Ranking the Free Agents: 4-3 Defensive Ends/3-4 Outside Linebackers

| February 24, 2011

Last year the biggest splash in free agency was the Bears handing over a lot of money to superstar defensive end Julius Peppers.

Not only did it make said huge splash, but it propelled the Bears into the NFC Championship game when many had written them off as the worst team in the NFC North.

So there are going to be plenty of teams seeing that impact and looking to if not replicate, at least catch a little bit of the fire the Bears did and pick themselves up a nice shiny edge rusher. So just who are the top candidates out there? (Click here for a master list of all the free agents.)

We’re looking at the best available guys coming off the edge and offering our thoughts on the top ten.

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1. Ray Edwards, Minnesota Vikings

Age as of September 1st 2011: 26

2010 Grade: +31.2

Key Stat: In three years has got to the QB (hit or sacked) 65 times

Behind The Numbers: Often overlooked because of the players he shares a defensive line with, Edwards has nonetheless been an extremely consistent performer. Whether it be in 20o8 when he ably supported Jared Allen, 2009 when he disrupted the QB more, or this past season where for the first time he finished higher than Allen in our rankings. Edwards has always delivered. You don’t finish in the top ten of our DE rankings two years on the trot otherwise.

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2. Charles Johnson, Carolina Panthers

Age as of September 1st 2011: 25

2010 Grade: +43.8

Key Stat: In 2010 had more defensive stops (48) and QB disruptions (81) than any other DE.

Behind The Numbers: At the end of the 2008 season, we felt Johnson warranted more playing time. He picked up plenty of pressure and looked more than capable of an increased workload on the 520 snaps he saw. While injury played a part, it wasn’t to be for Johnson the following year as he only got on the field for 427 snaps, though he still played well enough to finish in our top twenty defensive ends. Fast forward to this season, where Johnson had a phenomenal year that went largely ignored in Carolina, although not by us as he finished 2nd in our DE rankings. The only thing that has ever held the 2007 third-round pick back has been playing time, and whichever team he ends up playing for is going to get a guy who has always achieved.

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3. Jason Babin, Tennessee Titans

Age as of September 1st 2011: 31

2010 Grade: +25.1

Key Stat: In 2010 had 24 more total QB pressures than he had combined in 2008 and 2009.

Behind The Numbers: Over the past few seasons Babin has bounced around the league, looking nothing more than a situational rusher. In 2009 he didn’t even look like that as he saw the field for only 243 snaps. Then he came to Tennessee and they figured out how to get the best of him, as he responded with a season that saw him ranked in our top ten defensive ends overall. He didn’t help himself by giving up twelve penalties, but Babin finally became the player scouts thought he would be.

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4. Cliff Avril, Detroit Lions

Age as of September 1st 2011: 26

2010 Grade: +21.8

Key Stat: Had games in 2010 where he produced five or more QB sacks, hits or pressures combined

Behind The Numbers: While Detroit were going 0-16 there were some bright spots in their season, and Avril was one of them; he picked up five sacks as a rookie. His sophomore year was meant to be the springboard to bigger and better things, but it never quite came together and he notched a rather average 27 QB disruptions on the year. 2010, though, was the year for Avril, who flourished next to Ndamukong Suh and finished 7th in our pass rushing DE ratings. Avril is far from perfect, and you imagine any CBA will see him a restricted free agent. But if it doesn’t, he’ll be a heck of a pickup.

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5. Manny Lawson, San Francisco 49ers

Age as of September 1st 2011: 27

2010 Grade: +12.9

Key Stat: Broke up more passes than any other 3-4 OLB.

Behind The Numbers: If you’re looking for a guy with upside, and who won’t break the bank, then why look further than Lawson? His rather pedestrian sack numbers don’t do him justice, considering he gets more pressure on a per-play basis than guys like Clay Matthews, James Harrison and Cameron Wake. It’s just that the 49ers opted to have him in a rotation which meant he only rushed the passer 218 times. Perhaps the 49ers were disappointed in him following his 2008 and 2009 season where he struggled to consistently get pressure on the QB. But in Year 5 he finally seemed to get it, and with an overload of teams running the 3-4 a number of them would do well to find a solid starter like Lawson.

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6. Stylez G. White, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Age as of September 1st 2011: 32

2010 Grade: +9.1

Key Stat: Picked up 42 QB disruptions in 2010, after picking up 40 (in less snaps) in 2009

Behind The Numbers: When the man with the most stylish name in all of football was handed the starting job for the 2010 season we expected big things. It didn’t quite pan out that way, after reports of less than stellar performances in training and the inconsistent displays on the field. It’s a shame, because the two years that preceded it showed that Stylez could get to the quarterback in a situational role (2008) and when he was used in a rotation (2009). He’ll contribute, but he’s not getting any younger.

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7. Raheem Brock, Seattle Seahawks

Age as of September 1st 2011: 33

2010 Grade: +23.1

Key Stat: From Week 11 into the pos season (nine games), Brock disrupted the QB 47 times. In the two and a half years (44 games) before that he managed 64.

Behind The Numbers: Here’s a player who has made the playoffs in every year of his career and has a Super Bowl trophy to show for it, but also took eight years before he realized his potential. Asked to play an end on base downs and tackle in passing situations, Brock was a bit weightier in his Colt days. Come his release by the Colts (and the Titans) he slimmed down for the Seahawks and after taking some time to find his feet, was nearly unstoppable in the second half of the season. From out of nowhere Brock became one of the most dynamic pass rushers in the league, and you have to believe some teams would notice that and give him a chance to fight for a starting spot. He’s earned that much.

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8. Matt Roth, Cleveland Browns

Age as of September 1st 2011: 28

2010 Grade: +8.7

Key Stat: Picked up only eight QB disruptions in his final four games of the season.

Behind The Numbers: Back in 2008 when Joey Porter was the NFL sack leader there was an interesting fact hidden away. On a per-play basis Matt Roth had actually brought more pressure than Porter — and he was better in run defense. So we expected the Dolphins to have some joy with Roth in 2009. But after missing the first seven weeks of the season, his playing time was limited and he was cut. Fortunately for him a needy Browns team picked him up and plugged him straight into the starting lineup and he performed so well (Eric Mangini referred to him as the best player on their roster) that in half a season he finished 7th in our 3-4 OLB rankings. So in 2010, with a management structure that believed in him, we expected big things. It looked good initially with six strong outings to the start the season, but then something happened — injury or something else — and Roth’s performance nose dived. If you get the player he had been in his first series of games before Week 7 of this year, you’ve got yourself a bargain. The guy that showed up after that? Not so much.

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9. Brian Robison, Minnesota Vikings

Age as of September 1st 2011: 28

2010 Grade: -0.9

Key Stat: Got pressure on 8.5% of pass rushes compared in 2010, compared to 10.8% in ’09.

Behind The Numbers: Opportunities are limited for Robison with the Vikings, who are one of the most reluctant teams in terms of rotating defensive line personnel. On such a small sample size it’s hard to ascertain how Robison would do in a bigger role. He has, though, generated constant pressure while playing plenty of snaps inside. Ray Edwards’ possible departure could give him an opportunity in Minnesota, or it could simply see somebody else come in. Either way Robison is at a time in his career where he needs a team to give him more playing time.

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10. Mathias Kiwanuka, New York Giants

Age as of September 1st 2011: 28

2010 Grade: +1.7

Key Stat: Had four sacks and just two further pressures in his three games this season.

Behind The Numbers: As a defensive end, Kiwanuka has never quite delivered the kind of consistent pressure the Giants have demanded of him. Even during his hot start to the 2010, his four sacks masked a general inability to get to the quarterback as he alternated between end and outside linebacker. Then there are the concerns of him coming off a big injury. A risky pickup.

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