Houston Texans defensive end turned outside linebacker Mario Williams will be the marquee free agent this offseason not named Peyton Manning. (Interesting side note: The Texans drafted Williams No. 1 overall in part due to Manning’s presence in the AFC South and now they will both hit the market at the same time.) He is a natural at defensive end in a 4-3 defense, but did well enough in 2011 to garner interest from 3-4 teams.
Productive pass rushers such as Williams usually don’t become free agents while they are in their prime -- the most recent example was Julius Peppers, who signed with the Chicago Bears two offseasons ago -- so he will cash in big time. Especially now that Cliff Avril, Calais Campbell and Robert Mathis, three of the other top defensive ends who were set to become free agents, got the franchise tag from their respective teams.
Jason Jones of the Tennessee Titans and Red Bryant of the Seattle Seahawks are two of the top defensive tackles, and Paul Soliai of the Miami Dolphins and Sione Pouha of the New York Jets are the top nose tackles.
Cory Redding, a starter for the Ravens the past two seasons, is a free agent, too. If he doesn’t return to the Ravens, Arthur Jones and Pernell McPhee should get expanded roles. Brandon McKinney is also a free agent.
Here is a look at the top free agent defensive linemen on the market and where they could wind up in 2012.
1. Mario Williams: He has 53 sacks in six seasons -- including five in five games as a linebacker last season -- but his sack totals have declined each season since recording a career-high 14 sacks in 2007. Still, he is 27 and a freak of nature. You can be certain that pretty much every defensive coordinator thinks he can get help Williams reach his peak.
2. Jeremy Mincey: Mincey, 28, had a career-high eight sacks and 57 tackles in his first full season as a starter.
Potential suitors: Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Buffalo Bills
3. John Abraham: Abraham, who turns 34 in May, had 22.5 sacks the past two seasons. The Falcons say they would like to have him back, but at what cost? He should generate interest as a stopgap at the position.
Potential suitors: Atlanta Falcons, New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks, Chicago Bears.
4. Mark Anderson: Anderson, who had 10 sacks in 2011 despite making just one start, seems likely to remain with the New England Patriots.
Potential suitors: New England Patriots.
5. Cory Redding: Redding, 31, has been a solid performer on the defensive line in his two years here. He is a team leader and can still play, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the Ravens went with their young guys instead.
Potential suitors: Baltimore Ravens, Indianapolis Colts, Atlanta Falcons, New England Patriots.
Other notable free agents (2011 team in parenthesis): Israel Idonije (Chicago Bears), Raheem Brock (Seattle Seahawks), Andre Carter (New England Patriots), Aaron Smith (Pittsburgh Steelers), Luis Castillo (San Diego Chargers), Kendall Langford (Miami Dolphins), Adam Carriker (Washington Redskins).
1. Paul Soliai: The Miami Dolphins put the franchise tag on this big nose tackle before the 2011 season. When he reaches the open market this offseason, count on 3-4 teams in need of a nose tackle strongly pursuing him.
2. Jason Jones: Jones is an athletic, versatile tackle who flashed ability to push the pocket while with the Tennessee Titans.
3. Sione Pouha: Pouha, a nose tackle, has been a starter for the New York Jets the past three seasons. But they have Kenrick Ellis, a third-round draft pick a year ago, waiting in the wings should Pouha leave.
Potential suitors: New York Jets, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, Pittsburgh Steelers.
4. Red Bryant: His stats won't pop out at you -- he had 32 tackles and one sack in 2011 -- but he played well in his first full season as a starter with the Seattle Seahawks. Plus he is a fit in both the 4-3 and 3-4 defenses.
Potential suitors: Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots, San Diego Chargers, Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts.
5. Aubrayo Franklin: Franklin, who spent four seasons in Baltimore, was with the New Orleans Saints in 2011. He played defensive tackle in a 4-3 there, but he should garner interest from teams in need of a nose tackle.
Potential suitors: Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs, New York Jets, Arizona Cardinals, Denver Broncos.
Other notable free agents (2011 team in parenthesis): Albert Haynesworth (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Antonio Garay (San Diego Chargers), Brodrick Bunkley (Denver Broncos), Shaun Rogers (New Orleans Saints), Amobi Okoye (Chicago Bears), Kelly Gregg (Kansas City Chiefs), Brandon McKinney (Baltimore Ravens), Pat Sims and Jonathan Fanene (Cincinnati Bengals).