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NFL free-agency predictions: Top defensive players

Julian Catalfo / theScore

NFL free agency kicks off Monday with the beginning of the negotiating period.

After starting with a look at the market for offensive players, let's shift to the other side of the ball. Where could this year's top defensive players get their big-money deals?

Danielle Hunter, EDGE

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3-year, $69M deal with $50M guaranteed

Hunter is the top player available among a crowded group of free-agent edge rushers. Though depth at the position could make it tough for others to cash in, a four-time Pro Bowler coming off a career-best 16.5-sack season should have no such issues. The Rams have never been shy about chasing down top talent, and they can provide Hunter will his best opportunity yet to compete for a Super Bowl.

Christian Wilkins, DT

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4-year, $100M deal with $76M guaranteed

The market for Wilkins' services was set when the Ravens gave Madubuike a four-year, $98-million extension. That might scare some teams away, but it shouldn't. Wilkins is a dominant interior run defender who also posted a career-high 9.5 sacks last season. The Raiders should be doing everything they can to add that kind of player alongside Maxx Crosby, and they've got the cap space to make it happen.

Justin Simmons, S

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2-year, $29M deal with $20M guaranteed

Simmons is a surprise addition to this year's free-agent class after the Broncos opted for his release. Though the two-time Pro Bowler is now 30 years old, that decision seems more about a disastrous cap situation than anything to do with his performance. Simmons remains one of the league's premier safeties, and he should have a market that reflects that. A few familiar faces in Philly (defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and defensive backs coach Christian Parker) are likely already banging the table for this move. Howie Roseman can't afford to pass up such a perfect opportunity to address a long-standing need.

Leonard Williams, DT

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3-year, $54M deal with $40M guaranteed

Williams is heading for the free-agent market after a productive season split between the Giants and Seahawks. Seattle surely doesn't want to let him go after giving up second- and fifth-round picks in a deadline deal, but his market will be fairly strong. A team with a major need on the interior defensive front, like the Vikings, should be more than happy to give Williams another solid payday.

D.J. Reader, DT

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1-year, $10.5M deal with $9M guaranteed

Reader may have to settle for a one-year deal after a torn quad ended his 2023 season. If healthy, though, that could make him one of the steals of this year's free-agent class. Reader has long been among the NFL's premier interior run defenders. He's never been one to pile up sack numbers, but his underlying pass-rush metrics look pretty good. His presence next to Myles Garrett could be the final piece for an already outstanding Browns defense.

Xavier McKinney, S

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4-year, $50M deal with $30M guaranteed

McKinney shouldn't be impacted by the surplus of options on the safety market. A versatile defensive back who's still only 24 years old, the former second-round pick may still have his best football ahead of him. That makes him a particularly rare find in free agency. The Packers should be aggressive in their pursuit of an upgrade on the back end, and the likely release of David Bakhtiari will clear more than enough space for them to make a splash.

Kamren Curl, S

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4-year, $50M deal with $27M guaranteed

Curl, like McKinney, is a unique free agent - impact players don't typically hit the open market at 24 years old. The former Commanders seventh-round pick is a reliable contributor both in coverage and against the run. He should be near the top of the free-agent wish list for a young Bears team that has a ton of financial flexibility to build around its incoming rookie quarterback.

Stephon Gilmore, CB

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1-year, $9M deal with $9M guaranteed

All indications are that the Chiefs will entertain trade offers for franchise-tagged cornerback L'Jarius Sneed. That creates a massive void opposite Trent McDuffie. A short-term fix like Gilmore could be the perfect solution to keep the Chiefs' defense rolling. The five-time Pro Bowler is still a playmaker in coverage heading into his age-34 season.

Kendall Fuller, CB

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3-year, $45M deal with $28M guaranteed

The Commanders' defense fell off a cliff in 2023, but that didn't have much to do with their No. 1 corner. Fuller continued to perform at a high level despite the disaster around him, grading as PFF's No. 7-ranked cornerback. The consistency over the last three years in Washington should land him a solid contract from a corner-needy team. The Cardinals fit that description as well as any other.

Tre'Davious White, CB

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1-year, $5M deal with $5M guaranteed

White is no lock to be ready for the start of the 2024 season due to a torn Achilles suffered in October, but he makes the list anyway because he still profiles as a true No. 1 corner when healthy. The Steelers need help in the defensive backfield, and taking the patient approach with a player of White's abilities could pay off in a big way down the stretch.

Patrick Queen, LB

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4-year, $56M deal with $35M guaranteed

Queen is primed for a payday after a breakout season in Baltimore. There's some risk here, as the small sample of high-level play came in a dream situation. But it's certainly possible that the former first-round pick simply needed some time to develop. New Seahawks head coach and former Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald would know better than anyone. And Seattle has a major need at the position with Jordyn Brooks and Bobby Wagner headed for free agency.

Frankie Luvu, LB

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4-year, $48M deal with $24M guaranteed

Luvu has been a breakout star over the last two seasons in Carolina, racking up 236 tackles and 12.5 sacks. He should continue to make a major impact as a run defender and second-level blitzer at his next stop. Getting a leader in the middle for Dan Quinn's defense could be a sensible way for Washington to use its cap space.

Bryce Huff, EDGE

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3-year, $48M deal with $30M guaranteed

Huff will be an interesting free agent. His workload has been limited, largely because he's a non-factor in the run game, but his small-sample returns as a pass-rusher have been other-worldly. The former undrafted free agent recorded 10 sacks and 67 pressures on 334 rush snaps in 2023, good for a PFF pass-rush productivity score ranked second only to Micah Parsons. That'll play. Huff could be an important pass-rush addition for the Eagles if they're able to trade away either Haason Reddick or Josh Sweat.

Chase Young, EDGE

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2-year, $30M deal with $20M guaranteed

Young appeared to be in the midst of a long-awaited breakout year before failing to make much of an impact after a midseason trade to the 49ers. There'll still be plenty of teams willing to take a chance on the former No. 2 overall pick, but he may not be able to cash in with a long-term deal. That could present a perfect opportunity for a team like the Lions. Young tapping into his potential opposite Aidan Hutchinson would help Detroit's defense take the next step.

Jonathan Greenard, EDGE

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4-year, $56M deal with $30M guaranteed

Greenard couldn't have timed his breakout season more perfectly. Heading to the free-agent market after leading the Texans with 12.5 sacks, the former third-round pick has put himself in position for a solid contract. He could be an excellent running mate for Montez Sweat in Chicago, giving the Bears yet another young defensive playmaker.

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