2014 NFL Free Agents: Exploring the Defensive-Line Market
With free agency set to open on March 11, NFL teams are getting ready to open their checkbooks, and one of the groupings set to earn the most greenbacks are players along the defensive line.
As the Seattle Seahawks proved on their way to a Super Bowl title, a solid defensive line with a number of quality players can make a significant difference, and NFL teams are sure to emulate that approach this offseason.
There are a number of quality pass-rushers, led by Carolina's Greg Hardy, and intriguing options at defensive tackle, spearheaded by Chicago's Henry Melton.
In this column, I've broken down nine of the best free agents set to hit the defensive-line market. I'll tell you what they did last year, what they're projected to do moving forward and whether they're likely to stay with their current team or sign elsewhere.
It's time to explore the defensive-line market for 2014's NFL free agency.
Note: This article has been modified from its original version for free agents who have been given the franchise tag.
All salary cap information courtesy of Spotrac.com
Following two seasons in which he's garnered 26 combined sacks, Carolina Panthers end Greg Hardy is undoubtedly the jewel of the defensive-line class.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Hardy finished 2013 as the third-best 4-3 defensive end. The man known as the "Kraken" was a pass-rushing force, as his 15 sacks finished third in the NFL behind only Robert Mathis and Robert Quinn.
Given his immense talent and youth (he'll be 26 at the start of the season), it would obviously behoove the Panthers to keep Hardy in the fold for a long time. But they haven't been able to agree to terms on a lengthy deal yet.
Instead, the Panthers gave Hardy the non-exclusive franchise tag, which guarantees he'll be paid $13 million in 2014, according to ESPN.com's Ed Werder. If another team bids for him and the Panthers decide not to match, Carolina would receive two first-round picks.
While his sack numbers weren't as impressive in 2013 (3.5) as in 2012 (11.5), Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson had an outstanding season, finishing fourth in Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) rankings for 4-3 defensive ends.
Even though the Bengals are slated to be around $24.1 million under the cap, they aren't expected to keep Johnson, as NFL Network's Ian Rapoport tweeted.
At the scouting combine, Tom Pelissero of USA Today tweeted that there was buzz that Johnson could be reunited with Mike Zimmer in Minnesota, as Zimmer was the Bengals defensive coordinator while Johnson played in the Queen City.
When Bengals coach Marvin Lewis addressed the media at the scouting combine, he had this to say regarding Johnson's future in Cincinnati:
Michael obviously is a player that we would continue to love to have back. We are going to do what we can to continue to sign our players as we have, guys we’ve targeted. We don’t have very many this year. We are fortunate they did a great job last year upstairs in signing our players. We hope to have the same success this year. We are going to work hard at it.
Don't expect Johnson to stick around. The 27-year old pass-rusher will command a fat contract on the open market.
Chicago Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton represents a curious case.
He was franchise-tagged by the Bears after the 2012 season, but he tore his ACL in Week 3 of last season. He was fantastic in 2012, finishing as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) seventh-ranked defensive tackle. But now, Melton is coming off the ACL tear and also had an arrest for assault and public intoxication this past December.
Melton's injury hampered Chicago's ability to stop the run by a significant margin, as it finished dead last in rushing defense, allowing a ridiculous 5.3 yards per carry. There's no doubt that a healthy Melton would have made a difference in that regard, and Bears general manager Phil Emery knows it.
Per the Twitter feed of ESPNChicago.com's Jeff Dickerson, Emery indicated that the team would like to bring Melton back, but it "comes down to price."
The Bears don't have a ton of cap space, currently coming in at $8.9 million under, but bringing back Melton is certainly a priority for the team. He'll turn 28 during next season and will have a number of suitors if and when he hits the market.
Last offseason, coming off a nine-sack campaign for Tampa Bay, defensive end Michael Bennett inked a one-year, $5 million contract with the Seattle Seahawks.
While the move looked curious at the time, it now looks like a brilliant decision, as Bennett accumulated 8.5 sacks in the regular season and played very well in the postseason, helping Seattle claim its first ever Super Bowl title. Bennett finished as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) fifth-ranked 4-3 defensive end.
On NFL Network's Total Access (h/t Kevin Patra of NFL.com), Bennett shot down the notion of providing Seattle with a discounted rate for his services.
The Seahawks (under the cap by about $16 million) seem to be doing whatever's necessary to retain Bennett, as they released defensive lineman Red Bryant and wide receiver Sidney Rice, a move that cleared an additional $13 million in cap space.
Last year, Bennett proved that he could get the job done in big spots. Whether he stays in the Pacific Northwest or signs elsewhere, the 28-year old will receive a pretty penny for his services.
Green Bay Packers defensive lineman B.J. Raji had a down season in 2013.
Raji finished 2012 as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) seventh-best 3-4 defensive end, but he came in 43rd out of a possible 45 choices last season. He wasn't great against the run and didn't sack the opposing quarterback once.
Per Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com, during last season, Raji reportedly turned down an offer from the Packers in the range of $8 million per campaign. And as Ian Rapoport of NFL Network tweeted, the Packers are prepared to let Raji walk in free agency.
Despite a down season in 2013, Raji will only be 28 at the start of next season and has proved in the past that he can be a dominant player. He was outstanding in 2010 in helping the Packers claim a Super Bowl championship, and it's likely that a team will pay him and expect him to perform at that level moving forward.
Oakland Raiders defensive end Lamarr Houston was one of the bright spots on a 4-12 club, accumulating six sacks and finishing as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 11th-ranked 4-3 defensive end.
For the first time in years, the Raiders have a ton of cap space (about $65 million), and the onus is on general manager Reggie McKenzie to improve a substandard 53-man roster. B/R lead AFC West writer Chris Hansen has a terrific column imploring the Raiders to bring back Houston.
Speaking with SiriusXM NFL Radio at the scouting combine, coach Dennis Allen had this to say about both Houston and left tackle Jared Veldheer (h/t Jerry McDonald of the Contra Costa Times):
They're obviously a big priority. They are guys that we want to sign back and we're in communication with their agents in trying to get something worked out.
Obviously, the process of negotiations never goes as fast as either side wants it to go, but I feel very confident that those players want to be here. We obviously want them to be here. So I feel confident we'll be able to get something done."
Houston will be 27 at the start of next season and is clearly an ascending player who stops the run with aplomb. It would certainly behoove the Silver and Black to keep him in the fold, especially given their bountiful financial situation.
New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck had a major bounce-back season in 2013, accumulating 11 sacks, his first double-digit-sack campaign since 2010. He finished the year as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) seventh-ranked 4-3 defensive end and was one of the only bright spots on a 7-9 Giants team.
But despite his excellent campaign, Tuck is far from a lock to return to the Giants next year. Speaking at the scouting combine (per ESPNNewYork.com's Rich Cimini), Giants general manager Jerry Reese had this to say about Tuck's future on Broadway:
Justin is going to go to the market and see what's out there for him. I had talks with all those [prospective free agents]. Free agency means free agency. It means you go out and get as much as you can. I'm all for players getting as much as they can. Justin deserves to see what the market is. We'd love to have him back. We'll see where it goes.
Tuck will be 31 at the start of next season, but he really came on strong last season and showed that he does have gas left in the tank. A major positive is that Tuck has shown what he can mean to a championship club, having helped Big Blue win two Super Bowl titles.
It remains to be seen what kind of contract he'll earn on the open market, but any player who is coming off an 11-sack campaign is an attractive option.
Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Jason Hatcher had a monster season, finishing with a career-high 11 sacks. Prior to last year, Hatcher had never garnered more than 4.5 sacks in a campaign, and he finished as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) eighth-ranked defensive tackle.
Speaking with ESPNDallas.com's Todd Archer at the scouting combine, Hatcher's agent, Jordan Woy, said "(Hatcher would) like to play (in Dallas), but hey, it's free agency and it's going to come down to the contract."
B/R featured columnist Chris Trapasso wrote a piece detailing Hatcher's value to the Cowboys, but he doesn't believe they have the financial flexibility to keep him.
The Cowboys' financial situation is tenuous at best, with the team currently under the cap by a mere $329,000, so they'll have to do some finagling if Hatcher is to remain in the fold.
Hatcher will be 32 at the start of next season, so this is likely to be his last big payday. That could potentially factor in if the Cowboys can't offer him the strongest deal.
Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen has had a tremendous NFL career, finishing with double-digit sacks in every season since 2007, including 11.5 last season.
But despite his gaudy sack numbers, Allen only finished the year ranked as the 34th-best 4-3 defensive end, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He'll be 32 at the start of next season.
Speaking at the scouting combine with Maggie Gray of Sports Illustrated, new Vikings coach Mike Zimmer indicated that the club would like to keep Allen in the fold, but it's unclear if Allen would want to stay with a Minnesota team that looks unlikely to contend for a Super Bowl title next season.
Pat Yasinskas of ESPN.com has mentioned the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a potential fit.
Allen has proved to be an outstanding player throughout his career, and now the question becomes if he'll accept the largest possible amount of money or take less money to play for a contender.