Sep 29, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib (31) celebrates an interception in the second half against the New Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome. The Patriots won 30-23. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports
Though the offense gets most of the headlines, defensive players are every bit as important and sought after in NFL free agency. Of the long list of notable names set to become available, which ones could collect the biggest raise?
Greg Hardy – Carolina Panthers
For the briefest of moments it seemed like Greg Hardy looked like another one year wonder given his slow start for the Carolina Panthers. Then he went off in week three, terrorizing the New York Giants for three sacks of Eli Manning. He seems to have found his groove again and comes out of the bye week against a weakened Arizona Cardinals offensive line protecting an immobile Carson Palmer. If he wasn’t in line for raise before, he certainly is now.
Justin Tuck – New York Giants
The 30-year old veteran hasn’t lost his willingness to compete but his burst and strength to collapse pockets and sack quarterbacks for the New York Giants seems to have left him. Through four games he has just half a sack as part of an overall pitiful effort by the Giants pass rush that once turned games by itself. With Tom Coughlin on the hot seat already, Tuck figures to become one of the first veteran casualties in NFL free agency if the team can’t rescue their 2013 season.
Henry Melton – Chicago Bears
His great 2012 is a fast fading memory to the Chicago Bears. Henry Melton took a big gamble when he refused to sign a long-term extension offered by the team during the off-season, instead opting to double down for more money by playing out the franchise tag deal. Sadly his gamble fell flat. Melton tore his ACL in week three at Pittsburgh, ending his season and likely any hopes of a lucrative deal he was hoping for.
Randy Starks – Miami Dolphins
Meanwhile the opposite has happened for Randy Starks. The veteran Miami Dolphins defensive tackle is off to one of the best starts of his career, compiling two sacks in the first four games and helping his team reach a 3-1 record. His silent night in New Orleans didn’t help but by and large there is no reason to think the Dolphins won’t give him a big extension if the solid play continues and they keep winning.
Wesley Woodyard – Denver Broncos
There is probably no more important player on the Denver Broncos defense short of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie than Wesley Woodyard. Through four games he has proven their best coverage linebacker and also an effective blitzer with 1.5 sacks. He tackles well and is a leader on the field. That is the only way to explain how the Broncos have played so well without Von Miller and Champ Bailey. Woodyard must be a priority for them when NFL free agency rolls around.
Jason Worilds – Pittsburgh Steelers
It’s clear now that not every linebacker drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers can be turned into a star by Dick LeBeau. The team had high hopes for Jason Worilds who took over for the departed James Harrison at outside linebacker. However after four games he continues to lose snaps to rookie Jarvis Jones. Worilds has no sacks or other impact plays. That won’t garner much attention from Pittsburgh with the little money they have to spend next March.
Aqib Talib – New England Patriots
Another year, another successful reclamation project for the New England Patriots. There was a lot of skepticism when they traded for Aqib Talib last year from TampaBay but time has proven them wise. The cornerback has four interceptions already this season and has proven difficult for every team to throw against regardless of the receivers they have. As the Patriots continue to win Talib deserves a ton of the credit, and should get a nice multi-year deal for his efforts.
DeAngelo Hall – Washington Redskins
It won’t be a big surprise if the entire secondary of the Washington Redskins gets purged after the first month of the season they’ve had. DeAngelo Hall, aside from an ugly pick six against Detroit hasn’t contributed much despite being the “best” corner on the roster. He’s always been somewhat of a malcontent and at age 29 is almost out of chances for landing long-term security.
Jairus Byrd – Buffalo Bills
The hope for Jairus Byrd was that the Buffalo Bills would get off to a bad start defensively and pay him the money he’s asked for since the off-season. If anything, the opposite has happened. The defense has thrived in his absence while the young safety and two-time Pro Bowler deals with plantar fasciitis. He may still get a good deal in NFL free agency. Whether it’s the deal he wants depends on how he comes back this season.
T.J. Ward – Cleveland Browns
No defense has been a bigger surprise in 2013 than the Cleveland Browns. While not the most high profile contributor, safety T.J. Ward deserves his share of the credit for its success. He already has 20 tackles, putting him on paced for a career best and also snagged an interception in week three, matching the same total as last year. Ward may not garner superstar money but his improvement under Ray Horton will entice several teams if the Browns for some reason don’t re-sign him.