Wednesday, February 8, 2012

2012 Free Agency Top Fives: Pass Rushers

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.

Because different players play different positions in certain schemes, it's difficult to compare all defensive ends or all outside linebackers. Therefore I'm splitting up my rankings into non-rushing linebackers (3-4 inside linebackers and all 4-3 linebackers) and pass rushers (3-4 outside linebackers and 4-3 defensive ends.)

It should also 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.

In this entry, I'll examine the top pass rushers expected to hit the open market next month, as well as some other notable names at the position.

1. Mario Williams, Houston Texans

When Williams was taken first overall in 2006, the Texans were widely panned for not taking quarterback Vince Young or running back Reggie Bush. Turns out the Texans were right all along, as Williams has become a well-rounded defensive end with two Pro Bowl selections and multiple double-digit sack seasons under his belt. Williams also showed incredible versatility in 2011, grading out well as a 3-4 outside linebacker despite measuring in at at around 6-foot-6 and 280 pounds. He missed much of the past season with a torn pectoral muscle, but he has elite talent and fits into either scheme so he should have no trouble landing a second monster contract.

2. Anthony Spencer, Dallas Cowboys

A first-round pick out of Purdue in 2007, Spencer has spent the past three seasons as the bookend to DeMarcus Ware at outside linebacker in Dallas. He's averaged about six sacks per season and has eight total forced fumbles in that span while playing some of the best run defense in the league at his position. Spencer is not a huge pass rusher but is extremely well-rounded and capable of starting in either defensive scheme, so he's sure to have plenty of suitors.

3. John Abraham, Atlanta Falcons

Even approaching 34 years of age, Abraham is showing no signs of slowing down. He's coming off a 9.5-sack season in which he graded out as the No. 3 defensive end in football, and the four-time Pro Bowler has 112 sacks and 36 forced fumbles for his career. He's not going to get a huge long-term deal at his age, but he should be able to land a two- or three-year contract with elite money as a start for someone.

4. Andre Carter, New England Patriots

A bit of a disappointment as a first-rounder in San Francisco back in 2001, but he's emerged as one of the more reliable and consistent linemen around. He's shown the versatility to play in the 3-4 and 4-3 schemes, but he's best suited for defensive end in the 4-3. He's stout against the run and is coming off a 10-sack season, so he should have no trouble finding a starting gig.

5. Jeremy Mincey, Jacksonville Jaguars

A sixth-round pick by the Patriots in 2006, Mincey bounced around the league a bit and didn't start a game until the 2010 season, when he opened eight games for the Jaguars. 2011 was a breakout season for Mincey, as he totaled 57 tackles, eight sacks and four forced fumbles as the No. 14 defensive end according to Pro Football Focus. He's a bit of a risk in that he could be a one-year wonder, but there's no denying the productivity of this past season so plenty of teams should be interested.

Beyond the Top Five
  • Jamaal Anderson, Indianapolis Colts — The No. 8 overall pick by the Falcons in 2008, Anderson was a massive bust in Atlanta with just 4.5 sacks in 60 games. He totaled 24 tackles and three sacks as a backup with the Colts in 2011 and doesn't appear to have what it takes to be a starter in this league.
  • Mark Anderson, New England Patriots — After a 12-sack rookie season with the Bears in 2006, Anderson struggled to produce consistently and ended up fizzling in stints in Chicago and Houston. Although he started just one game in 2011, Anderson notched 10 sacks as a situational pass rusher for the Patriots. He clearly has the talent to fill that role in the NFL, but asking for anything more isn't advised.
  • Antwan Applewhite, Carolina Panthers — Applewhite started 13 games for the Chargers in 2010, but has failed to show much as a pass rusher with just five sacks over the past two seasons. He's a backup at best.
  • Kroy Biermann, Atlanta Falcons — An excellent special teams player, Biermann has just one starting season and didn't impress all that much when he got the chance in 2010. He's best suited covering kicks and punts and backing up on defense.
  • Dave Ball, Tennessee Titans — Ball has been an on-and-off starter for the Titans over the past four seasons, totaling 15.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in that span. He's not starting material, but he's a nice guy to have in the rotation even at 31.
  • Ahmad Brooks, San Francisco 49ers — A supplemental draft pick by the Bengals in 2006, Brooks didn't become a pass rusher until arriving in San Francisco a few years ago and didn't become a starter until 2011. He totaled 50 tackles, seven sacks and a forced fumbles while grading well against the run and rushing the passer. Now that he's flashed some starting ability, the 27-year-old should be able to maintain a full-time job.
  • Derrick Harvey, Denver Broncos — A first-round pick by the Jaguars in 2008, Harvey was a huge bust in Jacksonville and hasn't been much better since leaving, playing in only five games and recording four tackles with the Broncos in 2011. He's still just 25 and has some physical tools so he might get a few more chances, but the outlook isn't good.
  • William Hayes, Tennessee Titans — A surprise fourth-round pick out of Winston-Salem in 2008, Hayes fizzled as a starter in 2009 and has just eight sacks to his name, including 1.5 in 2011. Some teams might give him a shot, but he doesn't appear to be starting material.
  • Jarret Johnson, Baltimore Ravens — Johnson is a bit out of place on this list, because he's much more of a run-stopper than pass rusher. A 4-3 outside linebacker in the body of a defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker, Johnson has started every game for the Ravens over the past five seasons. He's a bit one-dimensional, but his run-stuffing prowess can't be denied.
  • Jason Jones, Tennessee Titans — A two-year starter for the Titans, Jones has played both end and tackle and has 15.5 sacks and seven forced fumbles in 49 games. He has nice versatility and has starting potential, but as worst he's a nice rotational lineman.
  • Robert Mathis, Indianapolis Colts — One of the smallest defensive ends in the league at 245 pounds (if that), Mathis has been a great pure pass rusher for the Colts since 2003. He has 83.5 sacks to his name and four double-digit sack seasons. Coming off a 9.5-sack performance in 2011, the 30-year-old should generate interest from plenty of teams and could even stand up in the 3-4 of the first time.
  • Jarvis Moss, Oakland Raiders — Just like Harvey (above), Moss is another pass-rushing bust from Florida. He has a career-high of 2.5 sacks in 2008 and has struggled with motivation at times, but the 27-year-old probably isn't out of chances quite yet.
  • Juqua Parker, Philadelphia Eagles — A start for the Eagles over the previous three seasons, Parker was relegated to 12 reserve appearances in 2011. He's still a capable run-stuffer, but he's not going to be handed any starting jobs nearing 34 years old.
  • Joey Porter, Arizona Cardinals — A four-time Pro Bowler, Porter had just one sack in six games this past season. Turning 35 this offseason, Porter can no longer cover or get to the passer, so his career is pretty much over.
  • Matt Roth, Jacksonville Jaguars — Limited to just nine games due to lingering concussion symptoms in 2011, Roth has only played two full seasons in the NFL. He doesn't get to the quarterback all that much, but he grades out as an excellent run-stuffer and is capable of starting when healthy.
  • Trevor Scott, Oakland Raiders — After totaling 12 sacks during his first two seasons in Oakland, Scott totaled 1.5 sacks in 10 starts in 2010 and didn't start a game or record a sack this past season. Barring some kind of breakout, he's pure backup material.
  • Jason Taylor, Miami Dolphins — One of the best to ever play the position and a likely future Hall of Famer, Taylor is still a serviceable, well-rounded starter. However, it seems he's content to retire after his third stint with the Dolphins, so any interest is likely to be spurned by the 37-year-old.
  • Bryan Thomas, New York Jets — A first-round pick in 2002, Thomas has been a serviceable player but has never registered a double-digit sack season and is coming off a torn Achilles'. He might be able to land a starting job if healthy, but he's nobody's long-term option turning 33 this spring.
  • Erik Walden, Green Bay Packers — Walden had a few great games in the Packers' Super Bowl run in 2010, but he bombed as a full-time starter in 2011 and should be limited to special teams and backup duties.

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