NFL1000: Free-Agency Rankings for the 2017 4-3 DE Market

NFL1000 ScoutsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 21, 2017

NFL1000: Free-Agency Rankings for the 2017 4-3 DE Market

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    Welcome to Bleacher Report's NFL1000 free-agency preview, a series where we'll use the power of the 17-man NFL1000 scouting department to bring you in-depth analysis of every NFL free agent this offseason. In this installment, lead scout Doug Farrar and defensive end scouts Justis Mosqueda and Joe Goodberry dive into this year's 4-3 DE class.   

    As much as defensive line responsibilities have changed in the NFL over the past decade, with multiple hybrid fronts becoming the order of the day, there is still a desperate need in every four-man base front for the rare athlete who can consistently upend offensive tackles and force the blocking action his way. The elite 4-3 pass-rusher may be a starter, or he may work in a rotation, but his value does not diminish.

    Where the responsibilities have changed to a degree is how those players are utilized. The Seattle Seahawks' Michael Bennett is the best example of the new paradigm—a top-level pass-rusher off the edge who can also dominate with his inside counter, move inside to tackle on passing downs and disrupt from different gaps. That kind of versatility will get you more snaps, but it’s not the only way to go.

    Coaches and coordinators are more aware than ever that the physical demands of edge rushing can wear a player out and, conscious of the late-season fade, will use their edge-rushers in rotations. Both Super Bowl teams, the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons, are well versed in this particular theory. And it was New England’s quick offense that gassed Atlanta’s defensive line late in Super Bowl LI, leading to the most remarkable comeback in league history.

    Other teams will learn from this, and you’ll see more rotational stars. As is true with so many other positions in the NFL these days, it’s all about how you specialize.

    The 2017 free-agent class of 4-3 defensive ends boasts an intriguing combination of legitimate every-down starters and the kinds of players who might change your entire defense in less than 500 snaps.

                 

    Previous Installments

    NFL1000 Free-Agent Quarterback Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Tight End Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Fullback Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Kicker/Punter Rankings
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    FL1000 Free-Agent Left Tackle Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Offensive Guard Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Center Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Right Tackle Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Inside Linebacker Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent 3-4 Defensive End Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent 4-3 Defensive End Rankings
    NFL1000 Free Agent Defensive Tackle Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent 3-4 Outside Linebacker Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent 4-3 Outside Linebacker Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Running Back Rankings

19. Margus Hunt

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    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Rush: 15.9/25
    Run Defense: 13.9/25
    Snap Explosion: 11.4/20
    Tackling: 11.6/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 60.4/100
    2016 NFL1000 4-3 Defensive End Rank: 66/68

    NFL1000 DE scout Joe Goodberry

    Margus Hunt has been the butt of jokes amongst the Bengals fanbase for a few years, but 2016 was easily his best season in the NFL. Hunt showed he can be a backend rotational piece and help on special teams, blocking three kicks this year. But in his 322 defensive snaps, he recorded just 14 tackles and zero sacks. He was benched when he was outplayed by Will Clarke, Wallace Gilberry and DeShawn Williams, but the Bengals eventually found a small role for him to finish out the year. He's big and strong, but extremely stiff and slow to react. This hurts him not only as a pass-rusher, but also as a tackler. He can help as a run defender, but he often gets outleveraged and moved too easily. With Hunt turning 30 in July, I'm not sure there's any upside left for the 2017 season.

    Doug's Quick Take: Hunt has also always had severe leverage issues—he doesn't get under pads, and he struggles to retain power as a result. It's never good when a second-round pick can only find value as a rotational cog, but teams looking for a decent run defender won't have to deal with that baggage. Depth value only.

      

    Potential Suitors: Cincinnati Bengals

18. Wallace Gilberry

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    Tim Warner/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Rush: 15.2/25
    Run Defense: 12.7/25
    Snap Explosion: 10.8/20
    Tackling: 12.4/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 58.7/100
    2016 NFL1000 4-3 Defensive End Rank: 68/68

    NFL1000 DE scout Joe Goodberry

    After a few seasons as a rotational piece in Cincinnati, Wallace Gilberry signed with the Detroit Lions in a similar role. After a few weeks of being our lowest graded 4-3 DE, Gilberry was released. He spent a few weeks on the market and then re-signed with the Bengals after they struggled to replace him. The Bengals used him as a defensive tackle in their nickel defense and to manufacture pressure. He looked refreshed, and in the last two games of the 2016 season, Gilberry racked up 2.5 sacks. He just fits what they do, and both the player and team have a mutual understanding of his skill and abilities. I could easily see the Bengals re-signing him for the 2017 season.

    Doug's Quick Take: Gilberry still has a bit left in the tank, as he showed toward the end of the season, but anyone expecting a rerun of 2013-2015, in which he put up a ton of pressures, may be disappointed. Gilberry is 32, and pass-rushers in their early 30s are generally best suited for third-down roles in the right schemes. That's about how Gilberry projects at this point in his career. 

    Potential Suitors: Cincinnati Bengals

17. Paul Kruger

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    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Rush: 17.2/25
    Run Defense: 13/25
    Snap Explosion: 12.9/20
    Tackling: 13.1/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 63.9/100
    2016 NFL1000 4-3 Defensive End Rank: 53/68

    NFL1000 DE scout Justis Mosqueda

    Paul Kruger is a name many people know, since he was a significant free agent in the 2013 cycle. Because of that, his brand was elevated, with fans all over the country seeing him on watch lists. In his first three years with the Baltimore Ravens, Kruger posted just 6.5 sacks. But in 2012, his contract season, he recorded nine sacks, a career high to that point. Baltimore let him walk, which was a red flag in itself, and he signed a five-year, $40 million contract with the AFC North rival Cleveland Browns.

    He only played three years with the team, recording an 11-sack season in 2014 but posting just seven combined sacks in his other two years in Cleveland. Kruger's had two very good seasons in his career, but he has to be considered a free-agency bust for what the Browns paid him. Last year, Cleveland released Kruger, opening up a chance for him to land with the New Orleans Saints, who might have had one of the weakest defensive lines in the NFL. In his one year with New Orleans, as a 13-game starter, he recorded just 1.5 sacks. He's not an elite pass-rusher. He's not an elite run defender. In a lot of ways, he's just a dwindling star who is on the last leg of his career as a 31-year-old.

    The 6'4” defensive end struggles with pad level and is losing athleticism. Not a great combination, but there's still a chance someone believes they can revive him for that third career season.

    Doug's Quick Take: Kruger took one hot season and parlayed it into a huge free-agent haul, which shows (once again) that the Browns generally struggle to understand the outlier concept. In any case, the Paul Kruger of today is an average to below-average pass-rusher with decent run defense abilities. 

    Potential Suitors: None

16. William Gholston

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    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Rush: 16.4/25
    Run Defense: 13.9/25
    Snap Explosion: 12.4/20
    Tackling: 13.6/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 63.9/100
    2016 NFL1000 4-3 Defensive End Rank: 52/68

    NFL1000 DE scout Justis Mosqueda

    At just 25 years old, William Gholston has plenty of football ahead of him. The former fourth-round pick has finally finished his rookie contract, which he signed in 2013, and looks to hit the open market for the first time. Although the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Noah Spence in the second round and signed Robert Ayers last offseason, Gholston still managed to start 14 games last season at defensive end for the Buccaneers.

    Tampa Bay struggles with their defensive line's quality of depth, so although he has just 10 career sacks, there’s a good chance Gholston could be re-signed. But if he does walk, there are few 25-year-old free-agent pass-rushers with 36 total starts under their belt. Gholston’s only plus quality is his size, as he’s listed at 6’6” and 281 pounds, but that could be enough to get him picked up, even if it is as a 3-4 defensive end instead of a 4-3 base end. 

    Doug's Quick Take: Gholston is a bit of a tweener—not quite big enough to succeed as a traditional 3-4 end, and not quick enough to rack up a bunch of sacks and pressures in a four-man front. He's best served as a rotational guy in a hybrid front where he can kick inside on passing downs.

      

    Potential Suitors: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Detroit Lions

15. Chris Long

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    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Rush: 17.1/25
    Run Defense: 14.1/25
    Snap Explosion: 12.9/20
    Tackling: 12.8/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 64.4/100
    2016 NFL1000 4-3 Defensive End Rank: 48/68

    NFL1000 DE scout Joe Goodberry

    Chris Long seemed to be at the end of his career for the past couple of seasons, but he looked rejuvenated for the Patriots early in 2016. Long ultimately ended up in a rotation for New England's hybrid defense that asked him to play OLB as well as DE. In his 741 defensive snaps, good for 60.1 percent of the Patriots' total snaps, Long ended up with 22 tackles and five sacks. He showed youthful athleticism as a pass-rusher at times, and there could be a few solid years left in his career as a pass-rusher in a rotation. But at other times, Long looked old and misused in the Patriots' scheme.

    Doug's Quick Take: Long had a number of high-quality seasons for a Rams franchise that had little clue what it was doing outside of its front seven, and he had experienced a bit of a downturn in 2014 and 2015. His resurgence in 2016 (five sacks, seven hits and 53 hurries) spoke to his fit in Bill Belichick's base fronts. He's more an end than a linebacker, but he could succeed for a couple more seasons in that role for any 4-3 team.

      

    Potential Suitors: New England Patriots

14. Mario Addison

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    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Rush: 17.3/25
    Run Defense: 12.8/25
    Snap Explosion: 13.6/20
    Tackling: 13.2/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 64.6/100
    2016 NFL1000 4-3 Defensive End Rank: 46/68

    NFL1000 DE scout Justis Mosqueda

    Mario Addison will turn 30 years old by the time next season kicks off. He was a junior college transfer who landed at Troy, a school best known for producing both DeMarcus Ware and Osi Umenyiora. In his first two years in the NFL, he bounced around four different rosters. It’s amazing that Addison was able to make the most of his shots up to this point. Last year, he had a breakout season of 10 sacks, despite the fact that he started just one game.

    If some team, like the Baltimore Ravens, gives him decent money to be a third pass-rusher in an effort to chase a ring, that could be Addison’s best option in terms of his career. No one is going to give big money to a 30-year-old who's started just four NFL games, even at a pass-rushing position.


     

    Doug's Quick Take: With 10 sacks, five hits and 36 hurries in just 433 snaps last season, Addison continued a recent stretch of excellence despite his lack of starts. He's a great situational pass-rusher and decent run defender who can also play inside, and he's not a one-year wonder. He could be one of the better bargains in this free-agent class...or one team could get wrapped up in his sack numbers and overpay him. Age is the primary concern here. 

    Potential Suitors: None

13. Darryl Tapp

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    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Rush: 17.5/25
    Run Defense: 13.2/25
    Snap Explosion: 13.2/20
    Tackling: 13.3/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 64.9/100
    2016 NFL1000 4-3 Defensive End Rank: 44/68

    NFL1000 DE scout Justis Mosqueda

    If Darryl Tapp's name sounds like a blast from the past, that's because it is. Tapp turns 33 in September. That's well beyond your prime years at pass-rushing positions. In New Orleans last season, he rotated with Paul Kruger opposite of star end Cameron Jordan. Needless to say, he and Kruger juxtaposed across Jordan made for one of the more lopsided pass-rushing duos in the NFL in 2016.

    Like Kruger, Tapp is also an unrestricted free agent, which puts the Saints in an odd spot. They likely won't re-sign both if they don't have to, but based on their recent price tags, there isn't a clear-cut answer regarding which one New Orleans will bring back in 2017. Tapp has been on four teams in the last five years, so he's not new to the concept of free agency. In 2007, his sophomore season in the league, he posted a seven-sack total. But since 2008, he's never had more than three sacks in a single season.

    At 6'1”, he's not for everyone, and at this point in his career, he should probably be playing on turf. With that in mind, New Orleans, Atlanta and Minnesota should be the first teams Tapp's agent calls. The Falcons were down to starting Dwight Freeney (who makes Tapp look young) in the Super Bowl. While Minnesota has top-end talent, the Vikings really only use a three-man rotation, and Brian Robison is trending down. If Tapp can come on as a fourth pass-rusher, that might be the spot he needs to play at this point in his career.

    Doug's Quick Take: Despite his age, Tapp still shows some speed off the edge and run-stopping ability. Any 4-3 team with depth needs should take a look, as long as his size doesn't scare them off.

    Potential Suitors: New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons, Minnesota Vikings

12. Ethan Westbrooks

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Rush: 17.7/25
    Run Defense: 13.6/25
    Snap Explosion: 13.1/20
    Tackling: 12.9/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 64.9/100
    2016 NFL1000 4-3 Defensive End Rank: 43/68

    NFL1000 DE scout Justis Mosqueda

    When you think of a baseline defensive end, there may not be a better example of that in the NFL than Ethan Westbrooks. While that might sound like a negative thing, he was a very consistent player for the Los Angeles Rams in a historically inconsistent year for the team.

    Opposite of Robert Quinn, there was a rotation of William Hayes, Eugene Sims and Westbrooks. There were very few times the difference between Hayes, Sims and Westbrooks was visible, even on a game-to-game basis. In some ways, that was a good thing for the Rams, as they were four-deep at a position with functional bodies, but having no specific traits awarded to three players doesn't help you much outside of the pitch count. For that reason alone, Westbrooks may hit the market, though he's currently a restricted free agent. That means the Rams have the most leverage right now in the tagging process, unless some team wants to come in and offer up a first-round pick for him.

    Los Angeles was aggressive with a first-round tender on quarterback Case Keenum last offseason, and it may spend more than expected on Westbrooks, too. As of now, Westbrooks is probably best known for being the defensive MVP of the East-West Shrine Game. He started two games last season, but he's played 35 total games in the NFL, recording just four total sacks.

    At 6'4” and 267 pounds, he can fit into any NFL scheme. If he does hit the open market, he's about as safe and affordable as you can expect for a third or fourth defensive end.

    Doug's Quick Take: Westbrooks has flashed starter potential at times with his combination of quickness, agility and strength. Perhaps he can put it all together in a more consistent package over time. If that happens, don't be surprised if he gets a ton more snaps in his contract year with a new coaching staff. 

      

    Potential Suitors: Los Angeles Rams

11. Ryan Davis

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    George Gojkovich/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Rush: 17/25
    Run Defense: 13.3/25
    Snap Explosion: 13.2/20
    Tackling: 14/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 65/100
    2016 NFL1000 4-3 Defensive End Rank: 42/68

    NFL1000 DE scout Justis Mosqueda

    Ryan Davis is a pass-rusher who doesn't always flash on Sundays, but he's almost always there. After spending four years with the Jacksonville Jaguars, moving up and down from the practice squad, Davis finally left Northern Florida for North Texas, where he signed a one-year contract with the Dallas Cowboys. That deal was worth $675,000, which set expectations low, but he still did enough in his time with Dallas to give owner Jerry Jones a reason to bring him back in 2017.

    In his career, Davis has been active for 47 games, though he's never started a game and has only recorded 11 sacks over that time. There are three factors that may keep Davis' price low again in the 2017 open market. First, his season was an injury sandwich, with him falling short of healthy early on and ending the year on the injured reserve list.

    Second, he's going to be 28 by the time he signs his next contract, which means his next deal should be another short-term one. Third, at his peak, he posted 6.5 sacks in 2014, which should be looked at as the absolute best-case scenario right now. Davis is a functional body at the position, but he's not someone who transcends the fact that he's a low-rotation player. Heck, he was cut by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Though Randy Gregory is now on the team's back burner, Dallas will likely return Demarcus Lawrence, David Irving, Tyrone Crawford, Benson Mayowa and Charles Tapper next season, and they all could be ahead of Davis on the depth chart.

    If it becomes a numbers issue, expect Davis to fill in as a veteran end for a team that needs a mid-level third or fourth pass-rusher in 2017. 

    Doug's Quick Take: A rotational player throughout his career, Davis was a surprise cut by the Jaguars last September. He's demonstrated a lot of production and versatility in limited snaps, though it didn't show up as much as people would have liked in Dallas. On a team needing a gap-versatile pass-rusher, Davis can still succeed. 

    Potential Suitors: Dallas Cowboys

10. Andre Branch

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    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Rush: 17.3/25
    Run Defense: 14.1/25
    Snap Explosion: 13.4/20
    Tackling: 13.4/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 65.8/100
    2016 NFL1000 4-3 Defensive End Rank: 32/68

    NFL1000 DE scout Joe Goodberry

    Andre Branch signed with the Miami Dolphins last offseason as an under-the-radar acquisition. After playing more than 800 snaps for a playoff team, it seems likely the 27-year-old Branch will receive more attention this offseason.

    He's still largely the same player, but when he had Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh on the same line, Branch got some favorable matchups and took advantage. He graded decently against both the pass and run and would've been higher as a tackler if he hadn't missed so many. Branch played with high effort and a willingness to sacrifice his body against the run. As a pass-rusher, he still has issues turning the corner and isn't afraid to use his arm in a windmill motion to stay balanced. He had a solid year with 5.5 sacks in 2016, and looking at his career production, that's about what you should expect.

    Doug's Quick Take: Yes, Branch took advantage of the talent around him last year in Miami, but he was also good for four seasons in Jacksonville, where there wasn't a high-level supporting cast. Branch gets sacks in bunches, but he's a consistent quarterback disruptor with 34 hurries last season.

      

    Potential Suitors: Miami Dolphins, Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys

9. David Irving

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Rush: 18/25
    Run Defense: 13/25
    Snap Explosion: 13.8/20
    Tackling: 13.2/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 65.6/100
    2016 NFL1000 4-3 Defensive End Rank: 35/68

    NFL1000 DE scout Justis Mosqueda

    David Irving isn't a player whose name you should have known before this season. Prior to 2016, Irving was best known for being an undrafted prospect who was dismissed from the Iowa State football team. With that being said, he's an incredibly athletic player, and at 6'7” and 273 pounds, there are very few schemes in which he doesn't fit. At just 23 years old, the Cowboys have an opportunity to secure him with a long-term deal, if they believe in Irving the person as much as Irving the player.

    Under defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, Irving has the best defensive line teacher of the last decade, so there's no reason why Dallas, considering their pass-rush situation, should turn him down on a reasonable contract. After posting three sacks in the last three games of the regular season, and starting the final two, Irving should be a top priority for the Cowboys brass.

    Think about it this way: If Irving were a draft prospect, with his age, size, production and athleticism at the NFL level, he would be worth a top-10 pick in the 2017 draft. In a calendar year, Irving very well might have more NFL starts than he had career starts at the college level. The Cowboys pulled an absolute gem, which is why he's a free agent this young into his professional career. He's an exclusive rights free agent, which means Dallas can have him on the cheap. There should be no hesitation on their side of this negotiation.

    Doug's Quick Take: Irving plays with a bit of a wild hair, but he's a malevolent, disruptive end with a world of potential. There's no telling how good he can be with Marinelli in charge of his future. 

    Potential Suitors: Dallas Cowboys

8. Devin Taylor

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    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Rush: 17.1/25
    Run Defense: 14.2/25
    Snap Explosion: 13.5/20
    Tackling: 13.5/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 66/100
    2016 NFL1000 4-3 Defensive End Rank: 30/68

    NFL1000 DE scout Justis Mosqueda

    Defensive end Devin Taylor came out of South Carolina as a highly touted draft prospect. Playing opposite Jadeveon Clowney, Taylor tested very well at the combine relative to his size, and his 6'7” length was a major talking point during the 2013 draft cycle. However, he's recorded just 15 sacks in 61 games as a professional, and he only started two games in his first three seasons in the NFL.

    Looking at the Detroit Lions' defensive end depth chart, they have several decisions to make this offseason. Their star, Ezekiel Ansah, was injured for part of 2016, leading to him recording just two sacks on the year. Ansah will be a free agent in 2018, and the team's third pass-rusher, Kerry Hyder, is an exclusive rights free agent this year, which means he likely will be playing in a contract season in 2017, too. Taylor started every game for the Lions last year and is a dependable player. On the open market, he should be able to fetch a three-year deal worth low-end starter money. Detroit simply needs to pick their two, and they have to do it a year early.

    If he does hit the open market,Taylor will be suited best for 4-3 schemes that are looking for a base end or a complementary rusher opposite of a star. He's never going to be more than a second or third piece to the pass-rushing puzzle, but that still has tremendous value considering he has yet to hit his perceived upside.

    Doug's Quick Take: Taylor is a long, angular player who generally manages to beat the leverage issues common to players of his height. He's also a good, dependable run defender who would be an asset to any line rotation, and his physical attributes make him a bit more scheme-versatile than some.

      

    Potential Suitors: Detroit Lions, Cincinnati Bengals, New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers

7. Jabaal Sheard

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    George Gojkovich/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Rush: 18/25
    Run Defense: 14.1/25
    Snap Explosion: 13.3/20
    Tackling: 13.1/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 66.1/100
    2016 NFL1000 4-3 Defensive End Rank: 27/68

    NFL1000 DE scout Joe Goodberry

    Jabaal Sheard started the year grading out very well as the Patriots played more of a traditional 4-3 defense. After four weeks, I was ready to call him one of the best all-around 4-3 ends in the NFL. In the first quarter of the season, Sheard accumulated 11 tackles and three sacks. At some point, the Patriots decided to bench Sheard and move to more of a 3-4/hybrid defense.

    When Sheard was used again, he was in a rotation with Chris Long and Rob Ninkovich. He played over 65 percent of the defensive snaps in seven of the first eight games but wouldn't surpass that benchmark again during the final eight games. Sheard ended the season with 20 tackles and five sacks. After starting 45 games in the first three years of his career, he has started just 14 in the past three seasons.

    From a skill standpoint, I still like Sheard. He's decently athletic, shows strength in his rush moves and can win on both sides of the line. He was asked to drop into coverage and looked good doing it. Against the run, Sheard can be a nuisance. He's a bit of a tweener, as his size suggests he's a 3-4 OLB or 4-3 RDE, but he plays more like a strong-side 4-3 end. He'll be 28 years old to start the 2017 season, so this may be his last decent contract, but he's flashed enough to show he can still help plenty of teams.

    Doug's Quick Take: More a run defender than a true pass-rusher throughout his career, Sheard is at his best as a 4-3 strong-side end who will rack up good production in a versatile way. He will also have to answer questions about his relative demotion in the second half of the 2016 season. When Bill Belichick decides you don't fit the plan, other teams tend to listen. 

    Potential Suitors: New England Patriots, New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers

6. Charles Johnson

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    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Rush: 17.4/25
    Run Defense: 14.5/25
    Snap Explosion: 13.5/20
    Tackling: 13.5/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 66.5/100
    2016 NFL1000 4-3 Defensive End Rank: 24/68

    NFL1000 DE scout Justis Mosqueda

    Generally, if you're over the age of 28 in the NFL, you're starting your decline. With that in mind, it shouldn't be surprising that Charles Johnson has been steadily trending down the past few seasons. Already 30 years old, Johnson was cut by the Carolina Panthers last offseason. He was quickly re-signed to a one-year, $3 million contract, but the message was clear: He just wasn't worth the money they were expecting to pay him.

    If that was his market value last season, it's hard to imagine he'd receive more money at this point. In 22 starts over the last two seasons, every game that Johnson has been active for, he's only posted five combined sacks.

    To put that into perspective, in the previous seven seasons, he had only recorded fewer than a half-dozen sacks once. Johnson was a captain on a Super Bowl team, though, and as silly as that sounds, that's going to matter to some front offices. If he does leave Carolina, he very well might have a chance to chase a ring as a "leader" who has three or four years left in the tank, depending on how his 2017 season plays out. Carolina, New Orleans, Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Detroit, Dallas and Atlanta are all teams where Johnson could land. He wouldn't have to worry about dropping into coverage much, but he would have a chance to end his career with another deep playoff run.

    Those squads, if nothing else, are going to be in playoff contention over the next few seasons, and getting your foot in the door is half the battle.

    Doug's Quick Take: Johnson was one of the most effective and consistent pass-rushers in the NFL from 2010 through 2014, but age has visibly caught up to him. He has struggled to stay on the field and doesn't have the burst or strength he did at his peak. At 30, he'll have to sign a prove-it contract before he gets any more big money.

    Potential Suitors: Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Baltimore Ravens, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Detroit Lions, Atlanta Falcons

5. Dwight Freeney

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    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Rush: 18.3/25
    Run Defense: 12.7/25
    Snap Explosion: 14.9/20
    Tackling: 13.3/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 66.7/100
    2016 NFL1000 4-3 Defensive End Rank: 22/68

    NFL1000 DE scout Justis Mosqueda

    There are players on this list that even casual NFL fans know, and Dwight Freeney is one of them. When Freeney left Syracuse after the 2001 season, he was drafted in the first round by the Indianapolis Colts, whom he played for through the 2012 season. There, he made seven Pro Bowls and three first-team All-Pro lists. In 2004, he even led the NFL in sacks.

    As an undersized 6'1” defensive end, he's the prototype for the short-framed pass-rusher in the modern NFL. After leaving Indianapolis, Freeney had a quiet two years in San Diego before signing with the Arizona Cardinals in 2015 and the Atlanta Falcons the following year. Freeney still has solid burst off the line of scrimmage and can still counter with an inside spin move.

    On some level, the 37-year-old looks like he can go on forever, as long as he's on a pitch count. You have to wonder, though, if his success in Indianapolis, Arizona and Atlanta juxtaposed to his years in San Diego comes from the fact that he was playing in dome stadiums. If you're willing to follow that narrative, Freeney needs to land with a Super Bowl contender that plays in a stadium with a roof. This year, playoff teams competing in arena-like stadiums were limited to the Houston Texans, a team three-deep in pass-rushers; the Dallas Cowboys, who need more help at that position than just about anyone in the league; the Falcons and the Detroit Lions, who don't totally fit the “contender” profile.

    If Freeney does want to extend his future beyond Super Bowl LI, the two teams that should be highlighted on are Dallas and Atlanta.

    Doug's Quick Take: For all the legitimate talk about pass-rushers hitting their obvious decline around age 30, Freeney and Pittsburgh's James Harrison are the two primary exceptions to that rule in 2017. Freeney was a great addition for the Falcons in 2016—he showed he still has the burst to get past tackles, a stellar inside counter and the famed spin move that has always been so devastating. He's also an outstanding mentor for younger pass-rushers. There's no reason he can't do the same in a rotational sense for the next couple years. 

    Potential Suitors: Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys, Cincinnati Bengals

4. Ryan Russell

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Rush: 18.4/25
    Run Defense: 13/25
    Snap Explosion: 13.6/20
    Tackling: 13.9/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 66.9/100
    2016 NFL1000 4-3 Defensive End Rank: 21/68

    NFL1000 DE scout Justis Mosqueda

    Ryan Russell doesn't have a huge NFL resume, but he had one of the more consistent grades in the NFL1000 series this season. Before Week 10, Russell had only been active for one professional game, with the Dallas Cowboys in 2015. After that, he appeared in every Tampa Bay Buccaneers game in the second half of the 2016 season. Despite only recording one sack, Russell flashed pressure potential, and his 6'5”, 267-pound frame will attract many teams who are looking for a base end, should he hit the open market.

    The Buccaneers have the option to retain Russell with ease because he's an exclusive rights free agent under the current collective bargaining agreement. As long as Tampa Bay believes they have a roster spot for him, with the likes of William Gholston, Robert Ayers, Noah Spence and DaVonte Lambert possibly all returning for the 2017 season, then it should be an easy decision. 

    You can only get cheap, experienced players in this league so often, and general manager Jason Licht has all the leverage he needs to bring him back with no resistance at all. Expect the 24-year-old Russell to stay in Tampa Bay in 2017. 

    Doug's Quick Take: The former Cowboys castoff showed some real potential in the second half of the 2016 season, and he should get more reps in 2017, perhaps as a prelude to a starting career. 

      

    Potential Suitors: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

3. Kerry Hyder

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    Dave Reginek/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Rush: 18.8/25
    Run Defense: 14.3/25
    Snap Explosion: 13.2/20
    Tackling: 13.9/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 67.9/100
    2016 NFL1000 4-3 Defensive End Rank: 18/68

    NFL1000 DE scout Justis Mosqueda

    There was no breakout player who came out of nowhere quite like Kerry Hyder did in 2016, at least at the defensive end position. Hyder came into the NFL as an undrafted defensive tackle out of Texas Tech. Listed at 270 pounds, he's lost 20 pounds since his 2014 combine, and he's far from the player he used to be. After spending most of his first two seasons on the New York Jets' and Detroit Lions' practice squads, Hyder was still fighting for a spot on the Lions' 53-man roster in Week 4 of the 2016 preseason.

    Hyder, who didn't so much as record a single sack in his 11 previous NFL preseason games, had a showcase three-sack game in Week 4, his only start of exhibition play in 2016. After making the regular-season roster, he had five sacks in the first four games of the season, earning two starts while star defensive end Ezekiel Ansah was out with an early-season injury.

    Hyder finished the year with eight total sacks as a rotational defensive end and pressure defensive tackle, making him one of the best bang-for-your-buck players at the position. He's an exclusive rights free agent, meaning the Lions can have him on a cheap, short deal in 2017 if they want, and there's no reason to think they would use him differently.

    Should the Lions make a mistake and let Hyder test the open market, a team like the Atlanta Falcons, which tries to get pressure with four defenders, should be interested. Any squad that puts a premium on using four players to rush the passer on third down (as opposed to the blitz) and wants a hybrid end-tackle in their even front defense should absolutely have Hyder at the top of its wish list.

    Doug's Quick Take: Hyder's story is very interesting, and he did show a lot of surprising potential in 2016. Still, there's a buyer-beware aspect to the story going forward. Four of his eight sacks last season came against the relatively weak Colts line and a Vikings line that was perhaps the worst in the game. Not to say he's a one-hit wonder, but he'll need to show more consistency in the upcoming season before many will rate him as a priority free agent. 

      

    Potential Suitors: Detroit Lions, Atlanta Falcons

2. Wes Horton

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Rush: 19.1/25
    Run Defense: 12.7/25
    Snap Explosion: 14.1/20
    Tackling: 14.1/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 68.2/100
    2016 NFL1000 4-3 Defensive End Rank: 16/68

    NFL1000 DE scout Justis Mosqueda

    Wes Horton isn't particularly talented at any one aspect of the game, but he's incredibly consistent. Horton, who was re-signed midseason by the Carolina Panthers, just turned 27 years old. He's also a restricted free agent, which means that by all accounts, Carolina will pick him up on a cheap, short-term contract. 

    At 6'5” and 265 pounds, Horton has all of the length you'd want in a 4-3 defensive end while also possessing the feet to play on either side of the field. He doesn't have great sack production, posting just 8.5 sacks in his career. However, the fact that the Panthers started him in 27 games over the last three years speaks volumes. If for some reason Carolina does end up letting him walk, expect a team like the Cincinnati Bengals—who don't spend big money on free agents but do like longer ends—to take a run at Horton on a two- or three-year deal.

    Horton is about as baseline as you can get from a pass-rusher. His burst isn't exceptional, and neither are his developed moves, but he brings it every play. The one place where you have to worry about him is in the run game, where he tends to get washed or reached, exposing outside runs for offenses.

    Doug's Quick Take: A rotational cog throughout his career, Horton doesn't fade when he's given more snaps. The more you trust him with, the better he performs. He's not ever going to be a top-tier starter, but teams need players like him, who do everything asked of them to the highest degree possible. 

    Potential Suitors: Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals

1. Jason Pierre-Paul

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Rush: 19.1/25
    Run Defense: 14.7/25
    Snap Explosion: 14.7/20
    Tackling: 14/20
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 69.8/100
    2016 NFL1000 4-3 Defensive End Rank: 10/68

    NFL1000 DE scout Justis Mosqueda

    While Jason Pierre-Paul is our highest-graded 4-3 defensive end in this free-agency class, most of the conversations surrounding his next contract will have little to nothing to do with his talent. The New York Giants gave Pierre-Paul a one-year "prove it" deal in March 2016 after his highly publicized hand injury in July 2015.

    With that being said, he is just 28 years old, and he has produced since his accident. Pierre-Paul missed the last four games of the regular season and the playoffs because of a sports hernia. Back surgery in 2013 derailed his overall progression for a bit as well. If he hits the open market, those injuries may be the reason why.

    The 6'5” end posted 5.5 sacks in his final three games of the season, mimicking Robert Ayers' 2015 production. After Ayers got hot with the Giants at the end of the regular season, he signed a three-year, $19.5 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the offseason. Based on Pierre-Paul's pedigree and more productive past, that number will likely be closer to $10 million per year. If you simply look at how he was used by the Giants in the first 12 weeks of the season, it was clear they were getting as much out of him as possible while they had him under contract.

    New York played 872 snaps on the defensive side of the ball, per Pro Football Focus. JPP played in 793 of them, good for 90.9 percent. If he were to join a team to play in more of a rotation, it's hard to imagine he wouldn't benefit from resting in order to preserve his health and stamina down the line. If a team invests in him long-term, rather than what New York did short-term this season, expect a significant bounce back from a player who never even hit rock bottom. If he leaves New York, it seems likely he focuses on teams in contention for the Super Bowl.

    Doug's Quick Take: Between the fireworks incident and the sports hernia surgery that ended his 2016 season prematurely, you'd be forgiven if you thought 2016 was going to be an on-field disappointment for the veteran. Instead, Pierre-Paul showed every bit of the freakish physical abilities he's always had with one of his best seasons to date. Reports indicate the Giants want to ink a new deal with Pierre-Paul before he's able to hit the market, which would indeed be a wise move.

    Potential Suitors: New York Giants, Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens, Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons