NFL Free Agents 2014: Breaking Down Top Defensive Players Still Available

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NFL Free Agents 2014: Breaking Down Top Defensive Players Still Available
Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

Defense wins championships. It may be one of the most overused cliches in sports, but as the Seattle Seahawks proved last season, there's also plenty of truth to it. 

Yes, getting guys like Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas via the draft tends to help a little bit, but the 'Hawks' Super Bowl run was fueled by edge-rushers Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, who Seattle was able to nab the winter before. 

Although many of the top names in 2014 are already off the board, there are still a number of playmakers capable of giving teams key boosts on the defensive side of the ball. 

Let's take a look at the best available. 

 

Henry Melton, DT

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

Remember when Henry Melton was one of the most disruptive defensive tackles in the league? Of course you doit really wasn't that long ago. 

Melton recorded 13 sacks with the Bears in 2011 and 2012, an impressive number for his position. Minnesota Vikings fullback Jerome Felton, who has faced the unenviable task of trying to protect his quarterback against the dominant pass-rushing defensive tackle, put it simply, via the St. Paul Pioneer Press' Chris Tomasson:

So, why hasn't someone signed him yet?

First of all, he tore his ACL in September, forcing him to miss the Bears' final 13 games in 2013, so teams are understandably taking it somewhat cautious. 

Second, he's treating the NFL like a speed-dating service. According to the Chicago Tribune's Rich Campbell, Melton has already visited the Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks. And the St. Louis Rams are next on tap, via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Jim Thomas:

Still, even coming off an injury, Melton is worth waiting for. 

The Bears' pass rush—and subsequently their defense—went down the drain when he was sidelined, and his upside as a player who can transform a defense is too much to pass up. 

 

Jared Allen, DE

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Jared Allen has been a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks his entire career, and even during what was seen as an inconsistent, "down" year for him in 2013, he still managed to wrangle 11.5 sacks. 

He now has 128.5 for his career and 14.0 per season since joining the Vikings in 2008. Plus, he tends to rock an awesome mullet, so he has that going for him. 

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Still, there are concerns. He turns 32 in April, and Pro Football Focus gave him a negative grade this past season, suggesting a significant decline.

Let's not kid ourselves here, though. If Allen, who played the third-most snaps of any defensive linemen last year according to PFF, is converted into a rotational edge-rusher who has his snaps limited and is simply inserted on passing downs, he has the potential to cause havoc in the backfield. 

Currently, according to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport, the Seahawks and Cowboys are the two teams most interested in Allen's services. 

 

Antonio Cromartie, CB

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

In 2012, Antonio Cromartie looked like one of the best cover cornerbacks in the league. In 2013, he was continually burned and saw a significant drop-off in his quality of play. 

However, the 29-year-old played through an injured hip for much of the season, causing many, such as Football Outsiders' Scott Kacsmar, to wonder if that was the true reason for his underwhelming play:

If that proves to be true, and a healthy Cromartie is able to return to his 2012 form, then he could prove to be a major free-agent steal, especially because interest appears to be thin and he's likely to come at a bargain. 

With the New York Jets reportedly not interested in bringing him back, per a source of the New York Post's Brian Costello, the Arizona Cardinals are really the only team that seems in the running at this point. 

As Bleacher Report's Tyson Langland noted, that could be a great fit:

The Cardinals had one of the best defenses in the league last year, and putting Cromartie opposite Patrick Peterson has to be a scary proposition for everyone else in the league. 

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