Free Agency Primer: Pass rushers and defensive linemen

There’s a very good group of free agent defensive linemen that will hit the open market on Tuesday. As the NFL becomes more of a passing league, teams must find the blueprint in order to stop the great quarterbacks in the league. Everyone is trying to copy the Seahawks model, which entailed getting depth on the defensive line and combining that with battering ram safeties and corners who can move and stand as tall as trees.

The difficulty in rating defensive players, especially one’s along the front seven, is the way players are designated. If you go by their actual positions, designating a defensive end like Michael Bennett in a 4-3, compared to designating one in a 3-4, like Arthur Jones, is unfair. For the purpose of this article, I will designate the top five pass rushers, be it 4-3 ends or 3-4 outside linebackers and the top 5 interior lineman. A player like Jones would easily fit in the latter.

Top-5 edge rushers

With Greg Hardy, Brian Orakpo and Jason Worilds having been tagged, most of the premier free agent edge rushers are now mostly coming from 4-3 defensive schemes.

1. Lamaar Houston: Many of you may not know who Houston is, unless you’re a fan of an AFC team. Houston is incredibly versatile and can play all over the front seven. He had a great season recording 69 tackles and six sacks for the Raiders. His ability to play as an interior lineman or a defensive end in the 3-4 or 4-3 will make him a hot commodity. There’s even been enough talk that he could also play as a standup linebacker in a 3-4. Houston is a 6’3, 300 pound behemoth and at 26 years old, is entering the prime of his career. An athletic specimen of his nature will have teams lining up for his services.

2. Michael Bennett: One of the best quotes of the off-season was from Bennett, who was asked if he would take a hometown discount from the Seahawks.

“There is no such thing as discount,” Bennett said last month when asked if he’d give the Seahawks a break in negotiations. “This is not Costco, this is not Walmart — this is real life. There is no discount really because you go out there and you don’t give a discount on effort; you go out there and you give the best effort every day and you fight for your teammates, and you want to be compensated for the way that you perform and the kind of teammate you are.”

I’m all for players getting the most that they can and from past contracts to players of similar production and talent, such as Charles Johnson ($8.5 million base salary) and Bennett’s Seahawks teammate, Chris Clemons ($7.5 million base salary), Bennett should command around that much with a decent chunk of guaranteed money. Unlike Michael Johnson who has been inconsistent, Bennett has produced great numbers, while being a pass rusher on a pitch count. Bennett played only 643 snaps, which was less than the likes of Charles Johnson (725 snaps, 11 sacks), Chris Long (916 snaps, 8.5 sacks, $13million base salary) and the aforementioned Michael Johnson (940 snaps, 3.5 sacks, $11, million franchise tag salary). There’s no doubt Michael Bennett will get a higher salary with a lengthy term. He’s had two good seasons, back-to-back, and when you prorate his production based off the snaps that other players get, he should easily be able to get 13-14 sacks. As evidenced by his play in the Super Bowl, he’s soon becoming one of the better pass rushers in the game.

3. Jared Allen: The “mullet” has been on a slight decline over the past two seasons as age has caught up to him. Still, his 11.5 sacks in 2013 meant that for a seventh straight year, he’s eclipsed double-digit sack totals. His 128 career sacks are starting to help him garner Hall of Fame potential as he turns 32 next month. With still a lot left in the tank, Allen is by far the most accomplished in this group. He’s never been a premier athlete, but his long arms and tenacity have allowed him to be one of the best at his craft for nearly a decade. With the Vikings re-signing Everson Griffen to a long-term deal and Allen looking to get somewhere close to the $11 million he’s been making, the Vikings will have officially turned the page on the veteran defensive end. Allen should now look to find a team that can contend and there are rumblings of a potential move to Philadelphia or New England, who could surely use more depth at the defensive end position.

4. Justin Tuck: Boy, did Tuck look terrible in the first half of the season. He looked slow and battered. Thanks to a matchup in the second half of the season against Washington and right guard Tyler Polumbus (who’s one of the weaker players at that position in the league), Tuck was able to record four sacks in that one game. In total, in the final six games of the season, Tuck had 9.5 sacks. He finished the 2013 season with 11, which was more than his 2011 and 2012 seasons combined (5 and 4). Regardless of who or when they came against, Tuck is an accomplished player who is equally good as a run-stopper. Tuck has always played the right defensive end position, which is usually where the in-line tight ends starts out and that has been a testament to his prowess against the run. From a leadership standpoint, the former Fighting Irish defender is as good as they come, captaining the unit since the departure of Michael Strahan.

5. Michael Johnson: After a stellar 2012 season with 11.5 sacks, the former Georgia Tech defensive end had a mild sack total of just 3.5 in 2013. Johnson was given the franchise tag last season and the Bengals opted to give a long-term deal to Carlos Dunlap instead. With the depth they still have, along with the highly regarded Margus Hunt waiting for his turn, Johnson will be looking for a new home as of Tuesday. The reality is that the Bengals have key players on the way to making some serious money over the next two years: Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and Vontaze Burfict to name a few. What concerns me about Johnson is not his physical attributes. The guy is a 6’7, 280 pound athletic specimen, who has good pass-rushing instincts. But it just feels like you are always yearning for more with Johnson, who last season, a contract year, was the only time he amassed over 10 sacks. That could be due to the Bengals employing a heavy rotation with their defensive ends throughout the years, but Johnson, who will definitely cash-in will need to provide much more production if he is to live up to his big contract. Being re-united with Mike Zimmer in Minnesota would be a great fit for Johnson, as Jared Allen’s days appear to be over.

Best of the rest

Shaun Philips had a nice season with 10 sacks after being released from San Diego. At this point, he is strictly a rotational pass rusher, who can provide production as a 4-3 end or from a 3-4 standup position. After the loss of Von Miller, Philips to suspension and to injury, the former Purdue Boilermaker was one of the Broncos more valuable players. A veteran laden team that needs a pass rusher will definitely give Philips some looks.

Corey Wootton has the size of a Julius Peppers with the potential to reach the same sack totals as the former North Carolina Tar Heel. As a rotational pass rusher, Wootton has compiled 7.0 and 3.5 sacks in the last two seasons respectively. Wootton has dealt with hip issues, which may prevent certain teams from acquiring his services. From a talent and potential standpoint, he could very well be a breakout player. Depending on  the Bears ability to snag Michael Bennett (he is the brother of Bears tight end Martellus Bennett), Wootton could still be an intriguing option for Chicago

Top-5 interior defensive linemen

1. Henry Melton: Melton’s ACL injury was so unfortunate. One because, from his standpoint, he had rejected a long-term deal prior to the season and secondly because the front-seven Bears got literally run over at any opportunity once he was injured. Melton had a fine 2012 with over 40 tackles and six sacks. He had established himself as the perfect three-technique for Lovie Smith’s one-gap, cover-two defense; solid against the run, with the pass rushing instincts to command double teams from offensive linemen. I could still see him getting decent term on any deal he signs, but the dollar amount may not be what he wants and surely, the contract with be heavily incentive laden.

2. Linval Jospeh: Joseph was a revelation for a Giants team who struggled on the defensive line all season. At 25 years old, he is one of the younger players in this group. From a production point of view, his 59 tackles and three sacks placed him as one of the better run stopping interior linemen in the league, last season. His name was routinely called during Giants games last season and he was one of the strong forces in an otherwise disappointing season for that unit. He has the versatility to play in a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense. I’m shocked that the Giants appear keen on letting him go, but I can understand as it appears he will command more money than they have the cap space to give. Look for teams like the Redskins, who desperately need a 3-4 one-technique or three-technique in their lineup.

3A. Randy Starks: Interior linemen often do not get enough credit for their defensive impact. That is due to their sacks number being understandably low, and their tackle numbers as well. When talking about Randy Starks, he will not wow you with great numbers, but as a three-technique, he is so solid and crucial to the success of a defense. In this case, the Dolphins benefited from Starks’ solid play for many years. The former Maryland Terrapin takes on double teams and creates penetration at will, freeing up linebackers and pass rushers like Cameron Wake, whose production can definitely be attributed to some extent to Starks.

3B. Paul Soliai: Let’s not forget about Paul Soliai, who is the other half of the tremendous duo in the interior line for the Dolphins. His game is very similar to Starks, although he gets to the passer at a slightly lower clip. Both players cannot be measured solely by their stats as they do things that numbers cannot put in evidence. Together, they formed one of the best run-stopping duo’s, which helped the likes of Olivier Vernon and Wake perform at superior levels. No doubt, wherever they go, the team that signs them will greatly improve their run blocking and pass rushing as well.

4. Jason Hatcher: The move to a cover-two defense proved quite beneficial to Hatcher who, in 2013, recorded a career high 11.5 sacks making his first Pro Bowl appearance in the process. Considering the injuries to the Cowboys defensive line, his production was quite impressive. As Hatcher became more noteworthy for an offense to scheme against, he saw more double teams from offensive linemen. No matter though, as he continued to be a terror. Should teams be worried that his production came off a contract year? Hatcher is also 31, which may worry a few teams but ultimately I see him getting a nice deal from a team that one’s a one-gap system on the front line.

5. Antonio Smith: J.J. Watt gets all the attention on the Texans defense, and rightfully so, but Antonio Smith should garner some attention as well. Very few people will know who he is, but he was integral to the Texans 3-4 defense. Smith will be 33 by the time the season begins, but his combination of size, strength and ability to stop the run are tough components to replicate for teams running a 3-4 defense. As an added bonus, Smith has recorded at least four sacks in each of the past five seasons. For a three-technique in a 3-4 defense, that is very good production.

Best of the rest:

Arthur Jones has made a nice career for himself as another 3-4 interior lineman. Over his last two seasons, he’s recorded 47 and 53 tackles, with a combined 8.5 sacks combined. As mentioned with 3-4 defensive ends, their impact cannot be measured by statistics. Jones provided avenues for Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil to rush the passer and kept the Baltimore linebackers clean from engaged blockers. The former Syracuse Orange defender is a perfect fit in a 3-4 and could easily be the best from this underrated bunch.

B.J. Raji was considered one of the better nose-tackles in the league following the Packers Super Bowl run in 2010.  That season, he recorded 39 combined tackles and 6.5 sacks. The next season he made his first and only Pro Bowl appearance. Since then, his game has eroded and he has’t been able to stay healthy or on the field consistently. The Packers are wise to offer Raji a one or two-year “prove it” type of deal to see if Raji can recapture some of the success he’s previously had. Any team who risks a lengthy term with big bucks on him will need to ensure that he’s back to the 2010 and 2011 form that made him one of the better 3-4 nose tackles.



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