Dan Pompei's Read Option: Early Free-Agency Takeaways

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistMarch 13, 2014

Ann Heisenfelt/AP Images

The numbers that stand out about Jared Allen, Julius Peppers and DeMarcus Ware are 128.5, 119 and 117—their career sack totals. They rank 12th, 17th and 18th, respectively, on the all-time sack list. 

The numbers that explain their availability this week are 32, 34 and 32. That is how old Allen, Peppers and Ware will be when training camp begins.

Which numbers should we pay more attention to? Five front-office men offered their opinions after studying the three pass-rush greats. What was interesting is there was no consensus on which would make the best investment. Two of them said they would sign Peppers if they had the chance. Two picked Allen. And only one said they would prefer Ware, who was snapped up by the Broncos Wednesday.

Here is a look at each player.

Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

Jared Allen: Even in what could be the twilight of his career, Allen is defined by his passion for the game. He still plays as hard as anyone on the field. A pro personnel director said Allen's work ethic could help him offset some of the effects of age. A long-time evaluator said he believes Allen will play well in 2014 because of "who he is."

"He still is a very aggressive, urgent player who affects the quarterback's ability to throw," one general manager said. "Because of his fire and passion, a lot of teams are interested in him."

A lot of teams have come knocking on Allen's door already, but some have been turned off by his asking price. The word is he wanted a $12 million annual average. It's possible if Allen's price wasn't so high, he would be with the Broncos instead of Ware. The Broncos attempted to trade for Allen during the season, but talks broke down in part because a contract extension could not be agreed upon. Ware reportedly signed a three-year, $30 million deal with the Broncos.

The only other knock on Allen, as expressed by two of the front-office men, is his run defense is mediocre. One said Allen is "not a complete player." Another said, "He didn't play the run as effectively this year. I thought he was jumping around more to try to make splash plays. That hurt their defense at times."

Julius Peppers: Peppers, released by the Bears on Tuesday, remains the most talented and complete player of this group. And he really has not shown many effects of age. The problem? "You just don't know what you'll get from him," one high-ranking exec said.

One of the front-office men who said he would take Peppers ahead of Allen or Ware did so with a caveat. He would only do it if he had a premier defensive line coach to motivate Peppers, who dropped to 7.5 sacks in 2013 after having 11.5 the year before. "I don't think Peppers played well at all last year," the long-time evaluator said. "He took plays off. He looked like a fat cat. I saw indifference. But he is a special player. He can do it all."

The pro scout said that he thought Peppers could be rejuvenated in the right environment, and that he thinks Peppers would benefit from playing a lower percentage of snaps. The pro personnel director thinks Peppers could be more effective in a system where he could line up wider, and also mentioned Peppers would benefit from having a complementary rusher who could draw attention away from him.

"He doesn't have the explosive speed rush he once had," the pro scout said. "But he still is a quality player, very effective. He can bend and he can run, and his athleticism still stands out. He has a knack for rushing the passer. I know when we played the Bears, I was worried about him."

DeMarcus Ware: One of the front-office men called Ware a "flamethrower" and ranked him first among the three. But others had concerns about him missing three games last year and having a career-low six sacks before being cut by the Cowboys.

"There are questions about what he has to offer because everyone knows how much the Joneses love him," the general manager said. "The fact they were willing to let him go is an indication to a lot of people that he is in decline."

Ware's injuries in 2013 (neck, quad, back, elbow) make it difficult to determine if his skills are rapidly eroding. But he clearly was not the same player he was in previous years. "You can see some stiffness in his back and lower body now," the pro scout said. "Injuries might have played into it. But he has declined some."

Even if Ware still can bring the heat, the issue may be how often he will be available. "Durability is a legitimate concern with him," the long-time evaluator said. "With Ware, you are risking the potential of injury."

The high-ranking exec said Ware was better when he was playing outside linebacker in a 3-4, and the scheme switch in 2013 that saw him move to 4-3 defensive end did not play to his strengths. "He is best as a 3-4 outside linebacker in space," he said. "He works the edge of a block better than taking on a blocker straight up. He is better when he can use his athleticism as opposed to his strength."

The Broncos technically play a 4-3, but on passing downs they often line up three linemen and four linebackers. Exactly how they will use Ware in conjunction with Von Miller remains to be seen.

While the front-office men differed on how they ranked the three pass-rushers, they agreed that all three could be very effective in 2014 on new teams.

Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

NFL Confidential

• One of the most surprising deals of the past week was the five-year, $42.5 million the Vikings gave to retain Everson Griffen. The defensive lineman is coming off a 5.5-sack season, and his career best for sacks was eight in 2012. So why was he paid so much? Several teams think Griffen has a very high ceiling, and bidding on Griffen drove up his price. In fact, it is believed Griffen took less to stay with the Vikings, as a source said he might have been paid as much as $10 million annually if he left. The strongest suitors for Griffen were the Broncos and Jaguars. The Vikings, meanwhile, are looking at Griffen as a replacement for Allen at right end. Griffen has taken a lot of his snaps at defensive tackle on passing downs up to this point, so it's possible his production could spike as an edge rusher.

• From a glance, it appears Tony Gonzalez and the Falcons had a bit of an ugly parting of the ways. But it might not work out that way at all. Here is the story: The contract Gonzalez signed last year included a $3 million roster bonus that was payable this weekend. The understanding was that Gonzalez would file retirement papers prior to the bonus being due. But Gonzalez did not do that, almost certainly because he wants to leave the door open for a potential return if a contender needs him at some point next season. So he forced the Falcons to release him to clear up cap space. Now Gonzalez will be free to sign with any team next year. But the team he might like to join most, according to those who know, is the one he just was cut by. If the Falcons are a contender, don't rule out a Gonzalez return.

• The Jaguars were happy to get a low-round draft pick for Blaine Gabbert, but people in the building at EverBank Field believe Gabbert has the ability and the intangibles to resurrect his career in San Francisco. They knew it couldn't happen in Jacksonville, though. Their take on Gabbert is he was forced to play before he was ready, and he was beaten up physically and mentally. He had to play in three different offenses and deal with injuries. They believe Gabbert works hard and has the aptitude to take off in the right environment with the right coaching.

• Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas is considered a running back prospect by many, but he has told teams he wants to play wide receiver in the NFL. That's probably a good thing, given Thomas' inability to pass protect at 5'8", 174 pounds. He showed good hands at the combine, but scouts say he will need work on his routes. Thomas likely will be mostly a return specialist early in his career.

Scout Talk

Alabama's pro day was Wednesday, and as usual NFL scouts left the Tuscaloosa campus in awe of the talent. As many as 11 Crimson Tide players could be drafted in May. The consensus from scouts I've spoken with is it is likely the school will have two first-round picks (linebacker C.J. Mosley and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix), a second-round pick (offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio), a third-round pick (quarterback AJ McCarron), four fourth-round picks (linebacker Adrian Hubbard, wide receiver Kevin Norwood, guard Anthony Steen and defensive end Ed Stinson), two fifth-round picks (cornerback Deion Belue and safety Vinnie Sunseri) and two sixth- or seventh-round picks (punter Cody Mandell and defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan).

How does this class compare to other Alabama draft classes? This is how I rated them, with help from front-office men. The ratings are more about how the players were regarded on draft day, as opposed to during or after their NFL careers.

Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

1. 2012. One veteran scout said this was the best collection of talent he has seen from one school relative to the talent from other schools. There were two top-10 picks (Trent Richardson and Mark Barron), two other first-round picks (Dre Kirkpatrick and Dont'a Hightower), and another player (Courtney Upshaw) chosen with the third pick of the second round. We're still waiting for these players to realize their potential, but on draft day this looked like one of the most impressive concentrations of elite talent in draft history.

2. 2013. This class was an impressive combination of top-end talent plus depth. Alabama players were chosen with the ninth, 10th and 11th picks in the draft when Dee Milliner went to the Jets, Chance Warmack went to the Titans and D.J. Fluker went to the Chargers. Eddie Lacy wasn't chosen until late in the second round, by the Packers, but he was the NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year. All told, the Crimson Tide had nine players drafted.

3. 2011. Alabama had eight first-round picks over two years starting in 2011. Marcell Dareus and Julio Jones were top-10 picks in this draft, while James Carpenter and Mark Ingram went later in the round.

4. 2014. The current Alabama class may be the deepest of all, according to one front-office man. But it isn't as strong for top-end talent. Kouandjio is the wildcard here. There is a chance he can join Mosley and Clinton-Dix in the first round, which would make the 2014 Alabama class look a lot stronger and give Alabama three straight years with three first-round picks. Kouandjio looked good in position drills Wednesday after dropping 11 pounds to 311, but did not run a 40-yard dash. He is expected to try again in April after turning in a 5.59 at the combine. "Teams are all over the map on him after his poor combine," one scout said. Mosley was timed in the 40-yard dash between 4.65 and 4.71 seconds on various clocks, according to one scout, but his draft stock is secure.

Dave Martin/Associated Press

5. 2010. In hindsight this draft class doesn't seem very impressive. But it was impressive on draft day, when Rolando McClain and Kareem Jackson were first-rounders, Javier Arenas and Terrence Cody were second-rounders and Mike Johnson was a third-rounder.

6. 1993. This was the year Alabama had defensive linemen chosen with the fifth and sixth picks. John Copeland went first to the Bengals, then Eric Curry to the Bucs. George Teague also was a first-round pick.

7. 2000. Here is a draft class that looks better with time. Chris Samuels was the third pick and Shaun Alexander was the 19th. Early in the second round, Cornelius Griffin was chosen by the Giants.

8. 1978. Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome was the 23rd pick in the draft, and Bob Cryder was chosen with the 18th. Johnny Davis also was a second-round pick for the Tide this year.

9. 1979. Barry Krauss and Marty Lyons were top-14 picks, and Tony Nathan was a third-rounder.

10. 1994. Alabama had one player chosen in the first round (Antonio Langham by the Browns with the ninth pick), and three players chosen in the second (Kevin Lee by the Patriots, Jeremy Nunley by the Oilers and Roosevelt Patterson by the Raiders).

Hot Reads

• Broncos general manager John Elway is comparing free agency to dating. Except there is no going dutch.

• After taking in Jonathan Martin and Blaine Gabbert, Jim Harbaugh is starting to look like the Statue of Liberty of NFL coaches.

• For their next acquisition, the Jaguars are expected to go after the Space Needle.

• Aaron Rodgers has a doppelganger who is English comedian Tom Wrigglesworth. NFL scouts were studying tape to determine if it was Wrigglesworth who was under center against the 49ers in the playoffs.

• After seeing what some mediocre journeymen got paid in their first few days of free agency, nobody is complaining about Roger Goodell's salary anymore. Isn't there always a method to the NFL's madness?

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.