The crop of 2013 NFL free agents features several defensive playmakers that could provide instant relief to teams seeking help on that side of the ball.
Several standouts come to mind as younger, emerging players at their respective positions that would likely command hefty long-term contracts after strong performances in 2012.
Here is a breakdown of three intriguing defenders that are likely to see big paydays one way or another this offseason.
Michael Johnson, DE, Cincinnati Bengals
Premier pass-rushers are always a hot commodity, and Johnson established himself as one in his first full year as a starter in Cincinnati. Johnson racked up 11.5 sacks in 2012, and possesses massive size, standing at a towering at 6'7" and 270 pounds.
But what makes Johnson special is his speed and quickness for his size, making him more than just a bull-rusher. The Bengals initially played him as a 3-4 outside linebacker before he finally settled in as an end.
Cincinnati's defensive line is relatively stacked, and the outstanding play and constant double teams that Pro Bowl DT Geno Atkins commanded may have inflated Johnson's production a little bit.
That said, there is no denying Johnson's talent and physical attributes. His ability to get his hands into passing lanes and drop back into coverage make him an asset that can contribute regardless of a team's defensive scheme.
There is reason to believe that the Bengals could hit Johnson with the franchise tag, which would likely pay him more than other teams would offer.
It all depends upon whether Johnson wants a long-term deal, though, which Cincinnati may not be ready to give him based on one strong season.
Brad Jones, ILB, Green Pay Packers
After injuries thinned Dom Capers' linebacker corps, Jones was asked to fill in as the starter, and posted a strong 2012 campaign. He finished with 75 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble in just 10 regular-season starts.
Not bad for a former seventh-round pick. GM Ted Thompson continues to show that he is a draft-day genius, although it does take at least some luck to find a productive player at that late juncture.
Jones isn't exactly a star player, but he proved to be a versatile contributor in the heart of the Green Bay defense. His stock should be high with the lack of viable free agent options available this offseason.
Although the Pack had a very forgettable performance in a 45-31 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round of the playoffs, Jones had a respectable game individually. He led the team with nine solo tackles on an evening where tackling wasn't really Green Bay's strong suit.
The Baltimore Ravens come to mind as a strong fit based on their 3-4 scheme and the imminent retirement of legendary linebacker Ray Lewis and the possible departure of Dannell Ellerbe in free agency.
Plenty of other teams should at least take a look at the 26-year-old. Jones has good size at 6'3" and 242 pounds to go along with exceptional speed, and is also capable of playing solid coverage.
Jairus Byrd, FS, Buffalo Bills
It would be surprising to see the Bills not re-sign Byrd, but the free safety definitely has leverage to test the free-agent market and possibly bolt for greener pastures.
Plenty of teams could use the ball-hawking, All-Pro free safety, who is coming off a tremendous 2012 campaign. Byrd registered 76 combined tackles, forced four fumbles and snagged five interceptions.
New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will presumably switch Buffalo back to a 3-4 defense, and Byrd would be a key cog in the success of that attacking scheme. The potential is there for Byrd to be even better than he was in Dave Wannstedt's vanilla 4-3 alignment.
Contending teams with the cap flexibility to offer Byrd a lucrative deal include the Denver Broncos. Rahim Moore's blunder in the AFC divisional playoffs will never be forgotten, and Byrd would be a huge upgrade.
However, the front office's primary focus will be on re-signing franchise left tackle Ryan Clady.
Another potential fit is the Green Bay Packers, who may cut ties with aging future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson and let WR Greg Jennings walk due to the depth of the receiver corps.
These destinations are purely speculative, but prove that there are plenty of places Byrd could flee to should the Bills not pay the top dollar a player of his caliber will demand.
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