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Top 15 defensive free agents

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Adam Caplan

Adam Caplan is our newest NFL reporter/insider at FOXSports.com. He has spent the past 10 seasons covering the league, specializing in player personnel, injuries and contracts.

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Once the new CBA is completed, it’s expected that all players with at least four years of service will become unrestricted free agents, which was the case with the 2009 free agency rules. With last year’s rules, a player needed to have at least six years of service to become an unrestricted free agent.

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If 2009’s rules are in effect in the new CBA, as many expect will be the case, we could see a record number of free agents, especially from the defensive side of the ball.

Here’s an inside look at the top-15 defensive players with at least four years of service:

1) Nnamdi Asomugha/Cornerback/Oakland Raiders

Possible Suitors: Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions, Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles

Analysis: Asomugha got off to a slow start after being selected in the first round of the 2003 draft by the Raiders. In fact, there were whispers that he was going to be a bust, but he showed tremendous improvement by his third season.

Over the years, Asomugha has become perhaps the NFL’s best man coverage cornerback. While he turns 30 on July 6, he’s still at the top of his game. The last three years of his contract will void, thus making him an unrestricted free agent.

The Raiders may make a push to re-sign him, but it’s expected that the veteran defensive back will look to sign with a team that gives him the best chance to win a Super Bowl. Veteran cornerback Chris Johnson figures to start if Asomugha, as expected, signs elsewhere.

While some Cowboys fans are clamoring for Asomugha, it’s doubtful they’ll spend the money needed to sign him. There’s no doubt the Cowboys need more competition and depth at cornerback, but what makes more sense is for them to sign a lower-priced veteran.

The Lions have perhaps the NFL’s worst situation at cornerback, and to have a realistic chance to make the playoffs, they’ll need to sign at least two veterans. Signing Asomugha would immediately upgrade their struggling secondary.

There’s no question that the Eagles will sign a veteran cornerback capable of starting, but don’t look for them to spend huge dollars on the position. The team believes that third-round pick Curtis Marsh should be ready to push for a starting job by year three, and the team remains high on second-year cornerback Trevard Lindley. This team figures to sign a veteran capable of starting for at least a few years while the younger cornerbacks are still being groomed.

2) Charles Johnson/Defensive End/Carolina Panthers

Possible Suitors: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans

Analysis: The Panthers are in a tough position. Historically, they haven’t spent a lot of money in free agency, but they’ve done a decent job of retaining their own players before they hit the market. However, re-signing Johnson won’t be easy because he’ll likely command a long-term deal. If he signs elsewhere, look for third-year end Everette Brown to start opposite promising second-year end Greg Hardy.

The Falcons are expected to pursue signing a veteran end, so Johnson could wind up being on their radar.

The Browns will be transitioning to a 4-3 defense this season, so they’ll need to sign at least a few veterans capable of playing in that scheme. Johnson, who turns just 25 on July 10, could draw interest from the Browns.

With former Panthers head coach John Fox now coaching in Denver, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if the Broncos made a run at Johnson – especially because they’ll be transitioning to a 4-3 defensive scheme this season.

The Jaguars had an anemic sack total last season (26) and only have one proven pass rusher in veteran Aaron Kampman.

While the Buccaneers addressed their weakness at defensive end in this year’s draft with Adrian Clayborn (first round) and Da’Quan Bowers (second round), both rookies have a lot to prove and were red flagged by some teams because of medical issues. The Buccaneers still need to add a few veterans for depth and competition purposes. However, this team rarely spends big money in free agency, so Johnson could be off their radar.

The Titans not only lost popular defensive line coach Jim Washburn to the Eagles, veteran ends Jason Babin and Dave Ball are unsigned. Fourth-year end William Hayes and 2010 first-round pick Derrick Morgan, who missed 14 games last season due to a torn ACL, are expected to start if neither veteran re-signs.

3) Ray Edwards/Defensive End/Minnesota Vikings

Possible Suitors: Atlanta Falcons, Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans

Analysis: The Vikings, by re-signing veteran end Brian Robison before the March transaction deadline, likely won’t be able to re-sign Edwards, who should command big money in free agency.

The Falcons are expected to sign a veteran end, so Edwards, because there will be few quality ends that make it to free agency, could be on their radar.

As mentioned above, the Browns will likely be in the market for a few veteran ends, so Edwards could be a target.

The Jaguars, as noted previously, only posted a paltry 26 sacks last season, so they figure to be in the market to sign a proven veteran such as Edwards.

As pointed out previously, the Buccaneers need to add a few veterans, but again, they aren’t likely to spend a lot of money in free agency. So those fans wanting the team to sign Edwards probably will wind up being disappointed.

The Titans, like the Buccaneers, typically don’t spend big money in free agency, so they may not get in the Edwards’ sweepstakes, but they really need to add a few veterans to the mix.

4) Brandon Mebane/Defensive Tackle/Seattle Seahawks

Possible Suitors: Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams

Analysis: The Seahawks have no depth at defensive tackle to begin with, so it would be a surprise if they didn’t make a strong play to re-sign Mebane. Should he sign elsewhere, the Seahawks likely would have to sign another veteran to replace him.

The Rams are probably in worse shape than most teams at defensive tackle, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if they made a run at Mebane, whom they know very well from playing in the same division.

5) Barry Cofield/Defensive Tackle/New York Giants

Possible Suitors: New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams

Analysis: The Giants prepared for the possible departure of the talented Cofield by selecting Marvin Austin in the second round. They would have good enough depth left on the roster even if Cofield didn’t come back for his sixth season with the team.

Should the Seahawks lose Brandon Mebane in free agency, they almost certainly would be in the market for a veteran defensive tackle, so Cofield could wind up being on their radar.

Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo coached Cofield for a few seasons with the Giants, so he should be more than familiar with his skill set. Cofield could make an immediate impact on their defense.

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6) Aubrayo Franklin/Defensive Tackle/San Francisco 49ers

Possible Suitors: Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs, San Francisco 49ers, Washington Redskins

Analysis: The 49ers chose to pass on using their franchise tag on Franklin, so they could choose to move third-year nose tackle Ricky Jean-Francois into his spot this season.

With the Texans’ decision to transition to a 3-4 defensive scheme this season, they need to add a true nose tackle such as Franklin.

If the Chiefs don’t re-sign veteran defensive tackle Ron Edwards, they could turn their attention to the free-agent market to replace him. But whether they would be willing to spend a lot of money on a nose tackle remains to be seen.

Because veteran defensive tackle Ma’ake Kemoeatu’s status with the team is shaky, they could also be in the market for a nose tackle.

7) Paul Posluszny/Inside Linebacker/Buffalo Bills

Possible Suitors: Buffalo Bills, Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars

Analysis: The Bills would be hard-pressed to fill Posluszny’s void if he signed elsewhere, so look for him to be a big priority to re-sign. Third-round pick Kelvin Sheppard figures to eventually replace veteran linebacker Andra Davis in the lineup in a few seasons.

The Jaguars, should they pass on re-signing middle linebacker Kirk Morrison, could try to replace him with a veteran.

8) Johnathan Joseph/Cornerback/Cincinnati Bengals

Possible Suitors: Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, Philadelphia Eagles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Washington Redskins

Analysis: The Bengals could hardly afford to let Joseph walk in free agency because they don’t have anyone left on the roster who would be a viable replacement for him in the starting lineup.

The Cowboys are expected to sign a veteran cornerback who would be capable of challenging veterans Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman for a starting job, so Joseph could be on their radar.

As noted previously, the Lions will be in the market for a few veteran cornerbacks, so Joseph could draw their attention.

The Texans must upgrade at cornerback in order to have a realistic chance to get to the playoffs. However, they typically don’t spend a lot of money in free agency, so they may choose to target a lower-priced veteran cornerback.

It’s believed the Eagles have at least three to four veteran cornerbacks on their free-agent shopping list, so Joseph could be on their radar.

The Buccaneers, with starting cornerback Aqib Talib dealing with major legal issues, are likely to sign a veteran cornerback. But whether they’ll be willing to spend a lot of money on the position remains in question.

The Redskins have one of the worst situations at cornerback in the NFL, so Joseph could garner interest from them.

9) Antonio Cromartie/Cornerback/New York Jets

Possible Suitors: Dallas Cowboys, New York Jets

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Analysis: The Jets have a lot of free agents to re-sign, but some team insiders believe they will wind up passing on re-signing Cromartie since they have 2010 first-round pick Kyle Wilson as a possible replacement.

Cromartie has been criticized for a few seasons for not being physical enough, but he’s still capable of playing in man- or zone-based coverages. One personnel source said Cromartie is best playing in man-off coverage.

The Cowboys will be looking for depth at cornerback, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if they showed some interest in the flashy defensive back. The Cowboys, according to the source, mix up their coverages, which could fit Cromartie’s skill set well. There were rumors that the Chargers were looking to trade Cromartie prior to trading him to the Jets, but those were shot down because Dallas looked to be in good shape at cornerback coming into last season. However, the secondary regressed in 2010 -- finishing 26th overall -- fueling speculation that the team would be in the market to sign a veteran cornerback once free agency started.

10) Cullen Jenkins/Defensive End/Green Bay Packers

Possible Suitors: Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins

Analysis: Jenkins, 30, should receive a solid amount of interest in free agency if the Packers don’t re-sign him. The Packers don’t have anyone near his talent left on the roster at defensive end, but 2010 second-round pick Mike Neal, who only saw 79 out of a possible 1006 snaps on defense last season, and journeyman Howard Green, would probably take the snaps this year if Jenkins isn’t back for his eighth season with the team.

The Cowboys, if they aren’t successful in re-signing ends Stephen Bowen, Marcus Spears or Jason Hatcher, would have a major depth issue at the position. It’s not out of the question that they could pursue a veteran like Jenkins if at least one of those three defensive linemen don’t re-sign.

It’s not a secret that the Chiefs have gotten inconsistent play from 2009 first-round pick Tyson Jackson. Jenkins could provide competition and badly needed depth at defensive end for this team.

The Redskins are in need of a veteran to play opposite Adam Carriker at end in their 3-4 defensive scheme. Jenkins would be an instant starter for this team.

11) Eric Weddle/Free Safety/San Diego Chargers

Possible Suitors: Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys, Jacksonville Jaguars, San Diego Chargers

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Analysis: The athletic Weddle is in an interesting position. The Chargers don’t really have a great potential replacement for him. And the fifth-year defensive back could find significant interest elsewhere because there are a bunch of teams looking to upgrade at free safety.

The Browns have a big opening at safety with the expected departure of Abram Elam. The Browns could give Mike Adams another chance at the job. Weddle, however, would be an upgrade.

The Cowboys have struggled to find consistent play from both safety spots in recent seasons, especially at free safety. Weddle would be an immediate upgrade.

While the Jaguars selected Chris Prosinski in the fourth-round of this year’s draft to possibly take over the free safety position down the line, he might not be ready to compete for that starting job for a while. Weddle could give the team some badly needed stability at the position for years to come.

12) Barrett Ruud/Middle Linebacker/Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Possible Suitors: Detroit Lions, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Analysis: The Buccaneers selected linebacker Mason Foster in the third round of this year’s draft, but asking a rookie to start right away at such an important position without having the benefit of working with the coaches before training camp might be a tough task. With a projected relatively low payroll again this season and with more cap space projected, the Buccaneers should be able to find a way to re-sign Ruud.

The Lions are leaning toward leaving third-year linebacker DeAndre Levy inside, but he’s also capable of playing on the weak-side. Teams generally don’t like spending a lot of money for a middle linebacker, but the Lions must upgrade around Levy.

13) Ike Taylor/Cornerback/Pittsburgh Steelers

Possible Suitors: Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers

Analysis: Taylor is coming off of a very solid season. According to a personnel source, Taylor showed a willingness to be physical against wide receivers and is capable of playing in zone or press coverage, which makes him particularly attractive in today’s NFL. Most cornerbacks are only good in one type of coverage. Taylor, despite his age (31), should have at least a few good solid seasons left.

The Steelers, should they lose Taylor in free agency, could move third-year pro Keenan Lewis into the starting lineup.

For the Lions to make a major jump this season and to make the playoffs, they’ll need to improve at the cornerback position. Taylor could give them some badly needed stability in the secondary for the next few seasons.

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The Texans, like the Lions, need to find major improvement in the backend this season in order to have a realistic chance to make the playoffs. The Texans have gone through a ton of personnel changes at cornerback over the years, but Taylor would give them a proven talent at the position.

According to multiple sources, the Eagles will show strong interest in Taylor once free agency starts. And with the Eagles possibly playing more zone and less man coverage in the secondary this season based on the adjustment the defensive line is expected to undergo, Taylor would fit in quite well.

14) Michael Huff/Free Safety/Oakland Raiders

Possible Suitors: Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets, Oakland Raiders, St. Louis Rams

Analysis: For most of his career, Huff seemed to be yet another great athlete who the Raiders drafted, but not a standout football player. All that changed last season when Huff improved his game immensely in several areas. The final year of Huff’s contract will void because he met minimum playing time requirements, thus making him a free agent. It’s unclear who would replace Huff in the lineup if he signs elsewhere.

The Browns, as noted previously, have an opening at safety with veteran Abram Elam unsigned. Elam was acquired from the Jets to play in former head coach Eric Mangini’s defensive system, so it would seem unlikely that the Browns would re-sign him. Huff would give the Browns some badly needed speed in their secondary.

The Cowboys have not gotten consistently good play from the free safety position, so Huff, who hails from nearby Irving, Texas, could receive interest from his hometown team.

The Jets, with veteran free safeties Eric Smith and Brodney Pool unsigned, could show interest in Huff.

The Rams have had a revolving door at free safety for the past few seasons, so they could have some interest in the athletic and improving Huff.

15) Kirk Morrison/Middle Linebacker/Jacksonville Jaguars

Possible Suitors: Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, Philadelphia Eagles

Analysis: The durable linebacker has started 95 straight games, going back to his rookie season with the Oakland Raiders.

If the Jaguars decline to pursue re-signing the veteran defender, veteran linebacker Daryl Smith could get the first crack to start inside. Smith was projected to play in the middle by many teams leading up to the 2004 draft.

As noted earlier, the Lions are leaning toward keeping third-year pro DeAndre Levy in the middle, but he’s also capable of playing on the weak-side. If they decided to move him to the outside, then the team could look to sign a veteran middle defender like Morrison.

The Eagles have dealt with injuries and inconsistency at the linebacker position in recent years. Morrison, 29, could give the team some badly needed stability in the middle. If the team re-signs veteran Stewart Bradley, he could either play inside or on the strong-side. Last year’s pleasant surprise, Jamar Chaney, is expected to play on the weak-side or inside this season.

Tagged: Falcons, Bills, Bengals, Browns, Cowboys, Lions, Packers, Titans, Chiefs, Raiders, Rams, Vikings, Giants, Jets, Eagles, 49ers, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Redskins, Panthers, Jaguars, Steelers, Chargers, Texans, Ron Edwards, Howard Green, Nnamdi Asomugha, Chris Johnson, Aubrayo Franklin, Ike Taylor, Daryl Smith, Dave Ball, Cullen Jenkins, Mike Adams, Kirk Morrison, Eric Smith, Michael Huff, Antonio Cromartie, Johnathan Joseph, Barry Cofield, Ray Edwards, Abram Elam, Charles Johnson, Brandon Mebane, Eric Weddle, Mike Jenkins, DeAndre Levy, Tyson Jackson, Everette Brown, Mike Neal

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