2018 Free Agency: The Top Three Edge-Rushers the 49ers Should Target

The NFL free agency period is approaching and one question remains that has haunted the San Francisco 49ers since the release of Aldon Smith. Where do the Forty-Niners turn to address their pass rushing issues? Many experts have put together their list of available top pass rushers. However, Niners Live narrowed down the field to give you a more realistic look at the top three options the Forty-Niners will have to consider.

 

Process of Elimination

The first two BIG names that come to mind and are on everybody’s radar have to be the Dallas Cowboys star defensive end, Demarcus Lawrence, and the Detroit Lions standout Ezekiel Ansah. Both seem like very intriguing NFL veterans that would be absolute game changers on the Forty-Niners front seven. 

However, the likelihood of Lawrence, who is coming off his best season as a pro amassing 14.5 sacks 58 tackles and four forced fumbles which earned him his first selection to the Pro-Bowl and a spot on the All-Pro second-team, not being re-signed by the Cowboys is highly unlikely, at best. Per reports, it doesn’t seem as if Lawrence is too worried about being re-signed as a franchise tag or long-term deal may already be in the works.

Ansah, on the other hand, who put up equally impressive numbers in 2017 with 12 sacks, 39 tackles, and a forced fumble, will be one of soon to be Detroit Lions head coach and current New England Patriots’ Defensive Coordinator Matt Patricia’s first priorities. He’ll re-sign Ansah once he takes over the reins. With those two off the board, let’s look at the next three top prospects the Forty-Niners should target, shall we?

Top Three Edge-Rushers the 49ers should target in 2018

No.1 Michael BennettDE Seahawks. Age 32.

PFF Grade: 80.6 overall, 79.1 pass rush

Spotrac: three years, $30.5 million, $10.1 million annually (current salary)

Video highlights

In his career, the 6’4”, 274 lb. Bennett has started 90 of a possible 125 games, amassing 54 sacks, 215 tackles, 11 forced fumbles and a touchdown. In 2017 at the ripe age of 32 Bennett was again productive, accounting for 8.5 sacks and 25 tackles, starting all 16 games. In 2018, Bennett will earn a base salary of $1.65 million and a roster bonus of $5 million while carrying a cap hit of $8,387,500 and a dead cap value of $5,212,500 which may be costly enough for the Seahawks front office to decide to part ways.

Bennett himself admitted in an interview recently that he probably won’t be back next year and could very well be a victim of a cap casualty as the team is looking to get younger and focus on becoming stronger on the offensive side of the ball.

The Forty-Niners could potentially sign Bennett to a contract of three-years and $21 million with $15 million being front-loaded over the first two-years; which is an annual salary of $7.5 million. With incentives, he can earn an additional $5 million within the first two-years making the contract reach $20 million within the first two years. And the third year could be a non-guaranteed team option. 

Why He Fits

WHEN and if Bennett becomes available, it would behoove the Forty-Niners front office to jump at the opportunity to sign him. He’s good against the run (83.5 PFF grade), he can rush the passer (39 sacks in the past five seasons), and he can line up at multiple positions. His football intelligence is off the charts ( see video).  

Bennett will not only bring vast experience and familiarity with Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh’s scheme from his days in Seattle, but also the toughness, dawg mentality, and leadership that could be instrumental in determining the future of this franchise. He also brings playoff/championship pedigree and experience to a young team looking to make a playoff push in 2018.

Bennett also spent some time last off-season mentoring 49ers’ rookie Defensive Lineman Solomon Thomas, who he has been compared to, as well as a few other members of the 49ers front line, so there will already be some chemistry there to build on. Besides, what better way would there be to one-up your division rival than to sign one of their best defensive players of the last few years?? Hello, Ken Norton Jr… 

No. 2 Adrian Clayborn, DE, Falcons. Age: 30

PFF Grade: 85.5 overall grade and 87.2 pass rush

Spotractwo years, $8.5 million, $4.25 million annually (salary the last two-years)

Market Value: three years, $28,063,330 Avg. Salary: $9,354,443

Video highlights

In his seven-year career, the 6’3”, 281 lb. Clayborn played in 81 games and started 50, amassing 124 total tackles, 30 sacks, and seven forced fumbles. Coming off a standout year in 2017, he tallied 9.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and a touchdown return, not to mention breaking the franchise single-game record with six sacks against the Dallas Cowboys.

Clayborn was one sack short of tying Derrick Thomas’ NFL record of seven sacks in one game and looks to be primed to have another breakout season. The seven-year veteran has battled through a few injuries in his career and even considered retirement before the start of the 2017 season. However, it seems his performance this past season revitalized his career.

Why He Fits

Clayborn brings ties to Head Coach Kyle Shanahan from Shanahan’s days as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator in 2015-2016 which should bode well for him in becoming acclimated to the culture the new regime is building in Santa Clara. He also brings playoff and Super Bowl experience.

Clayborn posted an 86.7 overall grade in 2017 which was a career high and had nine games with three-plus pressures. Pass Rush Productivity: Clayborn comes in at 10.9 in ( PRP) which ranks 4th in this free agency class. DeMarcus Lawrence ranks No. 1 with 14.8.

Clayborn can obviously rush the passer; he’s disruptive and plays with passion and a violent motor. At his market value rate of just over $9 million, this is a reasonable deal that could get done even if you have to pay north of $10 million. Clayborn has 30 career sacks; he knows how to get after the quarterback.

No. 3 Kony EalyDE/OLB, Jets. Age 26

PFF Grade: 74.6 overall and 76.4 pass rush ( sleeper pick up)

Spotrac: 4 years, $3.5 million, $887,000 annually (previous salary)

Video highlights

Ealy, now age 26, was originally selected in the second round of 2014 draft by the Carolina Panthers, and was one of the lone bright spots in their 2015 Super Bowl appearance registering three sacks, an interception, and a forced fumble. In his career, the 6’4”, 275 lb. Ealy has amassed 15 sacks, 90 tackles, and six forced fumbles to go along with two interceptions.

Why He Fits

In 2017, after being released by the New England Patriots, Ealy showed himself to be disruptive by altering passes at the line of scrimmage, which was evident as he ended up second among 4-3 ends with nine batted passes as a member of the New York Jets. Now pair that with DeForest Buckner’s five batted passes in 2017 and, Houston, I think offenses might have a problem.

The Forty-Niners would not need to break the bank to acquire Ealy’s services, which makes him a very attractive commodity. He has shown the ability to be disruptive in all aspects of the game over his career; including sacks, coverage ability, batted passes, and forced fumbles. And at age 26, his upside/untapped potential can still be developed. He also brings playoff and Super Bowl experience.

Pass Rush Productivity: Ealy comes in at 7.3 in ( PRP) which ranks 16th in this free agency class.  Ezekiel Ansah ranks 10th with 10.3.

Based on his age, his measurables, intangibles and upside a three-year deal worth $10-15 million with the third-year being a team non-guaranteed option, this could work for both parties here. He gets a pay raise and has a chance to be a part of a young nucleus of talent (within the front seven) that features Buckner, Thomas, and Reuben Foster to name a few. 

Honorable Mention

Tank CarradineDE, 49ers. Age: 28. 

PFF Grade: 78.1 overall grade, 71.8 pass rush, 82.6 run grade 

Spotracone year, $2.65 million (last seasons salary)

In his four-year career, Carradine has played in 44 games starting only eight and amassing 5.5 sacks, 54 tackles, and one forced fumble. He isn’t much of a pass-rusher, but he’s excellent against the run. 

Why He Fits

Carradine brings experience in the system and is well liked overall by the Forty-Niners Coaching staff. He would probably be best as a left defensive end in the run stuffer department as well as an edge setter. He has a 6.1 run-stop percentage which was 36th among 4-3 defensive ends last season. His 82.6 run grade is by far tops of his career. In, 2016 he graded out at 46.3. 

Carradine could very well be re-signed on a team friendly deal if there’s no major market for his services, which benefits the 49ers who can use another stout run defender after finishing the season ranked 22nd in run defense.

Robert Saleh has already raved about his ability to play the six-technique at a potential Pro-Bowl level because he is the ideal prototype ( via the team’s website). 

Carradine could be re-signed to a three-year deal (worth $8-10 million) with the third-year being a team non-guaranteed option. 

Closing Thoughts

Despite a noticeable improvement in overall defense in 2017 and climbing eight spots from 32nd overall to 24th, the 49ers front seven still struggled medially to generate a pass rush by accumulating only 30 sacks on the season.

Which pass-rusher fits a disruptive need to wreak havoc, consistently get after the quarterback, provide scheme versatility, embrace a youthful culture, and meet the salary parameters desired by the Forty-Niners’ front office? Who will they decide to take a flier on come free agency? Hold that thought…

The million-dollar question is, will the Forty-Niners find their cornerstone pass-rusher via free agency? Or will we see them draft a top overall prospect with the ninth or tenth spot in the draft? 

One thing is for sure, you can count on General Manager John Lynch and company to be patient, yet aggressive. In Lynch’s words: “If we see fit, the opportunity to go get someone who can really improve us, we’ll certainly take that opportunity” ( via ESPN.com).

All very interesting questions which we’ll know the answers to soon, and until then, Niners Live will continue to keep the Faithful updated as the offseason and the draft unfolds. To be continued…

All records, statistics, and accolades are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.comPro Football Focus49ers.comESPN.comNFL.com unless otherwise indicated. Author, Content Creator, Editor Sequoia Sims. Co-Author/ Contributor, Irvin Johnson at Niners Live.