6 BEST DEFENSIVE LINEMEN AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY

BY ADAM GREENE

Depending on the defense teams run, a defensive lineman can be both a primary run defender or pass rusher. The best, of course, can do both. Of the men still available in free agency, nearly all are coming off injuries and are in the twilight of their careers. But there’s value to be had in guys that have produced in the past, especially coming in as reserves.

6. DAMON HARRISON (formerly of the Green Bay Packers)

2020: nine tackles, one forced fumble

Harrison opened last season with the Seattle Seahawks and on their expanded practice squad. He made his first start in November and then five more before Seattle gave him his walking papers. The Packers picked him up two days before new years and he played in a game before joining the team on their playoff run.

Perfect fit: Pittsburgh Steelers

Harrison has never been a stat guy, unless you count hotdog eating contests. The guy they call “snacks” was all about clogging run lanes and opening up opportunities for rushers on the outside. With Ben Roethlisberger likely playing his final season, Pittsburgh needs to go all in and there’s nothing wrong with adding an inexpensive piece to an already dominant defense.

5. BRUCE IRVIN (formerly of the Seattle Seahawks)

2020: five tackles, one for a loss, three QB hits

Irvin’s return to Seattle was short lived as he tore his ACL in the second game of the season. The year before, with the Panthers, Irvin recorded 36 tackles and 8.5 sacks. In fact, since his third year in the league, he’s never put up fewer than 6.5 in a healthy campaign so there’s no reason to think that the couldn’t add value at 33.

Perfect fit: New England Patriots

The Patriots added a couple of defensive lineman in the draft in Christian Barmore from Alabama and defensive end Ronnie Perkins out of Oklahoma, but Irvin is a Belichick type of player. He can not only contribute at defensive end, his natural position, but can work as an edge rusher or classic outside linebacker when called upon.

4. EVERSON GRIFFIN (formerly of the Detroit Lions)

2020: 33 tackles, seven for a loss, six sacks, 14 QB hits, four passes defended

Like Justin Houston on the edge rushers list, Griffen is entering the mercenary portion of his career. An elite pass rusher and defensive end in his day, Griffen still brings a lot to the table, and put down a solid 2020 season splitting time between the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions after a trade.

Perfect fit: Minnesota Vikings

Griffen’s absence last season was felt for a Minnesota team that recorded just 29 total sacks. Griffin’s 2019 in Mike Zimmer’s defense was good for 41 tackles and eight sacks. That’s probably what he can be expected to deliver again, looking at his totals from 14 games last season. There’s always a chance, if the Vikings add another player from this list, that those numbers could rise considerably with the pressure off the defensive end/edge rusher.

3. GENO ATKINS (formerly of the Cincinnati Bengals)

2020: One tackle, one QB hit

Atkins’ storied career in Cincinnati came to an inglorious end after attempting to play through a severe shoulder injury that required surgery to repair. Entering his 12th season, Atkins is likely rounding the end of his career, but could still be a productive contributor, especially at a discounted price.

Perfect fit: Minnesota Vikings

Atkins’ best seasons came with Mike Zimmer as his defensive coordinator with the Bengals so a reunion makes a lot of sense. Not just for Atkins, who is ideal to play in Zimmer’s system, but for the Vikes, who, as mentioned above, need to do something about an anemic pass rush in an NFC North that will only get more formidable since the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions are actually trying to field NFL teams now.

2. JURRELL CASEY (formerly of the Denver Broncos)

2020: 14 tackles, one tackle for a loss, two QB hits, three passes defended

A year after making his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl with the Tennessee Titans, the team traded him to the Denver Broncos getting absolutely nothing of value in return (a seventh round pick to be exact). It turns out, the Titans got lucky with the move because Casey was injured most of last season and played in just three games.

Perfect fit: Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons did nothing to address their interior defensive line issues in the draft and Casey spent the first half-decade of his career being one of the best in the business. Grady Jarrett is an excellent DT for Atlanta, but they’ve lined up cast-off Tyeler Davison next to him the last two seasons and that’s just a waste of a roster spot. Casey would not only improve that position immediately, he’d open up opportunities for Jarrett and Falcons outside rushers Dante Fowler Jr. and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner.

1. SHELDON RICHARDSON (formerly of the Cleveland Browns)

2020: 64 tackles, five for a loss, 4.5 sacks, 10 QB hits, one forced fumble, three passes defended

Richardson was a salary cap casualty as the Browns battled to get under the too-low (and self inflicted by the NFL) cap for 2021. He’s started every single game but one in which he’s been healthy since the New York Jets drafted him in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft. Last season was one of his best, both in production and on the field as he was a key cog on a solid Cleveland defensive front.

Perfect fit: Cleveland Browns

While the Browns might not have wanted to be saddled with Richardson’s cap number, they certainly need his services. According to head coach Kevin Stefanski, bringing Richardson back is solidly on the table and should be, since they didn’t add a rookie DT until the fourth round, Tommy Togiai out of Ohio State.

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