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Free-agency primer: Mario Williams leads an interesting defensive class

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Mario Williams is about to cash in. (Getty Images)

Houston Texans defensive end/outside linebacker Mario Williams is the rock star of this year's defensive free-agent class, but that doesn't mean that there aren't many other intriguing options at all positions for teams feeling the need to improve their defenses beyond the draft. Here's our offensive free-agency primer; we now turn our attention to those players charged with the task of keeping the scores down.

Defensive ends

Williams will likely demand and receive a contract in line with what Julius Peppers got from the Chicago Bears in 2010: Six years and $84 million, with half of that figure guaranteed. He's the sure quarterback demolition machine in any 4-3 defense, and the fact that he was coming around at pass-rushing outside linebacker in Wade Phillips' 5-2 scheme before a season-ending injury in 2011 puts his value even higher.

[ Related: NFL free-agency primer: Peyton Manning, Carl Nicks among the big offensive options ]

One of the most interesting players in this FA class is end Red Bryant of the Seattle Seahawks. Originally drafted as a tackle, Bryant became a real game-changer when Pete Carroll moved him to five-tech end and let him blow up everyone else's running game. Teams with a 3-4 front and looking for more run defense out of their ends, like the Packers and Steelers, will surely give Bryant a look.

Beyond that, look for John Abraham to get a lot of play as a rotational end in a 4-3, and Kendall Langford perhaps shopping his skills to teams missing out on Bryant but still in need of a hybrid player. Jaguars DE Jeremy Mincey is one of the most underrated players in this FA class; look for the smarter teams around the league to check him out. Add Chicago's Israel Idonije, Peppers' longtime bookend, to the underrated list. Mark Anderson proved that he could play in multiple fronts with the Pats in 2011, as did Andre Carter.

Defensive tackles

A very interesting group here. With Sione Pouha's re-signing with the Jets, Miami's Paul Soliai is the best pure 3-4 nose tackle on the open market. At 6-foot-4 and 355 pounds, he can play in different spots inside, but Soliai's primary value is in soaking up blockers so that others can make plays. The Dolphins thought enough of Soliai to franchise him last year — with their move to a predominant four-man front, some other team will benefit greatly from his abilities, even and especially when that team switches to nickel defenses and required their nose tackle to move around.

Brodrick Bunkley was a hidden factor on Denver's defense in 2011, but the few people who looked past Tim Tebow on the Denver roster knew his value. Bunkley can play a role as a light tackle in a 3-4, but his best role is as a space-eater in a 40 front. At 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds, Tennessee's Jason Jones could get looks at many positions — straight end, straight tackle, or as a hybrid player capable of creating havoc all over the line. He's best-suited to a creative defensive coordinator with multiple fronts in his playbook.

Those looking for more defensive tackles might be interested in the possibility of three former Saints — according to some reports, Shaun Rogers, Aubrayo Franklin and Sedrick Ellis could all be up for grabs.

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Pete Carroll might not be able to hang on to David Hawthorne. (Getty Images)


Stephen Tulloch is probably the most versatile and effective linebacker in this class, but Seattle's David Hawthorne should be an attractive option. Hawthorne played very well at middle and strong-side linebacker and, as it has become on the defensive line, versatility is important at linebacker. Hawthorne is not a pass-rusher, per se but more a savvy run-stopper who can spy gaps in certain packages.

Atlanta's Curtis Lofton could be a casualty of the Falcons' need to get better in a hurry at other positions, and the team's recent acquisition of Lofa Tatupu could be seen as a stopgap. Lofton would be a great pickup for any 4-3 team in need of a run-stopping traffic director. And if you're a 4-3 team in need of veteran leadership and 100-plus tackles almost by default, you should be calling London Fletcher's agent right about now.

Minnesota's Erin Henderson and Baltimore's Jarret Johnson are the kinds of players appealing to those teams looking to do a lot of different things with their linebackers. Especially Johnson, who probably needs a map after all the places he's lined up for the Ravens. Leroy Hill is a decent outside linebacker whose best days are behind him, but he can still provide pop on a rotational basis.

[ Related: Fantasy impact of WR Brandon Marshall joining Bears ]


With their recent signing of Stanford Routt, the Chiefs can do one of two things:  Either let Brandon Carr hit the open market or re-sign him and have a dynamite cornerback threesome with Brandon Flowers as the lead dog. With teams playing more nickel than ever, the latter choice would make sense. But if Carr becomes a free agent, he'll get as many calls as anyone in this article.  He's perhaps the most underrated cornerback in the NFL. Carr can play press, but his real game is playing in space and jumping routes. He'd be an asset to just about any secondary.

Former Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan was surprised by Tennessee's refusal to franchise him, but he should not be surprised by the interest from teams looking for a physical corner who excels at redirecting receivers at the line. Carlos Rogers had a career year with the 49ers after several so-so seasons in Washington — funny what LASIK surgery will do. Zone teams looking for a speed corner who could excel at nickel should find former Saints DB Tracy Porter interesting.


O.J. Atogwe, just cut by the Washington Redskins, has been an underrated for a long time. He can play the pass, come up in run support and get sacks on the occasional safety blitz. Atari Bigby, most recently with the Seahawks, could help any team looking to put in three-safety or "big nickel" packages like the Giants succeeded with last season. LaRon Landry is a physical freak who can impress at times, though his inconsistency can be maddening (you probably don't want him covering the end zone fade route.) And Reggie Nelson had his best year in 2011 since his rookie season of 2007. In Mike Zimmer's Cincinnati defense for the last two seasons after three years in Jacksonville, Nelson's football acumen finally caught up to his physical ability.

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