You’ve been reading along with our Projected Lineups series on a daily basis and have checked the PFF Free Agent Tracker more times than you can count, so you’ll be happy to see that we’re now ranking the top free agents available — the potential answers to the holes apparent on those team-by-team charts. We’ll be taking on a couple positions a day this week and discussing our Top 10 at each.
It’s more than just looking at our grades, but factoring in longevity, age, injuries and so much more in order to tell you who we think are the best gets out there.
1. Randy Starks
2013 Grade: +28.8
2013 Snaps: 742
Summary: What makes 30-year-old Randy Starks our No. 1 free agent on the interior? One word: consistency. He’s graded outside the Top 10 for 3-4 ends/4-3 tackles just once (2012) in our six years of grading. Whether it be run or pass, Starks has the ability to consistently alter play after play. This past season he made a stop on 10.2% of the running plays that he was on the field. That number was sixth best among defensive tackles. He also had a Pass Rushing Productivity of 7.9, good enough for 10th-best for tackles. He’s the type of talent that you can put in any scheme and almost any position and not have to worry about his production.
Last season he received the franchise tag from the Dolphins for $8.45M. At 30 years old he should be able to score one last large contract as long as he’s not franchised again. The top five contracts for defensive tackles on a per-year basis are the following: Ndamukong Suh ($12.9M), Gerald McCoy ($11M), Geno Atkins ($10.7M), Ahtyba Rubin ($8.8M), and Vince Wilfork ($8M). With as steady as Starks has been, I would guess he’ll get somewhere between Wilfork and Atkins, although four years seems like the max length. If he gets a contract in the range of Desmond Bryant’s five-year, $34M deal he signed last offseason, someone is getting a steal.
2. Jason Hatcher
2013 Grade: +27.3
2013 Snaps: 773
Summary: Hatcher has had one of the more curious career paths of any player in the league today. For the first six years of his career he wasn’t much more than a part time player. Our data only goes back to 2008, but we have 2011 as the first time he played more than 50% of the snaps in a season and even then it was 50.4%. The thing is, Hatcher was playing good football all those years in a limited role. His grades and snaps from 2008-2011 are the following: +1.6 on 329 snaps, +2.4 on 391 snaps, +6.4 on 258 snaps, +9.3 on 428 snaps.
It really wasn’t until the 2012 season, at the age of 30, that Hatcher’s career really took off. That year he played 784 snaps, was sixth among 3-4 ends in Run Stop Percentage (8.2) and fifth in Pass Rushing Productivity (7.7). Last season he made the switch from the 3-4 end to the 4-3 tackle (3-tech) and his pass rushing numbers predictably soared. Hatcher had 11 sacks and the fourth-highest pass rushing grade among defensive tackles at +26.9. The biggest knock on Hatcher right now is his age. He’ll be 32 by the start of next season and the odds of him staying this effective for three more seasons are slim, although he has far fewer career snaps at his age than most. The biggest plus is his scheme versatility, having excelled in both 3-4 and 4-3. Hatcher may come away with the highest per year salary of this group due to his pass rushing ability, but I wouldn’t expect too many years.
3. Henry Melton
2013 Grade: -6.4
2013 Snaps: 125
Summary: Henry Melton is one year removed from production similar to Jason Hatcher. In 2012 Melton was first among defensive tackles in Run Stop Percentage (11.6) and fifth in Pass Rushing Productivity (7.7). That one year period between could not have gone any worse than it did though. It started with Melton getting franchise tagged when he could have easily broken the bank. He then started the season playing downright awful football. The Bears’ defensive tackle managed a paltry two pressures in 72 pass rushing snaps for a pass rushing productivity of 2.1. He also had the league’s worst run defense grade at -4.8 before he tore his ACL in week three against Pittsburgh. To top it all off Melton got arrested in December for public intoxication and assault.
Depending on how confident Melton is in his ability to return from his injury, he could be a solid candidate for a one year ‘prove it’ contract. Another season like 2012 could land him one of the top contracts at the position. At just 27 years old, he has quite a few years ahead of him and could get a six-year deal if fully healthy. Teams are always willing to throw cash at pass rushers though and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone takes a chance and gives Melton a sizable deal hoping he regains form.
4. Linval Joseph
2013 Grade: +9.9
2013 Snaps: 596
Summary: Joseph comes in at number four on this list after three straight rock solid seasons with the Giants. His overall grades since 2011 have been +6.6, +6.3, and +6.9 while playing around 60% of the snaps over that time period. That kind of production is undeniably intriguing out of a player that is just 25 years old. He has already proven the ability perform above average against both the run and the pass for a full season and teams will be banging down his door to see what he can do next. He finished last season with a Pass Rushing Productivity of 6.1 and a Run Stop Percentage of 8.0. Both were good enough for 17th among defensive tackles.
This past season Joseph played 88% of his snaps a left defensive tackle in the Giants’ scheme. At 6-foot-4 and 328-pounds he’ll likely translate to a 1-technique for most 4-3 teams and with his size could probably play anywhere on a 3-4 front. Just like Desmond Bryant last season, I’m guessing Joseph lands himself a fairly large contract because of his youth. It’s difficult to find players that you know will be good for the next five years and it appears that Joseph will be one of those.
5. Arthur Jones
2012 Grade: +15.7
2012 Snaps: 529
Summary: The last two seasons Arthur Jones has come from nowhere to make a name for himself as a tremendous run defender with adequate pass rushing skills. In Jones’ first two seasons he played a total of 290 snaps. Then in 2012 he started getting more meaningful playing time and didn’t disappoint. From Week 12 through the Super Bowl that season, he amassed a grade of +10.6 while playing in 51% of the snaps. This season he saw a slight bump up to 55% of the possible snaps, but continued the solid play with a run defense grade of +12.9 and a pass rushing grade of +1.9.
Jones is still young at 28 years old and so far he’s only gotten better with every opportunity that has presented itself. He doesn’t get many snaps in obvious passing situations, but it’s impressive that he was at least above average playing mostly run downs where it’s harder to get pressure. At 6-foot-3, 305-pounds he could likely play in either a 3-4 or a 4-3. Choosing between him and Linval Joseph seems like a coinflip in my book. Joseph may be younger and more proven, but Jones’ talent and production on a per play basis has outpaced Joseph’s.
6. Antonio Smith
2013 Grade: +12.6
2013 Snaps: 770
Summary: Antonio Smith has been putting up elite pass rushing numbers ever since the Texans switched to a 3-4 in 2011. Few get to the passer with such consistency; Smith had just two negatively graded pass-rushing outings last season. His ranks in Pass Rushing Productivity among 3-4 ends since 2011: second (8.6), sixth (7.3), sixth (8.9). Keep in mind that he’s played a substantial 75% of the snaps over that as an every down player and not just a pass rushing specialist.
At 32 years of age, Smith shows no signs of slowing down. He may be relegated to 4-3 teams though in free agency. He’s a little undersized at 6-foot-4, 289-pounds and rarely two-gapped in the Texan’s 3-4 scheme. Smith could easily rush the passer in any scheme, but concerns about his run defense(which has only graded positively one season since he moved to 3-4 end) would be exasperated in a traditional 3-4. It will be interesting to see how Smith’s contract compares to Jason Hatcher’s. Both are freaky pass rushers that come and go against the run (Hatcher has done more in the past) and both will be 32 next season.
7. Paul Soliai
2013 Grade: +11.1
2013 Snaps: 526
Summary: Soliai is the only pure nose tackle/1-technique to make this Top 10, but calling him a run stuffer would be selling the tackle short. Soliai mainly played on run downs for the Dolphins, but his 5.0 pass rushing productivity beat out other the likes Dontari Poe and Damon Harrison. A seven-year veteran, Soliai has graded negatively just once in the PFF Era (2009). He may not come in and be a game changer for a team, but he can certainly shore up a team’s run defense in a hurry. His cumulative run defense grade in the last four years is +22.1, and that came spread across two years in a 3-4 and two years in a 4-3. Soliai’s scheme versatility will be attractive, but it will be interesting to see if he matches the two-year, $12M deal he signed back in 2012.
8. Jonathan Babineaux
2013 Grade: +5.8
2013 Snaps: 924
Summary: One of the six members of this group who will be 30+ years of age by the start of next season, Babineaux (32) has some glaring positives and minuses to his credit as a free agent. On the positive side, he played a ludicrous 924 snaps last season (fourth most among tackles) and still graded out at +7.3 against the run. On the minus side, his once venerable pass rushing skill fell by the wayside last year with a 5.1 Pass Rushing Productivity and -4.5 grade. The good news about those two stats is that pass rusher’s efficiency tends to increase when they get more snaps off. The last two seasons Babineaux has been forced into an every-down role because of the Falcons’ lack of depth inside. Back in 2011 when Babineaux played just 69% of the possible snaps, as opposed to over 85% the last two seasons, he had an overall grade of +14.0 and a pass rushing grade of +10.0. Both of those numbers were his highest marks in the last three seasons. If Babineaux can get in a situation that’s not asking him to anchor a defense play after play, he could still provide tremendous value.
9. Pat Sims
2013 Grade: +14.7
2013 Snaps: 694
Summary: Sims is the one player among this group that I am most looking forward to seeing how he performs next season. The flash-in-the-pan defensive tackle for the Raiders didn’t have one positively graded season his first five years. Then he put up a stretch that few could replicate. In his last nine games of 2013 his grade was +18.1, and in Week 16 he put up a monstrous 10-stop, +7.2 overall performance. Only four other players had single games graded that highly last season and their names are Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy, Randy Starks, and Jurrell Casey. Quite simply you don’t see any average defensive tackle perform at that high a level just out of the blue. It tells me that the talent is there, and he may have just been waiting for the switch to be flipped. At 28 years old, Sims will likely be one of the cheaper options among this group. Some might call it risky to invest in a one-year wonder, but I think Sims has legitimately turned the corner in his production.
10. Kevin Williams
2013 Grade: +7.3
2013 Snaps: 733
Summary: Richard Seymour found out the hard way last season what the market is like for perennially high-priced interior linemen in their mid-30’s. It seems that fewer and fewer teams want to be ‘that’ team that has a former star wash out on them with a hefty deal. Williams could face a similar market this offseason. Even though he’s still playing at a high level, his decline has been fairly linear. His overall grades from 2010 on are the following: +25.1, +17.1, +11.3, +7.3. His grade last year was still good enough for 27th overall among defensive tackles, but it’s unlikely that it will go up from there. Williams is coming off of an eight-year, $45.7m contract and he’ll turn 34 before next season. If he can maintain his level of play for a couple of seasons he’s still an incredibly valuable player. The biggest question is at what price is a team willing to risk that?
Follow Mike on Twitter: @PFF_MikeRenner