Ranking the 2013 Free Agents: Interior Defenders

Ben Stockwell continues our in-depth look at the best talent likely to become available during free agency by ranking the Top 10 defensive tackles and 3-4 defensive ends.

| 4 years ago

Ranking the 2013 Free Agents: Interior Defenders

For more than a week we’ve been breaking down the top free agents at each position. 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.

We’re not going to insult your intelligence though when it comes to guys unlikely to hit the open market because of restricted free agency, so don’t expect to see names like Victor Cruz or Brian De La Puente in these pieces. Instead we’re focusing on guys with a real shot at dipping their feet into the free agent pool and making your team better.

You’ve been with us through the entire offense (quarterbacksrunning backsfullbackswide receiverstight endsoffensive tackles) and a brief sojourn to the kickers and punters. Now it’s time to turn our attention to defense. Yesterday we looked at the edge defenders, and today it’s the defensive tackles and 3-4 defensive ends.

1. Richard Seymour

2012 Grade: +9.5
2012 Snaps: 361

Summary: With Henry Melton almost certainly headed back to Chicago, by franchise tag or extension, Seymour is our top free agent defensive tackle. Even at the age of 33 Seymour still started the 2012 season tremendously before it was cut short by a hamstring injury. Aside from a one season spike with 11 penalties just a year ago, that age is surely the only thing to scare teams away from Seymour this offseason.

He can still control and shed blocks extremely well to find the ball carrier in the running game, and in 2011 he earned one of our highest pass rush grades among defensive tackles. While the years may be rolling on, Old Father Time doesn’t seem to have robbed Seymour of any of his ability or production just yet. To an extent Seymour has become something of a forgotten man since being packed off to Oakland by Bill Belichick, but he is still playing extremely well, and consistently so, and he could help upgrade the defensive tackle rotation for most defenses in the league in the short term at least.

2. Desmond Bryant – to CLE: 5-year, $34m

2012 Grade: +16.5
2012 Snaps: 645

Summary: With two of the top three interior defensive free agents departing from Oakland, Raider fans might be left ruing the catastrophic mismanagement of their salary cap under the previous regime. As the second Raider on our list, Bryant will be looking to emerge from the shadow of both Seymour and Oakland’s decline in general. His next team will be looking for Bryant to put together a full season as both a run defender and a pass rusher. In isolation he has shown the ability to be top shelf at both, and if you choose the right selection of tape you’ll find a defensive tackle who can do everything.

Back in 2010, his second season in the league, Bryant earned a +10.2 grade in run defense while this season he earned a +16.8 grade as a pass rusher. In any other season that didn’t feature Geno Atkins doing absolutely crazy things, that would have been one of the elite pass rushing performances of the year. Coming out of Oakland Bryant might be a little bit under the radar, but if he can put together the complete package in one season then his next team could be getting one of the bargains of this year’s free agent period. Presuming he can stay out of legal trouble.

3. Cullen Jenkins – to NYG: 3-year, $8m

2012 Grade: +2.4

2012 Snaps: 642

Summary: Jenkins wasn’t the only Eagle to have (by his standards) a disappointing year. Yet even in his disappointing year he managed 30 combined sacks, hits and hurries on 358 pass rushing attempts. That gave him a pass rushing productivity score of 6.6, good for 14th out of all defensive tackles. A drop from his fifth place finish a year earlier but still proof he can make an impact where it matters. The downside is he looked even more one dimensional than ever with his work in run defense generally poor, with a move back to a 3-4 possibly being the best way of getting an improved display out of him.

4. Jason Jones – to DET: 3-year, $9.5m

2012 Grade: +5.1
2012 Snaps: 332

Summary: After taking a one-year “prove it” contract with the Seattle Seahawks last season, Jason Jones did some of that, but also left some questions unanswered. As an interior pass rusher he reminded everyone that 2011 was simply a failed experiment on the part of the Tennessee Titans to turn him into a defensive end, but his run defense was inconsistent and he again finished the season injured.

Two years ago Jones was one of the league’s hot interior pass rushers and one of the most disruptive defensive tackles in the league. While he didn’t get the playing time to categorically prove that player is still there waiting to be utilized, he showed enough glimpses that surely someone will take that chance this offseason. Will the multi-year money be more to Jones’ taste this season?

5. Alan Branch – to BUF: 1-year, $3m

2012 Grade: -0.1
2012 Snaps: 575

Summary: His debut season in Seattle in 2011 was an astonishing breakout for Branch as one of the league’s premier run defenders, but he couldn’t replicate that form in 2012. Instead he put forward a more inconsistent season which in particular saw him get bullied by the 49ers’ offensive line in San Francisco. Unlike in 2011, in 2012 he didn’t have the consistently excellent games to counter that beating and he doesn’t offer enough as a pass rusher to be of value to a team if that season was only a flash in the pan.

Branch was a part of a strong unit in Seattle this season, but on an individual level he didn’t play as well after a relatively strong September. This time last season teams might have been excited to pursue one of the emerging run defenders from a hybrid defense. Twelve months later Branch may be forced to follow the example of his line-mate Jones and take a “prove it” contract to show that he can repeat that 2011 form before someone offers him a multi-year deal.

6. Mike Devito – to KC: 3-year, $12.6m

2012 Grade: +11.5
2012 Snaps: 635

Summary: Defenders who get by on a high work rate rather than overawing physical and athletic ability tend to be overlooked in the NFL when it comes to the draft and handing out money. One such victim in that equation could well be Mike Devito, who proved this season the value of effort and production over hype. In theory Devito should’ve been pushed aside by first-round pick Quinton Coples in New York, but as Devito continued to stuff runs and make stops in the run game next to Muhammad Wilkerson the Jets just couldn’t stop giving him snaps.

Devito isn’t flashy, and he’s not going to crash the pocket from the inside, but he is a consistent force as a run stopper and has graded extremely well in that regard ever since 2009 when he became a more prominent member of the Jets’ run defense. Devito is the kind of interior run defender who goes unnoticed, but he’s a great value addition for any run defense.

7. Chris Canty – to BAL: 3-year, $8m

2012 Grade: +6.6
2012 Snaps: 300

Summary: Having been cut by the Giants, Canty has already been busy visiting with the Titans and Chiefs, so he is clearly a popular defensive player for both 3-4 and 4-3 defenses. As with the rest of the Giants’ defense (JPP aside), this wasn’t a vintage season for Canty, but in limited action he was still an effective interior pass rusher and held his own in run defense. With his experience in both 4-3 and 3-4 defenses he shouldn’t be out of work for long.

8. Sammie Lee Hill – to TEN: 3-year, $11.4m

2012 Grade: +5.6
2012 Snaps: 419

Summary: Playing behind any combination of Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Corey Williams in Detroit, Hill has never had much opportunity to make his presence known. Hill has recorded more than 400 snaps in each of the last three seasons in Detroit, and has graded positively ever since his transitional rookie year when he looked out of his depth moving from Division II Stillman College.

In that time Hill has shown brightly as both a run defender (+3.0 in 2011) and as a pass rusher (+7.9 2012). Playing behind two first-round picks and a player once acquired for a second-round pick, chances were always going to be slim for Hill, but he has shown well in the limited opportunities he has been given in a challenging defense. Someone is sure to be intrigued enough to give him an expanded role in their defense.

9. Terrance Knighton – to DEN: 2-year, $4.5m

2012 Grade: +4.2
2012 Snaps: 666

Summary: At the lower reaches of our Top 10 we get somewhat of a conundrum with Terrance Knighton. He’s a defender who at times in his career has looked like one of the top emerging run stuffers in the NFL, while at others he has looked borderline disinterested. At his best Knighton is more than just a big lump who plugs running lanes — he can diagnose runs and shed blocks to shutdown the opposition running game, even if they aren’t running directly at him. He is also a capable pass rusher, though you wouldn’t necessarily leave him on the field on third down, and can be counted on for a couple of very good games every season as a pass rusher.

However, even at his best in 2010 he was blighted by utterly inexplicable inconsistency. How can a player look so dominant one week and so utterly ineffective the next? For as many teams that will be infatuated and intrigued by the dominant performances and think they can iron out the inconsistency, there will be as many that can’t see past the bad games and will steer clear of Knighton filling the void in the heart of their defense.

10. Glenn Dorsey – to SF: 2-year, $6m

2012 Grade: +1.8
2012 Snaps: 115

Summary: The final spot in our Top 10 goes to a player more well known for being a draft bust than as one of the better run defending 3-4 defensive ends in the entire league — which he was over a two-year span in 2010 and 2011. Just based on those seasons Dorsey is worth a place in our Top 10 , and he’s here for that reason, but the big question moving forwards for Dorsey is whether there is any sort of market for him? Dorsey is perfect for a two-gap 3-4 defense that is going out of vogue in the NFL, and with the Chiefs seemingly eager to move on from him that is one less team interested in his services. Dorsey is a fine player in the right system, but is there a team running that system that needs him?
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| Director of Analysis

Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.

  • Matt

    Valid point you make in Dorsey’s section about the two-gap 3-4 being almost gone in the NFL.  I’d like to make a point I keep making in here.  A one-gap 3-4 for all intensive purposes is not a 3-4…it’s a 4-3.  Just because a guy with 4-3 DE responsibilities stands up and takes 2 steps back doesn’t mean he’s playing 3-4 OLB.  Look at the Texans for example…Watts is called a 3-4 DE, yet everything about his job, where he aligns, the technique he uses, the responsibilities he has is that of a 4-3 3-tech DT.  I know the idea is that 4 LBs=3-4.  But it’s not the case.  Many people called the 46 defense a 4-4 for years, and even though the SS played in the box or on the LOS 99% of the time.  It was still a SS playing the position.  And time makes us realize that now all 4-3 Ds put the SS in the box some of the time.  GO back to my point about Watt, he is also the size and skills of a 4-3 DT and not a 3-4 DE.  He could never cover 2-gaps taking on an OT.  MOre over this is how DCs look at it too. ARe they a one gap D or two?  Overall my point is while the real 3-4 Ds still exist, shouldn’t we have a separate category to compare the two gap DLineman?  You can’t compare what Dorsey does to Watt.  Neither one can do the other’s job, yet we are saying they are play the same position in the same defense.

  • JJ

    Is Sammie Lee Hill capable of playing the nose in a 3-4?