Saturday, February 11, 2012

2012 Free Agency Top Fives: Defensive Linemen

Over the next month leading up to the free-agent signing period on March 13, I'll be taking a look at the best players slated for free agency this offseason.
It should be noted that this series focuses only on players that will become free agents in the next league year, and not players that are released by their teams (ex. Peyton Manning) before it begins.

Although this article is called "defensive linemen," it pretty much excludes pass rushers and examines the "big-bodied" defensive linemen, which includes 3-4 defensive ends and nose tackles as well as 4-3 defensive tackles. Many of these players translate into either scheme, so it makes no sense to split them apart because of their position's name.

In this entry, I'll examine the top defensive tackles (and 3-4 defensive ends) expected to hit the open market next month, as well as some other notable names at the position.

1. Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals

A second-round pick in 2008, Campbell has exceeded every expectation since he become a starter in his second season. He's missed only two games over the past three years and has totaled 21 sacks in that span despite not being primarily tasked with rushing the passer. Arguably the best 3-4 defensive end in the league in 2011, Campbell also profiles as a 4-3 tackle or even a defensive end in the 4-3. He's in line for a monster contract.

2. Sione Pouha, New York Jets

The Jets' defense wasn't nearly as good 2011 as it had been in the past ,but it certainly wasn't Pouha's fault. Easily one of the top nose tackles in the game, Pouha is stout at the point of attack and can anchor the line as good as anyone. The Jets would obviously like to keep him, but any team in the league could use him and he's not going to be cheap.

3. Brodrick Bunkley, Denver Broncos

A first-round pick by the Eagles in 2006, Bunkley was largely a disappointment in Philadelphia and was shipped to Denver in exchange for an undisclosed draft pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Something must have clicked this season, however, as he totaled 43 tackles and graded out as the second-ranked 4-3 defensive tackle according to Pro Football Focus. Now that he's proved himself, he should have no shortage of suitors.

4. Paul Soliai, Miami Dolphins

A fourth-round pick back in 2007, Soliai didn't really emerge until the 2010 season, when he played like one of the best nose tackles in the league. He played under the franchise tag in 2011 and wasn't quite as good, but he still performed well and has rare size. Plenty of teams are going to be willing to pay Soliai to anchor their 3-4 scheme, although he could play in a 4-3 as well.

5. Kendall Langford, Miami Dolphins

A bit of an underrated player around the league, Langford has never missed a game in four years since being drafted in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft. His tackle total fell significantly in 2011, but he remains one of the better 3-4 ends in the league and could play tackle in a 4-3 as well. He deserves a significant raise and could bring in a four-year deal for $3-5 million per year.

Beyond the Top Five
  • Rocky Bernard, New York Giants — A 10-year veteran, Bernard hasn't been a full-time starter since 2008 with the Seahawks, but he did appear in all 16 games and rack up 30 tackles for the Super Bowl champs this past season. He still grades out as a productive player and makes an ideal veteran backup or short-term starter at age 32.
  • Red Bryant, Seattle Seahawks — A mountain at 6-foot-4 and 323 pounds, Bryant started all 16 games in 2011 and actually played defensive end in a 4-3, which is a pretty odd fit. In addition to his defensive prowess, Bryant also blocked four kicks in 2011 to become a special teams superstar. He has the versatility to play in either scheme from end to tackle, but he profiles best as an interior lineman regardless and has some upside.
  • Adam Carriker, Washington Redskins — The No. 13 overall pick by the Rams in 2011, Carriker struggled to perform in two seasons in St. Louis before missing the entire 2009 campaign with a torn muscle in his shoulder. After being shipped to the Redskins in 2010, Carriker performed well in his first season as a 3-4 end but struggled this past season. As a former first-round pick, Carriker should get a few more chances to prove himself as a long-term starting option.
  • Fred Evans, Minnesota Vikings — Evans has spent the past five seasons as a rotational lineman for the Vikings, but has just two career starts to his name and none since 2008. He's learned from some quality players in Minnesota, but the 28-year-old doesn't appear to be more than a career backup.
  • Aubrayo Franklin, New Orleans Saints — I was personally shocked when Franklin was only able to land a one-year deal in free agency in 2011, because he had emerged as one of the best nose tackles in the game in San Francisco. New Orleans didn't even use him right and I don't know how many chances he'll get at age 31, but he still has a lot of ability.
  • Antonio Garay, San Diego Chargers — A carer backup up to the 2010 season in stints with Cleveland, Chicago, and San Diego, Garay emerged as a starter for the Chargers two years ago and has maintained the role since. He graded out extremely well in 2010 before a bit of a dip this past season, but he's clearly a short-term starting option at 32.
  • Gary Gibson, St. Louis Rams — A former undrafted free agent in 2005 who bounced around the league and even spent time in NFL Europa, Gibson found a home in St. Louis with 16 starts in 2010 and a rotational role this past season. He's actually graded out surprisingly well, but I question his long-term upside and how much attention he'll draw from around the league.
  • Amon Gordon, Kansas City Chiefs — Gordon is the epitome of a journeyman, with stints in Cleveland, Denver, Baltimore, Tennessee, Philadelphia, New England, Seattle, Tennessee (again), Seattle (again), and finally Kansas City since being drafted in the fourth round in 2004. He set career highs with 16 games played, 23 tackles, two sacks, and a pass deflection in 2011, but he's not likely to emerge as a starter at age 30.
  • Kelly Gregg, Kansas City Chiefs — A long-time starter for the Ravens, Gregg moved on to Kansas City in 2011 and was tasked with anchoring the Chiefs' 3-4 defense. The 35-year-old wasn't that effective for the league's No. 26 run defense and he might be nearing the end of the line.
  • Tommie Harris, San Diego Chargers — A three-time Pro Bowler with the Bears, Harris quickly fell out of favor in Chicago after signing a $40 million contract in 2008. He fizzled in a 2010 stint with the Colts and finally landed in San Diego as a 3-4 end for the first time in his career, playing well as a rotational player. He's always had talent and could certainly turn his career around, but it remains to be seen if he can get the opportunity.
  • Vonnie Holliday, Arizona Cardinals — Playing for his fourth team in as many years in 2011, Holliday once again had a fairly good season despite only being a backup in Arizona. He's better than his playing time would indicate, but nobody is committing much to a 36-year-old. He might bounce around a bit more or simply hang it up, but he can still be effective if given the chance.
  • Israel Idonije, Chicago Bears — I could have easily put him in the pass rusher section, but Idonije is so well-rounded and versatile he fits here too. Idonije can get to the quarterback and play the run at either end or tackle in the 4-3. He's started the past two years after spending the seven before as a backup. He'll be 32 next season and I'm not sure how much interest he'll generate league-wide, but he has found a niche in Chicago.
  • Derek Landri, Philadelphia Eagles — A fifth-round pick by the Jaguars in 2007, Landri failed to establish himself in two-year stints in Jacksonville and Carolina. Though he appeared in only 12 games in 2011 and started none, he graded out extremely well and might be in line for more playing time going forward. However, the 6-foot-2, 290-pounder won't fit in all schemes.
  • Amobi Okoye, Chicago Bears — The youngest player to ever be drafted, Okoye was the No. 10 overall pick in 2007 but struggled after a good rookie season with the Texans. He was released as a bad fit for their new 3-4 scheme and landed in Chicago, where he had a pretty good season as a rotational lineman. Still just 24 despite having 59 starts under his belt, Okoye still has plenty of upside and can be a long-term starter if he stays committed and proves himself.
  • Cory Redding, Baltimore Ravens — A long-time starter for the Lions, Seahwaks and Ravens, Redding isn't that great of a pass rusher (he had a career-high eight sacks in 2006) but is one of the best run-stuffing ends in football. He probably has a couple more years to start ahead of him and won't be all that expensive.
  • Shaun Rogers, New Orleans Saints — Although he hasn't been a full-time starter since 2009, Rogers remains one of the monster nose tackles in the game. He's had an up-and-down career, but there's no denying the impact he can have. If he stays motivated, he could play another 5-6 years in the league similar to a Keith Traylor or Ted Washington.
  • Marcus Thomas, Denver Broncos — A fourth-round pick in 2007, Thomas has seen significant time as a starter in 2008 and 2011. He offers nothing as a pass rusher but is a stout run defender, so the 26-year-old might be able to find a starting job.
  • Gerard Warren, New England Patriots — The No. 3 overall pick in 2001, Warren has had a solid but unspectacular career. He can still be a productive lineman in a rotation, but he'll be 34 next year and is probably a year or two away (at best) from retirement.

Discuss this article in the comments below or on the forum here!