2012 NFL Free Agency: Finding defensive value

Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams (#34) tries to avoid the tackle of Atlanta Falcons defensive end John Abraham (#55) in the first half of an NFL football game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia on October 16, 2011. The Falcons defeated the Panthers 31-17. UPI Photo/Erik S. Lesser

Here is Part 2 of my two-part series on finding value in NFL free agency this offseason. You can check out Part 1 (offensive value) here.

DEFENSIVE END: John Abraham (Falcons)
At this point in his career, Abraham reminds me of Leonard Little and his final years in the NFL. At 34, Abraham isn’t a full-time player any more but he’s still very productive as a situational pass rusher. The Falcons did a great job keeping him fresh the past two years by constantly rotating him in and out of the lineup. He racked up 9.5 sacks last season and there were a handful of games when he was the Falcons’ lone pass rusher. He wants one more shot at a championship before he walks off into the sunset and seeing as how Atlanta is content with him testing the market, he would be a great addition for a Super Bowl contender looking to beef up its pass rush. In fact, the Falcons better hope the Saints don’t find a way to fit him under their cap.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE: Brodrick Bunkley (Broncos)
Bunkley recorded 43 tackles but no sacks in 16 regular season games last season, which could turn some folks off. But according to Pro Football Focus, 11.3% of all plays Bunkley was in run defense ended up with him making a defensive stop (which was the most of all defensive tackles in the league). Injuries ransacked his 2010 campaign but Bunkley has always been a force against the run and at 28, he still has three or four quality years left in him.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER: Manny Lawson (Bengals)
Some had their doubts about whether Lawson could play in Cincinnati’s 4-3 front after spending his first five years playing in San Francisco’s 3-4. But he played very well against the run and offers teams versatility in that he can stand up or stick his hand in the dirt while rushing the quarterback. He’s only a two-down linebacker because his coverage skills are nothing to write home about, but at 28 he still has plenty of quality years ahead of him and now teams know he can play in either a 43 or 34.

INSIDE LINEBACKER: Channing Crowder (Dolphins/Retirement)
Crowder flirted with retirement last season while taking the entire year off but he stated a couple of weeks ago that he wants to return to the NFL. If he can get back into shape, Crowder would be a nice addition to any defense looking for a two-down ‘backer. Most of his experience in the NFL has come in a 3-4 but he did play some 4-3 in Mike Nolan’s hybrid scheme in Miami. Crowder played very well in 2010 and while he may have to settle for a limited role in the early going next season, he could be a solid, cheap signing for a team looking for a run thumper.

CORNERBACK: Terrell Thomas (Giants)
Thomas tore his right ACL during the 2011 season but when healthy, he’s an above average No. 2 corner that plays the run very well. Apparently he’s ahead of schedule with his knee and at 27 he’s still relatively young. If he doesn’t re-sign with the Giants he would be a perfect fit in any Cover-2 team looking for a physical corner to set the edge. And with Carlos Rogers, Brent Grimes, Cortland Finnegan and Brandon Carr already set to hit the open market, Thomas will be a cheap signing offseason. (Especially seeing as how he’s coming off the ACL injury.)

SAFTEY: James Sanders (Falcons)
After being released by the Patriots last season Sanders was picked up by the Falcons and notched starting time at both safety spots. While he can be a liability sometimes in coverage, Sanders plays the run well and has plenty of postseason experience. Good safeties are extremely hard to find and while Sanders isn’t the best player on the market, the 28-year-old vet would be a welcome addition to a team starved for safety help. (He’s also not going to break the bank after playing as a spot starter last season.)

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Patriots’ secondary looks less than super on paper

In the weeks leading up to the kickoff the 2008 NFL Season, I’ll take a look at position groups that could potentially lift teams to new heights, or bury them and their postseason hopes. Thursday I take a look at the New England Patriots and their potential issues in the secondary.

It would be naïve to think that the New England Patriots won’t contend for another AFC East crown, the postseason or a Super Bowl appearance. They’re still the franchise all other teams gun for and certainly should be the favorites to win Super Bowl XLII.

But has anyone taken a look at the Pats’ secondary this year?

When cornerback Asante Samuel signed a multi-million dollar deal with the Eagles in the offseason, there was virtually no panic in New England. And why should there have been? Bill Belichick’s defensive scheme allows any player – first rounder or street free agent – to be plugged into the starting lineup and succeed. The system is set up to win as a team, instead of relying on a couple of individual players to dominate. And as the results have shown over the years, the system works.

But the Patriots haven’t had a good start to 2008. Not only is the former Pro Bowler Samuel in Philly, but projected starters Rodney Harrison and James Sanders have also missed significant camp time this summer. The team recently signed former Buc and Bronco veteran John Lynch to help fix the leak at safety. Granted Lynch is a tremendous leader who brings loads of experience to the field, but due to his limitations in coverage he puts a lot of pressure on either Sanders or second year player Brandon Merriweather to cover more ground from the free safety position.

The news isn’t entirely bleak for the Pats’ secondary. Several publications have noted how comfortable Merriweather looks in his second year and corner Ellis Hobbs is vastly underrated (although he was abused by Plaxico Burress in the Super Bowl and is also coming off two early-offseason surgeries). But who will play opposite Hobbs? Veteran Jason Webster is on his last legs and Fernando Bryant is arguably best suited to play nickel at this point in his career. Maybe they’ll find a gem in rookies Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite, but regardless, there’s a ton of uncertainty in the Pats secondary at this point in preseason.

Tom Brady is back. Randy Moss is back. Bill Belichick is back. Make no mistake – the Patriots are once again the team to beat in the NFL. But just like Brady and the offensive line were exposed by the Giants in last January’s Super Bowl, watch for opposing teams to try and attack New England’s secondary in 2008. And if injuries continue to mount in the defensive backfield, we could be looking at a very vulnerable Patriots’ defense this season.

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