The old cliche of "defense wins championships" may not be 100 percent applicable in today's NFL, but a strong defense can make up for a lot of weaknesses elsewhere.
That's why several defensive players will be laughing on their way to the bank this offseason, as a thin free-agent class equals big bucks for the top available players. Although this year's crop of free agents isn't loaded with talent, there are a few high-quality defenders available.
The following three men are the top defensive players on the market.
Jairus Byrd—S, Buffalo Bills
The Bills are a joke of a franchise (sorry, Buffalo fans), but Byrd made them worth watching all season long.
The big-play safety was excellent this year, registering 76 tackles, four forced fumbles and five interceptions. He also recovered two fumbles, racked up 81 return yards and deflected six passes.
Byrd's efforts weren't enough to earn him a Pro Bowl selection, but he is the top safety on the market this offseason. Look for him to have plenty of suitors this spring.
Henry Melton—DT, Chicago Bears
Melton isn't a household name like Brian Urlacher or Charles Tillman, but he has been a crucial part of the Bears defense.
This season Melton registered 43 tackles (31 solo), six sacks and two forced fumbles. And he posted those numbers despite playing in just 14 games.
Melton was selected to the Pro Bowl this year, which will be a huge selling point when his agent negotiates with teams this offseason. You can expect Melton to bring home a hefty contract before next season.
Michael Bennett—DE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay's defense was awful this year, but not because of Michael Bennett. The four-year veteran set career highs in tackles (41), sacks (nine), forced fumbles (two), pass deflections (two) and stuffs (10).
That's great production for any player, but it's even more impressive when you consider Bennett went undrafted in 2009. Bennett is an inspiration to players everywhere, and his efforts will be rewarded with a big contract this offseason.