1. Ndamukong Suh
Ndamukong Suh is the best free agent on the open market this off-season, with guys like Justin Houston, Dez Bryant, and Demaryius Thomas can all getting franchise tagged. Because of franchise tag rules and Suh’s massive cap number in the contract year of his rookie deal in 2014, franchising Suh would have cost the Lions 26.7 million, so that wasn’t really an option. The Lions could still sign Suh before free agency hits, but more than likely he’s going to want to test the market, in search of the richest deal that a defensive player has ever signed. He wants a deal bigger than the 6-year, 100 million dollar extension JJ Watt got last off-season. Suh isn’t quite Watt, but some team could still be willing to give him that. Suh joins Gerald McCoy (who got a 7-year, 98 million dollar extension last off-season) as the only defensive tackle to grade out in the top-4 among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons.
2. Terrance Knighton
Knighton was a 3rd round pick by the Jaguars in 2009. He started 49 games in 4 seasons with the Jaguars, but ended up grading out slightly below average in all 4 seasons. Knighton signed a 2-year, 4.5 million dollar deal with the Broncos in his first trip to free agency two off-seasons ago, a move that paid off in a big way for the Broncos. Knighton proved to be a late bloomer, grading out 9th in 2013 and proving himself again in 2014, grading out 12th. The 6-3 330 pounder is a fierce run stopper and can rush the passer as well. His 2nd trip to the open market should be much more lucrative than his first and he’s expected to be priced out of the Broncos’ budget. He’ll probably want to stay in a 4-3 where he can get more pass rush opportunities anyway and the Broncos are moving to a 3-4 and need more of a true nose tackle. A reunion with Jack Del Rio in Oakland makes a lot of sense. The Raiders have a ton of cap space and a huge need at defensive tackle and Knighton has played his entire career with Del Rio, first when he was Jacksonville’s head coach and then when he was Denver’s defensive coordinator. Del Rio is now the head coach in Oakland.
3. Jared Odrick
Odrick was a first round pick in 2010, but it took him a few years to get it together. Odrick was limited to 22 snaps as a rookie in 2010 by injury, struggled in his first year as a starter in 2011 as a 3-4 defensive end, and then struggled even more in 2012 as a 4-3 defensive end, grading out 59th out of 62 eligible at his position that year. However, the Dolphins moved him back to his natural position of 4-3 defensive tackle in 2013 and the results have been great. He was 16th at his position in 2013 and then 19th in 2014. Coming off two straight strong seasons, Odrick will command a lot of money on the open market, especially from 4-3 teams who need someone who can get to the quarterback from the interior like Odrick can.
4. Nick Fairley
Nick Fairley is a frustrating player. He went 13th overall in the 2011 NFL Draft, but, 4 years into his career, it’s still not clear how good of a player he is. It’s clear how good he can be, but he’s been so inconsistent. Fairley only played 236 snaps as a rookie, largely because of injuries, but he still played well and, in 2012, he was even better, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked defensive tackle on just 511 snaps. Fairley looked primed for a breakout year in 2013, but weight problems caused him to only grade out slightly above average on 693 snaps. As a result, the Lions didn’t pick up his option for 2015, making 2014 his contract year, and briefly benched him for CJ Mosley last off-season. That seemed to wake him up as he played very well to start the season, but he missed 8 games with injuries. He still graded out 18th among defensive tackles on just 297 snaps, but now he heads into free agency still an enigma. He’s shown top defensive tackle talent and he’s only going into his age 27 season, but he’s inconsistent, he’s had discipline problems dating back to his collegiate days, discipline problems that won’t get better if he gets a ton of money, and he’s missed 18 games with injuries in 4 years in the league. He’s a high risk, high reward signing at 6-7 million annually.
5. Stephen Paea
Paea, a 2011 2nd round pick, had the best season of his career in 2014 and at the perfect time, as he was in a contract year. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked defensive tackle this year. However, teams should be wary about giving him too much money as he’s still a one year wonder. Paea graded out below average in each of the first 3 seasons of his career from 2011-2013, before 2014. I don’t expect him back with the Bears as he wouldn’t be a great fit for the new 3-4 defense they will be implementing under new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
6. Dan Williams
Dan Williams was a first round pick by the Cardinals in 2010 as a 6-2 327 pounder with rare movement and pass rush abilities for his size. Williams never quite lived up to his billing, maxing out at 428 snaps and primarily just playing in base packages, but he graded out above average in 4 of 5 seasons, including each of the last 3 seasons and he had his best season in his contract year in 2014. He played all 16 games for the first time in his career and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked defensive tackle on just 427 snaps. On top of that, he actually graded out above average as a pass rusher, something he’s done in each of the last 2 seasons after grading out below average in that aspect in each of his first 3 seasons. It’s possible his best football is still ahead of him, going into his age 28 season.
7. Vince Wilfork
Wilfork wasn’t bad in his first season back from a torn Achilles, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked 3-4 defensive end, but he’s going into his age 34 season and the Patriots can save 8.5 million in cash and 8.067 million on the cap by letting him go this off-season. He’s a fan favorite, he’s been with the team for 11 years, and he played well last season, but that was just too much for the Patriots to pay to an aging player given their cap problems and the other players they have to keep long-term. Wilfork will draw a good amount of interest on the open market.
8. Henry Melton
Henry Melton was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked defensive tackle in 2011 and 6th ranked in 2012, but he was limited to 125 snaps in 3 games in 2013 by a torn ACL. As he was playing on the franchise tag in 2013, he hit free agency last off-season and signed with the Cowboys. The Cowboys only paid 2.25 million plus incentives for Melton in 2014, but the Cowboys declined his 3-year, 24 million dollar option for the rest of his contract. Melton played well when on the field in 2014, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked defensive tackle, but he had recurring knee problems and played just 433 snaps. There’s still a chance the Cowboys bring him back on a renegotiated deal. He’s had the best years of his career under Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who was previously in Chicago, he’s still relatively young (going into his age 29 season), he played well last season, and he could bounce back in his 2nd year since the injury.
9. Corey Peters
Peters tore his Achilles in 2013 at the worst possible time, in a meaningless week 16 game, just before he was set to hit free agency. Peters was forced to settle for a cheap one year deal back in Atlanta in an attempt to rehab his value and he did a decent job. He played 15 games (except week 1 when he was kept out for precautionary reasons) and graded out about average on 535 snaps. Other than that Achilles tear, he doesn’t have a significant injury history, as he’s missed just 9 games in 5 seasons combined since the Falcons drafted him in the 3rd round in 2010. Peters struggled in the first 3 seasons of his career, grading out below average in all 3 seasons, including a 2010 season in which he graded out 62nd out of 76 eligible and a 2012 season in which he graded out 83rd out of 85 eligible, but he’s graded out right about average in each of the last 2 seasons. Only going into his age 27 season, he could get a multi-year deal this off-season.
10. Kendall Langford
Langford is a decent player, but he’s owed a non-guaranteed 6 million dollars in his contract year in 2015, after signing a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal three off-seasons ago. He simply wasn’t worth that kind of money in his previous role in St. Louis, playing 494 snaps in 2014. He played well and is probably still a starting caliber player, but he was stuck behind former first rounders Michael Brockers and Aaron Donald, both of whom are coming off of strong seasons, and Langford just wasn’t worth it to the Rams. He’ll probably get a starting job elsewhere.
11. Cory Redding
Redding was arguably the best defensive lineman the Colts had last season, at least he was in terms of Pro Football Focus grade. He finished the season as their 18th ranked 3-4 defensive end, struggling against the run (just like the rest of the front 7), but getting good pass rush. The problem is he’s going into his age 35 season so it’s hard to trust him going forward. The 12-year veteran also had a strong season in 2013, grading out 11th at his position, but he ranked 27th out of 34 eligible in 2012 and could regress to that level in 2015 given his age. Still, he’s graded out above average in 3 of the last 4 seasons and he won’t break anyone’s bank so he’ll be a solid, cheap signing for a team with a need on the defensive line. There’s mutual interest between him and the Colts in a reunion. A reunion with his former team the Baltimore Ravens, who have a depth need on the defensive line, is another option.
12. CJ Mosley
CJ Mosley has been the 3rd defensive tackle for the Lions over the past 2 seasons, but he’s made 9 starts, played 836 snaps, and graded out above average in both seasons so he’s been very important to the Lions. When you take into account that he graded out above average in 2011 and 2012, this is one of the best reserve defensive linemen in the NFL. He’s going into his age 32 season so he won’t get a ton of money on the open market, but he should get paid like a low-end starter. If the Lions are unable to bring back Suh and Fairley, Mosley could easily be a starter in Detroit next season.