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USATSI

Nothing sells tickets in the NFL quite like an elite quarterback and explosive offense. But Super Bowl LVIII is recent evidence that defense still matters greatly in the hunt for a Lombardi Trophy. Perhaps more than even Patrick Mahomes, Steve Spagnuolo's Kansas City Chiefs defense helped propel the third title in five years for this generation's NFL dynasty.

With that in mind, all 32 teams figure to explore this year's veteran market for defensive upgrades. And 2024 free agency actually has quite a few starting-caliber pieces to offer. 

(To check out the top 25 offensive free agents, click here).  

Here's an early look at 25 of the best defenders set to be available:

Honorable mentions: Chiefs DE Mike Danna, Eagles DE Brandon Graham, Texans DL Sheldon Rankins, Colts DL Grover Stewart, Ravens OLB Jadeveon Clowney, Browns OLB Za'Darius Smith, Patriots OLB Josh Uche, Buccaneers LB Devin White, Seahawks LB Jordyn Brooks, Seahawks LB Bobby Wagner, Broncos LB Josey Jewell, Chiefs LB Willie Gay Jr., Texans CB Steven Nelson, Colts CB Kenny Moore II, Rams S Jordan Fuller, Lions S C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Giants S Xavier McKinney

25. Bengals DL D.J. Reader

He turns 30 this summer, and he's missed extensive time due to injury in two of his last four seasons. But Reader is a mammoth-sized gap-plugger who's been rock-steady when healthy for both the Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Texans. His impact goes well beyond the numbers, particularly as a run defender.

24. Eagles DL Fletcher Cox

After a multiyear lull, Cox returned to starting-caliber form on an otherwise shoddy Philadelphia Eagles defense in 2023. At 33, he's still best suited in a rotational role, no longer the every-down stud of his prime. But if he doesn't retire or re-sign in Philly, he should have suitors as an interior chess piece.

23. Panthers LB Frankie Luvu

The former New York Jets reserve has quietly carved out a niche as the Carolina Panthers' top off-ball blitzer, totaling 12.5 sacks and 20 quarterback hits since 2022. His speed to the ball gives him great appeal even at a devalued position, and he's only two years into his opportunity as a full-time starter.

22. Ravens S Geno Stone

There are few veterans better positioned to capitalize on a single season of production than Stone, whose seven picks in 2023 made him an unlikely star of a loaded Baltimore Ravens defense. While he projects as more of a No. 3 center fielder than do-it-all starter, his knack for finding the ball in pass coverage can't be denied.

21. Commanders S Kam Curl

If Geno Stone is the safety market's boom-or-bust playmaker, then Curl is the steady, if unspectacular, prototype. While Washington's struggled to field a respectable pass "D," he's still logged four straight years of generally reliable play on the back end, hitting a career-high 115 tackles in 2023.

20. Cowboys CB Stephon Gilmore

His highs are super-high, which makes sense considering he's earned Pro Bowl nods with three different teams. Even at 33, Gilmore had a few vintage lockdowns for the Dallas Cowboys in 2023. The concern, however, is that he's not getting any younger and will likely be joining his fifth different defense in as many years.

19. Texans DE Jonathan Greenard

Will Anderson Jr. won Defensive Rookie of the Year in the Houston Texans' trenches, but Greenard quietly set the stage for his pass-rushing efficiency, leading the club with 12.5 sacks in 2023. Injuries robbed him of 16 games from 2021-2022, but when active, he's been one of the Texans' steadiest starters.

18. Dolphins OLB Andrew Van Ginkel

On a Miami Dolphins roster loaded with speed and celebrity, Van Ginkel emerged in 2023 as more of a rugged breakout, logging a career-high six sacks, plus 19 QB hits, as a part-time starter. Couple that with three other years of solid rotational work, and he's primed for a bigger gig moving forward.

17. Buccaneers LB Lavonte David

Speaking of age, David continues to defy it as the rock of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense, topping 120 tackles for the fourth time in six years at 33. It's just hard to find him out of position, and he still brings a physical edge. It's difficult, however, to envision him playing for a team other than the Bucs.

16. Commanders CB Kendall Fuller

Like fellow free agent Kam Curl, Fuller often gets overlooked for playing on a forgettable Washington Commanders defense. But he's mostly been steady as a cover man, and that dates eight years, which he's split between D.C. and the Kansas City Chiefs. You could do much worse on the perimeter.

15. Patriots S Kyle Dugger

A quasi-linebacker built to move around a defense, Dugger has made plays on the ball at basically every level, totaling nine picks, 20 pass breakups and 16 tackles for loss over his last three seasons. A team willing to deploy him close to the line of scrimmage should be rewarded.

14. Bills DE/OLB Leonard Floyd

There might not be a more underrated pass-rushing journeyman than Floyd, who's now eclipsed nine sacks and 18 QB hits in four straight seasons between the Buffalo Bills and Los Angeles Rams. He's a plug-and-play starter who thrives on pinning his ears back on passing downs.

13. 49ers DE/OLB Chase Young

The former No. 2 overall draft pick is probably the biggest mystery on the rundown, if only because his reputation towers over his career production. It's true the ex-Washington Commanders standout had a strong Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers, but his value comes much more from the upside of his freakish physical tools than a consistent, durable track record.

12. Jets DE/OLB Bryce Huff

The stocky, high-effort New York Jets reserve is one of Robert Saleh's favorites, and his efficiency as a situational rusher justifies that, especially coming off a career 2023 season (10 sacks, 21 QB hits). He's got the explosiveness of a future Pro Bowler, provided he can stay durable with more snaps.

11. Seahawks DL Leonard Williams

Dealt from the New York Giants during the 2023 campaign, Williams is no longer necessarily the game-wrecker he briefly was at the peak of his Giants and New York Jets tenures. But even going on 30, he remains a big, versatile pass rusher capable of moving around the trenches.

10. Ravens LB Patrick Queen

The former first-round pick finally lived up to his pre-draft hype once Roquan Smith arrived to assist the Baltimore Ravens linebacker corps in 2022. Still just 24, he's only now entering his prime, fresh off a dynamic 2023 that saw him headline one of the game's stingiest defenses with 133 tackles, six pass breakups and multiple takeaways.

9. Vikings DE/OLB Danielle Hunter

Two years after missing almost a full season due to a serious injury, Hunter was back to MVP-caliber for the Minnesota Vikings defense in 2023, logging a career-best 16.5 sacks and 23 tackles for loss. Going on 30, he remains one of the most imposing, unblockable edge rushers in the game.

8. Chiefs CB L'Jarius Sneed

The two-time Super Bowl champion quickly went from promising slot prospect to Pro Bowl-caliber perimeter man in Kansas City, bringing consistent physicality to the Chiefs' title-winning defense in 2023. He's benefited from a strong supporting cast, sure, but he's also proven more than capable of shadowing elite weapons in big spots.

7. Bears CB Jaylon Johnson

Injuries marred a projected third-year breakout for Johnson, but he bounced back with an All-Pro showing in 2023 (four INTs, 10 pass deflections), helping return the Chicago Bears "D" to relevance late in the year. It's rare to have a soon-to-be 25-year-old No. 1 corner hit the open market, so he should field plenty of lucrative offers.

6. Dolphins DL Christian Wilkins

Through thick and thin, the Miami Dolphins have been able to count on Wilkins up front. The former first-rounder has played in 81 of 83 possible games since entering the NFL, logging at least 10 tackles for loss in each of his last three seasons. He does everything well as the anchor of the defensive front.

5. Ravens DT Justin Madubuike

Many big names get props for the Baltimore Ravens' dominant defensive effort of 2023, but Madubuike was the biggest revelation, going from solid to sterling interior force with a career-high 13 sacks, 12 tackles for loss and whopping 33 QB hits. Going on 27, he profiles as a long-term building block for whichever team wants to pony up the dough.

4. Panthers DE/OLB Brian Burns

Amid a contract dispute and trade rumors, Burns wasn't necessarily his elite self for parts of 2023, but there's no ignoring his steady hand as the most persistent pocket-pusher on Carolina's front; he's totaled 46 sacks and an average of almost 20 QB hits per year over five seasons with the Panthers. Soon to be 26, he could break the bank while upgrading someone's pass rush in a major way.

3. Buccaneers S Antoine Winfield Jr.

Safeties don't always get the love they deserve in today's NFL. But Winfield truly does it all, quickly establishing himself as a leader of the physical Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense. He's fast. He's feisty. He finds the ball on every level of the "D." After a 2023 breakout (122 tackles, six sacks, six forced fumbles), he should be in high demand around the NFL.

2. Jaguars DE/OLB Josh Allen

The "other" Josh Allen initially didn't sustain the momentum of a 10.5-sack rookie debut with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but when healthy, he's quietly been one of the NFL's most dangerous edge rushers. Fresh off a career-high 17.5 sacks, the two-time Pro Bowler has the athleticism to thrive either standing up or in the dirt, and many would say he's only approaching his prime.

1. Chiefs DL Chris Jones

A beast of an interior pocket-disruptor at the heart of the Kansas City Chiefs' championship lineup, Jones is one of the top five defensive difference-makers in the NFL, primed to command a contract in the ballpark of $30 million per year. He's already hinted at a return to K.C., where the Chiefs should prioritize an extension after his latest postseason stardom. If, somehow, he manages to hit the market, plenty of clubs would rush to make him one of the highest-paid players in the game.