2014 NFL free agency primer: D-line
There has been abundant talk since the Super Bowl about teams trying to recreate Seattle's spectacular secondary. The truth, though, is that the Seahawks' aggressive front may be just as hard (or harder) to duplicate.
Defensive linemen will be hot commodities once free agency opens on March 11. Who tops the list of the best players available?
1. Michael Johnson
Johnson would have preferred to carry a performance like the one he had in 2012 (11.5 sacks) into free agency. Unfortunately for him, that number plummeted to 3.5 last season, while the Bengals opted to hand over big bucks to fellow DE Carlos Dunlap. The 27-year-old Johnson still should find a friendly market given his talents off the edge, which include the ability to fall back in coverage -- he deflected 10 passes this past year and has three career interceptions.
"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."
Bennett certainly deserves to cash in after helping the Seahawks to a Super Bowl, with 8.5 sacks in the regular season. Those words are a bit ironic, though, considering that Seattle found Bennett on the clearance rack last offseason and decided to add him to an already stout pass-rush that also included 2013 free-agent acquisition Cliff Avril. There's little question that Bennett wants a more lucrative deal this time around. He's earned one.
Whereas Johnson will rest mostly on past laurels in chasing a contract, Houston is coming off a career year in Oakland: six sacks, 69 tackles and more than 1,000 snaps. As The MMQB's Greg Bedard pointed out in his recent countdown of the top free agents, Houston "can play standup OLB, DE and DT." He's shown plenty off the edge already if a team simply wants to take advantage of his pass-rushing prowess.
Sort of cheating here by pairing these two together, but it's a take-your-pick scenario -- especially for the Vikings, who opted not to use the franchise tag but would like to keep at least one of these edge players. They appear to favor Griffen, who at 26 might be ready for a starting gig after chalking up 13.5 sacks over 2012-13 as a backup to Allen and Brian Robison.
Allen, meanwhile, will be 32 in April and his overall effectiveness is up for debate. He had 11.5 sacks last season and 12 the year prior, which are down by comparison to his own monstrous 22-sack effort in 2011 but still prove his ability as a pass-rusher.
5. Justin Tuck
Tuck's 2013 stats received a huge push over the final five weeks, as he recorded 8.5 sacks to bump him up to 11 for the year. That's the third-highest total of his career, just a half-sack off what he notched in 2011. Will a team pay for the late-season run? Maybe, even though Tuck might not replicate that production.
Overrated: Allen. If some front office hands a contract to Allen with the belief that he still can be a dynamic, three-down end, said front office might wind up sorely disappointed. Allen remains a force off the edge on passing downs ... and that's where he would be best used moving forward.
Underrated: Robert Ayers. Ayers kicked it into gear with 5.5 sacks in 2013, somewhat rounding out his game -- one that already included proven abilities against the run. He should come cheaper than some of the other names on this list.
1. Henry Melton
ACL injuries do not sound the career death knell like they used to, so Melton should have no problem cashing in this offseason despite missing 13 games last year. Melton earned a Pro Bowl trip in 2012 thanks to six sacks and 40-plus tackles. Any team in need of a proven three-technique DT should have Melton leading its wish list.
Talk about taking advantage of a contract year. Hatcher made the Pro Bowl this season after recording a career-high 11 sacks (his previous best: 4.5). A change up front for the Cowboys, to a 4-3 look, proved invaluable for Hatcher. He and Melton should set the standard for interior linemen who can disrupt the pocket and get into the backfield.
3. Arthur Jones
This is where defensive line designations get a little tricky. The reasoning behind designating players as "edge rushers" or "interior linemen" versus DE/DT is because of a guy like Jones -- he proved in Baltimore what a perfect fit he was as a 3-4 defensive end, but no one would consider him a true pass-rusher. Jones finished last season with four sacks. His impact reached far beyond that number.
Joseph could wind up being the most highly coveted interior lineman once free agency opens. Why? A combination of factors that include his age (25), performance last season (three sacks and 59 tackles) and the versatility to fit in numerous positions (4-3 DT or 3-4 DE/NT). There should be no shortage of suitors here.
Combining two teammates again for the final spot in the top five. Soliai and Starks were part of Miami's three-headed monster at DT, which also included Jared Odrick. Starks probably will be the top dog in free agency, though the similarities are strong, right up to Soliai and Starks' ages -- both will turn 31 in December. Soliai has talked about wanting to stay in Miami; Starks just wants the best deal. One figures to be back with the Dolphins, if the franchise can figure things out, and those desires make Soliai the obvious candidate to stick.
Overrated: B.J. Raji. His size at 6-foot-2 and around 330 pounds will make him an option for teams hoping to plug gaps in the middle. Buyer beware. Raji has not recorded a sack since 2011 and he's proven time after time to be a liability against increasingly fast NFL offenses. Perhaps a change of scenery -- and a move to a 4-3 tackle spot -- would help. Underrated: Antonio Smith. Smith will turn 33 in the middle of the 2014 season, so it's fair to wonder how much longer he can play at a high level. But play at a high level he did in 2013, as a 3-4 DE for the Texans.