Jeff Howe will break down one position of the free-agent class each day. However, free agency won’t begin until the NFL has a new collective-bargaining agreement. On Sunday, the offensive line was covered.
If the Patriots make any major additions to the defensive line, it will likely be through a draft that is loaded with talent on that front. Plus, head coach Bill Belichick has historically only added rotational defensive linemen through free agency, with the exception of Gerard Warren, whose playing time really increased after Ty Warren‘s injury and Ron Brace‘s slow start.
Gerard Warren actually had a pretty good year, and the free agent said he definitely wants to return to New England. If the Patriots retain him and use one of their first-round picks on a defensive lineman, they’ll have had a really good offseason at that position. With the return of Ty Warren and the assumed improvement of the Patriots’ youngsters, their defensive line should be in good shape in 2011.
Here’s a look at the 2011 class of free-agent defensive linemen.
Head of the Class
1. Haloti Ngata has been the key cog to the Ravens’ defensive front for a few seasons, and he is one of the three best 3-4 defensive tackles in the NFL. Ngata should be in line for a huge contract, and if he opens it up for league-wide bidding, he’d almost certainly earn a bigger payday than Vince Wilfork‘s $40 million, five-year deal.
2. Defensive end Charles Johnson had no trouble moving on from the Julius Peppers era in Carolina, recording a career-high 12 sacks last season. The bright spots in Carolina are few and far between, so it would be crushing if the Panthers lost Johnson one year after Peppers.
3. Belichick waxed poetic about defensive end Ray Edwards, whose spotlight was dwarfed by Jared Allen‘s in Minnesota. Edwards had a lot of one-on-one matchups due to the talent on the Vikings’ defensive line, and he racked up 16.5 sacks in the last two seasons.
4. Defensive tackle Barry Cofield was similar to Edwards, in that he didn’t get a lot of hype because of the players surrounding him. Cofield was an important part of the Giants’ four-man front, helping defensive ends Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora spring free into the backfield.
Diamond in the Rough
Mathias Kiwanuka is coming off a neck injury that kept him out of 13 games last season, but he still had four sacks. Kiwanuka is primarily a defensive end, but he has played outside linebacker, which gives him some versatility for any team that’s interested. Kiwanuka, a Boston College product, has 23.5 sacks in 61 career games over five seasons. He’ll get some good money this offseason, but the injury could limit that value. With his upside as a pass rusher, a team could get a bargain if Kiwanuka pans out.
Fit for New England
Defensive end Dave Ball is a rotational player whose career has improved in his last three seasons with the Titans. The 30-year-old had a career-high seven sacks in 2010, and he’s had 11.5 in his last three seasons. If the Patriots can’t re-sign Gerard Warren, Ball could fill in with that veteran presence.
1. Defensive end Shaun Ellis, who turns 34 in June, declined late in the 2010 regular season, as he had just one sack after Week 5. Yet, Ellis terrorized the Patriots with two sacks in the divisional playoffs. He could be a cheap option.
2. Defensive lineman Richard Seymour returned to the Pro Bowl in 2010, and he really helped the Raiders’ defense for two seasons. His on-field drive can be questioned, but if he joins a contender, he should be a real asset for a price that will be a shell of his potential worth.
3. Defensive end Raheem Brock freaked out at the end of the 2010 season with eight sacks in the Seahawks’ last seven games, including one in each playoff game and 2.5 in their win-and-in regular-season finale against the Rams. Brock will turn 33 in June, and he’s never had eight sacks in any other season in his career, so it’s a fluky thing. Yet, it’s going to be enough to get him paid.
4. Defensive end Jason Babin had 4.5 sacks from 2007 to 2009, but he exploded for 12.5 during his only season with the Titans in 2010. It’s believed he’ll head back to Philadelphia in 2011 (he played for the Eagles in 2009) to reconnect with former Titans defensive line coach Jim Washburn, who took the same position in Philly.
5. Defensive tackle Pat Williams will be suspended for the first four games of the 2011 season if he decides to play another year, but it’s uncertain if the 38-year-old will stick with the Vikings. Williams’ skills have understandably declined at his extended age, but the big storyline would be the possible fall of the Williams Wall in Minnesota.
6. Former Patriots defensive end Jarvis Green is a free agent, but it seems unlikely that he could return to New England. Green’s stay in Denver lasted just six months after he signed a $20 million, four-year deal with the Broncos last offseason. After he was cut in September, he linked up with the Texans. Green, who is one of the nicest people to ever come through Foxboro, helped Marquise Hill’s family after his former New England and LSU teammate died in a Jet Ski accident in 2007.
7. Defensive end Cullen Jenkins had a career-high seven sacks in 2010 despite missing five games to injury, and since he won the Super Bowl with the Packers, there’s a good chance he’ll earn some nice money this offseason.
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