Home » Most intriguing NFL free agent defensive moves: Stephon Gilmore to Cowboys, Tremaine Edmunds to Bears top list

Most intriguing NFL free agent defensive moves: Stephon Gilmore to Cowboys, Tremaine Edmunds to Bears top list

We’re just a few days into the 2023 NFL free agency period, but there have already been a slew of moves that should change the complexion of the league next season. With new faces in new places all across the league, we’re using this space to identify the most interesting fits on both offense and defense. 

We began Friday by highlighting our most interesting players on offense, and continue in the space below by looking at the defensive side of the ball. It’s important to note that we’re looking for the most interesting players, and not necessarily the best. Zach Allen is a good player, but we already know what that type of player looks like in the context of the Broncos defense, so he won’t be highlighted here even though we’ll take a look at some other players who may not be as impactful. 

Without further ado…

This is a fascinating signing because just a few years ago, the 49ers traded a similar player (DeForest Buckner) for a first-round pick instead of giving him a long-term contract. The Niners used that first-round selection on Javon Kinlaw, but he has struggled to stay healthy and produce at a high level alongside Arik Armstead on the interior. Now, San Francisco has brought in another high-level disruptor to pair with Armstead and Nick Bosa, and it’s interesting that he operates from the defensive tackle spot, while the departing Charles Omenihu was an edge rusher. That might slightly change the complexion of what has long been one of the NFL‘s best defenses, which was already set to change with Steve Wilks taking over for DeMeco Ryans as defensive coordinator.

The Browns have struggled badly to stop the run in recent seasons. Enter Tomlinson, one of the best body-eaters in the league on the defensive interior. Over the past couple years, they had a pocket-crasher type working across from Myles Garrett in Jadeveon Clowney. Okoronkwo is more of a pure speed threat coming around the edge. Those two signings dramatically change the look of Cleveland’s defensive line. With Thornhill, the Browns get someone who can patrol the deep parts of the field and come up to either stop the run or defend tight ends, which makes him a nice fit alongside Grant Delpit. Cleveland’s defense has had a lot of talent, but not lived up to it of late. Perhaps this trio can close (or at least narrow) the gap between perception and reality. 

Minnesota Vikings

I like pairing these two players together because the Vikings are making similar bets on both of them. Davenport (26 years old) and Murphy (25) are both young, well-pedigreed (Davenport was a first-round pick and Murphy was a second rounder) who have been somewhat inconsistent and have yet to reach the heights their drafting teams hoped they’d achieve. But they have each still been productive players, and the Vikings signed them each to affordable, short-term deals. If it doesn’t work out, the team can move on in a year. If it does, then Minnesota has Murphy under contract for a second season, and can use the franchise tag or work out a long-term contract with Davenport, who still has upside as a pass-rusher.

Much as was the case for Hargrave signing in San Francisco, a decent portion of the intrigue here comes from the fact that the Bears traded away Roquan Smith during last season, then signed not one, but two linebackers to long-term contracts. Edmunds got a bigger, longer deal as the younger player with higher upside as both a coverage player and rangy tackler, but he’s also not been the most consistent force during his career. Last season was his best yet, though, and the Bears are obviously betting that it will be a sign of things to come. Chicago also paired him with Edwards, who is a steadier veteran on the second level. Head coach Matt Eberflus was a longtime linebackers coach in Cleveland and Dallas before becoming the defensive coordinator in Indianapolis, which led to his getting the job in Chicago. That his team is investing so heavily in players at that position is a signal of what he values in a defense. 

New defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero utilizes a lot of heavy defensive back packages, and in Bell, he gets someone who has experience playing a lot of different coverages (and different roles within them) thanks to his time playing for Lou Anarumo in Cincinnati. Dropping him into a secondary that already includes Jeremy Chinn and Xavier Woods allows Evero the flexibility to mix and match his personnel and disguise his coverages in the ways he likes to do.

Trade Acquisitions

Both of these players are still playing at a very high level, and yet they came at a relatively low cost thanks to the combination of their salary and their former teams’ place in the life cycle of contention. Miami nabbed Ramsey to pair with Xavien Howard, and only had to give up a third-round pick and tight end Hunter Long. Dallas got Gilmore to play across from Trevon Diggs, and only had to surrender a compensatory fifth-rounder. Those are nice pieces of business, helping teams fill holes in their roster with quality talent that far exceeds the price of acquisition.