Free agency preview: Defensive ends

The defensive end class in free agency is littered with question marks. There are inconsistent performers who stepped up in a contract year, players trying to come back from serious surgeries or serious off-field allegations and some young players looking to break into the conversation of the elite at their position.

The risks are many, the pass-rushing rewards nearly as a prevalent.

In Scout.com’s ratings of 2015 free agents, the defensive ends accounted for only six spots in the top 100 and three of the 27 five-star prospects awarded. What’s clear is that general managers, medical personal and investigators will have to do their homework before committing too much money to some of the top defensive end prospects set to hit the free-agent market in 2015.

Here are the top defensive ends scheduled to be available:

TOP FREE AGENT DEFENSIVE ENDS

Jerry Hughes, Buffalo Bills: Although Hughes has told reporters that he won’t give the Bills a hometown discount, general manager Doug Whaley said discussions have begun to try to re-sign him after the defensive end recorded 9½ sacks and three forced fumbles in 2014. Despite his warning about the financial terms he would accept, Hughes said this week on SiriusXM NFL Radio that the Bills are his top choice. He proved he can play in 4-3 and 3-4 defensive schemes over the last two years, helping to increase his market in free agency. He was top-10 among 4-3 defensive ends in sacks, quarterback hurries and stops for no gain or a loss. That kind of versatility put him on top of Scout.com’s free-agent rankings among defensive ends.

Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants: After two down seasons, Pierre-Paul rebounded in 2014 with 12½ sacks and 77 tackles, showing he can be as effective against the run as he is rushing the passer. He also registered three force fumbles and knocked down six passes last year. With no substantial contract talks to speak of with Pierre-Paul, the Giants are reportedly considering using the franchise tag on him, which could be pushing $15 million. That’s an expensive gamble for a player that has been inconsistent, even if he can be among the top defensive ends when he is on his game.

Greg Hardy, Carolina Panthers: The last of the five-star defensive ends in free agency this year, Hardy might have had the top billing at the position if not for off-field issues. He was the subject of a domestic violence accusation in 2014, but his accuser declined to cooperate with the investigation and charges were dropped earlier this week. However, he still could be subject to a suspension under the NFL’s new personnel conduct policy after playing only one game in 2014 before he was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list. He would be a risky signing for sure, but after 26 sacks over the previous two seasons, the pass-rushing talent is there.

Anthony Spencer, Dallas Cowboys: The big question on Spencer will be his medical reports. Can he return to the player he was before microfracture knee surgery? If so, he could be a rewarding signing. In 2012, he had 11 sacks and 95 tackles. Since then, however, he hasn’t started a game. Teams will have to rely heavily on physicals they give him if they have interest in signing the 31-year-old defensive end, but all the questions about his health and age should make him a more affordable option than some of the five-star prospects.

Pernell McPhee, Baltimore Ravens: McPhee might be asking more than the Ravens are willing to spend for someone that spent most of his career behind Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, with a combined 12 starts and 17½ sacks to his credit over the last four years in Baltimore. Last year, he had a career year for tackles (27), sacks (7½) and passes defensed (four). Although he only played in about half the snaps last year, he was very effective, putting him in an intriguing position as an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career.

Kroy Biermann, Atlanta Falcons: In his second season as a full-time starter in 2014, Biermann was solid, registering 75 tackles, 4½ sacks, two passes defensed and one forced fumble. It was the first time he has started even half the games since 2010. He’s been with the Falcons for seven seasons and turns 30 during the 2015 season. Is he is a starter, as his stats in 2014 would indicate, or just a role player, like five of the previous six years of his career indicate? That’s what general managers will have to decide, likely with a backup plan in place in case he is just a backup.

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