Malik Jackson leads top 10 free-agent interior defenders
With the Denver Broncos defensive dominance in their recent Super Bowl victory, the saying “defense wins championships” is once again fresh on everyone’s mind. If you’re looking to build a good defense, what better place to start than on the defensive line? While the edge rushers get all the attention, a dominant player on the interior can make a huge difference. Here are the top guys on the market heading into free agency.
(Editor’s note: This list was updated on Feb. 29, 2016, following reports that the Jets would be placing the franchise tag on Muhammad Wilkerson, previously our No. 1 free-agent interior defender.)
1. Malik Jackson
2015 team: Denver Broncos
While the Broncos edge rushers did so much damage for them, it’s important not to forget just how good Malik Jackson (87.6) was on the interior. His biggest play of the year might have come in recovering a fumble for the opening touchdown in the Super Bowl, but over the course of the season he registered seven sacks, eight hits and 45 hurries. On top of that he was also solid against the run, and at just 26 years old, has put himself in position for a big payday.
2. Damon Harrison
2015 team: New York Jets
At 91.9, Harrison actually has the highest rating of any impending free agent on the defensive interior, with Jackson and Wilkerson more attractive options purely because of their ability as pass rushers. Harrison is one of the best run defenders in the NFL and has been an absolute rock in the middle of the New York Jets defensive line since entering the league. Once an undrafted free agent, he racked up an incredibly 51 defensive stops, including a rare sack for the run stuffing superstar.
3. Nick Fairley
2015 team: St. Louis Rams
Once a player who looked on the verge of superstardom, Fairley (82.0) found himself far less attracted than many expected as a free agent last year. Still, a one-season stint in St. Louis with the Rams proved to be his best in the league so far. His worst season so far came when he was asked to play 693 snaps, so perhaps the key to getting the most out of Fairley is limiting his usage. It might not be ideal to bring in a free agent who is best-suited to around 500 snaps, but if he can do as he did last year and rack up 19 total pressures and 17 defensive stops, he would make a very smart addition to a lot of defensive lines around the league.
4. Jaye Howard
2015 team: Kansas City Chiefs
Our 24th-highest rated player on the defensive interior, Howard (80.8) had a really strong season against the run for the Kansas City Chiefs. It’s a little bit concerning that his play tailed off in the second half of the year, but Howard will turn 28 in December, and had some performances that really grabbed our attention early in the year, particularly against Denver and Green Bay in weeks two and three.
5. Ian Williams
2015 team: San Francisco 49ers
It would be doing a disservice to Williams (85.6) to call him a poor man’s Damon Harrison, but the two are similar players, with the Jets nose tackle just taking it to another level. Williams is one of the best nose tackles in the league and finished the season strong, with huge performances against Cleveland and Cincinnati. Registering 38 total defensive stops, he’s a perfect fit for a team looking for a force in the middle of their defensive line.
6. Akiem Hicks
2015 team: New England Patriots
Hicks (76.3) arrived in New England via trade during the season, and turned in a really solid year for the Patriots after struggling to begin the year in New Orleans. He was solid in 2013 and 2014 when he played over 700 snaps in both seasons for the Saints, but seemed to really find his niche in a smaller role for New England. Including the playoffs he had 15 defensive stops, including three sacks, and was solid both against the run and as a pass rusher.
7. Brandon Mebane
2015 team: Seattle Seahawks
Mebane (71.4) isn’t the player he once was, but he can still fill a role and be a solid defensive lineman for a number of teams. Solid against the run, he was quite active as a pass rusher in 2015, racking up three sacks, a hit and 17 hurries. At 31 and with his play declining he’s unlikely to be a target for a long term deal, but he’s unlikely to struggle for interest either.
8. Terrance Knighton
2015 team: Washington Redskins
Knighton (74.3) left Denver after two impressive seasons, and failed to make the same impact in the middle of the Washington defensive line. That being said, for a player who turns 30 before the season begins, he was still slightly above average and looked good against the run. Perhaps he can regain his form with a new team, but in the very least whoever signs him is getting a solid run stuffer.
9. Haloti Ngata
2015 team: Detroit Lions
Traded on the first day of free agency a year ago, Ngata (76.9) didn’t enjoy as impressive a season as his final year with the Ravens in Baltimore and at 32 is definitely on the downside of his career. It’s not all doom and gloom though, as he actually had a fairly productive year as a pass rusher for the Lions with four sacks, four hits and 25 hurries. He comes with the versatility of having experience in both three- and four-man fronts and makes sense as a short-time signing as part of a defensive line in need of players to add to the rotation.
10. Mike DeVito
2015 team: Kansas City Chiefs
You know exactly what you’re getting with DeVito, who in nine seasons of being in the league, has registered just seven sacks and 74 total pressures. He’s not a pass rusher, but he is a very good run defender and has graded strongly in that regard throughout his career. In 2015, he made a tackle resulting in a defensive stop on 10.3 percent of his plays against the run, and is unlikely to suddenly drop off in 2016.