A look at potential free agents by position heading into the NFL shopping season. This installment features the defensive line.
By Jay Skurski
NEWS SPORTS REPORTER
Free agency and the draft mirror each other this year in that there are quality starters to be found all over the place along the defensive line.
The Buffalo Bills added to the riches last week when they released defensive end Mario Williams. Although he’s 31 and coming off a season in which his production took a nosedive as anonymous teammates questioned his effort, Williams is still likely to land a big contract in free agency.
He’s already visited with Miami and is scheduled to with the New York Giants at some point this week. There is no shortage of options behind Williams for teams to explore.
Here is an overview of the pending unrestricted free-agent crop along the defensive line, along with how the Buffalo Bills may approach the position:
Given that the job description for an outside linebacker and defensive end can sometimes be blurred depending on the type of scheme a team plays, outside linebackers are also included here.
Starting caliber: Olivier Vernon, Miami; Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants; Mario Williams, Buffalo; Jaye Howard, Kansas City; Robert Ayers, New York Giants; William Hayes, L.A. Rams; Chris Long, L.A. Rams; Charles Johnson, Carolina; Derrick Shelby, Miami.
The skinny: The Dolphins used the transition tag on Vernon, so they have the right to match any contract offer he receives. … Pierre-Paul turned down a $60 million contract offer from the Giants a year ago, then nearly blew his hand off in a fireworks accident. He’ll be lucky to get anything more than a one-year deal this year because of that. … Howard was released by Seattle in a numbers crunch, but found a home in Kansas City, registering 57 tackles and 5.5 sacks last season.
Ayers had 9.5 sacks last season, setting himself up nicely for a big payday this year. … When he’s not openly questioning the existence of dinosaurs, Hayes finished with 53 tackles and 5.5 sacks last season. His return will be a priority after the Rams released Long, who finished with 19 tackles and three sacks last season. … Johnson had hamstring injuries that limited him to nine games last year with Carolina. He was cut in a move to save salary-cap space.
Shelby took over as a starter in Miami after Cam Wake was injured and posted decent numbers, grading out as the 23rd-best defensive end in football, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus.
Depth options: Wallace Gilberry, Cincinnati; Greg Hardy, Dallas; Cedric Thornton, Philadelphia; Junior Galette, Washington; Adrian Clayborn, Atlanta; Quinton Coples, Miami; Jeremy Mincey, Dallas; Antonio Smith, Denver; George Selvie, New York Giants.
The skinny: Gilberry’s numbers have dropped off a cliff the past couple seasons, bottoming out with just one sack in 2015. … Hardy is the definition of a locker-room cancer who comes with as many red flags as one player possibly can. … Thornton started 45 of 48 games the last three seasons in the Eagles’ 3-4 scheme. … Galette is coming of a torn Achilles, has a domestic violence arrest on his record and has faced accusations of mailing it in after landing a big contract.
Clayborn is drawing interest from at least four teams, according to a report from the NFL Network. … Coples has already met with the Panthers after being released by the Dolphins. … Mincey is 32 and coming off a season in which he did not have a sack. He also recently had elbow surgery. … Smith will be 35 next season and had just nine tackles in 2015. … Selvie had a medicore first season with the Giants after two years with Dallas.
Other options: Stephen Bowen, New York Jets; Eugene Sims, L.A. Rams; Justin Trattou, Minnesota; Kendall Reyes, San Diego; Jason Jones, Detroit; Chris Clemons, Jacksonville; Larry English, Tampa Bay; Darryl Tapp, Detroit; Cam Thomas, Pittsburgh.
Who might fit the Bills: Buffalo attempted to claim Coples off waivers after he was cut by the New York Jets last season, but the Dolphins were higher on the priority list, so they acquired him. Rex Ryan knows Coples well from their time together in New York, and he would fill the hole created when the Bills released Williams. … Galette was with new Bills assistant coach Rob Ryan in New Orleans, and a Fox Sports report last month indicated Buffalo will have at least some interest in him. One thing is for sure: The Bills aren’t scared off by character concerns under the Ryan brothers.
Starting options: Bruce Irvin, Seattle; Tahir Whitehead, Detroit; Mark Barron, L.A. Rams; Mike Neal, Green Bay; Tamba Hali, Kansas City; Nick Perry, Green Bay; Vincent Rey, Cincinnati.
The skinny: Irvin isn’t quite a game-changing talent, but he’ll probably get paid like one. The Seahawks decided not to pay $7.8 million to keep him on their one-year option, and he’s likely to earn more than that per year on the open market. … Whitehead started the second half of the season for the Lions and played a big part in the team’s defensive turnaround over that time. … Barron went from a being a bust at safety to being a solid contributor at outside linebacker.
Neal has a ridiculous amount of versatility, and can legitimately line up just about anywhere in a defensive front seven. … Hali wants to return to the Chiefs for an 11th season, but has played through knee injuries the last two seasons that have him questioning his future. … Perry has never finished with more than four sacks in a season, failing to live up to his potential as a first-round draft pick. … Rey led the Bengals in tackles in 2015.
Depth options: Courtney Upshaw, Baltimore; Aldon Smith, Oakland; Emmanuel Lamur, Cincinnati; Chad Greenway, Minnesota; Kroy Biermann, Atlanta; Calvin Pace, New York Jets; Dwight Freeney, Arizona.
The skinny: Upshaw never developed into much more than a run-stuffing option during his time with the Ravens. … Smith is suspended through at least November and could miss all of the 2016 season. He’s a top-10 talent, however, so he’ll get another chance at some point. … Lamur is mostly a special-teams contributor. He’s a former safety and doesn’t play an overly physical style.
Greenway wants to return for one more season with the Vikings to help the team break in its new stadium. … Biermann’s play suffered when he was forced into a starting role, but he did a decent job when part of a rotation. … Pace wants to return for a 14th season even though he’ll be 36 in October. … Freeney didn’t sign with the Cardinals until the middle of October, but proceeded to finish with eight sacks. He’ll likely earn a bigger deal than the $1 million he earned last season.
Other options: Sam Acho, Chicago; James Anderson, New Orleans; Darius Fleming, New England; Travis Lewis, Detroit; Mike Morgan, Seattle; Philip Wheeler, Atlanta; Kyle Wilber, Dallas; Frank Zombo, Kansas City.
Who might fit the Bills: Manny Lawson and Jerry Hughes figure to start, so any addition of an outside linebacker would be for depth purposes only. Smith is an intriguing player given his potential, but how many players of questionable character can the Bills afford to employ? Many of the options available are older players looking for one final contract. Defensive tackle
Starting options: Damon Harrison, New York Jets; Malik Jackson, Denver; Akiem Hicks, New England; Ian Williams, San Francisco; Nick Fairley, L.A. Rams; Haloti Ngata, Detroit; Chris Canty, Baltimore; Brandon Mebane, Seattle; Ahtyba Rubin, Seattle; B.J. Raji, Green Bay; Terrance Knighton, Washington.
The skinny: Harrison is one of the best interior run defenders in the NFL. … Jackson’s contributions to the Broncos really started to get noticed during the team’s Super Bowl run. … Hicks is at an ideal size (6-foot-4, 324 pounds) and age (26) to be entering free agency. … Ian Williams was voted a defensive captain by the 49ers, despite playing less than 60 percent of snaps (he came off the field in nickel situations).
Fairley played 2015 on a one-year contract with the Rams and put up big numbers, but his effort will immediately be called into question if a team gives him a big contract. … Ngata is reportedly close to returning to the Lions. … Canty ended last season on injured reserve because of a torn pectoral muscle and is better suited for a rotational role at this point in his career.
The Seahawks might have to choose between Rubin or Mebane. … Raji has played on two straight one-year contracts and likely would welcome some long-term security. … Knight admitted recently to being miffed about not getting more interest from teams the past couple seasons.
Depth options: Mike DeVito, Kansas City; Randy Starks, Cleveland; Kendall Reyes, San Diego; Henry Melton, Tampa Bay; Paul Soliai, Atlanta; Sammie Lee Hill, Tennessee; Alex Carrington, Buffalo; Kyle Love, Carolina; Cullen Jenkins, New York Giants; Kevin Williams, New Orleans.
The skinny: DeVito has a history with Rex Ryan from their time together in New York. … Starks played 477 snaps for the Browns last year under former coach Mike Pettine. … Reyes has been durable, never missing a game in his career, but was in the middle of a poor Chargers defense last season.
Melton at one time was a disruptive force, but was the definition of “just a guy” last season with the Buccaneers, who have no interest in bringing him back. … Soliai did not fit the Falcons’ defense under new coach Dan Quinn. … Carrington suffered a torn quad that ended his season, the second time in the last three years he’s suffered that injury.
Love had three sacks as part of a rotation in Carolina, but the Panthers have younger players at the position. … Jenkins started every game last season at 35. … Kevin Williams is a six-time Pro Bowler who played surprisingly well in his first season in New Orleans.
Other options: Tony McDaniel, Tampa Bay; Barry Cofield, New York Giants; Kenrick Ellis, Minnesota; Jermelle Cudgo, Detroit; Leger Douzable, New York Jets; Markus Kuhn, New York Giants; Ricardo Mathews, San Diego; Devon Still, Houston; Jack Crawford, Dallas; Brandon Thompson, Cincinnati.
Who might fit the Bills: Harrison would be the dream scenario, but there appears to be no chance he makes it to Buffalo given how much money he’ll command on the open market. Retaining restricted free agent Corbin Bryant is realistically about the only option the Bills have for adding depth here.