Best free agent defensive players in 2024: Ranking the top 10, projected value, team fits

Here's a breakdown of the top defensive players who could hit the open market this offseason

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Defense wins championships, right?

That's what free-agent defenders will be telling teams at the negotiating table this offseason, especially after a loaded Kansas City Chiefs unit helped secure another Super Bowl earlier this month.

While there's a potentially loaded crop of defensive players who could hit the open market, that group could dwindle during the franchise tag period. Clubs will be doing all they can to hammer out extensions before free agency begins, but they can use the tag in the worst-case scenario.

Before any teams have used the franchise tag, here's a breakdown of the 10 best defensive free agents and where they could end up next season:

1. Chris Jones, DT

2023 review: The five-time Pro Bowler showed no signs of decline in 2023. Jones, 29, racked up 10.5 sacks and was named First-Team All-Pro for the second straight season. In turn, the Chiefs boasted their best defense in the Patrick Mahomes era with Jones as the centerpiece for their second straight Super Bowl win.

2024 prediction: Kansas City Chiefs. Jones boldly proclaimed at the Chiefs' parade that he wasn't going anywhere, which likely didn't make his agent all that happy. But Jones should return to Kansas City, either via the franchise tag ($32.16 million) or with a long-term extension.

2. Josh Allen, EDGE

2023 review: Talk about making the most of your contract year. Allen posted a career-best 17.5 sacks in 2023, seven more than his previous high. He was an absolute game-wrecker for the Jaguars with 66 combined tackles, 33 quarterback hits and 17 tackles for loss -- all career-highs.

2024 prediction: Jacksonville Jaguars. There's almost no chance that the Jags let Allen reach the open market, with the franchise tag as a fallback option if they can't get an extension done. General manager Trent Baalke has said that Allen will be a Jaguar next year, one way or another, and there's no reason not to believe him.

3. Justin Madubuike, DT

2023 review: There were few players more consistent than Madubuike last season. The fourth-year tackled at least half a sack in 13 of 17 games, giving him 13 sacks for the season after just 8.5 over his first three years combined. At just 26 years old, Madubuike is just entering his prime and should be ready for a hefty payday.

2024 prediction: Baltimore Ravens. This might be getting boring with another star staying in place, but it's the most logical option when you break it down. The Ravens have limited cap flexibility and they can't afford to lose a player of Madubuike's caliber for nothing.

4. Christian Wilkins, DL

2023 review: Nine sacks marked a career-high for Wilkins, who continued to play a key role for the Dolphins in 2023. The 28-year-old defensive lineman might not be considered a truly elite player at his position, but he's been consistently productive throughout his five-year career.

2024 prediction: Washington Commanders. After trading away Montez Sweat and Chase Young last season, the Commanders could use some additional muscle on their D-line. Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen are still on the roster, sure, but Wilkins is versatile enough to line up all over for new head coach Dan Quinn's revamped unit.

5. Antoine Winfield Jr., S

2023 review: Winfield has been productive since the moment he was drafted in 2020. But he took his game to new heights in 2023 with career-highs in interceptions (3), sacks (6), forced fumbles (6), fumbles recovered (4) and combined tackles (122). That was enough to be named First-Team All-Pro, and he'll be rewarded with a large contract.

2024 prediction: Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The franchise tag for a safety is reasonable at $16.3 million, which makes this a no-brainer for Tampa Bay. Winfield, 25, is already one of the league's best safeties and he's just entering his presumed prime. He isn't going anywhere this offseason.

6. L'Jarius Sneed, CB

2023 review: Once again, Sneed was a rock-solid cornerback for the Super Bowl champions in 2023. The Chiefs' former fourth-round pick played 99% of defensive snaps last season, and he didn't miss one play in the postseason. Sneed finished the regular season with two interceptions and 14 passes defended.

2024 prediction: Detroit Lions. If not for a leaky secondary, the Lions might've been facing Sneed's Chiefs in the Super Bowl last season. By adding a veteran cornerback, Detroit would instantly improve its defense -- which was clearly it's weakness in 2023. Sneed would bump the Lions' current cornerbacks down a slot and into a more comfortable role while he handles No. 1 responsibilities.

7. Brian Burns, EDGE

2023 review: Like most Panthers players, last season wasn't ideal for Burns. He had eight sacks, the fewest since his rookie season. While that isn't a bad year by any means, it's not what many expected after Burns' breakout 2022 season (12.5 sacks).

2024 prediction: Carolina Panthers. The Panthers reportedly turned down multiple first-round picks in a 2022 trade offer for Burns. While there's a whole new regime in town these days, it's difficult to see them letting the asset walk away for a measly comp pick. Burns is likely to be tagged or extended before reaching free agency.

8. Jaylon Johnson, CB

2023 review: In his fourth season, Johnson emerged as a standout player for the Bears. He had four interceptions and was named Second-Team All-Pro, setting him up for a nice payday. Johnson will be just 25 years old entering next season.

2024 prediction: Chicago Bears. Now that the Bears solidified their D-line with Montez Sweat, it's time to lock up a key piece in the secondary. The franchise tag is in play here, but Chicago would be wise to get a long-term deal worked out with Johnson. He can anchor the backline of the Bears' defense for years to come.

9. Danielle Hunter, EDGE

2023 review: Hunter has been among the league's best pass-rushers since being drafted in 2015. And in his age-29 season, Hunter continued to prove that point. He had a career-best 16.5 sacks for the Vikings, making the Pro Bowl for a fourth time.

2024 prediction: Arizona Cardinals. First-year head coach Jonathan Gannon's defense had just 33 sacks last season, ranking 30th in the NFL. The Cardinals weren't able to replace J.J. Watt and Zach Allen's production, but Hunter would get them back on track. In addition to becoming their best rusher, Hunter could serve as a mentor for BJ Ojulari.

10. Leonard Williams, DT

2023 review: A mid-season trade from the Giants to the Seahawks appeared to be a wake-up call for Williams. He had four sacks in 10 games for Seattle and helped improve their run defense, which is what Williams does best.

2024 prediction: Seattle Seahawks. After surrendering a second- and fifth-round pick for him, Seattle will do everything in its power to retain Williams. The franchise tag might be a little too rich for Williams, who will turn 30 in June. But he will be critically important to new head coach Mike Macdonald.

Other free agent defenders: Kendall Fuller (CB), D.J. Reader (DT), Patrick Queen (LB), Bryce Huff (EDGE), Leonard Floyd (DE), Chase Young (EDGE), Steven Nelson (CB), Geno Stone (S), Kyle Dugger (S), Kamren Curl (S)

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