Free agency preview: Defensive tackles

With a ton (literally) of talent at the top of the free-agent defensive tackle position, it should be one of the most sought-after spots when free agency opens in March.

The trenches aren’t the spot for glory in the NFL, but big boys inside on the defensive line should get a lot of lovin’ (and money) in this year’s version of free agency.

It is one of the top-heaviest positions in free agency, according to the free-agent rankings on Scout.com. In fact, the top-rated free agent on the list of more than 500 eligible for free agency on March 10 (not counting the exclusive-rights free agents whose interests are controlled by their current teams) is Detroit’s stud defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. While he has a reputation for dirty play, he is also one of the NFL’s most feared interior defensive linemen.

But he is far from alone at the position in this year’s free-agent class. Two other defensive tackles garnered five-star ratings, meaning they are All-Pro or Pro Bowl-caliber players. Four more defensive tackles received four-star ratings, meaning they would start for most teams. In total, seven defensive tackles are listed in the Scout.com top-100 free agents for 2015.

TOP FREE AGENT DEFENSIVE TACKLES
Ndamukong Suh, Detroit Lions: The right combination of experience and youth, Suh is only five years into the NFL but is already regarded as one of the top defensive tackles, if not the top, in the NFL today. He has missed only two games in his career – both in 2011 – and has averaged 7.25 sacks a season, with never less than the four he had in 2011. He is the ultimate disruptor in the middle of the defensive line and has 15 passes defensed, including nine in the past two years. His major drawback is his on-field discipline – he had 10 penalties in 2014 and drew heavy criticism and fines for his stomps to opponents – but he also created 37 quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus, the most among NFL defensive tackles in 2014.

Stephen Paea, Chicago Bears: A more disciplined version of Suh, if not quite the force, Paea was credited with 31 quarterback hurries in 2014 and only one penalty in 2014. He started last season out strong, garnering four sacks in the first five games and finished with six of them to go along with two forced fumbles. Run defense isn’t his forte, but in his first year eligible for unrestricted free agency, he should be a coveted interior pass rusher whose career is steadily on the rise.

Terrance Knighton, Denver Broncos: Nicknamed “Pot Roast,” he is one of the league’s best run stuffers, as his 6-foot-3, 335-pound frame would indicate. He is more of a two-down nose tackle, as he averages just over two sacks per season and was credited with only nine quarterback hurries last year. But for those teams looking for an anchor in the middle of the defensive line, it doesn’t get much better than Knighton, who likely will receive a significant raise over his $2.75 million cap number from 2014. The Oakland Raiders, with new head coach Jack Del Rio and plenty of cap space, would be a natural suitor for Knighton.

Nick Fairley, Detroit Lions: Might the Lions lose both of their starting defensive tackles? It would be a devastating blow for the top-ranked run defense in 2014 and the No. 2 overall defense. While Suh commanded an incredible $22.4 million cap number in 2014, Fairley was only at $3.1. More than likely, they will lose one, and if Suh is given anywhere near his 2014 cap charge on an annual basis it would cripple the rest of the Lions’ free agency. Still, the Lions reportedly believe they can get a deal done with him. Fairley hasn’t been nearly as reliable or available for the Lions in his first four years in the league, missing eight games last year with a knee injury and starting only 30 games since he entered the league in 2011. When he has played nearly a full season, he has been good for about 35 tackles and five or six sacks per season, but, despite playing only half of last year, he still generated 17 quarterback hurries.

Jared Odrick, Miami Dolphins: In the last four seasons with the Dolphins, Odrick has averaged about four sacks and 26 tackles per season. He is equally good stopping the run and rushing the passer, but he cost the Dolphins almost $2.8 million last year and that price will only go up in free agency, but even without signing any free agents the Dolphins may have to trim cap space, leading the speculation that they will have to move on without the four-star defensive tackle.

Dan Williams, Arizona Cardinals: In five seasons with the Cardinals, Williams has averaged 31 tackles but less than one sack per game. His forte is obviously stopping the run and anchoring the middle, as PFF credited him with 20 stops at or behind the line of scrimmage last year. The Cardinals’ current contracts for 2015 have them over the projected salary cap for 2015, so Williams could hit the open market.

Damon Harrison, New York Jets: Like Williams, Harrison’s strength is defending the run and he was tied for fifth in stops at or behind the line of scrimmage with 31, according to PFF. Moving into a starting role with the Jets over the last two years, he has averaged 33 tackles but has only one sack. However, the Jets control his fate – he is a restricted free agent that is likely to receive the maximum tender of more than $3.1 million – and they have plenty of cap space to spare to make that happen.

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