2011 NFL Free Agency: The NFL's Top 5 Free Agent Pass Rushers

Cian FaheyFeatured ColumnistApril 24, 2011

2011 NFL Free Agency: The NFL's Top 5 Free Agent Pass Rushers

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    Last season, Julius Peppers was the biggest free agent on the market, eventually signed a six-year contract with the Chicago Bears.

    Armed with a deal potentially worth as much as $91.5 million, including a whopping $42 million guaranteed, the sack specialist was a revelation in Chicago, tallying eight sacks and consistently disrupting the opposition's offense.

    This year, there are a few others trying to follow in Peppers' footsteps, starting with his replacement in Carolina.

     

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Charles Johnson

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    One of the brightest spots of the Carolina Panthers defense last season was a fourth-year defensive end by the name of Charles Johnson.

    Johnson made his best efforts to fill the spot on the team vacated by Bears' defensive end Julius Peppers, notching 11.5 sacks in his first full season as a starter.

    He played on a defense that ranked 26th in the league in points allowed and ranked 20th in the league in sacks. In fact, Johnson's 11.5 was more than one third of the team's total 31 for the year. No other player accounted for more than 3.5 sacks.

    What is even more refreshing is the fact that Johnson had a level of consistency throughout the year. He had only two multiple-sack games, which I view as a positive, not a negative. Johnson had at least half-sack in 10 of the team's 16 games, meaning he impacted more games rather than just taking over a few favorable matchups to pad his statistics.

    At 24, Johnson is at the perfect age to hit free agency. He has enough time before his prime to improve. However, he doesn't need to take his game to the next level to contribute to whatever team picks him up. 

    Last season, Johnson proved that he has what it takes to be a team's premiere pass rusher, making him one of the most coveted pass rushers on the free agent market this coming off season (whenever that arrives).

Cliff Avril

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    The arrival of Ndamukong Suh has highlighted the revival of Detroit's defense, somewhat overshadowing, and undoubtedly helping, the development of Cliff Avril.

    Avril, for those who don't know, is a 25-year-old defensive end who finished last season with 8.5 sacks in 13 games. He has had at least five sacks in each of his first three seasons without ever starting a full sixteen games.  

    Standing at 6' 3" and 260 pounds it's not hard to see how the former Purdue standout finds his way into the backfield so often. What is surprising is just how fast he is. Avril has a quick first step and can take tackles on the outside or attack the inside shoulder and uses his hands intelligently, leading to eight career forced fumbles.

    The biggest knock against Avril is the fact that he is yet to complete a full 16 game season. The talent is undoubtedly there but durability and longevity remain question marks for any potential suitors.

    Nonetheless, on sheer talent alone he will be one of the most coveted pass rushers in this year's free agency class.

Cullen Jenkins

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    It's fair to say that Cullen Jenkins is one of the best, if not the best, 3-4 pass rushing defensive linemen in the league. The only better one who comes to mind is Haloti Ngata, who is simply the best 3-4 (and maybe regardless of scheme) defensive lineman in the NFL.

    Jenkins, however, comes with some red flags. The first is that he has only played one full regular season as a starter since coming into the league seven years ago. Secondly, he is 30 years of age, so doesn't have that much time left playing what is a physically taxing position.

    For a team to invest in Jenkins they would need to be confident that he could stay healthy enough to contribute on a regular basis. He is not going to come cheaply because he will be highly coveted. Jenkins is the biggest risk on the free agent market but definitely has the biggest reward.

    He has the ability to take over a football game up front, using that ability to notch himself 29 career sacks. Even after starting only eight games last season he still managed seven sacks. That was somewhat an anomaly as he benefited from the influence of Dom Capers on the sidelines and a beast such as BJ Raji alongside him.

    Even so, Jenkins has had three or more sacks in five of his seven NFL seasons. During one of the seasons that he didn't, he had 2.5 sacks in only four games.

    Cullen Jenkins brings a lot of intensity, experience and size (6'2" 305 pounds) to the defensive side of the ball. More importantly, however, he brings sacks, disruption and a unique set of skills.

    Jenkins will be the most coveted player in free agency, irregardless of the risks that accompany him.

Ray Edwards

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    Ray Edwards was often an afterthought for those outside of Minnesota when thinking of the Vikings.

    Edwards has been the young starter on the star-studded line for the better part of the past four years. Playing next to the Williams Wall and across from Jared Allen has no doubt helped Edwards rack up his career sack total of 29.5.

    Nonetheless, he has still had a very good career to this point.  Last season he had eight sacks, only three less than Jared Allen. The Vikings struggled overall outside of those two, ranking 20th in the league with only 31 sacks (the same as Carolina).

    This can only reflect positively on Edwards, who nearly eclipsed his career high of 8.5 sacks in only 14 starts. Edwards is still only 26-years-old with six years of experience under his belt.

    He hasn't managed to replicate his four forced fumbles of 2007, which will hurt his case for getting a big payoff this summer. Edwards will still be one of the top five most coveted free agents but he won't get the big deal he is hoping for.

    He was a complement to Jared Allen in Minnesota and will be that again if he goes to a team with a decent pass rush. Landing with a team like the Atlanta Falcons looks like a perfect fit for Ray Edwards.

Mathias Kiwanuka

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    Mathias Kiwanuka has only been a full time starter in New York for one season, notching a career-high 8 sacks in 16 games in 2008.

    Kiwanuka has 23.5 sacks career sacks and seven forced fumbles. He is part of a very talented rotation in New York.  After starting off last season with an impressive four sacks in 3 games, his season ended prematurely because of a herniated disk.

    Couple this with the team drafting Jason Pierre-Paul in the first round of last year's draft and Kiwanuka is obviously not returning to the team.  He could easily become an effective starter on many 4-3 based defenses in the league.

    Standing at 6'5" and 265 pounds Kiwanuka definitely has the body to hold up to a full time starting position. He is 28 years of age, so still has at least four years of quality football in him.

    Kiwanuka is also a very active player. Despite not being a starter throughout most of his career, he has only ever had less than forty tackles in one season (last year he had 11 tackles in three games).

    How Kiwanuka recovers after missing most of last season will be crucial to how much he is coveted on the free agent market.

Others Who Will Draw Interest

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    Jason Babin

    Before last season, Jason Babin hadn't done much in the NFL. He exploded with 12.5 sacks for the Tennessee Titans in replacing Kyle Vanden Bosch.

    The Titans were Babin's fifth team in his career in only his eight season.  Last year was his only productive season of his career.  It was also only the second time he had been a starter, the first being his rookie season in Houston.

     

    Shaun Ellis

    Shaun Ellis is one of the most consistent pass rushers in the NFL, totaling 72.5 sacks in 12 seasons despite playing in a 3-4 defense for the last few years.

    Ellis in, all likelihood, won't leave the Jets. He has been there for his whole career.  He is also 33 years old, so is likely close to retirement.  Ellis will serve as a stop-gap for another team that signs him.

     

    Raheem Brock

    Brock was a reliable starter in Indianapolis for six years before Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney became the book ends for the Colts. Last season, he gave the Seahawks good production in blitzing situations with nine sacks.

    Brock will be picked up by some team to fill a role as a rusher in passing situations but at 32 years of age, his time as a starter is over.