2011 Free Agents: DE

Age is an amazing thing.  It really is just a number, but depending on your circumstance and perspective age can be a huge factor.  I’m 34 myself, and I am starting to feel the effects of my age.  I’m no longer able to recover from Saturday morning football games with my buddies like I did back when I was in high school, and I can only imagine what it must be like for a player my age in the NFL, taking the abuse that they do.  Now, I’ve made references in this series of articles to this or that player being too old, but I feel that I should stress that 34 is only old in football years.

A player who lasts in the NFL until he’s 34 is a crafty veteran, but most of them are seriously looking for an exit strategy for the end of their careers.  They want one last contract that will set them up for retirement, especially if they weren’t careful with the money they made when they were younger (insert comment about Pacman Jones “Making it rain” here).  Very few people in our society are good with money when they’re still in their 20s.

In free agency, it’s almost a given that you are going to end up paying more for an older player’s name than you will for what they can still deliver on the football field.  Randy Moss comes readily to mind as an example.  The man’s had an amazing career and is still pretty talented, but he is nowhere near the player he was in his prime.  The sad part about this truth is that the last person in the world who is going to admit to it is the player himself (I’ve heard people call this “Athletic Arrogance,” which seems fitting enough).  Players like Moss tend to demand that they get paid more in their next contract than they’ve ever made before, but they’re no longer worth a price tag that big; after the age of 30, the chances of a player putting up the same stats he generated in his 20s are greatly diminished.

Since all NFL contracts are backloaded, the more years that pass on a contract, the more expensive that player becomes.  When a guy is 30 and signs a 5-year deal, it’s going to be crazy tough for him to keep his on-field production high enough to warrant the payouts the latter years of his contract are going to require, which in turn kills the team’s salary cap. 

I say all of this so that everyone understands that in writing this series I’m focusing on players who will be good long term investments for the Seahawks.  I want the team to sign players who have some vitality left, not guys with just one or two good years left (if we wanted that little out of our free agents then we should have kept Tim Ruskell around).  With that criteria in mind, the best prospects for the Hawks are players who are 25-26 years old and just coming off their rookie contracts.  Those guys have enough experience to understand what it takes to be successful in the NFL, but are still young enough to have plenty of years and upside left in their tanks.

Some postions age better than others. For example, running back is notorious for being a young man’s position.  As we all know, the age of death for a running back is 30. [Does this line remind anyone else of Logan’s Run?  That can’t date me too much, right?  I’m younger than Tom, I swear! -Ed.]  Defensive linemen age better, mainly because they aren’t on the receiving end of punishing hits — they don’t take it, they dish it out.

GM John Scheider comes from Green Bay, where the Packers have a history of not looking for the big name in free agency.  Instead, they wait until the first week of free agency is over and the other teams are done throwing huge piles of cash at the big names, then they sift through the wreckage for quality, low-cost, high-performance players.  Hopefully Schneider will keep this legacy going with the Hawks.

The Seahawks did a decent job generating a pass rush last year using castoffs from other teams, finishing with 37 sacks (good for 13th overall in the league).  Even so, the team needs more bodies to add depth to the defensive line.  Key contributors Colin Cole, Brandon Mebane, and Red Bryant all suffered various injuries last season, and once they began missing time we all got to see how shallow the depth behind them really was. There was a steep drop-off in the d-line’s effectiveness in the second half of the season, which tells me that the Hawks need players who at the very least can complement the d-linemen they already have under contract.  (Currently, Raheem Brock is a free agent, and if he remains unsigned then there is going to be a glaring need at the pass-rushing Leo DE position.)

Given how inept Seattle’s offense was in the first half of the season, I would venture to say that our defense was downright dominant at times.  However, that was only the case when all the starters were healthy.  If the team is able to add quality depth to the d-line and also upgrade the performance and consistency of the offense, we could see the defense take a huge leap next season.

Cullen Jenkins (GB)

30 years old, 6’2″, 305 lbs

For an undrafted guy, Jenkins is a stud.  He is scheme-diverse (which means he can play in both a 3-4 and a 4-3 defense), and he consistently plays with amazing leverage.  He’s also a terrific pass-rusher who can get penetration against any type of o-lineman.  The Packers are stacked along their d-line, but they are rumored to still want to retain Jenkins.  The only concern the Seahawks should have about this guy is his problems with injuries in the past.  Given that he would likely be playing in the 5-tech spot behind Red Bryant, who also has a history of injuries, this single negative could prove too much for the Hawks. 

Really though, rotating Jenkns and Bryant at the position would help prevent injuries by keeping them fresh, plus having both on the roster would safeguard against the team being caught understaffed like they were last year.  A rotation would be even more important if the Seahawks continue to struggle on offense and the defense ends up having to rack up huge amounts of playing time in each game.  Still, Jenkins is getting a little older for my tastes.  I’d be annoyed if the Hawks signed him to a longterm deal, which they might have to in order to land him since Jenkins will be looking for a contract length in the range of four to five years.  Four years is a long time in football.

Mathias Kiwanuka (NYG)

28 years old, 6’5″, 265 lbs

Kiwanuka is a big-play pass rusher who has gotten lost in the crowd of talent the Giants have in their front seven.  He was having a great season last year before a herniated disc in his neck landed him on IR.  The Giants are rumored to want to re-sign him, but I would be willing to bet that Kiwanuka might want to go another team where he could get more playing time and find out what kind of stats he could generate on his own. 

However, the only place Kiwanuka would fit on the Seahawks’ d-line would be at the Leo spot.  He would thrive there, allowing us to generate a pass rush and remain strong against the run, but the Hawks already have a capable Leo under contract by the name of  Chris Clemons.  What Seattle needs is depth behind Clemons, and in that capacity Kiwanuka might be a luxury that the team cannot afford.

Charles Johnson (CAR)

24 years old, 6’2″, 275 lbs

Although Johnson is short and a little on the light side for the 5-tech position, you can’t argue with potential.  The Panthers drafted him in 2007 in the third round as a possible future replacement for Julius Peppers, and last year when finally given a chance to prove himself he produced double-digit sacks.  Carolina hopes it can re-sign Johnson, but it’s going to cost them because of his two best qualities: he’s young, and he’s still improving.

This is the sort of player I wouldn’t mind seeing the Seahawks paying for.  Johnson has a few years of experience, but he’s still young enough to remain a contributor for a long time.  You can assume that he’ll be asking for a five to six year contract, but he’s young enough to make signing him for that long worthwhile.  If he added 10 – 15 pounds, he could be a very attractive player.  I’m not sure he’d be able to sub for interior guys like Cole and Mebane, but he could rotate with Bryant and bounce outside to the Leo position in obvious running situations.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m gushing over Johnson, though. I doubt that Schneider will pursue a free agent as expensive as him, but he’s someone to keep in mind.  I guess this really depends on how serious Carroll was about making the d-line a priority this offseason.

Ray Edwards (MIN)

26 years old, 6’5″, 168 lbs

Another Leo prospect, Edwards has often been overshadowed by Jared Allen on the other side of the Vikings’ d-line.  Edwards started the 2010 season off slowly, only getting 1.5 sacks in his first 7 games.  He then went on to rack up 7 more sacks in the 9 remaining games, finishing the season with 8.5.

Edwards does have a past of which we should at least be mindful.  He was suspended for four games for violating the NFL’s steroid policy.  This could be a concern if there’s a chance he could become a repeat offender, but this is a subject I don’t know much about.  For all I know, Edwards could have been fed bogus information about a supplement he was taking and tested positive as a result.  That does seem to be the excuse players usually give, anyway.

I also have the same issues with Edwards that I do with Kiwanuka.  Both players are better fits for the Leo position, and as depth both may be overpriced for the Seahawks’ needs.

Jason Babin (TEN)

30 years old, 6’3″, 260 lbs

The tattoos, man — you’ve got to love the tattooos!  Babin has been with the Seahawks before, spending some time as depth in the 2007 and the early part of the 2008 season.  Last year, he finally put together a season worthy of his first round status back in 2004, racking up 12.5 sacks, 58 tackles, and two forced fumbles.  He’s known for having a high motor, and in 2010 he had only one game in which he didn’t register a sack.

But given his previous stint with the team, I doubt he would want to come back (unless he has fond memories of sitting on the bench).  I’d be willing to bet that he will re-sign with the Titans just as soon as free agency starts up.

Shaun Ellis (NYJ)

33 years old, 6’5″, 290 lbs

Ellis is still an adequate 5-tech and may garner moderate interest this offseason, but I’m not sure he is who I would want for the Seahawks.  He’s getting up there in age — I mean, he’s almost as old as I am!  [I bet he remembers Logan’s Run. -Ed.]  Ellis would be a great rotational prospect, but his contract demands will almost certainly put him out of the Seahawks’ reach.  In other words, his age puts him squarely in the “pay me for my name, not my production” camp.  He also has a bit of a history with Mary Jane, and he had a disagreement with a lady friend in college that caught the attention of the cops.  All in all, I would rather the Hawks went in a different direction.  Besides, while I was reasearching Ellis I came across a guy by the same name, which started me thinking about the movie Dinner for Schmucks (if you’e seen the movie, you’ll understand what I’m talking about).

Other Notable Free Agents:

Kenny Iwebema (ARZ)

Bryan Robinson (ARZ)

Jayme Mitchell (CLE)

Robaire Smith (CLE)

Stephen Bowen (DAL)

Jason Hatcher (DAL)

Marcus Spears (DAL)

Cliff Avril (DET)

Turk McBride (DET)

Mark Anderson (HOU)

Wallace Gilberry (KC)

Shaun Smith (KC)

Tony McDaniel (MIA)

Brian Robison (MIN)

Anthony Hargrove (NO)

Jimmy Wilkerson (NO)

Dave Tollefson (NYG)

Victor Abiamiri (PHI)

Nick Eason (PIT)

Chris Hoke (PIT)

Jacques Cesaire (SD)

Travis Johnson (SD)

Ray McDonald (SF)

CJ Ah You (STL)

Tim Crowder (TB)

Greg White (TB)

Dave Ball (TEN)

Kedric Golston (WAS)

After looking through all the available defensive ends in free agency this year, I have to say that I’m not impressed with this year’s crop of supposed studs.  Last year we had peppers to drool over, and I just don’t see the same quality this year.  Still, the Hawks really do need to add depth behind Bryant and Clemons, so I’m hoping Schneider and company are able to find a diamond in the rough, possibly someone buried on another team’s depth chart.  The draft this year is also very rich with defensive end talent, which is good because for all we know the draft may be all we get for free agency this year and we could end up trying to fill holes in the draft.  This could make for an interesting draft experience, as the quantity and quality of the d-line players available will allo Seattle’s front office to pick up quality players in the later rounds.