Although the NFL regular season still has 3 weeks to go, we are getting to the point of the year where collegiate players are declaring for the NFL Draft, teams are starting to become mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, and the Draft order itself is starting to settle.
Of course, before the Draft comes Free Agency, and we will be doing a Team-by-Team Offseason Blueprint feature immediately at the conclusion of the NFL regular season on what each NFL franchise needs to do from top to bottom this upcoming offseason to become more competitive in 2016 and beyond.
We don't know what will happen between now and Free Agency in March, and now until the Draft in April is even murkier waters, but what we do know is how much estimated cap room each team is slated to have going into this offseason and which players are set to hit the open market.
So with that being said, let's think through it. I have identified the Top 10 upcoming Free Agent Defensive Tackles with a little analysis to explain the logic behind where I think they will land next year.
NICK FAIRLEY | ST. LOUIS RAMS
Fairley has played some great football this season, but who wouldn't lining up next to Aaron Donald? The Rams signed Fairley to a one-year "prove-it" deal, and I would say he has proved it. The Rams are flushed with cash this offseason (approximately $56 million if they cut bait with Chris Long and James Laurinaitis), and extending Fairley seems to be a logical choice. Fairley is currently the 10th best DT according to PFF with a +19.1 grade on the season.
DAMON HARRISON | NEW YORK JETS
With all the attention on Muhammad Wilkerson's contract expiring at the end of the season, many have forgotten that "Snacks" is set to hit free agency as well. The drafting of Leonard Williams allows Wilkerson to walk, but Harrison has been a crucial anchor to this Jets defense (#8 DT, +25.1 OVR PFF grade) and there is no obvious replacement waiting in the wings. The Jets can have up to $40 million in cap room this offseason if they cut bait on D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Antonio Cromartie and Breno Giacomini who have all disappointed, and I would definitely allocate some of those funds to bring back Harrison.
HALOTI NGATA | SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Here we go. Now we get into some free agents who could have a change of scenery next year. If you watch Ngata's effort at the end of the Lions Packers game this season (the "Hail Mary" game), it is despicable. Ngata seems to not care about Detroit at all, and the Lions must feel pretty duped by giving up a draft pick for him. At this point in his career, I feel like he is going to park the bus and go to the team that pays him the most money, otherwise I feel he would have re-signed in Baltimore with what they were offering him. Enter the 49ers, who can use some help along the defensive line with Ian Williams set to walk this offseason coupled with the hole that Justin Smith left when he retired. The good news is they seem to have hit on the other DE spot with Arik Armstead playing good football in his rookie year, but I can totally see the 49ers offering Ngata the most money as they will have over $40 million in cap room (without factoring casualty cuts like Kaepernick), and they are probably going to miss out on a lot of Free Agent races because players don't want to go to a team in disarray if they have other choices.
JAYE HOWARD | CINCINNATI BENGALS
Where the hell did Jaye Howard come from this year? Howard stepped up in a big way for this Chiefs defense, and ironically, he did so in a contract year. The Chiefs would love to have Howard back, but they have bigger priorities like Derrick Johnson and Eric Berry on the docket. Look for an opportunistic team like the Bengals to snag Howard and plug him next to Geno Atkins to fill the role that Domata Peko has been terrible in for the last few seasons. Cutting Peko would save the Bengals a net $3.75 million in cap room, which could be used to lock up Howard.
BJ RAJI | ARIZONA CARDINALS
We had the Cardinals corraling Von Miller in our Edge Rushers piece, and I think they make one more splash to really make a push for some back-to-back Super Bowl runs before Carson Palmer retires. The departure of Dan Williams to Oakland left a huge hole at NT for Arizona, and although rookies Rodney Gunter and Xavier Williams have played better than I personally expected, Raji is a perfect fit to put next to Calais Campbell. More importantly, I don't expect him to break the bank for a chance to go to a contender like Arizona.
TERRANCE KNIGHTON | OAKLAND RAIDERS
The Redskins and GM Scot McCloughan signed Knighton to a one-year band-aid deal to plug in the NT position, but I don't think the Redskins are interested in extending Knighton with a Draft that is full of NT talent. Knighton joining Jack Del Rio in Oakland was a hot rumor last year, and I think it finally comes to fruition this offseason now that Knighton received a reality check about his true value. Knighton was with JDR in Jacksonville and Denver, so Del Rio knows what his game is all about. The Raiders have the most cap room in the NFL next season, and although Dan Williams already plays the role that Knighton would play in the Raiders defense, Knighton would provide great depth and some flexibility in 3rd and short plays to add some beef to the line. Knighton won't cost much, so why not?
BRANDON MEBANE | SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
Mebane hasn't been as dominant of a force for the Seahawks as he has been in years past, but the Seahawks aren't flushed with great depth at the DT position and he knows the scheme well. I also don't think there will be much of a market for Mebane, so it won't be very expensive to bring him back to Seattle. Despite all the recent blockbuster defensive re-signings, the Seahawks are projected to have $24 million in cap room, and potentially over $34 million if they cut loose Marshawn Lynch and go with Rawls next season.
IAN WILLIAMS | SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
Ian Williams is one of those unsung heroes that never get any credit because they are stuck doing "the dirty work." I don't think any 49er who's contract is up at the end of the year chooses to stay in San Francisco with the state of the franchise, so Williams stays in the Golden State and joins the Bolts. The Chargers are desperate for some help on the defensive line, and Williams would be a huge upgrade over the likes of Sean Lissemore and Ryan Carrethers. We also had the Chargers investing in DE Derek Wolfe in our Free Agent DEs article.
STEVE McCLENDON | PITTSBURGH STEELERS
While the Steelers won't have too much wiggle room with having to re-sign Kelvin Beachum and Ramon Foster, McClendon is an important role player for the defense and won't demand much in terms of salary. I would be extremely surprised if McClendon is not in black and yellow next season.
HENRY MELTON | DETROIT LIONS
Similar to Fairley, the Bucs signed Melton to a one-year "prove-it" deal before the 2015 season. Not similar to Fairley, I don't think Melton has shown enough to extend a long-term contract offer. The Lions defense has struggled mightily since the losses of Ndamokung Suh and Nick Fairley on the interior of the defensive line, and Melton is more of the pass rushing DT that fits the Lions scheme than Ngata was. Melton won't cost much and at worst, will give the Lions some depth at the position if they address it in the Draft.
*All Cap Projections are from www.spotrac.com