Philadelphia Eagles DE Derek Barnett hasn’t quite lived up to his draft billing after being selected 14th overall in 2017. But he’s still been a serviceable NFL defensive end through five seasons with Philadelphia. As he heads toward free agency, where are Barnett’s potential landing spots on the open market?
Derek Barnett’s free agent profile
In a 2021 NFL campaign marked by injuries and COVID-related absences, Barnett’s best ability has been availability. While he’s dealt with health question marks in the past, he’s on track to appear in every game of a season for the first time in his career. The 25-year-old has played 718 snaps this year, the most of any Eagles edge defender.
Despite his first-round pedigree, Barnett has never set the league on fire. His career-high in single-season sacks is just 6.5, and he’s posted only 2 this season. Advanced metrics don’t tell a markedly different story. Barnett has registered 33 pressures, which sandwiches him between Seattle’s Rasheem Green and Buffalo’s Mario Addison — not exactly world-beaters. While he’s a slightly better run defender than pass rusher, Barnett simply isn’t the Pro Bowl-caliber player many thought he’d turn out to be.
However, that doesn’t mean he won’t garner a relatively solid contract on the free-agent market. Barnett still has youth on his side, and Day 1 draftees will often get paid more than other players for the same level of production. Baltimore’s Tyus Bowser and Jacksonville’s Dawuane Smoot signed extensions in the spring that ranged between $5-$5.5 million annually. Barnett has every chance to fall within that scope.
Whether the Eagles have the interest — or the wherewithal — to re-sign Barnett is a separate question. Philadelphia already gave a three-year, $40 million extension to fellow edge rusher Josh Sweat in September. The club also has veteran DE Brandon Graham on the books, while the Eagles are third in the NFL in interior defensive line spending thanks to Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave. General manager Howie Roseman and Co. project to have just $14 million in 2022 cap space — they may choose to spend it elsewhere.
Derek Barnett landing spots
If the Eagles don’t retain Barnett, where could he end up? Let’s take a look at several potential suitors.
The Dolphins have the cap space to sign nearly anyone they want
The Miami Dolphins will consistently be mentioned as theoretically heavy free-agent players simply due to their ample salary cap space. Miami leads the league with nearly $75 million in available funds. With a few easy cuts, they can get that figure closer to $90 million. No matter what happens with the Fins’ front office, coaching staff, or quarterback situation, expect them to be active in the 2022 market.
Miami and head coach Brian Flores (a former Patriots defensive coordinator) seem to like Bill Belichick’s approach of spending ample sums on the secondary but only adding mid-level players along the defensive line. In recent years, the Dolphins gave modest contracts to free agents such as Emmanual Ogbah (who could be gone in 2022) and Shaq Lawson. If Ogbah departs in the spring, Barnett would be an inexpensive depth option for Miami.
Barnett could help the Jaguars reset on defense
Similar to the Dolphins, the Jaguars will have plenty of money to spend in 2022 free agency (roughly $68 million). But unlike Miami, Jacksonville’s defense wasn’t anywhere near a top-10 unit in 2021.
Through 16 games, the Jaguars have given up the second-most points in the NFL, while their defense ranks 31st in both expected points added (EPA) per play and DVOA, Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric.
Jacksonville will likely have a new defensive coordinator and scheme next season. But they’ll need competent players no matter what front they run. Josh Allen is an above-average player, and Smoot has posted at least 29 pressures in each of the last two seasons.
Yet, 2020 first-round pick K’Lavon Chaisson has been a total disaster. He’s played just 384 defensive snaps this year while generating only 8 pressures. The Jaguars need an NFL-caliber rotational option along their defensive line, and Barnett would give them just that.
The Browns may need a replacement for Jadeveon Clowney
Cleveland’s roster-building strategy on defense is clear: invest in Myles Garrett and the secondary, and fill in everywhere else. Last offseason, Browns GM Andrew Berry spent heavily on defensive backs John Johnson III and Troy Hill while giving mid-level contracts to Jadeveon Clowney, Malik Jackson, Takkarist McKinley, and Anthony Walker.
With Garrett already the league’s third-highest-paid edge defender, the Browns will need to cut corners elsewhere. Not having had any extension discussions with Cleveland as of yet, Clowney may depart via 2022 free agency.
Barnett could help fill that gap. He could act as a valuable depth piece who can set the edge, stuff the run, and allow the Browns’ excellent defensive backfield to do its job.
Cleveland gave McKinley — another former first-rounder — one year and $4.25 million last offseason. That deal could serve as a low-end comp for Barnett’s next contract.
Barnett would give the Lions a young option during their rebuild
The Lions stand out as a perfect landing spot for a young, yet experienced player like Barnett. Veteran edge rushers like Von Miller, Jerry Hughes, or Clowney aren’t exactly going to be flocking to Detroit. The Lions have a long way to go to reach consistent contention (or even competency), but adding a mid-20s former first-round pick at what should be a relatively low cost is the type of move they should make.
Assuming Barnett won’t command a double-digit annual salary, he makes sense as a high-upside bet. Detroit can afford to take mild risks, and Barnett comes with the potential of added surplus value. The Lions made a similar move last offseason, inking Charles Harris (chosen eight spots after Barnett in the 2017 draft) to a one-year, $1.75 million deal. He responded by posting 7.5 sacks and 33 pressures in his inaugural Motor City campaign.
The Falcons defensive line could use a boost
As poor as some of the other defenses on this list are, the league’s worst front seven might reside in Atlanta. The Falcons have managed only 17 sacks, the worst figure in the NFL and 9 fewer than the No. 31-ranked Lions. They also have the lowest pressure rate in the league and rank 27th in adjusted line yards, Football Outsiders’ attempt to assign blame (or credit) for performance against opposing rushing attacks.
Barnett could be a fit in Atlanta for purely on-field reasons. But his projected contract could also be attractive for a Falcons ledger that’s in dire straits.
General manager Terry Fontenot is projected to have $12 million in cap space next season. Yet, Atlanta only has 29 current plays under contract for 2022. Once they sign a full roster, the Falcons will be in the red. Barnett should come cheap enough to fit on Atlanta’s books while also offering the potential of better-than-expected play.