Top-10 defensive ends the Vikings should pursue in free agency
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Welcome to 'Countdown to Free Agency,' a four-day installment before NFL teams can begin negotiating with other teams' unrestricted free agents on Saturday, March 8. Each installment will look at a key position of need for the Minnesota Vikings and the top prospects that will likely be available when free agency opens on March 11.
Position: Defensive end
Players under contract in 2014: Brian Robison. Robison, 31 in April, earned a contract extension in the middle of the 2013 season and finished with a career-high nine sacks. It's one thing to look to upgrade at a position, but the Vikings simply need bodies at defensive end as Jared Allen (90.8%), Robison (82.9%) and Everson Griffen (60.1%) held down the position in 2013 with hefty workloads, per ProFootballFocus.com.
Pending free agents: Jared Allen, Everson Griffen. After commanding a $17 million cap with the Vikings in his final season under contract, Allen finished with his seventh consecutive season with 10 or more sacks at age 31. A report out of the NFL Scouting Combine from CBSSports' Jason La Canfora points to the Vikings letting Allen test the free agent waters for the first time in his NFL career, albeit on good terms with his current team. Griffen, 26, is the more appealing candidate for the Vikings to re-sign before free agency opens, as he's expressed a desire to remain in Minnesota and has more than a handful of solid playing years ahead of him. Griffen's versatility to play from a three- or two-point stance is also a plus as first-year head coach Mike Zimmer looks to pin down a defensive scheme.
Off the market: Greg Hardy (tagged), DE/LB Brian Orakpo (tagged), DE/LB Jason Worilds (tagged)
Top 10 on the market:
1. Everson Griffen, Minnesota
Why: With a reported $30 million in cap space, the Vikings may have room to overpay on a player like Griffen. He's yet to have a chance to play fulltime at defensive end as his six of every 10 snaps on the field last season was a career high. As a situational player, Griffen filled in along the interior on third downs due to a lack of a true pass rushing defensive tackle. Griffen had one of his best games last season at Cincinnati (posting two sacks and six stops) and that performance may stick in Zimmer's mind as teams head into free agency.
2. Michael Johnson, Cincinnati
Why: Johnson, 27, played under the franchise tag last season in Zimmer's final year as defensive coordinator with the Bengals. Cincinnati brass elected to not tag Johnson this time around at an estimated $12.5 million and he could be headed out of town. At 6'7", 270lbs, Johnson is the prototypical end that Zimmer used alongside the 6'6", 280lb Carlos Dunlap in Cincinnati and should be a high priority for the Vikings in free agency.
3. Michael Bennett, Seattle
Why: Bennett, 28, was the fifth-ranked 4-3 defensive end by PFF in 2013. The Seahawks elected not to tag Bennett and let him test free agency. In one season in Seattle, Bennett, 6'4", 274lbs, finished with 8.5 sacks on the best defense in the league. His main vice: penalties. Bennett committed 11 penalties last season and could use a disciplinarian like Zimmer at the helm.
4. Lamarr Houston, Oakland
Why: Houston, 26, was one of the best run-stopping defensive ends in football last season. At 6'3", 302lbs, Houston is big enough to play as a 3-4 defensive end even though he finished with six sacks and two forced fumbles as a 4-3 end with the Raiders last season.
5. Justin Tuck, New York Giants
Why: Tuck, 31 this month, registered his highest sack total (11) in his final year under contract with the Giants since 2010. After two injury-plagued seasons, Tuck had a value-lifting season in 2013 and -- at the right price -- could be a key veteran addition to replace Allen in 2014.
6. Robert Ayers, Denver
Why: Ayers, 28, hasn't lived up to the first-round selection the Broncos spent on him in 2009. As the 14th-ranked 4-3 defensive end by PFF last season, he could be a solid value signing for the Vikings. Ayers finished with a career-high 5.5 sacks and a forced fumble last season.
7. Willie Young, Detroit
Why: Young, 28, started in 15 games last season and finished with the third-most quarterback pressures (48) among 4-3 defensive ends, per PFF. At 6'4", 251lbs, the former seventh-round pick exceeded expectations in his first year of heavy action last season in Detroit.
8. Jared Allen, Minnesota
Why: Allen, 32 in April, is on good terms with the Vikings' brass, per La Canfora, but will likely find more money outside of Minnesota. Still, if Allen were to receive an offer the Vikings are willing to match, he'd likely be welcomed back after returning from multiple surgeries last offseason to finish with 6.5 sacks in the Vikings' final five games.
9. Anthony Spencer, Dallas
Why: Spencer, 30, played in just one game last season after undergoing season-ending knee surgery. Still, Spencer had 11 sacks in 14 games in 2012 and could be another value signing for the Vikings as questions hang over him regarding his recent injury. Spencer likely wouldn't be given starter value in Minnesota, but would provide adequate depth as a rotational player.
10. Antonio Smith, Houston
Why: Smith, 32, finished with the fifth-best pass rushing grade (+18.8) among 3-4 defensive ends last season, per PFF. The Texans reportedly have around $11 million in cap space and will lose some starters like Smith, who could provide the Vikings with much-needed depth along the edges of the defensive line.