NFL free-agent preview: Defensive tackles

A strong group of defensive linemen is supported by the defensive tackles set to enter free agency.

The defensive ends scheduled to hit free agency are an impressive group, but some of them, like Muhammad Wilkerson and Malik Jackson have the versatility to play defensive tackle as well. We previewed their situation in our look at defensive ends, but the defensive tackle class is a strong one in free agency, too, just as it is in the draft.

DAMON HARRISON, NEW YORK JETS

The New York Jets have some decisions to make on their defensive line with the top defensive tackle, Damon Harrison, slated for free agency and one of the top defensive ends, Wilkerson, also scheduled to be a free agent. Harrison is nearly everything teams want in a defensive tackle. He has size (6-foot-4, 350 pounds), durability (hasn’t missed a start in three years) and youth (27 years old). While he can pressure the passer, his forte is run-stuffing and he is very good at it and therefore is likely to be the highest paid defensive tackle in free agency, whether that is with the Jets or elsewhere.

IAN WILLIAMS, SAN FRANCISCO

Coming off a concussion-shortened 2014 season with the San Francisco 49ers, Ian Williams rebounded for a very solid year in 2015. The run-stuffing nose tackle played in 16 games and finished with 65 tackles and a sack. He will turn 27 during the preseason, so age shouldn’t be a factor in his value. However, his history of injuries could drive down his value on the open market. Last year was his first with more than nine games played in any one season.

NICK FAIRLEY, LOS ANGELES

On a formidable Rams defense, Nick Fairley didn’t start a game, but he made a significant impact. In a part-time role, he had 29 tackles and rushed the passer well. The question remains largely what it always was with Fairley: How reliable can he be long-term and game-in, game-out? When he’s at his best he is one of the best, but there will be a risk for any team doling out huge dollars on a long-term deal, which is why the St. Louis Rams only gave him a one-year deal in 2015.

JAYE HOWARD, KANSAS CITY

After toiling two years in the background with the Seattle Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs, Jaye Howard has turned himself in a strong starter that played nearly 850 snaps in 2015 on a career-high 13 starts. He finished with 59 tackles. He is still only 27 years old and should receive a decent, multi-year deal, either with Kansas City or elsewhere.

TERRANCE KNIGHTON, WASHINGTON

Although Terrance Knighton said he would like to re-sign with the Washington Redskins, it doesn’t appear they’ve made a big push to have that happen. Knighton has been a full-time starter for six of his seven years in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Denver Broncos and Washington, averaging more than 30 tackles and a couple sacks a season. He was solid, yet unspectacular, in just over 400 snaps last year.

In addition to our top five, the defensive tackle group is bolstered with several others that would almost certainly be starters if signed, like B.J. Raji, Ahtyba Rubin and Barry Cofield.

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