Notable Remaining Veteran FAs: Defense

Brett Keisel and Isaac Sopoaga both reached agreements with NFL clubs this week, with Keisel returning to Pittsburgh and Sopoaga reportedly heading to Arizona. The two signings further diminished the amount of veteran defensive talent remaining on the free agent market, but even so, there are a handful of intriguing names among the defenders still available.

After taking a look earlier this week at some of the notable veteran free agents on offense, we’ll turn our attention to the other side of the ball today. As I noted when writing about those offensive players, not all of these players will find work this season, and they’ll likely be joined by many more noteworthy free agents in the coming weeks, as NFL teams cut their rosters down from 90 players to 53. Still, these guys are worth keeping an eye on, since they’re still capable of having an impact on the field.

You can view our full list of current free agents right here, but for now, let’s focus on a few interesting veteran defenders….

Defensive ends: Jason Hunter, Daniel Te’o-Nesheim

The pickings are awfully slim at defensive end, where Hunter and Te’o-Nesheim are the only two free agents who were regular starters last season for their respective teams (the Raiders and Buccaneers). According to Pro Football Focus’ metrics (subscription required), both players graded among the bottom five 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL last season, with Te’o-Nesheim ranking dead last, so perhaps it’s not a surprise that we haven’t heard any reports of interest in the two players since they hit free agency.

Defensive tackles: Aubrayo Franklin, Johnny Jolly, Vaughn Martin, Ryan Pickett, Shaun Rogers

Even after Keisel and Sopoaga found work, there are still some decent options on the defensive tackle market. Players like Franklin, Jolly, and Pickett are somewhat one-dimesional, providing size in the middle and not much else, but in a part-time role, such a player can have value. As for Rogers, he was playing well in a part-time role in 2013 before a knee injury ended his season, but having missed most of the last two years with various ailments, the former Pro Bowler’s playing career seems to be nearing its end.

Outside linebackers: Michael Boley, James Harrison, Rocky McIntosh, Marvin Mitchell, Stephen Nicholas, Will Witherspoon

Harrison’s is the name that stands out on this list, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he’s in a Steelers-or-bust mindset at this point. He was effective last season in Cincinnati, but it was the first and only time in his 11-year NFL career that he’d played for a team besides the Steelers, and reports this offseason have suggested he’d like to return to Pittsburgh. We’ll have to see if, like they did with Keisel, the Steelers can get something done with a defender who has spent more than a decade with the club.

The rest of this group is mostly made up of former starters who have transitioned into reserve roles — Boley, McIntosh, Nicholas, and Witherspoon have 384 combined career starts on their résumés, but just seven of those came in 2013. Mitchell, meanwhile, started 10 games for the Vikings last season and played reasonably well in part-time action, so I’m a little surprised he hasn’t drawn more interest this offseason. The Titans kicked the tires back in June, but elected not sign him.

Inside linebackers: Nick Barnett, Kevin Burnett, Erin Henderson, Paris Lenon, Ernie Sims, Jonathan Vilma

A handful of teams have seen key linebackers go down with serious injuries in recent weeks, but this group of free agents still hasn’t received a whole lot of interest. The Cardinals signed and later released Sims, and the Cowboys and Falcons have both been linked to Vilma, but the fact that those guys aren’t on rosters now suggest teams may not have confidence in them as regular contributors anymore, opting for younger, cheaper players instead. The same may be true for Barnett and Lenon, though any of those veterans could still get a look in the coming weeks.

Henderson may be the player here capable of contributing the most on the field, but his off-field issues may keep him out of the league this season — multiple arrests since and a rehab stint since last fall mean he could be facing a suspension if and when he resurfaces. As for Burnett, he probably shouldn’t be logging the 1,000+ snaps he did last season, and it doesn’t seem as if he’s fully healthy – the Raiders cut him last month with a failed physical designation – but as Pro Football Focus’ data shows (subscription required), he can be a valuable asset against the run.

Cornerbacks: Drayton Florence, Jabari Greer, Chris Houston, Quentin Jammer, Dunta Robinson, Asante Samuel

While there are plenty of questions about injuries and declining performance among this group, experience certainly isn’t a problem — these six players have started an average of 117 games each in their NFL careers. With several teams around the league already on the lookout for cornerbacks, it wouldn’t be surprising if many of these guys were snatched up in the near future to provide some secondary stability. Still, it’s not clear whether all of them have interest in returning to the field in 2014. Greer and Houston are still on the mend following major injuries, and Samuel reportedly turned down overtures from the Jets recently.

Safeties: Reed Doughty, Matt Giordano, Michael Huff, Quintin Mikell, Ed Reed

Doughty has spent his entire eight-year career with the Redskins, starting 45 games over the last five seasons, but last we heard, the team hasn’t reached out to him, and he doesn’t seem to be receiving interest from other clubs either. And although Giordano and Huff aren’t far removed from seasons as significant contributors, they’re probably both better suited for reserve roles now.

Mikell, a former Pro Bowler and a regular starter for the last seven seasons, is the most notable name of this bunch, having ranked 31st among 86 qualified safeties last season, per Pro Football Focus’ grades (subscription required). However, he’s coming off foot surgery and is mulling retirement, suggesting last week that it would have to be the “right situation” for him to return. The same can probably be said for Reed, who hasn’t announced his retirement but already seems to be transitioning into his post-playing career, having secured a job on Showtime’s Inside the NFL.

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