The NFL’s Top 10 Defensive Free Agents

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1. Calais Campbell, DE – Arizona Cardinals

While Justin Smith is busily making a case for defensive MVP for himself with the San Francisco 49ers, the price tag for Calais Campbell just goes up and up. For a 3-4 DE, only Campbell can go sack for sack, tackle for tackle, disruption for disruption with Smith. Best of all, Campbell is only 25 years old, and just hitting his prime.

A quick comparison:

Smith: 58 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 48 QB pressures, 3 forced fumbles
Campbell: 77 tackles, 8 sacks, 29 QB pressures, 2 forced fumbles

The 6’8″ 300 lb terror is the key to the revitalized Arizona defense, which held opponents to 20 points or less in seven of their final nine games. The Cardinals won all seven to finish the year at 8-8. There is a good chance that they will franchise Campbell, but if they don’t, he is capable of creating disruption in the opponent’s interior, as a 3-4 DE or a 3-technique 4-3 DT. And if paired with an elite outside pass rusher, as Justin Smith is with Aldon Smith, he could transform a defense.

Likely suitors: Cardinals, Rams, Redskins, Dolphins, Falcons, or any team hurting for interior pressure.  

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1A. Mario Williams, DE/OLB – Houston Texans

Pass rushers are like belly buttons: are you an innie or an outie? (And if you liked that metaphor, stay tuned for my upcoming library of football-themed children’s books: The Very Violent Caterpillar, Oh The People You’ll Stomp (by Dr. Suhss), and Everybody Fumbles.)

Where Calais Campbell does his dirty work on the inside of the offensive line, Mario Williams wreaks havoc on the edge. He lines up as a defensive end in a 4-3 set, as he did to start his career, or as a linebacker in the 3-4 that Wade Phillips installed last year. The technique is different (a 3-4 backer usually starts from a two point stance, offset from the line) but the goal is the same: get to the quarterback.

And though he only played five games for the Texans this season, Williams (seemingly unleashed by the move to OLB) was doing exactly that, racking up five sacks and an astounding 17 pressures in five games. The only thing that slowed him down was a torn pectoral muscle, the same injury that felled Denver pass-rushing demon Elvis Dumervil two seasons ago.

It’s hard to conceive of a situation where Houston would be willing to let Williams simply walk, when they can franchise him, but ironically the team’s success without him may embolden the franchise to spend their money elsewhere. If he hits the open market, expect this 26-year-old sack monster to command a hefty paycheck.

Likely Suitors: Texans, Panthers, Bears, Raiders, Patriots, or just about any team that needs an edge rusher. 

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3. Brent Grimes, CB – Atlanta Falcons

He’s no Nnamdi Asomugha, and that may be a good thing for the team that signs up one of the best cover corners in the league next season. Nnamdi (and his agent) hit the free agent market with a vengeance, driving up his price in a classic multi-team bidding war that was finally won (or lost) by the Philadelphia Eagles. They signed him to a five-year $60 million dollar deal, and got a pretty average-looking player who shied away from contact. Meanwhile, the Houston Texans quietly signed up Jonathan Joseph for $12 million less, and got an integral part of their secondary locked down.

Grimes is more Jonathan Joseph than Nnamdi Asomugha, a name that has made few ripples in the public conscience, but one who NFL receivers know well. He allows only 44.6% of the passes his way to be caught, according to Pro Football Focus. For comparison, Darrelle Revis allowed 41.2%. The Falcons DB has a 62.4 passer rating against, essentially turning opposing quarterbacks into something slightly worse than Mark Sanchez whenever they throw against him.

Grimes is not the most physical player, but he is an able tackler and is not a liability in defending the run. But at age 28, he does have durability issues that can’t be avoided. He has played a full season only twice in the last five years, and missed a critical playoff matchup against the Giants. Nonetheless, he may be the best option out there for a team looking for a shutdown corner. Including the team he plays for now.

Likely Suitors: Falcons, Lions, 49ers, Saints, Raiders

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4. Stephen Tulloch, LB – Detroit Lions

Coach Jim Schwartz followed a familiar path to help shore up his team’s defense and establish an identity: he signed one of his former players to help lead the way. Tulloch was a tackle monster for Schwartz in Tennessee, when the coach was a defensive coordinator there, and he was a tackle monster as the man in the middle of the Lions defense last year.

However, there are indications that the Lions are ready to continue their youth movement on defense, with multiple mock drafters lining up one of the draft’s young LBs — perhaps Vontaze Burflict, to pair with Suh and Fairley as a fear-making inner trio. They signed Tulloch to only a one-year deal last season, and appear ready to let him walk.

Where will he go? That depends in large part on whether he wants to play the premier “quarterback” position in the defense, manning the middle, or move to the outside where jobs (and needs) are plenty. Tulloch is a two-way defender, meaning he can get upfield against the run equally well as he can drop back in coverage against a tight end or a back. The only hole in his game: he is not much of a pass rusher, with only 7.5 sacks to his name in his career.

Likely Suitors: Seahawks, Vikings, Eagles… but wide open if he moves to WLB. 

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5. Brandon Carr, CB – Kansas City Chiefs

If you believe in trial by fire, then you couldn’t ask for a man better tested at cornerback than the Chiefs’ Brandon Carr. Carr was part of a defense that was under assault all season long, the overworked counterpart to an offense that simply could not stay on the field.

Additional pressure was put on Carr and fellow corner Brandon Flowers by the loss of their best safety help when Eric Berry went down at the beginning of the year. Despite being left out on an island, Carr excelled at holding down opposing pass offenses, holding receivers to a 49.4% catch rate and passers to a 61.7 rating, numbers that compare very well with Brent Grimes. Indeed, Carr could very well be the prime consolation prize for teams that lose out on Grimes in this year’s free agent bidding.

Likely Suitors: Chiefs, Saints, 49ers, Lions, Raiders

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T-6. Sione Pouha, NT – New York Jets
T-6. Brodrick Bunkley, DT – Denver Broncos

There are defenses, like the Tampa Two, that depend on quick, light players that can fly around the field. Then there are defenses, like Rex Ryan’s 3-4, that begin with a mountain in the middle and build outward. If the goal of the offense is to march North up the field, planting Pouha right over the center forces you to divert east or west.

Pouha has been a dominant force against the run as a Jet, taking on multiple blockers and forming the rock that the rest of Ryan’s pass-rushing schemes flow around like water.

The only thing that drops him down this list is his age, 32, which puts quite him a few years behind a younger player like Brodrick Bunkley. However, his relative durability at a position that takes – and delivers – punishment on every snap is impressive. Pouha has played more than 600 snaps in each of the last three years. Bunkley, though younger at 28, has matched that only once. 

Likely Suitors: Jets, Rams, Chargers, Colts. 
(Team that could really use either: the Redskins, but they just signed Barry Cofield to a 6-year deal.) 

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8. D’Qwell Jackson, LB – Cleveland Browns

If your first reaction was “Who?” and your second was “No, seriously, you made that name up!” then let us remind you that real football is still being played in the shadow of Lake Erie. That Jackson can lead the NFL in tackles and still be a relative unknown is a symbol of how the SportsCenter world treats flyover country … and of how bad and otherwise anonymous the Cleveland Browns are.

Jackson is one of these players who doesn’t call attention to himself, doesn’t seek the spotlight, he just plain loves to hit people. The one weakness in Jackson’s game is pass coverage, where he is merely adequate. He is naturally more comfortable flowing to the ball and making a stop, and he has been known to inhabit the backfield and get in the quarterback’s face from time to time as well.

Because he doesn’t have a big name, he will probably be downgraded to the second or third tier of players signed when the free agent blitz hits. Cleveland GM Tom Heckert seems intent on resigning Jackson, but if he looks for more dollars elsewhere whoever signs him will be getting a hell of a deal.

Likely Suitors: Browns, Seahawks, Steelers, Vikings, Eagles

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9. John Abraham, DE – Atlanta Falcons

Aside from the final score, the Falcons’ playoff game against the Giants served as a fine job audition for John Abraham. Four tackles, multiple hurries and a sack served notice that he is still fresh enough to contribute to a contending team, even at age 33.

Abraham has been a rotational player for the Falcons, playing a shade more than 600 snaps (or roughly 60%) each year over the last few years, contributing havoc on passing downs while largely sitting and watching on 1st and 10s and short yardage situations. Of course his age will put a natural limit on the length of a contract offered, but his skillset – if utilized properly – is still sharp enough that he could provide an immediate impact for a contending team. 

Likely Suitors: Patriots, Saints, Packers, Jets

10. Cortland Finnegan – CB – Tennessee Titans

Yup. That guy. Why does this pest make the cut for this year’s top ten, ahead of steady players like Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne, Robert Mathis or Carlos Rogers? Because he is a class-A disrupter, a player you hate when your team plays him, but you love when he’s knocking opposing receivers off their game. 

For a trash-talker and a knuckle-sandwich-eater, Finnegan can straight up play cornerback, and unlike many divas at the position, he loves to lay hat on players. He brings an instant attitude to your defensive backfield, and makes it harder for opposing passing games — particularly those based on intricate timing — to get in sync. He may not score a top-ten contract, but he will be one of the most impactful players in a new uniform next season. 

Likely Suitors: Rams, Cardinals, Lions, Dolphins

This is the third in a series of articles on This Given Sunday about the NFL’s 2012 free agent crop. See also: Top Ten Offensive Free Agents and Ten Free Agents To Avoid.