In an age of football defined by quarterback play, disrupting those quarterbacks is becoming increasingly important. Defensive ends have become one of the most important positions in the NFL, and those who can rush the passer are making out like bandits. In the 2014 free agent class, defensive end is one of the deeper positions, highlighted by a current Pro Bowler, two double-figures sack-getters, multiple Super Bowl winners and a former top-five draft pick.
The top of the class is heavy on 4-3 pass rushers. While run-stopping is still important, getting after the quarterback is what earns the big contracts. Greg Hardy of the Carolina Panthers and Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks made a habit of piling up sacks in 2013, and they headline a group of potent edge rushers.
The former sixth-round pick emerged as an elite end in 2013 by posting 15 sacks -- seven of which came over the final two games of the regular season. For the salary cap-strapped Panthers, he may now be too productive to afford -- general manager Dave Gettleman has hinted the franchise may be forced to let him walk.
The notoriously eccentric Hardy has gone back and forth on his future plans. In December, he said he would be willing to take a pay cut to stay in Carolina. He backtracked in early January, telling the Charlotte Observer that he wants "a big number." He also said he would "love a franchise [tag]," which, despite the likely $12 million payday it would bring, seems a strange stance for a player in position to lock up a long-term contract.
If the Panthers choose to tag Hardy, he'll be sticking around. If not, he'll likely be hitting the open market.
2. Michael Bennett (Seattle Seahawks)
Despite only starting three games this season, the 28-year-old Bennett led the Seahawks in sacks in 2013 and played a major role in their Super Bowl season. He was spurned in free agency last year -- eventually signing a one-year deal with Seattle -- but has a stronger resumé after a second consecutive season with at least 8.5 sacks.
3. Michael Johnson (Cincinnati Bengals)
Johnson's sack total fell from 11.5 in 2012 to 3.5 this season, but he still had a very productive year as a run-stopper, ranking second among defensive ends at Pro Football Focus. He'll still garner a big payday, but not as big as it would have been last season.
It's very possible that payday won't be coming from the Bengals. He has already been slapped with the franchise tag once, which means he'd cost Cincinnati somewhere in the $13 million range if it did so again -- not the amount you pay someone coming off that kind of decline in productivity.
It seems likely that new head coach Mike Zimmer will keep a 4-3 scheme in place in Minnesota, but Allen still might not fit into it. He's been one of the most productive ends in football since signing a $72.36 million contract in 2008 -- the most lucrative for a defensive player in NFL history at the time -- but will turn 32 next season.
Despite his age, his production has held steady. His 11.5 sacks in 2013 extended his double-digit sack streak to seven seasons. If the Vikings decide to part ways with him, he should draw solid offers from other teams.
The 300-pounder showed unexpected pass-rushing abilities this season, tallying a career-high six sacks and providing 41 quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. His size makes him a dominant run-stopper as well, meaning he's one of the league's most complete defensive ends.
Houston, who will be 27 next season, should be Oakland's top priority among its 18 pending unrestricted free agents, but the former second-round pick apparently doesn't think that will be the case. He said in late December that coach Dennis Allen "might be looking to move on and have me go to another team and find something more what they want for their system and their scheme." Allen denied the notion, saying he hopes to have Houston back.
Tuck wants to stay in New York, and after his first double-digit sack season since 2010, the Giants may be interested in having him. Nevertheless, he'll be 31 next season and the team has other areas of need on the roster. They let Osi Umenyiora walk at the same age last offseason, though his production and relationship with the team wasn't nearly as strong as Tuck's.
Losing Tuck would throw unpredictability into a position that has been the backbone of the Giants during their recent Super Bowl wins. Mathias Kiwanuka has regressed in recent seasons and Jason Pierre-Paul's contract expires in 2015.
After an 11-sack 2012 season that included a trip to the Pro Bowl, Spencer played in just one game in 2013 before undergoing season-ending microfracture surgery in October. The injury was a major blow during a contract year, and could cost him some serious cash in free agency. He earned $8.8 million and $10.6 million during the last two seasons, thanks to back-to-back franchise tags, but will be hard-pressed to draw those numbers as a 30-year-old coming off of knee surgery.
The Cowboys have expressed interest in keeping him, according to the Dallas Morning News, but with their dire salary cap situation, that might not be possible.
8. Antonio Smith (Houston Texans)
Last year Smith said that he'd prefer to retire a Texan, but a coaching overhaul in Houston might result in his departure. New defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel historically prefers larger 3-4 defensive ends who can eat up blocks, and the 275-pound Smith might not fit the scheme.
Initially labeled a bust after signing a $35 million contract with the Texans in 2009, the 32-year-old has raised his productivity during the last few years. He tallied 18.5 sacks during the past three seasons and paired with J.J. Watt to give Houston one of the top defensive end duos in the league.
Neal actually spent 2013 as an outside linebacker, and after his best season as a pro, it could be a permanent change. What position he'll play in 2014 is uncertain, but it will likely depend on which team he signs with.
After playing with his hand on the ground for his first three years in Green Bay, Neal posted career-highs in sacks and tackles after transitioning to his new role. He proved critical when injuries decimated Green Bay's linebacking corps late in the season, and his versatility may convince general manager Ted Thompson to keep him on board.
The Chiefs got a heck of a bargain on Jackson in 2013 -- he not only took a $10 million pay cut prior to the season, but followed it up with his best year as a pro. He posted a career-high 4.0 sacks and ranked as a top-10 run-stopper among 3-4 defensive ends at Pro Football Focus.
Still, the former No. 3 overall draft pick has not lived up to his billing, and the Chiefs could be ready to part ways with him. His recent improvement should land him a solid deal somewhere, but it likely won't be in Kansas City.
Other notable names
Robert Ayers (Denver Broncos)
The 28-year-old Ayers will hit free agency for the first time after notching a career-high 5.5 sacks. He's never been a dominant pass rusher, but is able to apply some pressure while also being solid against the run. He may not flashy, but a very solid contributor.
Shaun Phillips (Denver Broncos)
Phillips signed a one-year deal in Denver and responded with a double-digit sack season. He's 32, so teams may be wary of signing him to a long-term deal, but he should generate more interest on the free agent market than he did last year. If the Broncos don't sign him first, that is.
Everson Griffen (Minnesota Vikings)
He's only started one game during his four-year career, but Griffen has proven to be a very solid contributor. Playing in sub packages, he's rushed the passer well with 17.5 sacks during the last three seasons. He's no slouch against the run either and is only 26.
Arthur Jones (Baltimore Ravens)
Playing in Baltimore's 3-4 scheme, Jones has never put up big sack numbers. He posted 4.0 sacks last season and 4.5 in 2012. While adequate as a pass rusher, Jones brings even more value for his ability to play the run.