2012 NFL Free Agent Predictions: Where Will Top Defensive Ends Land?

Ryan RudnanskySenior Writer IMarch 1, 2012

HOUSTON - SEPTEMBER 11:  Mario Williams #90 of the Houston Texans during game action against the Indianapolis Colts at Reliant Stadium on September 11, 2011 in Houston, Texas. The Texans won 34-7.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Bob Levey/Getty Images

As NFL teams approach the deadlines to franchise players and re-sign them to long-term contracts, there are several notable defensive ends who will be highly coveted if they hit free agency.

The top three defensive ends in this year's free agent class are arguably Mario Williams, Calais Campbell and Cliff Avril.

Here's a look at where I see them eventually landing.

3. Cliff Avril, Detroit Lions

After a comeback campaign, the Lions figure to hold onto Avril, who had a very successful 2011, finishing with 11 sacks.

They have until March 5 to franchise him. If they do so, they have until July 16 to work out a long-term deal. If they don't work out a deal, he can only re-sign with the Lions for one season.

As of now, it doesn't appear a long-term deal will be worked out. That has me thinking the Lions will franchise Avril and hope to work something out before July 16.

Lions general manager Martin Mayhew told the media last Friday, per ESPN:

"I think the thing with Cliff is he is a young player. He is a talented player. He plays a critical position in our defense. We've been trying to get to this point where we are, where we can win 10 games, where we can get to the playoffs. [That makes it] hard to let a player like Cliff Avril go.

In the end, I see the Lions finding a way to get it done.

2. Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals

Cardinals general manager Rod Graves has been adamant that Campbell will remain with the team, even if it means franchising him and giving him a hefty $10.6 million payday.

Graves said on Feb. 16 in his spot on 620 AM, per AZCardinals.com:

"Calais will be with us, rest assured. We will continue to focus on getting a long term deal in place and it's a process. But he will be an Arizona Cardinals player this year and we are hoping certainly to extend that to a long-term deal. Conversations are continuing with his agent."

Since then, Graves told reporters at the NFL combine that contract talks were "fruitful. I believe we will have a resolution at some point," per CBSSports.com.

Mike Sando of ESPN wrote on Feb. 20:

The franchise tag will tempt teams this offseason because prices have fallen. Campbell should have considerable staying power, however, and he is ascending. He appears to be a prime candidate for a longer-term deal.

I would have to agree with Sando. Campbell is going to be worth a whole lot of money down the line and it's best to lock him up now. I think the Cardinals will sign him to a long-term deal.

1. Mario Williams, Houston Texans

Last but not least, Mario Williams.

The Texans are in a hairy situation right now. They have until March 13 to sign Williams to a long-term deal, but they still have unrestricted free agent center Chris Myers and restricted free agent running back Arian Foster to worry about.

Adam Schefter of ESPN wrote on Thursday:

The Texans are determined to keep all three, as difficult as it will be. It sounds like Williams and Myers will at least get to the test the market, whereas Foster is a restricted free agent, so it will be tougher for him to get a gauge of his true value.

It wouldn't surprise me if Myers and Foster returned to Houston and Williams did not. That's certainly plausible. But let's remember that the salary cap is going to be flat, and it won't be easy for teams to sign real expensive free agents. There's still a chance Williams returns to Houston, where he wants to be, but it's a very fluid situation.

The New England Patriots appear to be a possibility for Williams. As Tom Curran of CSN New England noted, he's excelled in multiple defensive schemes and addresses their need in pass-rushing.

But the Patriots have also been burned by signing expensive free agents (Adalius Thomas) and it's generally not in their nature to spend loads of money on one player.

Curran writes, "Unless Williams is interested in signing for less, it's hard to imagine the Patriots being "really involved.'"

As Curran notes, Scout Inc.'s Matt Williamson said "Jacksonville has a chance. "

But Jaguars general manager Gene Smith hinted the team won't make a splash signing this offseason, even if they made many last year.

Smith said, via the Florida Times-Union:

"I think (owner Shad Khan) understands the philosophy is to build your team through the draft. I think most teams have figured that out. Where you don’t want to be is in pro free agency year in and year out. That’s not our philosophy. It’s to supplement the college draft."

Unless another team gets seriously involved, I see the Texans finding a way to keep Williams when he hits free agency.

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