Paul Soliai

Top 2017 Free Agents By Position 2.0: Defense

NFL free agency gets underway on Thursday and while the list of free agents will change between now and then, we do have some idea of who will be available when free agency kicks off. Here is our updated outlook for each defensive and special teams position.

Listed below are our rankings for the top 15 free agents at each defensive position. These rankings aren’t necessarily determined by the value of the contracts – or the amount of guaranteed money – that each player is expected to land in free agency. These are simply the players we like the most at each position, with both short- and long-term value taken into account.

Restricted and exclusive-rights free agents, as well as franchised players aren’t listed here, since the roadblocks in place to hinder another team from actually acquiring most of those players prevent them from being true free agents.

We’ll almost certainly be higher or lower on some free agents than you are, so feel free to weigh in below in our comments section to let us know which players we’ve got wrong.

Here’s our breakdown of the current top 15 free agents by defensive position for this offseason:

Edge defender:

  1. Nick Perry
  2. Jabaal Sheard
  3. John Simon
  4. DeMarcus Ware
  5. Lorenzo Alexander
  6. Andre Branch
  7. Julius Peppers
  8. Charles Johnson
  9. Datone Jones
  10. Dwight Freeney
  11. Chris Long
  12. Mario Williams
  13. Paul Kruger
  14. Courtney Upshaw
  15. Jarvis Jones

Now that Chandler Jones, Melvin Ingram, and Jason Pierre-Paul have all been assigned the franchise tag, Nick Perry stands as the top edge defender on the free agent market, and is now in a position to cash in. The Packers opted against the franchise tender for the 26-year-old Perry, so he’ll hit the open market following a career year which saw him post 11 sacks."<strong

The rest of this year’s crop of free agent pass rushers is a blend of young defenders searching for their first payday and veterans on the hunt for one last contract. Among players with youth still on their side, Datone Jones figures to interest clubs thanks to his versatility, as he can vacillate between end and linebacker, while fellow former first-round pick Jarvis Jones is solid against the run. John Simon has been overlooked while playing alongside the likes of J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus but could represent a hidden gem, while the Dolphins are reportedly prioritizing Andre Branch.

After managing nine sacks over the first nine years of his NFL tenure, Lorenzo Alexander busted out with 12.5 quarterback takedowns in 2016, and now could be looking for a double-digit annual salary. Charles Johnson, meanwhile, looks like a good bet to return to the Panthers, but DeMarcus Ware could be something of a wild card — after missing 11 games in the past two seasons, does the 34-year-old have enough left in the tank? The same could be asked of Dwight Freeney, who at age-37 posted three sacks in a rotational role for the Falcons.

Interior defensive line:

  1. Calais Campbell
  2. Johnathan Hankins
  3. Brandon Williams
  4. Dontari Poe
  5. Chris Baker
  6. Bennie Logan
  7. Nick Fairley
  8. Alan Branch
  9. Jared Odrick
  10. Karl Klug
  11. Terrell McClain
  12. Lawrence Guy
  13. Stacy McGee
  14. Stephen Paea
  15. Sylvester Williams
    Honorable mention: Paul Soliai

Calais Campbell is the best overall player among interior defenders, and though he’s entering his age-31 season and may not cost as much as Johnathan Hankins, Brandon Williams, and Dontari Poe, Campbell will still be highly-sought after as he searches for his last substantial payday Campbell’s agent met with the Cardinals last week, but other speculative fits for the veteran defender include the Broncos, Raiders, Ravens, Colts, and Titans."<strong

Hankins is only 24 years old, and though the Giants are trying to retain him along with the rest of their defensive core, the 6’3″, 320-pound mauler should represent an attractive option to a number of clubs this offseason. Williams, too, offers a massive presence on the inside, while Poe could intrigue clubs based on his first-round pedigree and athleticism (though his play hasn’t always matched his potential). The Redskins’ Chris Baker is a solid, well-rounded defensive tackle, and could constitute a consolation prize for teams that miss out on their top targets.

The rest of the class offers an interesting mix of nose tackles (Bennie Logan), interior pass rushers (Nick Fairley, Karl Klug), and run stoppers (Alan Branch), so clubs hoping to bolster their defensive line should find no shortage of options. Jared Odrick recently hit free agency after being released by the Jaguars, while Terrell McClain, Lawrence Guy, and Stacy McGee could be underrated finds for the right team. McClain, for what it’s worth, has already been linked to the Falcons.

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Panthers To Release DT Paul Soliai

The Panthers are cutting defensive tackle Paul Soliai, according to agent David Canter (via Twitter). Soliai signed a two-year, $7MM deal with Carolina just one year ago. Paul Soliai (vertical)

[RELATED: Victor Cruz Visits Panthers]

Soliai, 33, joined up with the Panthers after spending several years with the Dolphins and two seasons with the rival Falcons. This year, he was only able to appear in ten games for his new team and finished out the year with eight total tackles. For his limited time on the field, he had a dreadful 47.6 out of 100 score on Pro Football Focus.

Per the terms of his deal, Soliai was scheduled to collect on a $500K roster bonus on the fifth day of the 2017 league year. By informing him of his release today, the Panthers are giving Soliai several extra weeks to find his next NFL home. He might not be able to replicate his 2013 season, but he does offer plenty of experience and he is capable of playing in either a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

NFC South Notes: Panthers, Saints, Nicks

The Falcons and Saints have each added former Cardinals edge rushers over the past 24 hours, as Atlanta agreed to terms with Dwight Freeney while New Orleans inked Matt Shaughnessy. Both defenses were among the worst in the league at generating pressure last season, and the Falcons and Saints will hope that their new additions will help them get after opposing quarterbacks. For more on the Falcons, check back in with PFR later tonight for a recap of the Freeney signing and the rest of Atlanta’s moves in our latest Offseason in Review.

Let’s take a quick spin around the NFC South:

  • The Panthers have a plethora of options at defensive tackle, and they’re so stacked at the position that they might be forced to release a talented player, as Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer writes. Kawann Short (who is engaged in extension talks), Star Lotulelei, and first-round pick Vernon Butler are guaranteed places on the roster, meaning Paul Soliai and Kyle Love will have to compete for the final tackle spot, unless Carolina opts to keep five interior defenders. The Panthers handed Soliai $3MM fully guaranteed less than five months ago, so it would be a surprise to see him get cut loose.
  • Hakeem Nicksone-year deal with the Saints is a minimum salary benefit contract and contains no guaranteed money, reports Nick Underhill of the Advocate. As such, Nicks is essentially joining New Orleans on nothing more than a tryout basis, and will seek to earn a role behind Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead, Michael Thomas, and Brandon Coleman. Nicks reportedly stayed in contact with Saints head coach Sean Payton after a workout earlier this year, texting Payton on a weekly basis and sending along workout videos.
  • Former South Florida defensive back Jamie Byrd tried out for the Saints today, according to a source who spoke with Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle (Twitter link). In his senior season with the Bulls, Byrd posted 80 tackles and finished second on the team with 11 tackles for loss, and said earlier this year that he had “no answers” for not being selected in the draft or being offered a UDFA deal.

Contract Details: Bruton, Soliai, M. Wallace

Here are specific details on several of the latest agreed-upon and signed contracts from around the NFL. All links are courtesy of Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle unless otherwise indicated…

NFC:

  • David Bruton, S (Washington): Three years, $9MM. $3.4MM guaranteed. $2.5MM signing bonus. $500K annual playing-time escalator in 2017 and 2018. $500K in incentives in 2018 (Twitter links via Master Tesfatsion of the Washington Post).
  • Paul Soliai, DT (Panthers): Two years, $6.5MM. $3MM guaranteed. $2MM signing bonus. $740K in annual per-game active roster bonuses. $500K roster bonus due on the fifth day of the 2017 league year (Twitter link).
  • Leodis McKelvin, CB (Eagles): Two years, $6.2MM. $3MM guaranteed. $500K signing bonus. $1.2MM bonus due on fifth day of 2017 league year. $100K Pro Bowl incentive. $350K playing-time incentive (Twitter link).
  • Cory Harkey, TE (Rams): Three years, $5.7MM. $2.5MM guaranteed. $500K roster bonus due on 10th day of 2016 league year. $500K roster bonus due in 2017, guaranteed for skill and injury (Twitter link).
  • Rolando McClain, LB (Cowboys): One year, $4MM. $750K signing bonus. $1.25MM base salary. $2MM in per-game roster bonuses. Up to $1MM in playing-time and playoff incentives (Twitter link).
  • Rhett Ellison, TE (Vikings): One year, $1.75MM. $100K signing bonus. $790K in per-game active roster bonuses. Up to $500K in incentives (Twitter link).
  • Chris Givens, WR (Eagles): One year, minimum salary benefit. $80K signing bonus. $100K of $760K base salary is guaranteed (Twitter link via Les Bowen of the Philadelphia Daily News).

AFC:

  • Mike Wallace, WR (Ravens): Two years, $11.5MM. $4.5MM signing bonus. $1MM roster bonus due on fifth day of 2017 league year. Option for second year to be exercised/declined prior to end of 2016 league year (Twitter links).
  • Matt Moore, QB (Dolphins): Two years, $3.55MM. $2.25MM guaranteed. $750K signing bonus. $1.25MM in annual incentives (Twitter link).
  • Sean Spence, LB (Titans): One year, $2.5MM. $500K signing bonus. $500K in per-game active roster bonuses (Twitter link).
  • Robert Turbin, RB (Colts): One year, minimum salary benefit. $80K in incentives for rushing yards (Twitter link via Tom Pelissero of USA Today).

Panthers Sign Paul Soliai

TUESDAY, 3:30pm: The Panthers have made it official with Soliai, who has formally signed his contract, tweets David Newton of ESPN.com.

MONDAY, 7:15pm: The Panthers have agreed to sign defensive tackle Paul Soliai, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com (on Twitter). It’s a two-year deal worth $7MM and includes $3MM guaranteed. The deal is slightly front-loaded with Soliai earning $4MM in year one of the pact. Paul Soliai

The Falcons released Soliai on March 9th in a move that saved them significant money against their 2016 cap. Soliai was poised to earn a base salary of $4.5MM, accompanied by a cap figure of $6.9MM. From the Falcons’ perspective, that cap charge was likely excessive, as Soliai’s snap count in Dan Quinn‘s defense had dropped to 357 in 2015 (down from 502 in Mike Smith‘s unit in 2014). Add in the fact that Soliai wasn’t overly effective, grading as just the No. 57 interior defender last season per Pro Football Focus, and it probably made sense for Atlanta to cut bait.

For the Panthers, however, Soliai makes plenty of sense on an affordable two-year deal. Carolina recently released defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, so Soliai should help bolster the Panthers’ interior rotation. Capable of playing in either a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme, Soliai likely had appeal for multiple teams, but Carolina will be his landing spot.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

FA Rumors: Okung, Soliai, Weddle, Hayward

Free agent left tackle Russell Okung has an offer in hand from the Steelers, according to Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com (Twitter link), while Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times reports (Twitter link) that Okung has no other visits planned at this time. Okung is just one of a few offensive tackles whom Pittsburgh has either met with or plans to meet with, including Ryan Harris and Chris Hairston. Kelvin Beachum, the Steelers’ left tackle for the past few seasons, remains unsigned, and is taking visits with other clubs.

Let’s dive into the latest free agent news…

  • Former Falcons defensive tackle Paul Soliai will visit the division-rival Panthers, tweets Mike Garafolo of FOX Sports. Soliai, 32, was released by Atlanta on the first day of the free agent period after spending two years with the club. Carolina has already released defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, so Soliai could be a nice addition to the Panthers’ interior rotation.
  • Another free agent defensive tackle — ex-Patriot Sealver Siliga — will take a meeting with the Seahawks, according to Garafolo (Twitter link). Siliga, 26 next month, was not offered a restricted free agent tender by New England despite appearing in 13 games for the club last season.
  • The Seahawks will also meet with running back Lance Dunbar, reports Adam Caplan of ESPN.com (Twitter link). The 26-year-old Dunbar was off to a nice start with the Cowboys in 2015, catching 21 passes out of the backfield in just four games before a torn ACL knocked him out for the remainder of the season. Seattle will be the second NFC West visit for Dunbar, who’s also met with the 49ers.
  • Free agent guard Amini Silatolu will visit the Cardinals today, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN.com (Twitter link). The former-second pick hasn’t been a full-time starter since his rookie season in 2012, but he’s only 26 years old, and could help fill in at guard if Arizona follows through on its proposed move of Jonathan Cooper to center.
  • Eric Weddle is expected to narrow his choice to two teams soon, per Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk. The veteran safety is reportedly choosing between the Ravens, Steelers, Cowboys, and Raiders.
  • Before agreeing to a three-year deal with the Chargers earlier today, cornerback Casey Hayward also drew interest from the Chiefs and 49ers, tweets Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
  • Cardinals backup quarterback Drew Stanton said the Colts, Titans, Dolphins, and Cowboys all showed interest in signing him before he agreed to a new deal with Arizona, according to Josh Weinfuss of ESPN.com (Twitter link).

Falcons Release Paul Soliai

MARCH 9, 3:51pm: The Falcons made Soliai’s release official, according to the team’s website.

FEBRUARY 21, 6:02pm: Soliai’s agent, David Canter, confirmed the lineman’s impending release. “We couldn’t agree on terms,” Canter told D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

FEBRUARY 20, 8:06pm: Atlanta will indeed designate Soliai as a post-June 1 cut, according to Jason Cole of Bleacher Report (Twitter link). As noted below, this means the Falcons will take on $1.4MM in dead money this year, and $2.8MM in 2017.

FEBRUARY 20, 7:35pm: The Falcons will release defensive tackle Paul Soliai on or after the start of the new league year on March 9, a source tells Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk. A report yesterday indicated that Atlanta had approached Soliai’s representatives about accepting a pay cut, and also noted that the veteran lineman was unlikely to do so, preferring to take his chances on the open market.

[RELATED: Falcons cut LB Justin Durant and S William Moore]Paul Soliai (Vertical)

By waiting until March 9, the Falcons will absorb Soliai’s dead money hit — a charge of $4.2MM — on their 2016 salary cap. If the club opts to designate Soliai as a post-June 1 cut, it will take on dead money totals of $1.4MM in 2016 and and $2.8MM in 2017. Depending on what approach Atlanta takes, the team’s remaining 2016 cap space will fall to somewhere between $23MM and $26MM.

Having just finished the second season of a five-year deal, the 32-year-old Soliai was poised to earn a base salary of $4.5MM, accompanied by a cap figure of $6.9MM. From the Falcons’ perspective, that cap charge was likely excessive, as Soliai’s snap count in Dan Quinn‘s defense had dropped to 357 in 2015 (down from 502 in Mike Smith‘s unit in 2014). Add in the fact that Soliai wasn’t overly effective, grading as just the No. 57 interior defender last season per Pro Football Focus, and it probably makes sense that Atlanta is cutting bait.

Soliai will join a class of free agent defensive tackles that includes Damon Harrison, Nick Fairley, Terrance Knighton, and Haloti Ngata, among others. Capable of playing in either a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme, Soliai shouldn’t have any trouble finding a roster spot for the upcoming season.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

East Notes: Cousins, Carroll, Soliai

It is difficult to imagine Kirk Cousins playing anywhere besides Washington next season, either under the franchise tag or under a lucrative, long-term deal. The most recent report regarding contract negotiations between the two parties suggested that the prospect of Cousins and Washington striking a multi-year deal was “not good,” although the application of the franchise tag always seems to invigorate stalled contract talks.

But even if Cousins ultimately plays out the 2016 season under the tag, it may not handicap Washington that much in the short-term. As John Keim of ESPN.com observes, Washington’s 2016 cap number already includes Robert Griffin III‘s $16.15MM option, and the team is almost certainly going to cut Griffin in the near future. As such, putting the franchise tag on Cousins really only adds an extra $4MM or so to the team’s cap commitment, as the tag value for quarterbacks is projected to be around $20MM. Certainly Washington would rather have an extra $4MM to spend, particularly since it does not have a ton of cap room to begin with–plus, signing Cousins to a long-term deal might put his first-year cap hit under $10MM, thus creating even more space–but for 2016, at least, the tag might not be as crippling as it otherwise could be.

Now let’s take a look at some more notes from the league’s east divisions:

  • Mark Eckel of LehighValleyLive.com takes a look at how the Eagles will address their secondary this offseason, a conversation that necessarily begins with cornerback Nolan Carroll, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent. Carroll is a solid player, but the price to keep him should not be prohibitive, especially since he ended the season on IR after breaking his ankle in the team’s Thanksgiving contest against Detroit. If Carroll is retained, Philadelphia could shift Eric Rowe from cornerback to safety, his more natural position, to replace Walter Thurmond, who is likely to depart in free agency.
  • The Falcons will release Paul Soliai on or after March 9, and the 32-year-old defensive tackle would apparently like to return to the Dolphins, according to Armando Salguero of The Miami Herald (via Twitter). Soliai spent the first seven seasons of his career with Miami before signing with Atlanta prior to the 2014 campaign, and although his 2015 performance was not up to his usual standards, he could still be a valuable member of either a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme.
  • The Jets will make a concerted effort to address the tight end position in free agency and/or the draft, per Rich Cimini of ESPNNewYork.com. The team needs a tight end who can challenge a defense in the middle of the field, and although this year’s free agent class of tight ends is uninspiring–Antonio Gates will likely stay in San Diego, leaving players like Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen at the top of the market–but Arkansas’ Hunter Harvey, widely regarded as the best TE in the draft, should be available when Gang Green makes its first selection in this year’s draft.
  • Patriots RB Dion Lewis, who was a catalyst of the team’s offense prior to tearing his ACL on November 8, is making good progress in his recovery and should be available for the start of the regular season, as Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com reports.

Falcons Ask Paul Soliai To Take Pay Cut

The Falcons have approached defensive tackle Paul Soliai and his agent about the possibility of a pay cut, according to Jason Cole of Bleacher Report (via Twitter). While no decisions have been made yet, Cole says Soliai is unlikely to assent, preferring to take his chances on the open market.Paul Soliai

Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com (Twitter links) confirms that discussions are ongoing between the Falcons and Soliai’s camp, and that there’s no resolution yet, though he classifies the team’s request as a restructure, rather than a pay cut.

Still, if the Falcons want to do a simple restructure of the contract, converting a portion of Soliai’s salary into a signing bonus to reduce his cap hit, there’s little reason for the player to oppose it, so I imagine a pay reduction of some sort is part of the proposal — perhaps the team would give Soliai the opportunity to earn back his full salary through bonuses and/or incentives.

Soliai, 32, has spent the last two years with the Falcons after playing seven seasons for the Dolphins. Although Soliai’s numbers in 2015 (22 tackles, one fumble recovery) were modest, he was still one of the more reliable cogs in Atlanta’s interior defensive line rotation, so it makes sense that the team would want to retain him, albeit not at his current price.

Soliai’s contract, which runs through 2018, calls for a cap charge of about $6.838MM in 2016, which includes a $5MM base salary. Those cap numbers will increase to $6.9MM and $8.4MM in the final two years of the deal, so it seems unlikely he’ll be a Falcon for much longer unless he and the club can reach some sort of agreement.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Falcons Place Paul Soliai On IR

The Falcons have placed a starting defensive lineman on the injured reserve list, announcing today that they’ve moved nose tackle Paul Soliai to IR and promoted tight end D.J. Tialavea from their practice squad (Twitter link).

Soliai, who is in the second season of a five-year, $32MM contract with the Falcons, played in 14 games this year for the team, starting 10. His numbers, including 22 tackles and a fumble recovery, were modest, and Pro Football Focus viewed him as a middle-of-the-pack interior defender, ranking him 55th out of 127 qualified players.

Beginning in 2016, Soliai’s cap hit increases significantly – from $4.4MM to $6.9MM – and his salary is no longer guaranteed, so it’ll be interesting to see if Atlanta addresses his contract at all. A $7MM signing bonus ensures that he still has plenty of dead money left on his deal, so the Falcons wouldn’t create a ton of cap savings in 2016 by trading or releasing him, unless they designated him as a post-June 1 cut.