Let’s assume that Demarcus Lawrence and Ziggy Ansah are locked up by the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions, respectively. And though we don’t know how the Seattle Seahawks will handle free agent Sheldon Richardson, let’s assume for now he’s on track to return to the team that traded for him prior to last season.
Even with those top defensive line names out of the picture, it’s a fairly intriguing group of unrestricted free agents this year. Perhaps no stars — but interesting contributors? There could be a dozen decent ones.
The list of players that could change teams and have immediate impacts include defensive tackles such as Star Lotulelei and Bennie Logan and defensive ends such as William Hayes and Alex Okafor (assuming he can rehab from the Achilles injury he suffered during a breakout season).
We also must consider the possibly long list of salary-cap casualties who could hit the market in the coming days and weeks — chief among them Muhammad Wilkerson, Brandon Mebane, Corey Liuget, Michael Bennett, Charles Johnson, plus others. Every year there are high-priced D-linemen who must get cut but who remain unemployed for short times.
But outside of those players, we have a list of four defensive linemen — two on the interior, two who play mostly outside — whom we regard as very interesting options when the free-agent bonanza kicks off March 14:
1. DT Dontari Poe
Poe bet on himself by signing a “prove it” deal with the Atlanta Falcons, and we think it paid off. The 27-year-old mass of a man was always regarded as a strong run stopper, and he lived up to that. But even with Vic Beasley having a down season, Poe helped provide interior pressure, too, on occasion. He especially stepped up big in late-season, close victories over the New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks that helped the Falcons get back in the postseason.
You just don’t find men his size who can clog up lanes and still make plays. Perhaps he’s not the consistently dynamic defender we hoped when he was the 11th pick in the 2012 draft. But you can bet he’ll get a longer-term deal now that he answered questions about his stamina and health after the Kansas City Chiefs let him walk.
We don’t know if the Falcons will make a concerted effort to keep him at the price it will cost, but the vacancy will be big if he leaves. It would not be a surprise to see a team such as the Detroit Lions or Tennessee Titans make a play for him to anchor their defenses, and a return to Kansas City can’t be ruled out entirely.
There’s a long-term worry about his prior back injury and the heavy workload he’s endured in only six seasons — especially the past five. Poe rarely leaves the field, which shows the value he holds … but can that hold up over time?
2. DE Adrian Clayborn
Another Falcon looking to cash in, Clayborn also had good timing to log his career-high 9.5 sacks in 2017. Of course, that number also comes with an asterisk. Anyone who saw the Week 10 game against the Dallas Cowboys knows that six of Clayborn’s sacks came with left tackle Tyron Smith out with injury and overmatched Chaz Green having no clue what to do with the rusher.
So that means 20 percent of his 30 career sacks came in one game last season. This is not a player we should regard as your classic edge rusher, in other words. But that doesn’t mean Clayborn doesn’t have good value. He’s a very good run defender who has shown the ability to kick down inside on passing downs and remains in the prime of his career as he turns 30.
Injuries derailed him early in his four-year stint with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but Clayborn has become a very solid player the past three in Atlanta — a valuable member of the rotation there. Will his 9.5 sack aberration cause his price to rise to ridiculous levels? Let’s hope not.
Teams also shouldn’t view him as a traditional, three-down starter. If Clayborn does return to Atlanta, it likely will be as a third end; he played 555 snaps last season, which was about half the team’s reps. That’s the kind of workload Clayborn should be counted on to provide. And though his injury history hasn’t cropped up the past few seasons, he did miss all but four games in the 2012 and 2014 campaigns in Tampa.
If not the Falcons, we could see a team such as the New York Jets or Indianapolis Colts making a play for Clayborn. And could the rush-starved Bucs be in on a return? It’s possible.
3. DT Beau Allen
A hardworking but lesser-known contributor for the Super Bowl-champion Philadelphia Eagles, Allen has come a long way since he was a seventh-round pick in 2014 — and incredibly, he was the last member of the team’s draft class that year still standing with the team.
It was fun sitting down with Allen during Super Bowl week, hearing him talk about his days growing up (nearby in Minnesota, no less) as an ice-rink custodian prior to his 54-game career as one of the more reliable interior defenders at Wisconsin. He was regarded coming out as strictly a 3-4 nose tackle and a run stopper, but Allen proved he had a more expansive worth last season.
This is not a player you’re going to want rushing the passer, mind you, with his two career sacks. But Allen logged a heavy workload and adjusted well from the scheme change after Chip Kelly and his staff were let go. New defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz found ways to get the 6-3, 329-pound Allen on the field, spelling Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan quite a bit, on what was an excellent run-stopping unit.
Allen logged 41 percent of the Eagles’ DT snaps last season, which is nothing to sneeze at, and he did so after suffering a pectoral injury while lifting weights just about a year ago. The Eagles had engaged him in contract talks prior to that, but the injury forced them to go get Jernigan in a trade from the Ravens.
The cap-tight Eagles now are likely forced to keep Jernigan and let Allen test the waters elsewhere. Allen hasn’t hid his interest in trying to prove his worth as a starter, so teams such as the Buffalo Bills, Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots or Washington could try to lure him away for a better opportunity or more money.
4. DE Trent Murphy
Washington is in an interesting spot with the 6-5, 255-pound Murphy, who suffered a torn ACL last August. The former second-round pick in 2014 suddenly might not be as high a priority to return you might think. He had nine sacks in 2016 and appeared to be a player on the rise, even if it was in a complementary role, but now finds himself a free agent.
Kerrigan is the heart of the front seven now, at least until Jonathan Allen breaks out, and Preston Smith will be a free agent after the 2018 season. Washington also drafted Ryan Anderson in Round 2 last year, and even after a quiet rookie season there is hope he’ll emerge. That leaves Murphy a bit on the outskirts of the team’s plans, it would appear.
Even coming off the ACL, Murphy can be a nice fit. We suspect he’s ideally a 6-, 7-or 9-technique down rusher for a team using more even fronts than as the standup linebacker role he played in Washington. Even slightly miscast, Murphy totaled 15 sacks in 22 starts and always has shown a nose for the football.
He was consistently solid, even if never great, prior to the injury. At age 27, he should still have some good football in front of him. The Colts and Patriots have wound up with a lot of former Stanford players and need the rush help. So too do the Lions, who have a core of former Patriots employees running the show now. Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio coached Murphy briefly in college and could have interest if the team moves on from Willie Young, Pernell McPhee and others.