49ers. Similar to last year, multiple teams will likely franchise-tag their star defensive ends. But the 49ers will have access to a handful of proven pass rushers who are either deemed expendable or too expensive to re-sign by their current teams, given their salary cap constraints.
The 49ers will have between $65 million and $70 million in cap space. After tallying 14 combined sacks from their defensive ends in 2018, they will take a hard look at the edge rushers set to hit free agency.
Let’s break down the group.
Projected market value (courtesy of Spotrac): $19.6 million/year
2018 stats: 10.5 sacks, 15 tackles for loss, 23 quarterback hits
Last offseason, Lawrence and the Cowboys failed to work out a mega-deal that would keep the 26-year-old in Dallas for the foreseeable future. The team franchise-tagged him. The Cowboys won’t want to lose Lawrence, who comfortably led the team in sacks for the second straight year. He to be paid like one of the top edge guys in the league. It would be surprising if he hit the open market.
Projected market value: $16.6 million/year
2018 stats: Nine sacks, 16 tackles for loss, 21 quarterback hits
Clowney is the immediate candidate for Houston’s franchise tag. The question is which position the team will tag him under, linebacker or defensive lineman, which have varying one-year salaries. Statistically, the 2014 No. 1 draft pick has not evolved into the dominant force many pegged him to become, never posting double-digit sacks in five NFL seasons. Injuries have played a key part. But Clowney is too talented for Houston to let go this early.
Projected market value: $16.3 million/year
2018 stats: 13 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, 29 quarterback hits
This past season, Ford played 16 games for the first time since his rookie year in 2014, and the production followed. Ford finished ninth in the NFL with 13 sacks, the most of his career. He seems poised to succeed Justin Houston as the next great Kansas City edge rusher. Ford, too, will likely stay put where he is.
Projected market value: $12 million/year
2018 stats: 13 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 27 quarterback hits
Clark is a rare elite edge rusher who slipped out of the top-60 in the draft. He has posted at least nine sacks for the past three seasons. After spending his early years supplementing the Michael Bennett-led defensive line, Clark anchored the unit this year, compiling 13 sacks. The Seahawks don’t have any proven edge rushers outside of Clark. It would be surprising if they let him hit free agency.
The 27-and-under crowd
Dante Fowler Jr.
2018 stats: four sacks, seven tackles for loss, six quarterback hits
Fowler’s value is ascending. On Sunday, the Rams defensive end hit Drew Brees’ right arm as he threw the overtime interception that paved the way for the Rams’ Super Bowl birth. It was the type of clutch, game-changing play that has eluded the 49ers. Since Fowler was signed mid-season, he has bolstered the Rams defensive line built on the strength of its interior.
The 49ers should make a real push for Fowler. He checks all the boxes. 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh worked with Fowler, the No. 3 overall pick in 2015, in Jacksonville. He’s 24 years old, he’s starting to realize his potential, and the Rams are likely to apply their franchise tag elsewhere. That is, unless Fowler makes plays like the one he did Sunday in the upcoming Super Bowl.
2018 stats: three sacks, six tackles for loss, seven quarterback hits
The former undrafted free agent has become a quality edge rusher in Denver and lined himself up for a solid payday this offseason. Barring injury, Barrett isn’t likely to usurp Von Miller and Bradley Chubb as a starter in Denver. A greater opportunity likely awaits elsewhere, potentially with San Francisco.
2018 stats: one sack, one tackle for loss, one quarterback hit
Ray and Barrett ironically find themselves in similar situations despite their juxtaposing draft experiences. Ray was a first-rounder. Barrett was not drafted. Yet Ray has tallied just 14 sacks in four seasons, eight of which came in 2016. He has battled a wrist injury throughout the past two years. The Broncos seem ready to move on, declining to pick up Ray’s fifth-year option prior to the 2018 season. Ray, the 2014 SEC Defensive Player of the Year, could be a low-risk addition for the 49ers.
2018 stats: 2.5 sacks, five tackles for loss, six quarterback hits
Golden’s production has regressed over the past two years due to knee injuries. He posted 12.5 sacks in 2016, but he has combined for just 2.5 over the past two seasons. Golden, ideally, would be a complementary piece alongside a more marquee free agent signing or top draft pick for the 49ers.
Projected market value: $13.2 million/year
2018 stats: four sacks, three tackles for loss, seven quarterback hits
Ansah, Detroit’s No. 5 overall pick in 2015, posted 14.5 sacks in 2015 and 12 more in 2017, but he has battled health issues throughout his career, missing five games during the 2016 and 2017 seasons. In 2018, he started two games and played in seven due to a shoulder injury that ultimately sent him to injured reserve in mid-December. The Lions likely won’t franchise tag Ansah for a second time. He’s an expensive investment for someone who hasn’t played a full season since 2015.
Projected market value: $15.8 million/year
2018 stats: four sacks, nine tackles for loss, 11 quarterback hits
Graham would bring leadership and championship pedigree to a young 49ers defensive line. While the 30-year-old has never posted a double-digit sack season, he’s a pressure machine, which Saleh particularly emphasizes. Graham, beloved in Philadelphia, is expected to test free agency.
2018 stats: 6.5 sacks, seven tackles for loss, 13 quarterback hits
Irvin could be the latest former Seahawk to relocate in Santa Clara. Last year, the Raiders released Irvin midway through the season, and the Falcons promptly signed the veteran defensive end. He contributed 3.5 sacks in eight games with Atlanta, right on par with his consistent career trajectory. In seven NFL seasons, Irvin has tallied fewer than 5.5 sacks once. He would be a welcome addition to the 49ers defensive line.
2018 stats: five sacks, six tackles for loss, 11 quarterback hits
Matthews, 32, has four seasons of 10-plus sacks, but he hasn’t accomplished that feat throughout the past four seasons. But he still has solid years left. The six-time Pro Bowler could slot in at strong-side linebacker in San Francisco’s defense.
2018 stats: five sacks, six tackles for loss, 11 quarterback hits
Peppers is an ageless wonder who could seemingly play until he’s 50. Entering his 18th NFL season, those legs still have some juice. Just two years ago, Peppers tallied 11 sacks — his seventh time doing so throughout a Hall-of-Fame career. The 39-year-old is just a half-sack away from surpassing Kevin Greene for third-most of all-time. Peppers hasn’t indicated that he’s ready to retire just yet, but at this point, he’s likely a one-year rental.