Kiper: Sizing up offensive free agents

2001 AFC Free Agents

2001 NFC Free Agents

Mel Kiper's story archive


Thursday, March 1

Sizing up the free agents on defense

With the NFL's free-agency signing period beginning March 2, here is a rundown of the top defensive players at each position, according to my ratings of the unrestricted free agents (these lists do not include any players released due to salary cap or other issues).

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN
1. Jason Taylor, Miami: After an outstanding season that saw Taylor record 14 sacks, the fifth most in the NFL, it was definitely in the best interest of both parties to see that a long term deal was accomplished. However, the Dolphins opted to franchise Taylor, ensuring his return for the 2001 season.

Jason Taylor
Jason Taylor was second on the Dolphins in sacks with 14½.
2. Kevin Carter, St. Louis: After a subpar campaign this past season, Carter will be returning to the Rams this season, ensured by the franchise tag they placed on the former Florida Gator.

3. Marcellus Wiley, Buffalo: After becoming a full-time starter for the first time this past season, Wiley put it all together when he needed to the most. He recorded 10 sacks, proving to be a big time difference-maker up front. And guess what, he can only get better. It goes without saying that it is critical that the Bills re-sign a top flight young DE like Wiley. However, there is plenty of interest from around the league, especially in San Diego where GM John Butler was responsible for the selection of Wiley by the Bills in the second round of the Draft back in 1997.

4. Kenny Holmes, Tennessee: While Jevon Kearse was the headliner up front for the Titans, Holmes quietly turned in an outstanding year for Jeff Fisher and company. Young ends with his natural pass rush ability aren't easy to find, that's why there figures to be plenty of competition for his services.

5. Trace Armstrong, Miami: Even at the age of 36, Armstrong is still playing the best football of his career. Armstrong led the Dolphins with 16 sacks, which is placed him second overall in the that category in the entire NFL. His return to the Dolphins depends on how costly things become.

6. Simeon Rice, Arizona: While he's a dangerous and effective outside pass rusher, Rice isn't much of a factor when it comes to stopping the run. However, with the Cardinals problems along the defensive front, losing Rice would be a real blow. This one will be interesting to keep a close eye on.

7. Brentson Buckner, San Francisco: The first DT I have mentioned, Buckner turned in his best season as a pro, finishing second on the Niners with seven sacks. With Junior Bryant's injury situation, the Niners will really be in rough shape along the defensive line if Buckner moves on.

8. Chad Eaton, New England: Underrated, hard-working performer along the Patriots defensive front. It would obviously be in both parties best interest if a deal can be struck. Eaton is a valuable member of the Pats defense, and has also been able to establish himself as a solid starter during his time with the Patriots.

9. Bryan Robinson, Chicago: His versatility is a major plus, with Robinson able to operate at either DE or inside at DT. He gives you everything has on each snap, qualifying as a very capable performer the Bears would prefer to re-sign if the dollars are right.

10. Jason Ferguson, New York Jets: Appeared to be developing into one of the better young interior defensive linemen in the NFL, but was unfortunately relegated to backup status late in the 2000 season after he reportedly fell out of favor with former head coach Al Groh. With Herman Edwards taking over and Ted Cottrell now the Jets new defensive coordinator, this is a tough one to call.

LINEBACKERS
1. Jamie Sharper, Baltimore: After struggling some early on with the Ravens, Sharper emerged this past season as one of the elite weakside linebackers in the NFL. Due to the strong performance, big dollars will be coming his way, meaning he figures to be signing on with another organization where he will be viewed as the lead linebacker.

2. Dexter Coakley, Dallas: While he lacks ideal size, you can't question his productivity on a week to week basis. He's also viewed as a team leader with the Cowboys. If he moves on, this would be a huge loss for a Cowboy defense that had few bright spots last season outside of Coakley's fine performances.

3. John Mobley, Denver: Considering he returned to action from a serious knee injury that forced him to miss virtually the entire '99 season, Mobley enjoyed a solid year overall. With Ian Gold waiting in the wings, this will depend on how pricey the situation becomes.

4. Dwayne Rudd, Minnesota: On a very subpar defensive unit, Rudd is one of the few standout performers. He's also entering the prime of his career. With the interest that figures to come his way, it will be interesting to see if the Vikings go to the wall to retain his services.

5. Derrick Rodgers, Miami: A very capable OLB, Rodgers may end up finding a better offer on the open market.

6. Cornell Brown, Baltimore: Aggressive performer who did a good job for the Ravens on run downs, before giving way to Peter Boulware when the opposition was expected to put the ball in the air. With Jamie Sharper likely moving on, Brown would be the ideal replacement. However, with enticing offers figuring to come his way, his re-signing with the Ravens isn't necessarily a slam dunk.

7. Darrin Smith, New Orleans: After being forced to fill in at MLB for the injured Charlie Clemons, Smith did a very respectable job. Best suited, though, for duty at OLB, Smith figures to be a versatile, dependable veteran the Saints would prefer not to see move on.

8. Derek Smith, Washington: Has settled in at MLB, after working on the outside early in his pro career. Smith holds up well against the run, but struggles when operating in reverse. He's a decent to slightly above average starting MLB, meaning the Redskins figure to retain his services, but that's only if the price is right.

9. Henri Crockett, Atlanta: Saw action in the middle after Jessie Tuggle was injured, but his natural position is on the strongside. Even though he's coming off a so-so year, a young linebacker with the upside potential Crockett has flashed makes him a free agent the Falcons would prefer to have back in the fold.

10. William Thomas, Oakland: Coming off a good year, the battle-tested veteran excels in pass coverage(6 interceptions) and figures to be a proven performer the Raiders should attempt to re-sign. Keep in mind though, the Raiders will also be looking for an infusion of young talent at this spot.

Jason Sehorn
Jason Sehorn's INT return against Philadelphia was one of the 2000 season's highlights.

CORNERBACKS
1. Jason Sehorn, New York Giants: The Giants brass elected not to franchise Sehorn or running back Tiki Barber, which I'm sure surprised some observers. While he struggled in the Giants Super loss to Baltimore, Sehorn still ranks right up there with the top corners in the NFC. You have to believe the Giants won't be allowing him to move on.

2. Denard Walker, Tennessee: Quality #2 CB working opposite Samari Rolle, figuring to garner a great deal of interest on the open market. If he moves on, his loss would definitely be felt by the Titans.

3. Ronde Barber, Tampa Bay: They would obviously like to have an opportunistic cover man like Barber back in the fold, but this will depend on what type of offers come his way. Remember, the Bucs have Brian Kelly available to step in should the worst case scenario occur for the Bucs in regard to Barber.

4. Walt Harris, Chicago: Played more consistent football this past season, but the Bears also have invested a lot of money in their other starting CB, Thomas Smith. It will be interesting to see if the Bears can afford to give Harris big dollars as well, especially considering all the key need areas they have heading into free agency and the draft.

5. Todd Lyght, Rams: After a strong 1999 season, Lyght struggled last season on a Rams' defense that had all kinds of problems. Opposing quarterbacks were able to routinely exploit Lyght in coverage. In his defense, however, Lyght was nicked up with injuries. Reportedly, the Rams have no interest in re-signing him, meaning Lyght will be leaving St. Louis.

SAFETIES
1. Kim Herring, Baltimore: Combined with future Hall of Famer Rod Woodson to give the Ravens a quality tandem at the safety spots. However, the Ravens won playoff games while Corey Harris was filling in for the injured Herring, and also have youngster Anthony Poindexter waiting in the wings for an opportunity to push for playing time. With all the interest that will be coming Herring's way, it would be a surprise to see him back in a Ravens uniform for the 2001 season.

2. Mike Minter, Carolina: After such an outstanding season, Minter's return is considered critical. However, you can rest assured their will be a lot of interest on the open market for a talented young performer like Minter who has so many quality years of service ahead.

3. Brock Marion, Miami: If it were solely up to the Dolphins, you would have to believe they would re-sign Marion without any question. However, with the salary cap I mind, his return is considered an iffy proposition.

4. Jason Belser, Indianapolis: A solid veteran and leader of the Colts secondary, Belser's return reportedly depends on how pricey things become.

5. Jay Bellamy, Seattle: Not a "wow" you over type, but he gets the job done, developing into a very dependable free safety the past two seasons. This depends on other interest.

PLACEKICKERS
1. Olindo Mare, Miami: Outstanding PK and critical part of the equation for a Dolphins team that plays a lot of close, lower scoring type games. They desperately need him back, but on the open market, any team looking for a big time PK who was an amazing 12 of 13 on FG's from 40-49 yards would have to show a strong interest in Mare.

2. Joe Nedney, Carolina: Enjoyed quite a year filling in for the injured John Kasay. He hit on 26 of 28 FG's, including 9 of 10 from 40 yards and out. With Kasay returning, Nedney figures to be a nice addition for another organization.

PUNTERS
1. Bryan Barker, Jacksonville: Even though he didn't have one of his best years, Barker is still viewed as a top echelon punter. With the Jaguars cap situation, this one will depend on other interest.

2. Brad Maynard, New York Giants: Struggled later in the season, meaning the former third round draft choice could be hooking on elsewhere.

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