ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In a 4-3 scheme, defensive end is a premium position, given its role in the pass rush. Thus, to find a productive one, you'd better be prepared to pay dearly.
That is, unless you wait -- and hit on a pass rusher that slips through the cracks. That worked last year for the Broncos, who didn't agree to terms with Shaun Phillips until draft weekend, then saw him lead the team in sacks with 10. It was his first double-digit sack season since 2010, and with two more sacks in the postseason, he had his most productive overall season since 2006, when he had 11.5 sacks in the regular season and one more in a divisional-round loss to New England.
Phillips is due to become an unrestricted free agent again, and the Broncos have to decide whether he has another season like that in him. When they signed him, they were counting on him to be a complement to Von Miller. They got much more after Miller's six-game suspension.
Phillips will be joined in unrestricted free agency by Robert Ayers, who became one of the Broncos' stoutest run defenders in his five seasons after being a first-round pick. Ayers also had a career-high 5.5 sacks last season, which stood in stark contrast to the 6.5 sacks he compiled in the previous four seasons combined.
With 2013 fifth-round pick Quanterus Smith expected to contribute after missing last year with a torn ACL he suffered at Western Kentucky, and Malik Jackson emerging as an inside-outside threat as a starter last year, the Broncos have young internal options. But if the settling of the market brought Ayers, Phillips and late-season pickup Jeremy Mincey back, it would come as no surprise.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS:
Michael Bennett, Seattle: He got a one-year "prove it" contract from the Seahawks last year and justified the investment with 8.5 sacks and, as recorded by ProFootballFocus.com, 39 hurries, a total that was 13th among 4-3 defensive ends. Although Bennett had his breakout season in Seattle, he has already shot down any notions of giving the Seahawks a price break. On Feb. 11, he told NFL Network, "There is no such thing as discount … This isn't Costco. This isn't Walmart. This is real life." And because the Seahawks face some similar contract issues for retaining young players in future years as their Super Bowl XLVIII foes, Bennett seems unlikely to return.
Brian Orakpo, Washington:He was slapped with the franchise tag Monday, making him the second prime pass rusher to be pulled off the open market, along with Carolina's Greg Hardy. Orakpo has 39.5 sacks in 64 career games, and with him off the market, the price for other pass rushers will increase.
Jared Allen, Minnesota:Allen turns 32 in April, but his late-season surge enhanced his value and dismissed any notions of being hampered by age. He amassed 6.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a pass breakup in the last five games, and finished with his seventh consecutive campaign of double-digit sacks.
Lamarr Houston, Oakland: A highly effective run defender -- among free-agent 4-3 defensive ends, he ranked second among ProFootballFocus.com's run-defense rankings -- the 300-pound product of Doherty H.S. in Colorado Springs finished with six sacks last year -- two of which came against the Broncos. Houston attracted extra attention from opposing blocking schemes after a fast start to the season. His size allows him to line up inside and outside if the need arises.
Jason Worilds, Pittsburgh: The 6-foot-2, 262-pounder exploded midway through the 2013 season, posting seven sacks and 20 hits of opposing quarterbacks from Week 9 through Week 16. Perhaps not coincidentally, the surge came after he was promoted to the starting lineup as an outside linebacker in Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense. Before then, he had worked mostly as a backup; in the first three and a half seasons of his career, he started 13 games (playing in 49 overall) and had 11 sacks. He'll earn a big contract based on his recent performance -- just recall the deal Paul Kruger got from Cleveland last year as a guidepost -- but can he sustain that level of play?
Justin Tuck, N.Y. Giants: The Giants don't overpay to keep their own, and are expected to let Tuck test the market. He turns 31 later this month, but is coming off one of his best seasons as a pass rusher (11 sacks, third-highest of his career -- although four of them came in one game against Washington).
Michael Johnson, Cincinnati: Johnson wasn't the Bengals' primary pass rusher up front, but was the Bengals' best run defender, and also contributed 40 quarterback hurries last year, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Bengals.com reported that they have spoken with Johnson's agent, but if they can't come to a deal, Johnson won't last long on the open market and will get paid.
Anthony Spencer, Dallas: It's not production that's the issue for Spencer, but health: he's coming off microfracture surgery and played in only one game last year. Before the injury, Spencer had played his best football; working as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 the Cowboys ran at the time, he had a career-high 11 sacks and was ProFootballFocus.com's top-rated run defender among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2012.
Shaun Phillips, Denver: Here's a note from ProFootballFocus.com's breakdown: Phillips actually ranked much better as a run defender than a pass rusher. He was 14th among 4-3 defensive ends last year, per their metrics. Some of that may have been due to working from the line of scrimmage as a 4-3 end for the first time in his career; he adapted well to that change, and, in doing so, probably increased the number of teams that could see him as valuable in this year's market.
Antonio Smith, Houston: Smith has been a steady producer in recent years, and has posted three of the four best sack totals in his career after turning 30: 6.5 in 2011, 7 in 2012 and 5 last year. He also remains an above-average run defender. At 289 pounds, he's a bit of a tweener in the 4-3, and would likely have to be used in an inside-outside role depending on down and distance, but fit well as an end in the 3-4. His age will probably prevent a long-term contract, but it would be a shock if he's not contributing substantially somewhere this season.
Robert Ayers, Denver: Ayers garnered respect in the Broncos' locker room for his growing maturity and the manner in which he handled changes of scheme and role during his five years with the Broncos. If he moves on, it could be because he finds the certain every-down role that the Broncos can't necessarily provide with the talent they have on hand -- which includes Von Miller working at end in pass-rush situations.
Willie Young, Detroit: Although Young's sack totals are low, he finished with 48 quarterback hurries last year according to ProFootballFocus.com; that placed him third among 4-3 defensive ends, behind only Minnesota's Brian Robison and St. Louis' Robert Quinn. Young played more last year than in his previous three seasons combined. The 6-foot-4, 251-pounder is ascending and one of the more intriguing possibilities on the market.
Everson Griffen, Minnesota: In terms of raw speed/size numbers, Griffen is at the top of the class; he ran a 4.65 40-yard dash at the 2010 Combine at 273 pounds, which is his current playing weight. But he didn't build off a strong 2012 season (8 sacks) in the way he or the Vikings hoped he would; his sack total dropped to 5.5, although he still accounted for 39 hurries, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
Tyson Jackson, Kansas City: In a 4-3, Jackson could swing between the inside and the outside, which might help him develop as a pass rusher. As it is, he's become one of the league's best run defenders as a 3-4 defensive end, and at 296 pounds, would likely remain in that spot in the base package if he moved to a 4-3 team.
Mike Neal, Green Bay: He's had a meandering path to this point -- a four-game suspension, injuries and weight loss from 294 pounds down to 273, so he could work as an outside linebacker in the Packers' 3-4. He finally found stability last year with five sacks and generated consistent pressure.
Jeremy Mincey, Denver: Mincey provided a nice jolt toward the end of the season and into the playoffs, and appeared re-energized after being cut by the Jaguars. ProFootballFocus.com credited him with eight quarterback hurries in his five games as a Bronco (including postseason), and he held up well against the run. He's indicated that he would love to return to Denver, and if he does, he would at minimum provide above-average depth.
Matt Shaughnessy, Arizona: He had a bit of a rough transition to outside linebacker after working at defensive end in his previous seasons, although he remained strong against the run in his new role. It seems like he would be a better fit working with his hand in the dirt in a 4-3.
Others: Marcus Benard, Arizona; Andre Carter, New England; Kenyon Coleman, New Orleans; Keyunta Dawson, New Orleans; Everson Griffen, Minnesota; Jason Hunter, Oakland; Israel Idonije, Detroit; Brett Keisel; Ricardo Mathews, Indianapolis; Jeremy Mincey, Denver; Frostee Rucker, Arizona; Lawrence Sidbury, Indianapolis; Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, Tampa Bay; C.J. Wilson, Green Bay; Corey Wootton, Chicago; Jarius Wynn, Dallas.
STREET FREE AGENTS:
Red Bryant, ex-Seattle: By Super Bowl XLVIII, Bryant had declined in emphasis with the Seattle defense to the point where he played just 26 percent of the snaps. Although Bryant has not contributed much in the pass rush, he is a stout run defender, and even with limited snaps ranked 11th among 4-3 defensive ends against the run, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
Other: Everette Brown, ex-Dallas.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS:
Demarcus Dobbs, San Francisco; Phillip Hunt, Philadelphia; Ronald Talley, Arizona.