2016 NFL Free Agency: Defensive Tackle Overview

In this weeks free agency feature we will take a look at the available defensive tackles in 2016. The group doesn’t have the big standout names or three down players, but is filled with a number of veterans making the turn to 30 who likely can provide some good value if a team finds the right scheme fit this season…

Damon Harrison, Jets

The man known as “Snacks” has endeared himself with his play in New York over the last two seasons. Harrison has been extremely consistent over the last three years and is one of the best run defenders at the position. Harrison has good size and move well for someone well over the 350 pound mark.

Harrison is likely going to market himself as a younger, more productive version of Paul Soliai who found a way to earn nearly $6.5 million a year from the Falcons. Harrison seems to have little value as a pass rusher so his targets will likely be a 43 team with a situational rusher already on the roster or 34 teams who don’t care as much about that. He has probably gained enough notoriety over the last two years to be considered the top available DT this year.

Projected Value: 5 Years, $27-$33 million

Jaye Howard, Chiefs

Howard has pretty quietly put together a season that should make him one of the top, if not the top, players available this offseason. Howard brings the unique ability at the position to play run defense and pressure the quarterback. That’s allowed Howard to see action on nearly 70% of the team snaps which is a rarity for a position that usually subs players in and out.

Much like the others at the position, part of the challenge is going to be to break the glass ceiling that seemingly exists on the 34 positions. Howard may have the best chance to do that because he can rush the passer and is disruptive, but in terms of free agent names I think he flies well under the radar. His best hope for maximizing value is to point out his versatility and style which should lend itself well to a 43 defense, in which there is more earning potential. He is the type of player that often finds the best deal with his current team. My guess is at the end of the day someone will end up with Howard on a fairly reasonable contract, though he could be the most complete player available.

Projected Value: 5 years, $25-$30 million

Nick Fairley, Rams

The former first round pick took the one year deal with the Rams to try to prove he was worth big money, but there are probably just as many questions remaining about him as when he signed the contract. Fairley was unable to solidify himself as a starter and hit the snap levels necessary to really take his contract to the next level and his stat sheet looks relatively empty compared to others.

Fairley will be 28 next season so it may be smart to consider the long term offer this time rather than another one year contract if that offer exists. His best hope to max value is to convince a team that the Rams were simply stacked on the line and he can be more productive when put in a starting role. His play is also arguably better than his stats so for the right price there should be teams looking. It’s possible that he may now be looked at as a player that teams will only consider for one season to determine if the fit is there long term.

Projected Value: 2 years, $7.7-$10 million

Ian Williams, 49ers

Not much has gone right for the 49ers this season, but Williams has put together a fine season as the big run defender in the middle for San Francisco. Williams made the most of his opportunity to start in 2014 before an injury ended his season and he picked up where he left off this season. The 49ers are using him in more situations this year giving him an opportunity to be seen in more defensive packages.

The downsides for Williams are that he essentially plays in anonymity, isn’t an impact type player, and has had injury problems in the past.  So he is going to get the second tier look as the fallback plan if a team misses out on the bigger name or the first priority when they think they can get a player for low cost. Remaining with San Francisco might be the best for both sides.

Projected Value: 3 years, $9-$12 million

Haloti Ngata, Lions

Ngata is the biggest name free agent this season among defensive tackles, but unless a team just gets caught up in the name, as the Lions were this season, it is doubtful he will be in the top tier of players. Ngata can still get into the backfield at times, but he is no longer going to command the respect he once did where his play far outweighed his stat line. Ngata will be 32 next season and his snaps should continue to decline.

As far as value he should be closer to the Domata Peko/Tom Johnson veteran payscale than anything else. If he exceeds Peko’s $4.5 million a season it will only be because of his name and reputation. Given that he does not have a set home team that will be vested in him it may be hard to jump that $4.5M number.

Projected Value: 2 years, $6.5-$8.5 million

Henry Melton, Buccaneers

Melton never regained the form that made him a franchise player for the Bears a few years ago. Every year that passes his value drops and at this point I think most will assume injuries derailed a very promising career. Melton seems to be best suited to playing the situational rusher role in a 43 defense as his run defense is below average. He did get the opportunity to play next to one of the best DTs in the NFL this year and that didn’t seem to improve things for Melton which will be looked at as a negative.

I can’t see anyone giving Melton a long term contract unless it’s for a low number. He seems destined for a number of one year contracts, each falling lower in value until he shows something more.

Projected Value: 1 year, $2.5-$3 million

Terrance Knighton, Redskins

Knighton took the one year contract with Washington after seemingly over pricing himself in free agency last season and it’s doubtful that this year helped him increase his value. Knighton peaked two years ago for the Broncos but was unable to get them to renegotiate his contract to take advantage of that year. He played in under 40% of the team snaps this season and is more of a run specialist which is not always in high demand.

Still Knighton has the ability to play well and can be difficult to move when he hits his peak play level. He’ll be 30 and likely slot in with all of the other player in this category. Like last year he may be one of the later signings I hopes of finding the right contract.

Projected Value: 1 year, $2.5-$3 million

BJ Raji, Packers

Everything written about Melton more or less applies to Raji. There was a time when Raji was considered a breakout player, but he declined significantly from that peak. He played much better this season but he is still a bit of an injury risk and won’t be much more than a part time player. Like Melton it would be surprising to see him land a multi year deal, though I could see Green Bay considering it.

Raji’s biggest earning potential remains in Green Bay who will often go up in value to retain players they want. Any contract he signs will be heavily reliant on health with over 25% of the value tied to being active on Sundays.

Projected Value: 1 year, $2.5-$3 million

Steve McLendon, Steelers

McLendon is likely looked at as having more upside as a pass rusher, though he has played well against the run over the last two years. He had received some interest as a restricted free agent a few years back which led to a longer term contract with the Steelers which should indicate that there are some teams that may see him as having a bigger role than he has in Pittsburgh. Given his skillset he may be better suited to trying to land with a 43 team where there could be more opportunity than he received with the Steelers who use a rotation.

The 30 year old group has a pretty wide range of contract values, so there is probably just as much of a chance he ends up playing for $1.5 million for a year as there is on a $3 million contract. If I had to guess he will end up with a similar contract to an Alan Branch or Tom Johnson with some incentives that can increase the number.

Projected Value: 2 Years, $4-$5.5 million

Brandon Mebane, Seahawks

I was a little surprised Mebane made it through on his contract this year, but the Seahawks felt more comfortable with him as a starter than going with an unknown. Mebane is no longer the player he was when he was in his 20s and could collapse a pocket, but he can still provide some rush for teams.

Mebane will be 32 next year which is the point where many players may see their contract offers decrease significantly. Any contract for more than two years would be a surprise.

Projected Value: 2 years, $3.5-$4.5 million

Best of the Rest

Ahtyba Rubin will best fit a team that can cycle multiple interior lineman and needs another body for around $2 million or less….Akiem Hicks has really come on as a member of the Patriots which he can turn into a nice little extension in the offseason in that $1.5+ million range…Both Cullen Jenkins and Kevin Williams should lead the veteran group if they decide to continue to play. Both were signed to contracts worth around $1.5 million and both should sign again for around that price…Other name value players like Sammie Lee Hill, Al Woods, Letroy Guion, and Tony McDaniel all struggled with injuries and lack of use by their teams. Expect their salaries to all trend down closer to the minimums… Kyle Love became a contributor to a terrific Panther defense and has likely earned himself a two year contract in the $1.2-$1.5 million a year range…the Cowboys tandem of Jack Crawford and Nick Hayden could be back in Dallas next year and are probably both minimum salary or close to that players….

The Free Agent Market

PlayerTeamAgeSnapProj. GamesProj. StartsProj. SacksProj. TcklsProj. AsstProj. TFL
Ian Williams49ers2757.0%16161.144.621.72.3
Damon HarrisonJets2852.4%16160.638.932.05.7
Jaye HowardChiefs2868.7%16145.135.422.99.1
Nick HaydenCowboys3056.0%16150.035.414.95.7
Nick FairleyRams2841.6%1600.620.610.31.1
Henry MeltonBuccaneers3047.0%1612.319.49.11.1
Kevin WilliamsSaints3652.3%16140.019.413.71.1
Ahtyba RubinSeahawks3047.9%16162.318.316.02.3
Terrance KnightonRedskins3036.3%15161.716.213.84.6
Haloti NgataLions3254.3%14161.
Al WoodsTitans2935.6%14120.
B.J. RajiPackers3043.6%15160.615.09.22.3
Cullen JenkinsGiants3563.9%16143.414.910.33.4
Jack CrawfordCowboys2846.0%1614.612.64.68.0
Steve McLendonSteelers3035.7%16101.
Markus KuhnGiants3030.6%11110.610.813.21.2
Letroy GuionPackers2930.2%1360.
Tony McDanielBuccaneers3122.7%1410.
Brandon MebaneSeahawks3148.0%15161.710.411.52.3
Kyle LovePanthers3031.5%1622.310.310.34.6
Akiem HicksPatriots2724.7%1633.
Sammie Lee HillTitans3016.7%980.
Alex CarringtonBills2918.0%820.
Jermelle CudjoLions3012.6%700.
Brandon ThompsonBengals2715.4%800.
Pat SimsBengals3116.7%800.03.912.90.0
Kenrick EllisVikings297.5%800.
Kedric GolstonRedskins3318.1%1500.
Ishmaa’ily KitchenPatriots281.6%
Da’Quan BowersBuccaneers261.3%
Barry CofieldGiants321.0%