NFL Free Agency: Power Ranking the Best Available Defensive Linemen

Hayden Bird@haydenhbirdCorrespondent IMay 23, 2011

NFL Free Agency: Power Ranking the Best Available Defensive Linemen

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    While so much discussion of the NFL's MVP always hinges on so called "skill players" (quarterbacks, running backs especially), the importance of dominating the line of scrimmage is somehow lost, even when it's one of the only common denominators among Super Bowl champions.

    In order to win in the trenches, there could be a good case made that linemen, not their more glorified counterparts who carry the ball, are the most valuable pieces.

    On defense, their importance has been enhanced with the all of the rules that have been implemented over the last 35 years that restricted defensive contact on receivers.

    Getting to the quarterback as quickly as possible has become crucial for linemen, a skill that's now just as important as simply stopping the run.

    So as soon as regular free agency starts (fingers crossed that it actually does happen), then there will be many quality linemen available for addition.

    Here's a look at some of the best.

No. 10: Brandon Mebane

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    Mebane, 26, ranks at the bottom of the list simply because he's young and no one totally knows what he can be yet. Also, he's guilty by association being part of a Seahawks defense that, despite winning it's division, was far from outstanding.

    When healthy, he shows flashes of being a very good all-around defensive tackle. In 2008, he played in every game that season and recorded 5.5 sacks.

    A calf injury limited him last season, but could be a good pickup for a team looking to add a potential impact player.

No. 9: Barry Cofield

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    Cofield is coming off a year in which he posted career highs in every major category, including tackles, sacks and pass deflections.

    More than stats, he's a very durable player (missed only one game in five seasons), and has experienced success (since he has a Super Bowl ring).

    Basically, he would be a very good signing for any team looking for interior help on the D-line.

No. 8: Mathias Kiawnuka

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    Kiwanuka proved to be one of the most versatile pass rushers on the Giants last season when healthy. And unfortunately, the last two words of that sentence (when healthy) are the theme for the former Boston College standout.

    He can play linebacker, defensive end (either side) and defensive tackle, but can he stay on the field for an entire season?

    He’s been linked with teams like the Patriots, and I wouldn’t be surprised if whoever gets him takes him on as a discounted deal. Potentially a steal for whoever he ends up with, again, provided he can stay on the field.

No. 7: Shaun Ellis

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    He's been a staple of the Jets defense for more than a decade and has been a vital component of Rex Ryan's defense since 2009.

    Without Ellis, Ryan would have to be more careful in his blitz schemes because of Ellis' ability to break double teams.

    That said, he's 33 and not getting any more explosive with age. Ellis would be a good addition for someone, but definitely not to be overpaid or offered more than two years in my opinion.

No. 6: Aubrayo Franklin

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    His ranking is helped by his job capability. Being a nose-tackle, Franklin is a desired commodity in a season where the previous Super Bowl was fought between two defenses running 3-4 schemes.

    And since the NFL is such a "copy-cat league", other teams may decide they want to either switch outright to a 3-4 or start fazing it in as a defense.

    There aren't too many solid nose-tackles in the NFL, so anytime one of them becomes available their value goes up dramatically.

    He could very well stay with San Fran, but if he doesn't there will inevitably be a list of suitors.

No. 5: Pat Williams

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    Williams is seemingly an anomaly. Aren't players approaching the age of 40 and weigh 300 pounds supposed to break down?

    Apparently in his case, the answer remains no. Williams started in every game last year for the Vikings and is still an efficient run-stopper.

    He's 50/50 as of now on returning to the Vikings—no word on whether he plans to retire (which I doubt). A useful player, he could be in either a 3-4 or a 4-3 front.

No. 4: Cliff Avril

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    A good but not great pass-rusher, he was clearly aided last season by the additions the Lions made to their defensive line (most notably Ndamukong Suh).

    Still, Avril is a good rusher off the edge and had a respectable 8.5 sacks in 2010.

    He also is young (25 years old) and can disrupt passes (five pass deflections last year). A solid addition, but not a player that teams should get into a bidding war for.

No. 3: Ray Edwards

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    I swear his ranking wasn't helped here because of his entrance into the world of boxing, but that is pretty gutsy of him I have to admit.

    He's another good but not great pass-rusher. 8.5 sacks in 2009 and eight sacks last year are decent numbers to put up.

    Again, like Avril, he was helped by the presence of other good linemen (you may have heard of Jared Allen?)

    He would be a nice acquisition for anyone playing a 4-3 front.

No. 2: Jason Babin

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    Babin finally found a home last year with the Titans, and racked the 10-sack barrier for the first time in his eight-year NFL career.

    The debate for anyone considering signing him would be what Jason Babin they would get. Would it be the pre-2010 Babin who struggled with consistency and played for four different teams in five years?

    Or would it be the 12.5-sack machine he was last year?

    That might dampen his contract, but he's still a coveted free agent, make no mistake.

No. 1: Charles Johnson

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    Didn't see this one coming, did you? (Well, maybe you did if you're a geek who tracks these things like I enjoy doing.)

    And yes, I realize he, like Babin, has only had one really solid season. You have to remember though, that he's only 24.

    Last year was also the first season in which he was given the starting job for 16 games. He's not simply a pass-rusher too, chalking up 62 tackles to go with his impressive 11.5 sacks.

    Very quietly, Johnson has seamlessly replaced Julius Peppers as the Panther’s premier pass-rusher.

    A former 3rd round pick, he may not generate the fanfare of the aforementioned Peppers (who departed last offseason for greener pastures in Chicago), but he collected more sacks than Peppers in 2010.

    Any number of teams will probably line up to spend on Johnson, with an eye on his young age and excellent production in such a short and limited period of time.