You can never have too many pass rushers, right? That is what they say.
And, despite it being such a position of need around the league, there are some candidates worthy of free-agent dollars. Many of them are getting a little older -- Dwight Freeney and Richard Seymour come to mind -- but I wouldn't be surprised at all if some of them ended up having another impact season or two left.
Brian Urlacher might be a Hall of Famer, but the Bears aren't making it sound as if he will be back, and I'm not sure others will clamor for him, with linebacker being a position where teams generally won't invest heavily these days. Shaun Phillips showed he could get to the quarterback in years past for the Chargers, though at age 31 some will think twice about giving him a big payday now.
Time will tell that some of these guys are probably done and will falter. That is the nature of this game. But there is still sufficient star power on defense, specifically among the pass rushers, to carry interest on this side of the ball.
Matt Shaughnessy has had some big games for the Raiders, and he is at the other end of the spectrum at 25 years old. But Oakland has had its share of budget and cap issues in recent years. Connor Barwin was an absolute beast in 2011, and his production waned some in 2012; league sources doubt the Texans franchise him, though he could end up staying in Houston after he tests the market.
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There is no way the Lions franchise Cliff Avril for a second straight year, which means he will command plenty of offers come March. He has displayed versatility and an ability to post double-digit sack totals. Anthony Spencer, who had a breakthrough season for the Cowboys, won't be franchised and with Dallas moving to a 4-3, he could end up with another 3-4 team.
Paul Kruger has been a playoff comet, rising to prominence as an edge rusher for the Ravens. With him possibly commanding $9 million a year on the open market, it's hard to see him back in Baltimore. Ravens inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe is the heir to Ray Lewis, and retaining him will be a top priority for Baltimore, while a third vital starter for the Ravens, corner Cary Williams, could end up making $7 million a year or more, also probably pushing him out of Baltimore's price range given their depth in the secondary.
As for interior players, Casey Hampton is unlikely to be anchoring Pittsburgh's defensive line after an exceptional career at nose tackle for the Steelers. The Jets are prioritizing keeping defensive tackle Mike DeVito, but are by no means certain they'll be able to keep him.
Two younger interior players -- Henry Melton of the Bears and Terrance Knighton of the Jaguars -- will be in demand if they aren't re-signed beforehand (Jacksonville has so much cap space, and so much need on the defensive side, that you think they would make some effort here, even with Knighton's weight an issue in the past). Former top-five pick Glenn Dorsey was a bust in Kansas City, but with a switch to a 4-3, could perhaps flourish as an interior pass rusher.
In the secondary, it is exceptionally rare for young corners to get free, and expect the Dolphins to make every effort to keep Sean Smith. Dallas, however, has cap issues (remember they are facing another $18 million cap penalty this season), so 27-year-old Mike Jenkins might not make sense for them after giving Brandon Carr a monster deal a year ago. Aqib Talib has no shortage of off-field issues, but rejuvenated his career in New England. Tracy Porter has been steady and has shined on the Super Bowl stage in the past as well.
And there is no way we can talk about defensive free agents and not end with Ed Reed, a first-ballot Hall of Famer and maybe the greatest safety ever. Leaving Baltimore would be tough, but the Ravens may not be competitive if someone wants to give him $8 million a year or more, especially teams like New Orleans (where Reed is from), Atlanta (where he lives) or Miami (he played at The U, remember). Dashon Goldson, opposite Reed at safety in the Super Bowl for San Francisco, is playing on the franchise tag and might get a longer deal this time around somewhere. LaRon Landry, who signed a one-year deal with the Jets, will be looking to get paid as well.
Overall, the group of safeties in their mid-20s is pretty impressive, though somewhat injury prone, as our handy-dandy list will attest.
1. Cliff Avril: The Lions can't keep everyone up front and he won't be franchised again.
2. Randy Starks: Been in the league a long time but still a spry 28; tremendous versatility to fit any scheme and Dolphins likely lost their chance to keep him.
3. Henry Melton: Become a force for the Bears and one of the few younger impact players on that D. Would think they do all they can to keep him.
4. Richard Seymour: Dude can play inside and outside and will be refreshed getting out of Oakland.
5. Matt Shaughnessy: Dealt with a lot of coaching upheaval in Oakland in a short period of time. Still very young and talented.
1. Dannell Ellerbe: Even when playing with one hand, he has become the engine of Baltimore's defense and keeping him will be top priority.
2. Anthony Spencer: Some scoffed when Dallas franchised him, but he will have the last laugh in free agency this year.
3. Connor Barwin: The absence of Brian Cushing may have hindered Barwin some this year, but still plenty of ability to get to the QB.
4. Paul Kruger: Took off in the second half of the season and has the entire league watching him in the postseason. Looking to get paid.
5. Shaun Phillips: Getting older, but I would take my chances with him above some of the other aging LBs.
1. Sean Smith: Has the skills and body to be a shutdown guy, and at age 25 is just entering his prime.
2. Cary Williams: Stepped up big time when Lardarius Webb got hurt, and his playoff performances are only helping his cause.
3. Mike Jenkins: Yet to put it all together for the Cowboys but teams were exploring trade options for him last year. Will draw interest.
4. Aqib Talib: If not for his off-field troubles, would be much higher. Staying under the watchful eye of Bill Belichick might be his best move.
5. Tracy Porter: Seems like he has been around longer, but at age 26 well positioned for free agency.
1. Ed Reed: Maybe the greatest ever, and still has a knack for the huge play at the huge moment.
2. Kenny Phillips: Can't stay healthy enough, but when he does the fellow product of The U flashes some Reed-like qualities.
3. Louis Delmas: Another absolute difference maker ... if he could stay in the lineup. Still, the Lions must make every attempt to keep him.
4. Jairus Byrd: Has tremendous ball skills, just like his daddy, former Chargers corner Gill Byrd.
5. Dashon Goldson: A heavy hitter who will be looking for more long-term security after coming off the franchise tag.
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