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Top free agents: Defensive linemen
1. Ray Edwards: DE, Minnesota
Playing opposite Jared Allen has helped him statistically, but he has the skills to be a premier pass rusher in this league. Depending on free-agency structure under the new CBA, Edwards could be the most coveted pass rusher.
Potential landing spots: Atlanta, Baltimore, Cleveland
Even with Cleveland using its first two picks in the NFL Draft on defensive tackle Phil Taylor and defensive end Jabaal Sheard, Edwards would still make a solid addition to Dick Jauron’s 4-3 defense. Unfortunately for Cleveland, Atlanta provides Edwards a much more attractive situation. He would have the opportunity to rush opposite proven veteran John Abraham, and could immediately contend for a Super Bowl.
2. Charles Johnson: DE, Carolina
Johnson had a breakout season in 2010, accounting for 61 tackles and 10 sacks, while helping to ease the loss of Julius Peppers.
Potential landing spots: Carolina, Denver
John Fox would love to bring Johnson with him to Denver, but considering the addition of Von Miller (No. 2 overall draft pick) and the return of Elvis Dumervil from injured reserve, the Broncos are better off addressing the interior defensive line rather than adding another outside rusher. It’s just as well too, because Carolina would be foolish to lose this this future star to free agency. Look for Johnson to re-sign with the Panthers once the lockout is lifted.
3. Cliff Avril: DE, Detroit
In his third professional season, Avril had 8.5 sacks, up from 5.5 and 5 in his first two seasons. I like the continuous improvement and consistency he shows in his game.
Potential landing spot: Detroit
Detroit is building what could easily be the most feared defensive line in football, and Avril is a key ingredient. With Avril opposite Kyle Vanden Bosch and the addition of Nick Fairley (13th overall selection in the draft) playing alongside Ndamukong Suh up the middle, this defensive line has limitless potential.
4. Tommie Harris: DT, Chicago
Harris’ disappointing 2010 eventually led to his release from the Bears, but I believe he still has three-plus years of impact football left in him. Being available to test the free-agent market may just give him the motivational spark he needs to rejuvenate his career.
Potential landing spots: Carolina, Chicago, New Orleans
Carolina used two third-round draft picks on interior defensive lineman in Terrell McClain and Sione Fua, but they could use the presence of a proven veteran. I wouldn’t overlook the possibility of Chicago trying to re-sign Harris at a reduced contract, but I think New Orleans is the best fit for the aging veteran. The Saints needed to improve their ability to pressure the quarterback, and they did so by selecting defensive end Cameron Jordan with the 24th overall pick. The addition of Harris would allow them to apply pressure up the middle in the pass-heavy NFC South.
5. Cullen Jenkins: DE, Green Bay
Despite only playing in 11 regular-season games, Jenkins recorded a career-high seven sacks last season. Jenkins is the best available 5-technique this offseason, and that will draw a lot of attention from 3-4 schemed teams.
Potential landing spots: Chicago, Green Bay, Washington
Green Bay would love to re-sign Jenkins, but he may demand nearly $20M in guaranteed money once he hits the open market. If the Packers are unwilling to fork over that kind of money, I look for Washington to do just that. Even though the Redskins utilized their first two draft picks in defensive end/outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and defensive end Jarvis Jenkins, they could still find room for Cullen. Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo can apply outside pressure with Cullen Jenkins manning his familiar 5-technique position.
6. Jason Babin: DE, Tennessee
Coming off his most productive season as a professional with 12.5 sacks last year, — compared to only 17.5 in his previous seven seasons — Babin’s value is higher than ever.
Potential landing spot: Tennessee
With Babin having already played for the Texans, Seahawks, Chiefs, and Eagles over his NFL career, I see no reason to think he'll go anyplace other than his current home in Tennessee. He found a scheme that he can thrive in, and he should value the Titans just as much as they should value him.
7. Mathias Kiwanuka: DE, New York Giants
Kiwanuka has the versatility to play either defensive end or outside linebacker. During his five-year career, he has averaged five sacks per season, but he will need to prove he's healthy after sustaining a neck injury last season.
Potential landing spots: Miami, New York Giants
Miami typically addresses the defensive front seven in the draft, but this year the Dolphins selected offensive players with their first four picks and didn’t select a defender until the seventh round. Adding a consistent pass-rush threat opposite Cameron Wake makes a lot of sense for this improving defense under second-year coordinator Mike Nolan. Under the current rules of free agency, New York has placed a second-round tender on Kiwanuka and therefore obviously value his services. With an already crowded unit, and the drafting of yet another defensive lineman in Marvin Austin, they may be willing to part ways.
8. Jamal Williams: DT, Denver
During the 2009 season, the Chargers felt the pain of losing Jamal Williams to injured reserve after just one game. By losing his presence in the middle, the Chargers fell from being the 11th best rushing defense in 2008 to the 20th in 2009. Denver was hoping for the 2008 version of Williams, but inevitably cut him after their defense ranked last in the league in both total yards and total scoring, and also gave up the second-most rushing yards per game. Now a full year removed from his injury, I believe Williams is out to prove he can still be a dominating defender in this league.
Potential landing spots: Denver, San Diego
I believe that Denver has every intention of re-signing Williams at a reduced contract, but there is a chance his old team will intrigue him. Denver is in full rebuilding mode, and that may be a deterrent to this aging veteran, but San Diego’s defense returned to form last season and has bigger needs at the skill positions. Denver remains the best option for Williams, as they rebuild the front seven with the return of Dumervil and addition of Miller.
9. Brandon Mebane: DT, Seattle
Mebane isn’t a flashy player that dominates offensive lineman and makes eyebrow-raising tackles in the backfield, but he is a gap-fitting defender who performs his role within the scheme of the defense.
Potential landing spots: Chicago, Seattle
For reasons previously discussed, the loss of Tommie Harris and potential interest in Cullen Jenkins could make Mebane a good fit along Chicago’s defensive line, but Seattle may not be willing to part ways with him. When Seattle placed only a third-round tender on Mebane, many analysts and Mebane included, thought he was no longer in their plans for the 2011 season, but the Seahawks draft-day activity suggested otherwise. Seattle waited until the seventh round to draft a defensive lineman and that tells me they are planning on re-signing Mebane.
10. Shaun Ellis: DE, New York Jets
Ellis had his best seasons in 2003 and 2004, and has since seen a steady decline in production. He's coming off a 36-tackle, 4.5-sack 2010 campaign in which he battled a nagging knee injury throughout.
Potential landing spots: New York Jets
I only list the Jets, not because other teams won’t value Ellis, but because I find it hard to believe that he would actually leave the defensive-minded Rex Ryan. With the vocal leader of the Jet defense, Bart Scott, publicly wishing for Ellis’ return, I put him back in green and white for the 2011 season.
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