With free agency set to open Friday, Scouts Inc. takes a look at the top defensive players available in a position-by-position breakdown.
Now that Carolina has put the franchise tag on defensive end Julius Peppers, there remains one marquee name on the defensive line who will draw a lot of attention -- Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. He is a difference-maker who forces opponents to account for him on virtually every snap. At defensive end, Chris Canty from Dallas and Igor Olshansky from San Diego both fit a 3-4 front better than a 4-3, and both lack top pass-rushing skills that tend to command bigger contracts. Arizona's Antonio Smith may be the best pure pass-rusher left on the board and could command a substantial contract. However, the group as a whole is made up primarily of role players who best fit when playing in specific situations rather than all four downs, or older players who are on the decline. On the inside, the quality of the defensive tackles drops drastically once you get past Haynesworth. This free-agent class is loaded down with the likes of Jovan Haye (Tampa Bay), who fits in the Bucs' system but would struggle on many teams because of his size limitations, as well as older players or guys who have been pretty inconsistent throughout their careers.
This very well could be the deepest and richest position in free agency. However, this year's draft class features a wealth of linebacker talent, so the free-agent linebackers might be disappointed with their respective paydays. The interesting story among the linebackers is in Baltimore, where three prominent and productive linebackers are on the market. Terrell Suggs was franchised for a second straight year. Ray Lewis also must be a priority for the Ravens, and Bart Scott surely will receive a lot of attention. Elsewhere, Jonathan Vilma resurrected his career in New Orleans, and his leadership and playmaking ability are somewhat reminiscent of Lewis'. Arizona has franchised Karlos Dansby for a second straight season.
A change of scenery might do Michael Boley good, as his play dropped off in Atlanta, especially against the run. Despite a recent arrest, Leroy Hill of the Seahawks received the franchise tag. Mike Peterson fell out of favor in Jacksonville but could attract attention as a probable starter with a new club. Atlanta's Keith Brooking still has value. In demonstrating the linebacker depth, players such as Angelo Crowell should be solid starters going forward, while some aging veterans such as Zach Thomas, Andra Davis, Clark Haggans, Rosevelt Colvin and Eric Barton could find a niche with new clubs that use their situational skills. Among restricted free agents, Rashad Jeanty and Freddie Keiaho are improving and also are linebackers to keep an eye on.