Free Agency Watch: The Key Defensive Moves That Could Have a Big Impact on the 2020 NFL Season

Who will be this season's Shaquil Barrett or Preston Smith?

March 23, 2020 3:41 pm
NFL Free Agency Defensive Moves
Indianapolis Colt DeForest Buckner, formerly of the San Francisco 49ers. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)
Getty Images

Because every major American sport that’s typically played at this time of year is now in absentia thanks to the COVID-19 outbreak, we’re shifting our attention to the most important signings, trades, rumors and trends around the NFL via a dedicated daily column. This is Free Agency Watch.

While much of the focus this NFL offseason has been on big offensive names like Philip Rivers, DeAndre Hopkins, Todd Gurley, Tom Brady, Stefon Diggs and Melvin Gordon changing teams, there have been plenty of moves on the other side of the ball that may have a bigger impact on the upcoming season.

Last summer, the Bucs’ move for Shaquil Barrett and the Packers’ acquisition of both Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith had an immediate effect on the pass defenses in Tampa and Green Bay. Look for the Colts’ trade for former 49ers’ defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to have a similar impact on Indy’s interior D this year.

A former No. 7 overall pick, Buckner amassed 38 knockdowns across his first two seasons before recording nearly 20 sacks over his last two years in San Francisco.

In a similar move, the Ravens struck a deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars to bring defensive end Calais Campbell to Baltimore. Campbell, 33, is coming off a down year with the Jaguars, but still had 25 knockdowns for a Jacksonville defense that is not nearly as stout as it once was.

A five-time Pro Bowler, Campbell should bolster Baltimore’s pass rush and help a solid Ravens defense become even tougher to play against in 2020.

Meanwhile, the New Orleans Saints made a big move of their own on defense by bringing in veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins from the Eagles on a four-year deal worth $32 million. An 11-year veteran, Jenkins actually began his career with New Orleans before moving on to Philadelphia and becoming one of the key cogs in an Eagles secondary that won a Super Bowl just three seasons ago.

Now 32, the former Buckeye should be a steadying force for the Saints and help New Orleans shore up a pass defense that has been leaky for much of the last decade. Adept at covering tight ends and receivers out of the slot (he started his career as a corner), Jenkins is also an above-average run defender and comes to New Orleans for a modest price.

At least partially to compensate for the loss of Jenkins, the Eagles were able to bring stud cornerback Darius Slay to Philly after agreeing to a trade with the Detroit Lions. Slay, who was made expendable after Detroit signed Desmond Trufant, will easily step into a role as the Eagles’ top coverage man, and should be a big help to a Philly D that struggled to shut down opponents’ top receivers last season.

And back on the offensive side of the ball, XFL star quarterback P.J. Walker has confirmed he will sign with the Panthers and will have a chance to compete for the No. 2 job in Carolina behind starter Teddy Bridgewater.

The first XFL player to join an NFL team since the upstart football league canceled its season because of the coronavirus pandemic, Walker will reunite with first-year coach Matt Rhule, who coached him for four years at Temple.

After bringing in Walker, the Panthers dealt backup quarterback Kyle Allen to the Washington Redskins, where he’ll be reunited with former Carolina coach Ron Rivera. That would seem to put to rest any speculation that former Panther QB Cam Newton is also headed to the Redskins.

Elsewhere in the NFL, the Bears signed linebacker Barkevious Mingo to a one-year deal for $1.187 million, the Saints signed wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, formerly of the 49ers, to a two-year contract worth $16 million, the Falcons signed wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, formerly of the Vikings, to an undisclosed deal, and the Raiders signed wide receiver Nelson Agholor, formerly of the Eagles, to a one-year contract.

Though they have yet to make a signing, the Cowboys are “doing their homework” on defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh, Dontari Poe, Damon Harrison and Mike Pennel, according to NFL Network’s Jane Slaters. Coming off a down year in Carolina, DT Gerald McCoy has already signed with Dallas.

Dallas defensive end Randy Gregory, who is serving an indefinite ban for his fourth violation of the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, will soon petition for reinstatement to the league from commissioner Roger Goodell.

In a somewhat surprising move in New England that may be part of an overhaul of the Patriots’ roster, veteran kicker Stephen Gostkowski, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, was released on Monday.

Dion Lewis, who won a Super Bowl as a member of the Patriots but played for the Titans for the past two seasons, agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the New York Giants.

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