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Assessing the free agent defensive end class from a Titans perspective

As Andrew noted in his positional analysis for the defensive ends, and as every Titans fan knows, the only Titans regular at defensive end in 2011 who is currently under contract for 2012 is Derrick Morgan. Malcolm Sheppard, who played both defensive end and defensive tackle, is an exclusive rights free agent and thus won’t be going to another team unless the Titans decide they don’t want him, but Dave Ball, William Hayes, and Jason Jones all appear to be headed to unrestricted free agency when the new league year begins on March 13.

Andrew in his positional analysis and also in his wishlist identified a few defensive ends on his priority list. My list differs a little, and I think it’s worth looking at who might be on the Titans’ list in a little more detail. Players taken from the Rotoworld and Sideline View listings, I’ve listed them by tiers and alphabetically within each tier.

John Abraham (Atlanta Falcons) – Turns 34 in May. A pure speed rusher, I’d expect him to be primarily an RDE in the Titans’ scheme and might be a part-time player on early downs. Missed only 2 games in the last five season, and had at least 9.5 sacks four times in that span. Has been a highly productive edge rusher virtually every year of his career, but could fall off quickly once his speed goes. He scares me a lot, and could be a player who figures in the DE positional analysis in two seasons as a player due a lot of money who’s not providing much production.

Andre Carter (New England Patriots) – Turns 33 in May. His 2011 season ended prematurely with a torn quad after 14 games, but had 10.0 sacks. Had some down years in the Redskins’ 3-4 that make him appear more inconsistent than he really is. I see him as an RDE in the Titans’ scheme. I like him more than Abraham, but don’t love him. A better record as a plus pass rusher puts him in the top tier, but his price tag will probably exceed his likely level of performance.

Mario Williams (Houston Texans) – Obviously. Just turned 27. He has the size to play the run effectively in Jerry Gray’s defense and the pass rush ability to make a difference on run downs and on passing downs. A better fit as a defensive end in the 4-3 than as a 3-4 outside linebacker, though of course in his 2011 linebacker days he was more of a stand-up defensive end than a true linebacker. Mostly played RDE in the 4-3, but played some LDE in nickel packages. Not a pure speed rusher, but still very capable of turning the corner on most NFL left tackle. The Titans will be competing for his services with every NFL team that can muster up the cap room. Expect him to get a contract with APY in the $13 million-plus range and at least $30 million guaranteed.

Mark Anderson (New England Patriots) – Turns 29 in May. Only started one game, but had 10.0 sacks. Burst on to the scene as a rookie with 12.0 sacks for the Bears in 2006 and made a starter off of it, but that was a mistake. Not a strong player against the run, best as a situational pass rusher. Likely will be available for a much more modest contract than either of the top tier players, but realize what you’re getting. Like Abraham, could be susceptible to a massive fall-off as soon as he loses anything. He’s bounced around the NFL for a reason.

Dave Ball (Tennessee Titans) – Yes, coming back, and he’s expressed some interest. Turned 31 in January. Lacks ideal size for Gray’s scheme, and we know he’s not any better than a complementary rusher who needs help around him to be really successful. If he’s the best defensive end the Titans sign, they very likely won’t be any better at getting to the passer. I think he has a good chance of coming back if the Titans sign somebody better than him.

Israel Idonije (Chicago Bears) – 31, turning 32 in November. A long-time bit player for the Bears, he finally became a regular starter in 2010 and had 8.0 sacks and then 5.0 in 2011. Playing opposite Julius Peppers in both seasons, which obviously helps a lot. To be honest, I haven’t watched the Bears much the last couple seasons and am still thinking of him as the bit player he’s been for most of his career. Not a signing that would thrill me, but realistically probably about as exciting as bringing Dave Ball back for another season.

Jeremy Mincey (Jacksonville Jaguars) – 28, turning 29 in December. Slow start to his career, missing all of 2009 and then starting 8 games in 2010 before all 16 at RDE last year. Had 5.0 sacks in 2010 and 8.0 sacks in 2011. At his age, I wouldn’t expect much more than that in terms of production, but could maintain that for the next several seasons. I’m not sure how he’d fare as a primary rusher. I think he could be a target for many 4-3 teams that don’t get Mario Williams.

Matt Roth (Jacksonville Jaguars) – 29, turning 30 in December. Played both 3-4 OLB and 4-3 DE in his career, started 9 games for the Jaguars at LDE opposite Mincey before a lingering concussion shut him down. I promise his inclusion on this list isn’t just because I talked to him briefly after he was on the football analytics panel at Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (no, I didn’t mention the Titans). The Titans were reportedly interested in him when he was a free agent earlier in his career, though I couldn’t quite figure out where they wanted him to play. The ideal lineup spot for him is probably the one Derrick Morgan currently occupies, he’s very good against the run and more an average pass rusher.

Frostee Rucker (Cincinnati Bengals) – 28, turning 29 in September. At 280 pounds, the biggest 4-3 defensive end on the market. I still have a soft spot for him for getting destroyed by Vince Young on the zone read in the 2006 Rose Bowl over and over and over and over and over again. A 2006 third-round pick, he finally became a regular starter (11 games) in 2011 after struggling to earn playing time early in his career. Not really a pass rush threat, he’d be better off as an early-downs run stopper. Ended both his 2008 and 2010 seasons on injured reserve. If he’s the best veteran defensive end the Titans sign, I might jump off my (second-floor) balcony.

Dwight Freeney (Indianapolis Colts) – Just turned 32. In terms of talent, he’s a top tier player, but he’s under contract for 2012. Due just over $14 million in salary, though, there’s vritually no chance he’s a Colt come Week 1 2012. He’ll cost a draft pick in addition to the inevitable contract re-negotiation, which in my mind reduces his value substantially. Strictly an RDE and a Jim Washburn-style player who plays the run on his way to the quarterback. You know the devastating spin move, which is his trademark. Could be a slower player playing his home games on grass, but still a superior player to a guy like Abraham. Personally, I hope the Titans value their draft picks too much to go after him.

Aaron Kampman (Jacksonville Jaguars) – 32, turns 33 in November. A splash free agency signing before 2010, he was coming off a season-ending ACL injury. Played in eight games in 2010 before tearing his other ACL. Slow to recover from that ACL injury and also suffered a hamstring injured that limited him to three games in 2011. Due nearly $5 million, there’s reportedly a good chance the Jaguars cut him. Last seen as a very good player as a 4-3 end when healthy, but that period was only eight games in the past three years. Might be available cheap.

Cliff Avril (Detroit Lions) – Slapped with the franchise tag. Had 12.0 sacks as an LDE with Suh, Fairely, and Williams at DT and KVB at DE for his breakout season. Struck me as this year’s Ray Edwards, a not-great player with superior production in a fantastic situation who’ll get grossly overpaid in free agency. Reportedly looking for a contract like the one Charles Johnson, a better player, got from the Panthers last year (6 years, $72 million).
Michael Bennett
(Tampa Bay Buccaneers) – An intriguing younger option and a restricted free agents, the Buccaneers gave him a first-round tender. No thanks.
Kroy Bierman
(Atlanta Falcons) – A lesser tier player with some get-after-it but not much pass rush prowess playing opposite Abraham, he signed an extension.
Robert Mathis (Indianapolis Colts) – Hit with the franchise tag and signed a four-year deal to participate in the re-building efforts in Indianapolis.

Mario Williams would be awesome. He’s going to get a ton of money, probably even more than the $13M APY and $30M+ guaranteed I predicted. I suspect the Titans will kick the tires and then get outbid for his services. If I had to put money on it, I’m guessing the Titans sign Jeremy Mincey and re-sign Dave Ball. I’m not putting any money on anything, though.