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Franklin, Okoye lead DT crop still looking for right fit

The SportsXchange

Despite the volley of pricey, high-profile contracts during the first 3 1/2 weeks of free agency in the NFL, some spots have lagged far behind in the money chase, but few to the extent of the defensive tackle position.

Especially when it comes to players changing franchises.

To suggest that the market has been soft for veteran inside run-stuffers, no matter whether they play in a 3-4 or 4-3 front, would be a gross understatement.

Of the 21 tackles from 4-3 defenses who started the signing period as unrestricted free agents on March 13, there are 13 who remain unsigned and another five who were retained by their incumbent franchises. Three of the top five 3-4 nose tackles -- Paul Soliai of Miami, the New York Jets' Sione Pouha and Antonio Garay from San Diego -- stayed with the teams for whom they played in 2011.

And none of them got rich or earned long-term job security, doing so.

Pouha got a three-year, $15 million contract from the Jets.

The Dolphins, who will likely switch Soliai's job description in what is expected to be a retooled 4-3 front under new coordinator Kevin Coyle, kept the five-year veteran with a two-year deal worth $18 million.

Garay's two-year, $6.6 million contract included no signing bonus and is severely back-loaded, with $5 million due in 2013, essentially money that he might never see.

Of the three 4-3 tackles who switched teams, about the only one who generated big money was Brodrick Bunkley, whose resuscitative 2011 campaign in Denver earned him a five-year, $25 million pact with New Orleans.

At nose tackle, arguably the most notable free agent player to change teams was Brandon McKinney (Baltimore to Indianapolis), who will aid the Colts' schematic changeover under first-year head coach Chuck Pagano, but who has started only six games in six seasons.

"(The market) just hasn't been there at all," acknowledged New Orleans' Aubrayo Franklin, who started nine games for the Saints last season. "The reason? I don't know, honestly. ... But it's definitely slow."

Left in the remnant gridlock are veterans such as Amobi Okoye, Rocky Bernard, Derek Landri, Marcus Thomas, Trevor Laws, Kelly Gregg and Shaun Rogers. Not exactly a "who's who" of interior line defenders, for sure. But not a collection of scrap-heap guys, either, and they merit a look but might not be signed until the draft, bountiful at defensive tackle, has passed and franchises can re-assess needs.

Franklin's situation is especially puzzling.

He started 60 games in San Francisco 2007-2010, mostly as a 3-4 nose tackle, yet was forced to take just a one-year deal from the Saints in 2011. He could return to a 3-4 team as a nose tackle, and arguably is the top remaining candidate at the position, or attract another 4-3 team. For now, though, the nine-year veteran has landed nowhere.

Only a few seasons ago, the tackle position appeared to be one that was ascending in significance, seemingly gaining on the end spot as the position of importance on the defensive front. But whatever momentum was generated at the time seems to have lost some steam, it's fairly clear, from the current free agent market. Top personnel people from around the NFL still insist the tackle spot is essential, and emphasize the benefit of a strong interior presence, but few have made meaningful veteran free agent scores in the first month of the market.

Most allow that the position in free agency is a relatively thin one.

Notable, too, is that, in a free agent class that featured some younger standout players, the tackle pool is stacked with a lot of 30-something veterans. The fact that most tackles are two-down players, who don't generate a lot of game-altering plays and, thus, don't merit big-money contracts, is a deterrent, as well.

The perceived strength of the 2012 draft class, which features top-shelf prospects such as Dontari Poe (Memphis), Fletcher Cox (Mississippi State), Michael Brockers (LSU), Jerel Worthy (Michigan State), Devon Still (Penn State), Kendall Reyes (UConn) and others is a definite factor.

But the history of the tackle spot in free agency has been a checkered one as well. And general managers who typically don't place much stock in history seem more focused anymore on the back stories of free agent tackle busts such as Albert Haynesworth.

Let's face it, there have been some abysmal free agent deals in the past, but the $100 million contract that Haynesworth signed with Washington in 2009 seems to have scared off tackle suitors more than most dubious unrestricted deals. Haynesworth cashiered $33 million-$35 million in just 20 appearances for the Redskins, and has been traded once and released twice in the past nine months. He has, in essence, redefined the term "free agent bust."

"It's probably a sticking point," one coach told The Sports Xchange this week when asked about the impact of Haynesworth's contract on the tackle market. "But we all talk about having the great inside presence, so, if there was a guy out there who was young and dominant, we'd probably all be after him. But there isn't."

Still, led by Haynesworth, the roster of "street" free agent tackles -- the guys released over the past month -- might actually include more "name" players than the original unrestricted pool did. Yet Haynesworth, Anthony Adams, Fred Robbins, Justin Bannon, John Henderson, and Remi Ayodele, and the like, have suffered as well from a lack of attention in the market.

Unless it's a state secret, Haynesworth, released by Tampa Bay, hasn't yet made a visit to another team. Henderson has retired. The others have received only scant attention, and some might have a difficult time getting into a training camp. There could be, it appears, other retirements. Bannan recently met with officials from Denver, for whom he started in 2010, before going to St. Louis last year. Laws huddled with St. Louis officials this week. That relative flurry of activity, though, shouldn't be construed as mounting interest in the position.

The bet here is that many of the aforementioned players who choose to continue playing in 2012 will end up signing one-year, "show me" contracts that will cast them back onto the market next spring. That does not guarantee, of course, that things will be much better.

"You see some of the signings," Adams said, "and you think to yourself, 'What about the tackles?' But right now, it's just not there."

And the reality is, maybe it won't be.
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