By Steve Silverman
» More Columns
The New York Giants taught the NFL an important lesson last season. The popular theory in the league had been that the best way to build a team was through the draft.
But the Giants were not willing to go through a complete rebuilding process to upgrade their defense, which was the worst in the league in 2015.
Instead, the Giants decided to go shopping at the free-agency market, and they brought in defensive end Olivier Vernon, cornerback Janoris Jenkins and defensive tackle Damon Harrison to turn that weakness around.
General manager Jerry Reese had really done very little except save ownership money prior to those signings. He clearly hoped those additions would make Big Blue a bit more respectable on defense, and it was clear early on in 2016 that the defense was improved compared to the year before.
But as the season moved along, the improved defense turned into a cohesive unit capable of turning any game around. The Giants finished the season ranked 10th in yards allowed and third against the run, and the defense was the primary reason the team made the playoffs.
As is almost always the case in the NFL, the opposition took notice of what the Giants accomplished in free agency. When it comes to building an offensive attack — meaning finding the right quarterback — it has to be done through the draft.
But general managers around the league realize that significant defensive improvement can be accomplished through free agency.
Here are the top defensive free agency signings in 2017.
CALAIS CAMPBELL, DE, JACKSONVILLE
There are several keys when it comes to playing effective defensive football, but pressuring the opponent’s quarterback remains at the top of the list. The Jaguars have been ineffective in that area for a number of years, and new vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin has attempted to address that issue immediately by signing Campbell to a five-year, $60 million deal.
Campbell is a huge man at 6-foot-8 and 282 pounds, and he has a slew of weapons. Campbell has an exceptional reach, and he has the ability to impact the quarterback’s vision and throwing lanes regularly. He had eight sacks last year, has 56½ for his career and is also solid against the run.
The Arizona Cardinals were able to intimidate a number of opponents the past three years, and Campbell’s presence was a big reason for that. They are going to miss the 30-year-old quite a bit, and the Jaguars are going to improve their defensive status to the point where they could be a team that challenges for the AFC South title.
STEPHON GILMORE, CB, NEW ENGLAND
Gilmore had a strong track record with the Buffalo Bills through his first five seasons in the league, but New England coach Bill Belichick clearly sees Gilmore as a player who can consistently take on the role of game changer in the years to come.
The Patriots signed Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million deal, and they are going to start him at cornerback opposite Malcolm Butler. Both can play the role of shut-down corner, and Gilmore has a chance to be a spectacular ball athlete. He had five interceptions a year ago, and that total could reach nine or 10 with the Pats.
Belichick has anointed him by giving him the big-money contract, and Gilmore’s confidence has never been higher as a result. Look for a huge year in the New England secondary.
DONTARI POE, DT, ATLANTA
The Falcons may have a very difficult time getting over the heartbreak and nightmare of losing Super Bowl LI to the Patriots. Blowing a 28-3 lead does not go away, and Atlanta coach Dan Quinn is faced with the biggest and most important test of his career in attempting to help his team get past that and remain viable in 2017.
Poe, who signed a bargain-basement one-year, $8 million deal. can play a key role in helping the Falcons on a number of fronts. The former Kansas City Chief was not there for the collapse, so he has a chance to help his teammates put that loss in the rearview mirror.
The more important factor is his ability against the interior run. While the Falcons have plenty of speed and athleticism on defense, there has been a lack of strength and power on the defensive interior for years. Poe changes that dramatically.
He is a 6-3, 346-pounder who can clog up the middle and overpower blockers on every play. The Falcons have needed this kind of player for years, and he has a chance to become one of the team’s best defenders.
NICK PERRY, OLB, GREEN BAY
The Packers could have made a big mistake by letting Perry get away through free agency, but they were too smart for that outcome and signed him to a five-year, $60 million deal.
Perry had 11 sacks last year, and he should be able to reach double digits in sacks again. As Clay Matthews slows down, Perry fulfills an even more important role, and he has All-Pro potential in 2017. The defense has to complement quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the offense, and Perry is the key to that unit this year.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @Profootballboy