2014 NFL Free Agent Defensive Linemen
By: Roshan Bhagat
Greg Hardy [DE, Carolina Panthers] - The Panthers have seen Greg Hardy take strides in each of his first four seasons, but perhaps no bigger than the step up from his 2012 to 2013 campaign where he notched 15 sacks. Complementing Charles Johnson on the opposite side, Hardy wreaked havoc in the backfield and supplemented his ability to rush the passer with stout run defense. However important Hardy may be to the Panthers, their less-than-ideal cap situation allows a glimmer of hope for several teams around the league looking to add a dominant defensive end to their front. Of course the franchise tag is in play, but that would require the organization to free up cap space to render the move possible. Of their high-priced salaries, not many are easily expendable without restructuring contracts to push out the ramifications over a longer horizon, creating a realistic possibility that Hardy may don a new uniform next season.
Lamarr Houston [DT/DE, Oakland Raiders] - Houston uses his size, athleticism, and hands to be a disruptive force on the defensive line. As the Raiders needs and schemes have shifted over the past few years, so have Houston's responsibilities on the defense. In each of his roles, the former second round pick has flourished and graded out as one of the team's best defenders year after year. With the expiration of his rookie contract, Houston will look for the big one on the open market and has said that he doesn't believe Oakland will re-sign him. Devoid of talent, the Raiders would be crazy not to, pending a reasonable market valuation.
Michael Johnson [DE, Cincinnati Bengals] - Down to 3.5 sacks from 11.5 in 2012, Johnson wasn't able to finish plays quite as he has in the past. The Bengals are unlikely to use the franchise tag on Johnson for a second straight year and may be hesitant to sink a third large contract into the defensive line after extending Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins not too long ago. Nonetheless, his length and athleticism create a unique skillset that will be hotly pursued this offseason.
Jared Allen [DE, Minnesota Vikings] - For the second time in his career, Jared Allen becomes a free agent. Though last time he was marred with off-field drinking-related incidents, Allen has turned into an exemplary player and leader on and off the field during his tenure in Minnesota. Now, instead, Allen will be 32 heading into next season and coming off an 11.5-sack year that marks a downturn for Allen. As he ages, he would be wise to accept an offer with a contender with the defensive talent to create more one-on-one opportunities for Allen. Given Frazier's connection with the defensive end, Tampa Bay is one of many possibilities this offseason. Returning to Minnesota doesn't seem to be likely, but certainly shouldn't be ruled out altogether.
Michael Bennett [DE, Seattle Seahawks] - After signing a modest 1-year contract with the Seahawks, Bennett earned a long-term deal this offseason. The Seahawks are a reasonable bet to offer that opportunity after his team-leading 8.5 sacks. Bennett suffered several injuries this season that must give thought to the necessity of securing a future for himself and his family. After a head and neck scare early in the year that required a stretcher to remove him from the field, Bennett should rightly chase the money even if that opportunity isn't in Seattle.
Anthony Spencer [DE/OLB, Dallas Cowboys] - After using the franchise tag on Anthony Spencer twice, the same outcome will not repeat itself next offseason. The Cowboys will finally have to agree upon a long-term deal, something they haven't gotten done the past couple years, or cut ties with an edge player who came into this own in back-to-back contract seasons. Though his injury sparks concern, there are teams that will quickly look past that for the type of production he posted in a healthy 2012 campaign.
Justin Tuck [DE, New York Giants] - If the Giants decide to focus on tackle Linval Joseph early on, the momentum seems to be paving way for an exit from New York for Tuck. With 11 sacks, Tuck still has some pass rush ability left in the tank. However at the age of 31 and with only a total of 9 sacks in the two seasons prior to last, teams may be a bit wary in pursuing Tuck right out of the gates.
Shaun Phillips [DE/OLB, Denver Broncos] - Losing Dumervil to free agency and Von Miller to a suspension early in the season, Shaun Phillips joined the Broncos and became somewhat of a savior on defense. His ability to pressure the passer was critical to the success of Denver's ability to get off the field on 3rd downs. As the organization looks to the future, his age has to be taken into consideration, but his production should be deemed valuable enough to offer a multi-year deal.
Henry Melton [DT, Chicago Bears] - After tearing his ACL 3 games into the season, Melton has been rehabbing with a cloud of uncertainty as to when he can return to the field. The inability to partake in camp activities next season could deter teams from pursuing one of the best inside pass rushers early in the offseason. Because the Bears tagged him a year ago, a 120% increase coming off of a major knee injury is virtually out of the question.
BJ Raji [DT, Green Bay Packers] - Raji's size and quickness are uncommon assets in the middle of the line. His consistency over the past two years can be called into question, but at the top of his game, Raji is a near-elite interior presence. Though the Packers would like to have him back, he seems to be a better fit in a 1-gap role that allows him a little more flexibility of aggressively pursuing the backfield. After reportedly turning down an extension from the Packers at around $8 million per earlier this year, perhaps he expects more or simply wants this change of scheme.
Arthur Jones [DE/DT, Baltimore Ravens] - The Ravens defensive factory has churned out another productive big body with schematic versatility and stoutness at the line. Because the Ravens are tight on cap space, several teams will try to find a role for Jones in their system, driving up demand. Though this free agent class is stellar along the defensive line, Jones could be a great second tier signing that could greatly improve any type of defensive front. The Ravens may be hard-pressed to retain him.
Randy Starks [DT, Miami Dolphins] - Having turned 30 in the middle of last year, Randy Starks put together another productive season as he readies to approach the free agent market for the second consecutive year. Coming off of a franchise tag, the Dolphins will be reluctant to use that tool again on Starks with several impending free agents. Though a long-term extension is still a possibility, a change of scenery may be in the works.
Linval Joseph [DT, New York Giants] - Though Justin Tuck is also set to become a free agent, the Giants may decide to instead first concentrate on retaining Linval Joseph who has been a productive starter for the defense in the middle of the line. As a strong run defender with enough pass rush ability to apply a little pressure on early downs, Joseph is perhaps a bigger part of the future than Tuck, who will turn 31 later this year.
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