CAPACCIO: Free agent defensive ends who might fit the Bills

There will be multiple options available at the position

Sal Capaccio
March 06, 2019 - 11:46 am

Photo: Tim Fuller - USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday afternoon, the NFL released this year’s franchise-tagged players. It included two defensive ends, Demarcus Lawrence of the Dallas Cowboys and Frank Clark of the Seattle Seahawks. It also included two outside linebackers, who are often considered ends within their scheme, Dee Ford of the Kansas City Chiefs and Jadeveon Clowney of the Houston Texans. None of them will be an option for the Bills during free agency should they go shopping for a defensive end.

Looking at the Bills' current roster, there’s an argument to be made that the team needs to add a solid defensive end. Jerry Hughes will be 31-years-old and going into the last year of his contract. Shaq Lawson had his best season as a pro last year, but hasn’t quite lived up to his first round status and may also be entering the final year of his deal, if the team doesn’t exercise his fifth year option for 2020. Trent Murphy was one of the team’s main free agent signings a year ago and had trouble staying healthy all season.

Here are five defensive ends who are scheduled to become free agents on March 13 and how they may fit the Bills:

 

Trey Flowers

Current team: New England Patriots
Age at start of season: 26

Flowers missed all but one game his rookie season in 2015 after suffering a shoulder injury in the preseason. Since he became a regular in 2016, he’s been a very consistent pass-rusher for the New England Patriots, collecting at least 6.5 sacks in each of the past three seasons. He’s also added another 5.5 sacks in nine career playoff games. After coming back from that injury his rookie season, Flowers missed only three games in three years. He isn’t just a solid pass-rusher, though. Flowers also garnered 164 total tackles over the last three years, including 25 tackles for loss. The former fourth round pick may be the most complete defensive end to hit the market. Considering that, the fact that he’s just entering his prime, and that he’s coming from the Patriots where he’ll be looked at as well-coached and a winner, he’s going to make a lot of money. Probably more than what the Bills would want to spend for a defensive end, especially just one year removed from signing Murphy to a three-year, $22.5 million deal. However, with close to $80 million available in salary cap space, and knowing how important that position is, it's worth throwing his name out there.

 

Dante Fowler, Jr.

Current team: Los Angeles Rams
Age at start of season: 25

Fowler has had plenty of ups and downs already in his short career. He tore his ACL in his first-ever day of mini-camp after being taken third overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2015. That caused him to miss his entire rookie season. When he came back and played in 2016, Fowler recorded 55 tackles and four sacks, then collected eight sacks in 2017. Prior to that season, Fowler was arrested in his hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida, and eventually pleaded no contest to battery, criminal mischief, and petty theft. He was traded to the Los Angeles Rams at the trade deadline last season, where he moved to outside linebacker in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme. He went on to have 21 tackles and 2.0 sacks in L.A. Fowler has talent and it’s shown. Maybe he just needs a little more stability in his football life as far as team and scheme, in order to really flourish. The arrest is a red flag and maybe something that keeps the Bills away, but it doesn’t look like he’ll be ultra-expensive and could give a good return to whomever signs him, as long as he stays healthy and out of trouble.

 

Markus Golden

Current team: Arizona Cardinals
Age at start of season: 28

Golden is a little bit older than some of the other ends wrapping up their rookie contracts. He also had an ACL injury that cost him most of 2017. The year before that, he had 12.5 sacks and 92 tackles, including 16 tackles for loss. He played the first three years of his career as a 3-4 outside linebacker, but lined up as a 4-3 defensive end last season in Arizona, collecting 30 tackles and 2.5 sacks. The Cardinals appear to be moving on from him, although Golden has said he’s open to returning. If he does hit the market it will be interesting to see what his value is with other teams considering the injury, the change of positions, and the dominant season he turned in in 2016.

 

Za’Darius Smith

Current team: Baltimore Ravens
Age at start of season: 27

Smith has increased his production every year in the league and had a breakout 2018, collecting 8.5 sacks and 45 tackles, including 10 for loss. He also offers position flexibility, able to play inside and outside in different schemes. He has 18.5 sacks in his four-year career, while only starting 16 games out of the 58 he’s played. Some thought the Ravens might even use the franchise tag on Smith if they dint use it on linebacker C.J. Mosley. They didn’t tag either of them. Smith is probably best fit into a 3-4 defense, but he’s versatile enough to line up on the end in a 4-3 and would be a nice addition to Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier’s defense, giving them flexibility and creativity when it comes to rushing the passer. The problem is he’s probably going to be one of the highest-paid pass rushers on the open market, and unless the Bills make a move with another player already under contract like Hughes or Murphy, it would be tough to see them paying all of them that kind of money.

 

Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah

Current team: Detroit Lions
Age at start of season: 30

Ansah’s been a productive player since coming into the league as the fifth overall pick by the Detroit Lions in 2013. However, that production tailed off last year after a pair of shoulder injuries limited him to seven games played. Now, turning 30, it looks like the Lions are ready to move on from a player who’s played six years for them. Prior to last season, Ansah never had any durability concerns. He missed only seven games in five years. He ranks 28th amongst active players in career sacks with 48, including 14.5 in 2015 and 12.0 in 2017. Sandwiched in-between those two seasons was a low 2.0-sack season in 2016, but otherwise, Ansah’s lowest sack total for a full season played prior to the injury last year (he still had 4.0 sacks in seven games) was 7.5. He’s been consistent in that area outside of one season. All this to go along with 218 total tackles. With the other pass rushing talent available in this free agent and draft classes, Ansah will probably not cost as much as he might have in another year. Because of his age and last year's injury, he might even have to take a one-year deal. If that’s the case, or even a two-year deal for reasonable money, the Bills should be interested in adding him for solid depth.


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