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1. Henry Melton, Defensive Tackle
Like Jeremy Maclin, Henry Melton was unfortunately lost to a season-ending injury in a contract year. The difference here is that Melton had rounded into one of the top defensive tackles in the league, hence why the Bears gave him a franchise tender last offseason.
Melton's injury has been a big part of Chicago's defensive collapse. Hence, Chicago knows exactly what he's worth.
Whether he gets his comeuppance depends on how Chicago—or other teams, depending on whether he re-signs—feels about his injury.
Modern medicine is a wonderful thing, and Melton is just 27, so it's difficult to imagine he won't get a nice deal in March.
2. Greg Hardy, Defensive End
The Kraken roams the defensive waters in Carolina, laying waste to unsuspecting quarterbacks. But what else is new?
Hardy is one of the more underrated defensive ends in the league, even though he has hit at least 11 sacks—pending today's games—two years in a row now. A well-rounded lineman, he ranks in PFF's top 10 for the second consecutive season as well.
The good news is Hardy would like to stay, per Charlotte Observer's Joe Person (h/t CBS Sports) with the Panthers. The bad news is that won't come cheap, even if he gives Carolina a bit of a discount.
The 25-year-old has become a stalwart of a tough defensive line, sure to garner widespread interest if he hits the market.
3. Michael Johnson, Defensive End
Johnson had a career year in 2012, to the point where the Bengals extended their franchise tender. The 26-year-old responded with another great season, though raw statistics would lead you to believe otherwise.
Cincinnati's right end has just three sacks on the year after nabbing 11.5 a year ago. He has already surpassed his career high in total tackles, however, and Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranks him the second-best 4-3 defensive end in the NFL.
4. Michael Bennett, Defensive End
Last season, Bennett was quietly one of the top 4-3 defensive ends. That got him little play on the open market, so he signed with the Seahawks, a team that seemed bent on collecting all the defensive ends in the league.
Another great year from Bennett could see him get a little more attention on the market. The 28-year-old could match or exceed his nine-sack total from a year ago with a good game today despite playing about 400 fewer snaps.
5. Randy Starks, Defensive Tackle
There aren't too many quality defensive tackles going on the market behind Melton, but Miami's Starks is certainly one of them. That's why he earned the franchise tag in South Florida last winter.
Starks comes in as PFF's fifth-best defensive tackle this season, rounding into a good run stopper to go with his pass rushing prowess.
As of now, Miami is projected to have the third-most cap space in the NFL. A lot will change between now and then, but that could be enough to get him signed to a multiyear deal.
6. Jared Allen
Eyebrows shot up when Allen signed a six-year, $73 million contract with the Vikings in 2008. Their faith in the talented defensive end was rewarded handsomely.
Allen has been a model of consistency with the Vikings, starting every game and recording double-digit sacks each season in Minnesota since he signed there.
At 31, Allen might have one more multiyear deal left in his career. He isn't quite the monster he was a few years ago, but he should be a solid pass-rusher wherever he lands.
7. Paul Soliai, Defensive Tackle
Starks' running mate on that defensive line will be coming off his two-year deal with the Dolphins this summer. He has been consistently good for Miami, though he is more of a run stuffer than pass rusher.
The Dolphins might have a bit of a Sophie's Choice between their pair of defensive tackles come March.