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Lions' Cliff Avril at head of free-agent DL class

Lots of risk when pursuing pass rushers


Leading up to the official start of free agency on March 12, will examine the league's unrestricted free agents, position by position. In the fifth installment, we look at the defensive linemen.

GREEN BAY—Pass rushers generate a ton of debate during free agency.

Is he past his prime? Does he fit the scheme? Does he get his sacks when it matters or in garbage time?

The dollars that pass rushers command make it almost impossible to find a bargain. Sacks are a high-priced commodity, and there's no getting them cheap.

With Cincinnati defensive end Michael Johnson and his 11½ sacks last season off the market thanks to the franchise tag, perhaps the head of the free-agent class is Detroit's Cliff Avril, who was tagged last year but is now available. Avril has 20½ sacks over the last two years and will be entering just his sixth season.

Two other young defensive ends not quite as well known are Tampa Bay's Michael Bennett and St. Louis' William Hayes. Bennett had a career-high nine sacks in 2012, his fourth season, while Hayes recorded seven sacks for the Rams after four largely nondescript years in Tennessee.

After that, the "past his prime" question applies to a glut of available pass rushers who will have varying levels of gas left in the tank. It's up to the sack-needy teams to decide where they can get the most value.

Indy's Dwight Freeney is 33 and was probably miscast as an outside linebacker when the Colts changed schemes last year. He will intrigue teams looking to return him to end in a 4-3. The New York Giants' Osi Umenyiora is another classic 4-3 end whose track record is strong, but whose production began tailing off last year.

Chicago's Israel Idonije has been a revelation the last three years in Chicago (20 sacks), taking advantage of all the double teams sent Julius Peppers' way on the other side. The Bears made interior lineman Henry Melton their higher priority this offseason, handing Melton the franchise tag. With Johnson franchised, Cincinnati may try to keep Robert Geathers as well.

The list of longtime veterans looking for one last shot seems almost endless. Who has the most to offer amongst Cleveland's Juqua Parker, Oakland's Richard Seymour and Andre Carter, Detroit's Kyle Vanden Bosch and Atlanta's John Abraham is anyone's guess.

Becoming nearly as valuable in today's NFL, of course, are the interior linemen who can defend the run as well as get after the quarterback. Players like this never have stats that jump off the page, but their game can jump off the film to scouts and personnel evaluators.

Chicago's tag of Melton and Miami's tag of Randy Starks are proof of that. Those decisions are thought to potentially drive up the market for Kansas City's Glenn Dorsey, the former No. 5 overall pick, if he doesn't re-sign with the Chiefs, though Dorsey is coming off an injury-plagued 2012.

Former Packer Cullen Jenkins hit it big in free agency two years ago with Philadelphia but is available again after being released. The Packers reportedly have interest in the New York Giants' Chris Canty and possibly San Francisco's Ricky Jean Francois, but those players will have other suitors, as well.

If Tennessee lets Sen'Derrick Marks reach free agency, he could be viewed as an up-and-comer. Dwan Edwards is coming off a solid year in Carolina, while Oakland's Desmond Bryant was potentially going to generate significant interest, but his prospects may have changed with a recent arrest.

For pure, in-the-trenches grunt work, San Francisco nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, Detroit's Sammie Hill and Seattle's Alan Branch could benefit from a change of scenery. New Orleans' Sedrick Ellis didn't do himself any favors with minimal production in a contract year.

Meanwhile, Baltimore's Ma'ake Kemoeatu, Pittsburgh's Casey Hampton and Denver's Justin Bannan may try to hang on for another year or two.

Previous position: Offensive line

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