NFL teams hoping to add to the defensive side of the ball through free agency were likely very disappointed by Monday's franchise tag results. Five of the top defensive free agents were designated as franchise players, likely taking them off the market.
Teams, however, will still have the opportunity to add talent through free agency as a number of standout players are still scheduled to hit the open market. Here is a closer look at the top players at each position scheduled to become unrestricted free agents.
1. Cliff Avril, DE, Detroit Lions
2. Michael Bennett, DE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
3. Osi Umenyiora, DE, New York Giants
4. Richard Seymour, DT, Oakland Raiders
5. Desmond Bryant, DT, Oakland Raiders
The prospective defensive line market took a major hit when three of the top free agents were designated as franchise players. Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton would have drawn considerable interest on the open market. Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson and Miami defensive tackle Randy Starks would have also had plenty of suitors if not for the franchise tag.
With those three players off the board, Detroit defensive end Cliff Avril is the top defensive lineman remaining. The 26-year-old Avril has recorded at least 8.5 sacks in each of the last three seasons. While he can rush the passer, Avril does not have the same impact as a run defender. Unlike Avril, Tampa Bay's Michael Bennett proved to be an excellent run defender. Bennett had by far his best season in 2012, finishing with a career-high 9.0 sacks.
On the inside, Oakland defensive tackle Desmond Bryant should entice teams as a young defensive tackle who can pressure the quarterback. Bryant was arrested in February, but the 27-year-old should still find market for his services.
A number of veterans nearing the end of their careers are on the market including Osi Umenyiora, Dwight Freeney and Richard Seymour. None of the three is likely to sign blockbuster contracts, but all should contribute next season.
1. Dannell Ellerbe, MLB, Baltimore Ravens
2. Paul Kruger, OLB, Baltimore Ravens
3. Philip Wheeler, OLB, Oakland Raiders
4. Daryl Smith, OLB, Jacksonville Jaguars
5. Erin Henderson, OLB, Minnesota Vikings
Other notable free agents: Brian Urlacher, MLB, Chicago Bears; Brad Jones, MLB, Green Bay Packers; Leroy Hill, OLB, Seattle Seahawks.
Dallas outside linebacker Anthony Spencer would have topped this list, but he was franchised for the second straight season. Instead, Ellerbe is the top free agent after rising up in the absence of Ray Lewis. Ellerbe proved to be more than adequate in Baltimore's Super Bowl run. His teammate Kruger will also have plenty of suitors although he could fit as either a linebacker or defensive end. Kruger is one of the top pass rushers on the market, making him a hot commodity.
Wheeler didn't draw much interest as a free agent last season, but should have a bigger market this season. He set career-highs in tackles, sacks, passes defended and forced fumbles last season. At 28, he could be in line for a big contract despite being under the radar.
Smith is an interesting player as he's coming off an injury-riddled season. He played in just two games last season due to a groin injury, but was one of the best outside linebackers in the league prior to injury. He could end up being the steal of free agency if he returns to form.
There are several other linebackers on the market who can help teams next season, including Brian Urlacher. They all, however, come with their drawbacks in what is overall a weak market for linebackers.
1. Brent Grimes, Atlanta Falcons
2. Aqib Talib, New England Patriots
3. Chris Houston, Detroit Lions
4. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Philadelphia Eagles
5. Derek Cox, Jacksonville Jaguars
None of the top cornerbacks on the market were restricted by the franchise tag and, as a result, the free agent market is deep. Nearly every player, however, has a flaw or two making for very little distinction between the top and middle of the market.
Grimes played in just one game last season before suffering an Achilles injury. The 29-year-old doesn't have great size, but is just one season removed from an excellent year. Atlanta used the franchise tag on Grimes last season and, if he proves to be healthy, he could be a steal.
Talent has never been the question for Talib, but off-the-field issues could impact his free agent prospects. Talib, however, played well after a trade to New England and avoided any off-the-field issues. Like Talib, Rodgers-Cromartie and Houston were once thought to be among the top young cornerbacks in the NFL. Both have seen their stock fall in recent seasons, but will likely still draw considerable interest.
The cornerback market is deep and players like Lewis, Fletcher and Smith could wind up as the best buys of the group.
1. Dashon Goldson, San Francisco 49ers
2. William Moore, Atlanta Falcons
3. Glover Quin, Houston Texans
4. Ed Reed, Baltimore Ravens
5. Kenny Phillips, New York Giants
Other notable free agents: Ronde Barber, Tampa Bay Bucanneers; Chris Clemons, Miami Dolphins; Patrick Chung, New England Patriots; Louis Delmas, Detroit Lions.
Jairus Byrd relinquished the top spot when the Bills designated him as the franchise player, but there is still plenty of talent on the market. Goldson may prove to be too expensive for San Francisco, but after two excellent seasons he should become one of the highest-paid safeties in the league.
Moore was one of Atlanta's best defenders, but the Falcons chose not to franchise him. If they want to retain him, they may now find themselves in a bidding war. The same can be said for Quin who played an underrated role on the Texans defense.
Reed has battled injuries recently, but still has some left in the tank. He will surely help someone if he doesn't return to Baltimore. Phillips' career has been derailed by injuries, but would be an excellent pickup if he's able to regain his previous form.
Like cornerback, the free agent market for safeties is deep with upwards of 10 players able to step into starting roles. The loss of Byrd hurts the market, but there is still a blend of star players, aging veterans and younger players with untapped potential.