NFL Free Agency 2011 Top Fives: The Best Available Defensive Tackles
Nobody knows what the NFL offseason will be like in a month, as the roller coaster that is the media coverage of the CBA negotiations gives us little insight and security in a deal getting done.
That being said, the only way to proceed for us writers is to write as if there will be a free agency and that everything will proceed as normal, which is exactly what I'm doing here.
Over the next month leading up to the ever-important March 4 date that is supposed to be the beginning of the free-agent signing period, I'll be taking a look at the best players slated for free agency this offseason.
In this entry, I'll examine the top defensive tackles expected to hit the open market next month, as well as some other notable names at the position.
Chris J. Nelson majored in journalism at Georgia State University and currently works for Turner Sports in Atlanta. He operates his own Miami Dolphins website, The Miami Dolphins Spotlight, and he can be followed on Twitter here.
1. Haloti Ngata, Baltimore Ravens
The 12th overall pick in 2006, Ngata has not disappointed since he entered the league and is easily one of the most productive members of his draft class.
Playing defensive end next to Kelly Gregg and defensive tackle in certain fronts, Ngata has been a terror on opposing players for the past five seasons. He's an excellent rusher from a position that usually doesn't allow many opportunities for sacks and his run-stuffing ability is as good as anybody's.
A two-time Pro Bowler and easily one of the most elite players at this position in the NFL, Ngata has been hit with the franchise tag this offseason, and thus will not be on the open market. He could be signed to an offer sheet if the signing team were willing to surrender two first-round picks, but Baltimore is probably too smart to let him get away.
2. Aubrayo Franklin, San Francisco 49ers
Originally a fifth-round pick by the Baltimore Ravens in 2003, Franklin spent four season with the team as a reserve before following Mike Nolan to San Francisco to become the team's starting nose tackle.
His performance since then has been excellent, as he has anchored the 49ers' defensive line in their 3-4 scheme. His best season came in 2009 when he totaled 36 tackles and two sacks, and he has constantly allowed All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis to make so many plays.
Franchise-tagged a year ago, Franklin is now 30 and is looking for one big (and probably last) pay day. He's proved himself to be an excellent starting nose tackle and should be able to land a good-paying four or five-year deal on the open market.
3. Pat Williams, Minnesota Vikings
An NFL starter since 2001, Williams has teamed with the younger and unrelated Kevin Williams to give the Vikings one of the best run-stuffing defenses in the NFL over the past six seasons.
Once an undrafted free agent with the Bills in 1997, Williams now has three Pro Bowls under his very large belt and is still playing at a high level despite being 38 years old.
His age obviously means he's not going to be around in a decade, which limits his value on the open market. Williams is committed to playing at least one more season though, and he's still good enough to start as a nose tackle in either defensive scheme.
4. Paul Soliai, Miami Dolphins
A fourth-round pick from the Cam Cameron era in 2007, Soliai spent three seasons with two different head coaches in the dog house due to poor conditioning and lack of work ethic.
That was until 2010, when an injury to Jared Odrick moved Randy Starks back to right defensive end and Soliai into the starting lineup at nose tackle. Once there, Soliai was a dominant force against the run and helped the Dolphins' defense become one of the better units in the NFL.
Soliai always had the potential and size (6'4", 360) to be a dominant nose tackle, but he finally put it all together in 2010. If he's allowed to hit the open market as a four-year unrestricted agent, you can be sure Soliai and agent David Canter are going to be looking for a huge pay day.
While he's a bit of a risky signing given his previous problems and his lone productive season being in a contract year, his talent is undeniable and any 3-4 team in the NFL could use him.
5. Brandon Mebane, Seattle Seahawks
A third-rounder out of Cal in 2007, Mebane has slowly but surely developed into one of the better young 4-3 defensive tackles in the NFL.
Mebane set a career high with 5.5 sacks in 2008 and totaled a personal best 49 tackles in 15 starts in 2009. Limited to just 12 starts in 2010, Mebane still finished the season with 31 tackles as he helped the Seahawks to a division title.
Mebane is limited by his size (6'1") in that he probably isn't going to draw significant interest from the growing number of 3-4 teams in the NFL. He's very good in his role though, and is going to be highly sought after as one of the best young 4-3 talents available.
Beyond the Top Five: Other Notable Free-Agent Defensive Tackles
Anthony Adams, Chicago Bears—Starting his first full season since 2005 with the 49ers, Adams performed very well for the Bears' elite defense in 2010. He's probably not going to get any long-term starting gigs at 30, but he's a good short-term solution.
Alan Branch, Arizona Cardinals—Despite starting only three of 16 games in 2010, Branch played extensively and racked up 35 tackles and two sacks primarily as a defensive end in the Cardinals' 3-4. He still has a lot of potential at age 26 and can play any line spot in the 3-4 or defensive tackle in the 4-3.
Shaun Cody, Houston Texans—A disappointing second-round pick by the Lions in 2005, Cody will be on the move again as the Texans switch to the 3-4 scheme. Cody is a better fit inside in the 4-3, but he's a mediocre starter regardless.
Barry Cofield, New York Giants—A five-year starter, Cofield erupted with 54 tackles and four sacks in 2010. He has a ton of experience for a 26-year-old and he's coming off his best season yet, so he should have plenty of suitors.
Ron Edwards, Kansas City Chiefs—Edwards has started at nose tackle for the Chiefs each of the past two seasons, but he's not an ideal fit there and it was more out of necessity than Edwards' ability. He's probably going to have a hard time finding another starting job.
Fred Evans, Minnesota Vikings—A solid reserve learning behind the "Williams Wall" the past few seasons, Evans has always had talent but will have to battle just to compete for a starting job.
Ronald Fields, Denver Broncos—Fields started for the Broncos at nose tackle in 2009 before giving way to Jamal Williams this past season. He's a solid backup with some starting potential.
John Henderson, Oakland Raiders—After dominating for so many years in Jacksonville, Henderson played in just nine games for the Raiders in 2010 and started two of them. He still has starting ability in certain schemes but at 32, his opportunities will be limited.
Chris Hoke, Pittsburgh Steelers—After spending a decade resting comfortably as Casey Hampton's backup in Pittsburgh, Hoke is hitting the market at age 34. It's safe to say teams won't be signing him to start, but his experience has value on the bench.
Chris Hovan, St. Louis Rams—A back injury kept him out of the 2010 season, and the 32-year-old hasn't been an impact player for sometime. At this point, he's just an injury replacement candidate.
Cullen Jenkins, Green Bay Packers—Jenkins rotated in heavily on a talented Packers' line that included B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett, amassing an impressive seven sacks from the 3-4 end spot. He's not a long-term starting option at 30, but he has some talent and should be on the field.
Antonio Johnson, Indianapolis Colts—After starting for the Colts in 2009, Johnson was relegated to a backup role in 2010 and amassed just 26 tackles. He's still just 26, but he's a backup as far as talent goes.
Travis Johnson, San Diego Chargers—Johnson returned to the 3-4 scheme he played in when he entered the league with the Texans, but that didn't help him see significant playing time. The 2005 first-rounder hasn't been able to put it together in six pro seasons to date and profiles merely as a backup.
Tony McDaniel, Miami Dolphins—Though he officially started just one game in 2010, McDaniel had a breakout season due to injuries on the defensive line with 36 tackles and 2.5 sacks. The 6-foot-7 versatile lineman fits in any scheme and is going to have starting opportunities after the season he had.
Trevor Pryce, New York Jets—Pryce latched on with the Jets for a shot at a third Super Bowl ring, but he played sparingly and with no impact. The soon-to-be 36-year-old is probably ticketed for retirement.
Clifton Ryan, St. Louis Rams—A head injury forced him to miss most of the 2010 season, but he started each of the previous two seasons. He's not a sure-fire starter, but he has appealing nose tackle size and is worth a flier.
Robaire Smith, Cleveland Browns—Smith racked up 25 tackles while limited to six games due to injury in 2010. He's still playing well at 33, but age and durability are concerns and he's going to have a hard time finding a secure gig.
Shaun Smith, Kansas City Chiefs—He's always been a talented player, but his starting opportunities have been limited due to off-the-field issues and dirty play. That will keep him from landing a long-term gig, but he's sure to stick around the NFL for a while longer.
Marcus Spears, Dallas Cowboys—The 2005 first-rounder never really lived up to his potential in Dallas, but he still has the potential to be a serviceable starter as a 3-4 end or 4-3 defensive tackle. He should come fairly cheap and may end up being a bargain as a starter or top reserve.
Gerard Warren, New England Patriots—The third overall pick in 2001 has managed to string together a pretty solid and lengthy career, still playing at a high level at 32. He gained valuable 3-4 experience in 2010 and should have a place in the league for the next two to four years.
Gabe Watson, Arizona Cardinals—Watson hasn't started a game since 2007 and his overall career has been a disappointment, but his nose tackle size is appealing and teams are going to give him more chances. He could end up being a steal with the right coaching.