NFL Free Agency 2011 Top Fives: The Best Available Defensive Ends
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 ends 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. Tamba Hali, Kansas City Chiefs
The 20th overall pick out of Penn State in 2006, Hali has developed into one of the better pass rushers in the league. He played defensive end in college and began his career in Kansas City there but has moved to outside linebacker in the team's 3-4 scheme.
Hali has totaled 41.5 sacks in five pro seasons, including a 14.5-sack performance that led the AFC in 2010 and saw him selected to his first Pro Bowl.
While Hali hasn't played defensive end in two years, he absolutely fits at that position in the 4-3 and could be just as great a rusher from that spot. He's been slapped with the franchise tag, however, meaning it would cost two first-round picks to sign him.
2. Charles Johnson, Carolina Panthers
A third-round pick in 2007, Johnson had a pretty quiet career prior to 2010 with no sacks as a rookie and 10 sacks over the 2008 and 2009 seasons.
It was in 2010 that Johnson exploded, as he made the Panthers forget all about Julius Pepper and gave fans something to cheer for in an otherwise dismal season. Johnson totaled 11.5 sacks in 2010, leading the team and ranking fifth in the NFL.
Johnson profiles more as a 4-3 defensive end than a 3-4 outside linebacker, though he's roughly Tamba Hali's size and shape and there is reason to believe he could play either spot. He's already shown he's a quality pass rusher, and in a relatively thin class, he'll be the creme of the crop with Hali franchise tagged.
3. Jason Babin, Tennessee Titans
A disappointing first-round pick by the Texans in 2004, Babin bounced around with five teams in the previous four seasons, including stints in both Seattle and Kansas City in 2009.
Despite having set a previous career high with five sacks back in Houston in 2006, Babin exploded onto the national scene with the Titans in 2010 with 12.5 sacks and two forced fumbles to go along with 58 tackles in 16 starts.
Babin is a bit of a scary signing, given that he's already 30 and has only had one truly great year after an otherwise disappointing season. He showed what he can do in the right situation in 2010, though, and should be able to land solid starter money as one of the best pass rushers on the market.
4. Mathias Kiwanuka, New York Giants
Kiwanuka hasn't quite lived up to his draft spot as the 32nd overall pick in 2006, and bouncing back and forth between linebacker and defensive end has hurt his development.
In five pro seasons, Kiwanuka has totaled 222 tackles and 23.5 sacks, including a career-high eight sacks in 2008. He missed all but three games in 2010 with a herniated disc.
While Kiwanuka's production doesn't jump out at you, he's got all the tools you look for and has the ability to play either defensive end or outside linebacker. If a team signs him and commits him at one position, he could develop into a solid starter or at least an elite backup.
5. Matt Roth, Cleveland Browns
A second-round pick by the Dolphins out of Iowa in 2005, Roth started the 2007 and 2008 seasons in Miami before being cut midway through the 2009 campaign after the team was tired of waiting on his phantom groin injury to heal.
Perhaps newly motivated by his release, Roth was picked up by the Browns and totaled four sacks and 28 tackles in six games as a starter to close out the 2009 season. He opened all 16 games in 2010, notching a career-high 86 tackles and 3.5 sacks.
Roth isn't a tremendous pass rusher, but he's one of the best run-stuffing outside linebackers in the NFL. He plays standing up much better than you'd expect when you look at him, and he's a quality starter to have in either the 3-4 or 4-3 due to his ability against the run.
Beyond the Top Five: Other Notable Free-Agent Defensive Ends
Mark Anderson, Houston Texans — After 12-sack rookie season with the Bears in 2006, Anderson struggled to get to the quarterback since and Chicago eventually gave up on him. He still has use as a pass-rushing specialist with his athleticism and speed, but he's not an every-down player.
Dave Ball, Tennessee Titans — Originally a 3-4 end with the Chargers, Ball has slimmed down to 255 pounds and quietly racked up seven sacks in 11 starts for the Titans in 2010. He's not really a starting candidate at 30, but he's a quality backup at this point in his career.
Raheem Brock, Seattle Seahawks — Despite not officially starting a game in 2010, Brock racked up a career high nine sacks in 2010 at age 32. His starting days are probably behind him, but his most recent season shows he could be a great backup to have for 2-3 years.
Tim Crowder, Tampa Bay Buccaneers — A former second-round pick by the Broncos in 2007, Crowder peaked with a career-high four sacks as a rookie. He's still just 25 and has the room to grow, but he needs some coaching up to make a real impact.
Nick Eason, Pittsburgh Steelers — Originally a pass-rushing end out of Clemson, Eason has bulked up and become a solid 3-4 defensive end in in Pittsburgh. He's not going to get to the quarterback, but he plays the run well and is an ideal backup that can start in a pinch.
Ray Edwards, Minnesota Vikings — Starting opposite Jared Allen in Minnesota, Edwards has racked up 23.5 sacks over the past three seasons. He's talented, but he really thinks a lot of his value on the open market and in reality his production might be inflated due to the Vikings' talented line. He's going to want big money in free agency, and he's a risky guy to sign to a huge deal.
Shaun Ellis, New York Jets — His pass-rushing days are behind him, but Ellis has become one of the more reliable 3-4 ends in the NFL. He's a good run-stuffer and probably has a few more years of starting ability left in the tank.
Jonathan Fanene, Cincinnati Bengals — Fanene missed most of the 2010 season with a hamstring injury, but he was a good run-stuffer and notched six sacks in 2009. He's a bit of a tweener with some position versatility and he's a good backup to have.
Jacob Ford, Tennessee Titans — Ford's production has fallen each of the past three seasons, but he's still young and has some time to develop. He's worth picking up as a backup and giving him a shot to compete.
Travis LaBoy, San Francisco 49ers — LaBoy totaled five sacks in 14 games for the 49ers in 2010, which is about par for the course for the six-year veteran. He's a nice backup pass rusher, but he's proved time and time again he just doesn't have what it takes to start.
Turk McBride, Detroit Lions — A disappointment in Kansas City, McBride set career highs with five sacks and three forced fumbles for the Lions in 2010. He's not big enough to be a defensive tackle and doesn't have the athleticism to be a great pass rusher, which places him squarely as a backup-type player.
Bobby McCray, New Orleans Saints — McCray peaked with a 10-sack season in Jacksonville in 2006, but he was a free-agency bust in New Orleans and spent most of 2010 out of football. Don't expect much more from him.
Quentin Moses, Miami Dolphins — Moses was cut by the Raiders as a rookie third-rounder in 2006 and landed in Miami after a brief stint in Arizona. He's done little to showcase himself to date and doesn't help on special teams, so he's really not even worth keeping around as a backup. His collegiate production will get him more chances, though.
Jarvis Moss, Oakland Raiders — A dominant pass rusher at Florida, Moss was a huge bust as the 17th-overall pick by the Broncos in 2007 and has totaled just 4.5 sacks in four seasons. Something is missing from this equation and he seems unlikely to ever live up to his potential, but his raw ability will get him some more opportunities from teams that think they can change him.
Brian Robison, Minnesota Vikings — Robison has totaled 13.5 sacks in four seasons as a backup with the Vikings. He could develop into a serviceable starter, but he lacks the tools to ever be a real impact player.
Stylez G. White — The man who gives Chad Ochocinco a run for his money for the dumbest name in football has done little since notching eight sacks and a whopping seven forced fumbles as a rookie in 2007. There's ability here, but a continued flame out is more likely.