A team will have to take a leap of faith on Greg Hardy, but he very well may be the best pass-rusher available.
The NFL word of the ... day? year? era? ... is "multiple." As in, multiple defensive fronts and a multiple offensive scheme and, for the purpose of our current focus, defenders capable of handling multiple roles.
Being strictly a defensive end or an outside linebacker in a lot of cases is no longer good enough. As coordinators rapidly shift between looks (3-4, 4-3, nickel, dime, etc.), general managers are tasked with finding players comfortable no matter the approach.
Hence, our "edge-rusher" category. Included in this group are those players who, well, line up on the edge, whether it be as an end or a linebacker or some combination of the two. Two of the top potential options already have been taken off the table: OLB Justin Houston and DE Jason Pierre-Paul, who were both handed the franchise tag by their respective teams.
Who else is available? That, and more, as we roll along with our 2015 free-agency preview ...
• Jason Worilds: Steelers GM Kevin Colbert keeps talking about how Worilds has not yet maxed out his potential, which is an odd strategy in itself if Colbert has any designs on a team-friendly deal for the 27-year-old OLB.
"He’s still a young player. He’s probably still an ascending player," Colbert told the Steelers' website. "I don’t think you’ve seen the best of him, either with the Steelers or as a potential player for someone else’s team. He’s definitely someone we will consider keeping. We will see where the market goes."
Where the market probably will go is above and beyond what Worilds's production thus far commands. He played more snaps than any other Pittsburgh defender last season and tied Cameron Heyward for the team lead in sacks (7.5). But how much longer will a team have to wait before Worilds kicks to the next level? Does he have a next level? Right now, he's an above-average edge guy, just not a star.
• Adrian Clayborn: If Clayborn's brief NFL history has established a pattern, he could be set up for a decent 2015 season. He produced 7.5 sacks as a rookie in 2011, missed most of '12 with a knee injury, had six sacks in '13 and landed on IR again last season. Some team may talk itself into thinking the former first-round pick can be close to dominant when healthy. There is limited evidence to back that up, though, and Clayborn carries substantial injury risk.
• Brian Orakpo: And speaking of an injury risk ...
Will Orakpo be paid this off-season like a three-time Pro Bowler or like a player who has finished just one of the past three seasons? Given the number of teams in need of defensive talent—not to mention how many front offices find themselves flush with cash to spend—bank on the former. He has the physical abilities to earn that trust, too, but that does not make him any more of a sure thing, health-wise.
• Brooks Reed: It's easy to forget about the other guys on Houston's defense with J.J. Watt stealing all the headlines. While Reed is far from the Watt stratosphere on the talent scale, he has been a steady contributor over his four seasons. Reed's situation will be compared plenty to that of Connor Barwin, who left Houston after a three-sack 2012 and last year scored a Pro Bowl nod off 14 sacks with Philadelphia. Reed's upside may be a bit more limited, but he is a quality starter.
[daily_cut.nfl]• Jabaal Sheard: The chance to exit Mike Pettine's 3-4 defense should be a positive for Sheard, who struggled as an OLB in that system. His best NFL seasons to date were his first two, 2011 and '12, when he combined for 15.5 sacks as a 4-3 defensive end. A team primarily committed to that scheme should be able to swipe Sheard for a fair cost, thanks to his two-sack output last year. Don't be surprised to see a huge bounceback season here.
• Brandon Graham: In five seasons with Philadelphia, Graham mostly failed to live up to the billing he drew as the No. 13 overall pick back in 2010. What he did accomplish, however, was to launch himself into free agency off some of the best play of his career. Graham last season matched his career-high with 5.5 sacks, a number that no doubt would have been higher had he not been stuck in a part-time role.
As with Sheard, Graham now has played both as a 3-4 OLB and 4-3 DE, so a lot of teams should be kicking the tires here.
Injured player to watch
One such outburst came in 2013: a 10.5-sack showing in his first Cardinals season. Staying in Arizona would make sense for the soon-to-be 37-year-old, yet multiple teams could take a shot on Abraham if he opts to give it another go.
Veteran to watch
• Greg Hardy: The guessing game continues regarding Hardy's future, even after Adrian Peterson's suspension was overturned. The difference here being that Hardy has yet to be suspended, so he remains on the exempt list, with a suspension still possible at some point down the line. In other words, a team will have to take a leap of faith on him when free agency opens. With Pierre-Paul staying in New York, Hardy (15.0 sacks in 2013) very well may be the best pass-rusher available.
Biggest wild card(s)
• The impact of coaching changes: The Bears are probably the most noteworthy team under this category. Their announced switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base defense means that they will be in the market for playmakers off the edge, even if guys like Willie Young can make the transition. Does Chicago have what it needs right now to run the 3-4 effectively?
"I'm confident we’ll piece together a good defense," new head coach John Fox said at the combine. "It’s still too early in the process. We’ve not had a practice and been on the grass yet, and in my experience, players define that when you get to that point."
Elsewhere, Denver has to fit its personnel to coordinator Wade Phillips's defense and Atlanta somehow must do the same with the approach Dan Quinn will bring over from Seattle.
On top of all that, the continued push by NFL offenses to spread the field with speed has increased the pressure on defenses to load up with athletes. So, pick just about any of the 32 teams and there are openings for players who can handle multiple responsibilities on the edge.
• Who else will hit the market?: Just this week, the Falcons ousted Jonathan Massaquoi (the Titans subsequently claimed him off waivers) and the Eagles decided to cut Trent Cole. They will not be the last players sent packing prior to the start of free agency on March 10.
Atop the list of possibilities right now is Kansas City's Tamba Hali. The Chiefs just slapped the franchise tag on his teammate, Justin Houston, leaving them in a bit of a salary-cap bind when it comes to Hali's deal. If the two sides cannot work something out, Hali could join Cole and others on the market.
• Draft depth: This topic is not unique to the 2015 free-agent class nor to the edge-rushers alone. That said, this particular crop of draft prospects appears well-stocked at the DE/OLB hybrid spots, meaning that many franchises could opt to reload with rookies rather than chase veterans.
Randy Gregory, Dante Fowler, Vic Beasley and Shane Ray all are potential top-10 picks, and the real value of this prospect group lies in the later rounds. Even down into the projected fourth- and fifth-round selections, there are players who are capable of helping an NFL team out of the gate.