ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- For the last three years since returning to a 4-3 scheme, one of the Broncos' two usual starting defensive tackles arrived via that year's free-agent class.
But of those three offseason imports, none made the impact that Terrance Knighton did last year -- both in his performance and his help in bringing rookie Sylvester Williams along when he was forced into the lineup following Kevin Vickerson's hip injury. Williams showed rapid progress playing alongside Knighton, and with Vickerson returning from his injury later this offseason, the Broncos appear to be on solid ground at this position.
That's a welcome change from many recent years, when it seemed as though defensive tackle was perpetually atop the Broncos' list of needs in free agency and the draft. This is true no longer.
With Malik Jackson emerging as a force last season and able to bounce inside on pass rush downs, the expected return of Derek Wolfe to an inside-outside role after he ended the season on injured reserve, and the presence of Mitch Unrein to provide depth if he returns as a restricted free agent, this area appears set, at least for the short term.
The contracts of Vickerson and Knighton expire following this season, so there could be some long-term planning there; this could lead to an addition during the draft. But the Broncos will look at the market at defensive tackle and know they don't need to overpay to bolster it, not with the talent already on hand.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
Randy Starks, Miami:There exists some speculation that the Dolphins will choose between Starks and Paul Soliai. The recent reports of a salary-cap increase could allow them to keep both, but their expected overhaul of the tumultuous, scandal-scarred offensive line could force all their resources elsewhere. If Starks is on the market, he would become a hot commodity -- even though he turned 30 in December. He has not missed a game since 2007 and is coming off arguably the best season of his career. He's equally effective as a pass rusher and a run stuffer; according to ProFootballFocus.com, he forced 30 hurries, fifth-most in the league among defensive tackles.
Linval Joseph, N.Y. Giants: Joseph's stellar work does not go back as many years as Starks', but his age means he will likely command a higher salary if he hits the market. Joseph is a stronger run-stuffer than a pass rusher, but is likely to get more opportunities in the pass rush if he leaves, and did finish with four sacks last season.
Jason Hatcher, Dallas: The best pure pass-rushing defensive tackle in this year's class, Hatcher was a perfect fit in Dallas' defense and had a career season: 11 sacks (after just 16 in the previous seven seasons of his career) and 33 quarterback hurries, according to ProFootballFocus.com. "We love Jason Hatcher," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett at the Combine, but with the Dallas Cowboys over the salary cap, love likely won't be enough. There are clear questions over whether Hatcher's season can be repeated with another team in another scheme, and he'll be 32 by training camp. But on a short contract, he could justify a sizable price tag.
Tony McDaniel, Seattle: Along with Brandon Mebane, McDaniel clogged up the middle well enough to allow Seattle's edge rushers and linebackers the freedom to roam and clean up, giving the Seahawks a stifling run defense. The reports that the Seahawks could release Red Bryant offer a hint that the Seahawks might be creating room to try and keep McDaniel, along with defensive end Michael Bennett, another pending free agent. McDaniel was also solid in the pass rush when used there and could flourish with more opportunities to line up when the Seahawks go to sub packages.
Arthur Jones, Baltimore: A 3-4 defensive end in Baltimore, the 315-pound Jones projects as a three-technique tackle in the 4-3. Jones had an outstanding season against the run, and although his pass-rush opportunities were limited, he still finished with four sacks and 15 hurries, according to ProFootballFocus.com. The Ravens do not appear to have the room to retain him, and he will likely sign in the first wave of free agency. "He has definitely put himself in a position that teams could definitely bid on him very high because if you put the tape on, they're going to like him a lot," Ravens coach John Harbaugh told The Baltimore Sun.
Pat Sims, Oakland:No one has more salary-cap room to work with than the Raiders. But how much of it will they devote to retaining the components of a team that has gone 4-12 in consecutive seasons? In the case of Sims, he only arrived last year on a one-year deal, but had the best season of his career and got stronger as the season progressed, repeatedly making plays behind the line of scrimmage against the run. The biggest mistake some teams make in cultivating a rebuilding process is not harvesting the crops on hand. If the Raiders let Sims walk, they'll create a weak spot in addition to the numerous others on the roster that must be addressed.
Vance Walker, Oakland:Some of the same questions are true of Walker as they were of Sims, although Walker is more of a pass-rush threat who was credited by ProFootballFocus with 32 quarterback hurries last year, fifth among defensive and nose tackles. Walker is two years younger than Sims, which could come into play if the Raiders elect to keep one or the other.
Kevin Williams, Minnesota: It seems impossible to imagine the Vikings without Williams, but he's entering his 12th season and will be 34 in August. Age hasn't slowed him down much; he still remains effective against the run and in the pass rush. For a team looking for a veteran to bolster its interior, Williams is an ideal fit on a one-year contract.
Paul Soliai, Miami:One of the league's better run-stuffing defensive tackles, Soliai had a steady season, and provided the run defense complement to Starks' work in the pass rush. He'll likely be much less expensive to keep that Starks, but will he be as effective if he has to play without him?
Henry Melton, Chicago:The questions for Melton revolve around the torn ACL he suffered in Week 3 last year. The Bears clearly missed him; they got little interior pass rush without him. But Melton told the Chicago Tribune that he had "no clue" whether he would return to the Bears, and Chicago's massive defensive struggles could compel an overhaul that claims Melton. But in a 4-3 scheme that asks him to function as a pass rusher, he is effective.
Clinton McDonald, Seattle: An underrated part of the Seattle defense, McDonald is a key, active component of their pass rush from the inside, and was credited with 23 hurries by ProFootballFocus.com last year to go with the 5.5 sacks and interception he notched.
B.J. Raji, Green Bay: The reputation were bigger than the performance last season, and Raji struggled working at defensive end in the Packers' 3-4 defense, with his least effective year to date. While Raji can still contribute against the run, he was rarely used in pass-rush situations last year, which won't help his value on the market.
Ryan Pickett, Green Bay: As with Raji, Pickett could get caught up in the Green Bay defensive overhaul after a lousy season in which teams moved at will on the Packers. Pickett turned 34 last October, but still, "I think 'Pick' has a little bit left," Packers coach Mike McCarthy told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "This has really been the healthiest he's been. He's done a good job taking care of himself."
Jonathan Babineaux, Atlanta: Age is the issue for Babineaux, who turned 32 last October, but he remains an effective pass rusher and was a bright spot, if an inconsistent one, in a dim Falcons season. He will probably net a one-year contract, but has reportedly indicated he would like to stay in Atlanta.
Aubrayo Franklin, Indianapolis: Franklin split time in 2013 with Josh Chapman, a second-year veteran. Franklin should find a rotational role somewhere, but the Colts are flush with cap room and might look to make a splash here, or give the job to Chapman outright.
Fili Moala, Indianapolis: He returned from a torn ACL suffered late in 2012 and recorded a solid season, particularly working as a pass-rushing end in the Colts' 3-4 scheme. The 303-pounder would move inside if he signs with a 4-3 club. As with Franklin, the Colts' ample cap room comes into play here, and they might look to spend some of it on an upgrade.
Ropati Pitoitua, Tennessee: The Titans have reportedly talked with Pitoitua's agent about returning, and could reward him after he beat out Kamerion Wimbley for a starting job. The Titans are Pitoitua's third team in the last three seasons, but he found a home and effectively used his 6-foot-8 stature to help disrupt opposing pass games.
Mike Patterson, N.Y. Giants: At 30, Patterson remains an effective run stuffer, although his use in the pass rush is minimal at this point in his career. He never played more than half of the snaps in a game last year, but he has value as a rotational component of the defensive line.
Cam Thomas, San Diego:He had an interesting, if scattershot season. He was benched in Week 14, then responded by playing arguably the best month of his career, although his work was more limited. His demotion in December likely means the Chargers will move on, but he showed in a short burst what he could do when properly motivated. Some guys respond to positive reinforcement; Thomas played his best after a kick in the rear.
Ziggy Hood, Pittsburgh:Hood struggled through much of the 2013 season, and could benefit from a change of scenery -- and perhaps scheme. The Steelers are over the salary cap, even after the recent reported increases in cap room, so unless Hood lingers on the market and returns for a veteran-minimum deal, he seems a good bet to leave Pittsburgh.
Others: Chris Baker, Washington; Alex Carrington, Buffalo; Terrance Cody, Baltimore; Landon Cohen, Chicago; Colin Cole, Carolina; Nate Collins, Chicago; Brandon Deaderick, Jacksonville; Leger Douzable, N.Y. Jets; Fred Evans, Minnesota; Andre Fluellen, Detroit; Clifton Geathers, Philadelphia; Gary Gibson, Tampa Bay; Jason Hatcher, Dallas Cowboys; Peria Jerry, Atlanta; Antonio Johnson, Tennessee; Johnny Jolly, Green Bay; Kyle Love, Jacksonville; Earl Mitchell, Houston; Daniel Muir, Oakland; Corey Peters, Atlanta; Jay Ratliff, Chicago; Shaun Rogers, N.Y. Giants; Al Woods, Pittsburgh; Tank Johnson, Cincinnati; Anthony Toribio, Kansas City.
STREET FREE AGENTS
Derek Landri, Tampa Bay.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
Cedric Thornton, Philadelphia: He was highly effective as a run defender working as an end in the Eagles' 3-4 alignment, and although he didn't contribute as much in the pass rush, he was a better fit there than in the 4-3 the Eagles used in previous seasons. He's an exclusive-rights free agent.
Mitch Unrein, Denver: Unrein has more value to the Broncos than anywhere else. In addition to his rotational work on the inside of the defensive line, he continues to be used as a short-yardage fullback, which saves the Broncos a roster spot.
Others: Tom Johnson, New Orleans; Terrell McClain, Houston.