The free agency period is an exciting time for fans, when teams spend big money to bring in new faces that will hopefully turn their fortunes around. It's also an anxious time if teams spend too much money on the wrong faces.
At any rate, the festivities start on March 11, when the new league year begins. We'll be taking a look at the defensive tackles that are looking for new deals. This year's class is rather top-heavy. There are a couple of elite names in the mix, followed by a handful of injury risks and uneven play. With that in mind, here are the top 10 defensive tackles to watch for during free agency.
Starks has all but confirmed that he'll hit the open market after playing the year on a franchise tender. The 30-year-old had one of his best seasons yet, recording three sacks and grading out as the seventh-best defensive tackle on Pro Football Focus. One big point in his favor is his durability; he hasn't missed a single game since 2007.
Melton's true impact might have been felt when he wasn't on the field. A torn ACL wiped out his year in Week 3, and the Bears' run defense completely collapsed without his presence. His rehab will be a question mark throughout the summer, and a misdemeanor arrest in December won't help matters. Could the Bears end up keeping him on a team-friendly deal?
Hatcher exploded in his eighth season in the league, piling up 11 sacks, two forced fumbles and 41 tackles. He intends to score a big payday. This makes him a risky investment for teams who think the 31-year-old might have had a fluke year. The Cowboys' salary cap situation is a mess, and the franchise tag might be the only way they hang on to Hatcher, which would set up even more training camp drama. Expect to see Hatcher in a new uniform next season.
Joseph has now had three solid seasons in a row and is still only 25 years old. The Giants will have to pony up big time if they want to keep him; he's expected to command around $35-40 million on the market. New York is facing a major cap crunch, and guys like Justin Tuck could be casualties if they open up their wallets for Joseph.
5. Paul Soliai (Miami Dolphins)
Soliai and Starks were part of a formidable rotation on Miami's defensive line, but that duo might get broken up this year. Soliai is one of the top run stoppers in the league, and is expected to get paid after failing to come to a long-term agreement with the Dolphins in the offseason.
Williams is getting up there in years, but he had another solid year with the Vikings, recording 3.5 sacks, five passes defended and even an interception. He also had a positive grade on Pro Football Focus, and new coach Mike Zimmer is known as a defensive wizard. Signs point towards him staying in Minnesota right now.
The Falcons' defense disappointed in 2013, but Babineaux was one of the few bright spots again. He graded out positively on Pro Football Focus and is valued for his run-stopping ability. The 32-year-old has spent his entire career with the Falcons, and the team would like to bring him back. It doesn't look like he will hit the market.
Another solid run stopper, Walker had three sacks and played 791 snaps in 15 games this season. The Raiders, still struggling to find talent where they can get it, could be inclined to bring him back. He turns 27 in April.
Signed to a cheap one-year deal, McDaniel was a revelation in Seattle, making himself an important part of the Seahawks' defensive rotation. A premier run stuffer, he piled up 52 tackles and two sacks while helping the Seahawks get to the Super Bowl. McDaniel made only $890,000 in the process, and he's due for a nice pay raise this offseason.
10. Pat Sims (Oakland Raiders)
Sims is one of the most one-dimensional tackles in the league, but he's really good at that one dimension. His run-stopping was good enough to grade out 17th overall on Pro Football Focus' defensive tackle rankings, adding in 53 tackles and two sacks. His lack of versatility and injury history will make him a tough sell for some teams. The Raiders could bring him back on another one-year deal.
Other notable names
B.J. Raji (Green Bay Packers)
The former fist-round pick is coming off a down season. He started all 16 games, but notched just 17 total tackles and no sacks. He played both defensive end spots in Green Bay's 3-4 defensive scheme. He hasn't recorded a sack since 2011 which would be alright if he was dominant against the run. That wasn't the case last season.
Fred Evans (Minnesota Vikings)
The 30-year-old wasn't quite as effective in 2013 as he was in 2012, but is still a very solid rotational player. He doesn't have much starting experience and has never put up huge sack numbers. He is, however, an excellent run defender.
Shaun Rogers (New York Giants)
Rogers isn't the player he once was and is coming off a serious knee injury that sent him to injured reserve. Still, he can be an effective role player, especially for a team looking for a run defender.
Clinton McDonald (Seattle Seahawks)
He was released by Seattle at the end of training camp, only to rejoin the team in Week 2. He played a significant role for the Seahawks, finishing the regular season with 5.5 sacks. Coming off a career season, McDonald should attract significant interest in free agency.