It’s a good thing the NFL draft is deep in defensive ends and edge rushers, because the list of appealing free agents keeps shrinking for the Dolphins and other teams who are looking to upgrade their front seven.
The Giants’ Jason Pierre Paul, San Diego’s Melvin Ingram and Arizona’s Chandler Jones are off the market after being given franchise tags this week. And Carolina gave a three-year, $22.5 million contract to defensive end Mario Addison, who had 9.5 sacks last season.
The upshot is that Andre Branch is poised to cash in after collecting 49 tackles, six sacks, two forced fumbles and injecting energy in a Dolphins defense after becoming a full-time starter in Game 6.
Fact is, Branch is one of only 12 to 15 starting-caliber unrestricted free agent defensive ends. And that supply-and-demand issue, combined with his age (27), could push his salary above what Miami wants to pay him, though the Dolphins appreciate his value and would like to keep him if it makes financial sense.
Agent Jimmy Sexton, who now represents Branch, has no incentive to give Miami a discount, even though Branch had more success here than in Jacksonville.
So what other starting-caliber unrestricted free agent defensive ends are scheduled to hit the market next week?
• Calais Campbell, the former UM star who had 53 tackles, eight sacks and 20 quarterback hits for Arizona last season. But he earned $11 million last year and it’s questionable if the Dolphins would be willing to get into a bidding war with expected suitor Washington and others for a player who’s still very good, but beginning the backside of his career.
Spotrac projects he will make $8.3 million per season in a new deal, but that seems low, considering the dearth of high-end defensive ends in free agency.
• Jabaal Sheard. He played 55.4 percent of the Patriots snaps and had 32 tackles and five sacks while making $7.5 million.
Agent Drew Rosenhaus is going to get him a good deal and he’s a logical option if Miami can’t reach a deal with Branch. PFF rated him 24th against the run among all edge defenders last season; Branch was 66th.
• Charles Johnson. Another Rosenhaus client, he ranked 14th against the run among all edge defenders and had 26 tackles, four sacks and three forced fumbles in 13 starts for Carolina. Johnson, at 30, is three years older than Sheard.
• William Gholston. Was Tampa’s best run defender and had 37 tackles and three sacks in 14 starts.
• Devin Taylor. The Lions starter had 28 tackles with 4.5 sacks. But the Lions want to go in a new direction and are unlikely to resign him, according to the Detroit Free Press.
• Paul Kruger. Had 25 tackles and 6.5 sacks in 13 starts for the Saints. But on his career backside at 31.
• There are also outside linebackers with defensive end experience, including past-their-prime DeMarcus Ware (34) and Julius Peppers (37). Difficult to see Miami going that route after that failed Mario Williams experience, though both played better last season than Williams did in Buffalo in 2015.
Green Bay’s Nick Perry, who had a very good season and can stop the run, was a 4-3 end in college but a linebacker for the Packers.
• Among part-time starting defensive ends set to hit the market as unrestricted free agents: New England’s Chris Long (made seven starts, four sacks), Dallas’ Jack Crawford (10 starts, 3.5 sacks), Jared Odrick (the former Dolphin was released by the Jaguars; one sack in six games last season), the Chargers’ Damion Square (seven starts, 2.5 tackles) and Houston’s John Simon (five starts, 3.5 sacks).
The Dolphins will need to add two or three defensive ends, depending on whether they can re-sign Branch. Beyond Cameron Wake, the only NFL veterans the Dolphins have under contract at the position are Terrence Fede, Julius Warmsley and Dion Jordan (and colleague Armando Salguero reports he won’t be back with Miami).
The free agent defensive tackle market is stronger, with more than a dozen starters including Baltimore’s Brandon Williams (NFL Net’s Ian Rapoport expects Miami will pursue him), Kansas City’s Dontari Poe, New Orleans’ Nick Fairley, the Giants’ Jonathan Hankins, Philadelphia’s Benny Logan, Cincinnati’s Domata Peko, Jacksonville’s Tyson Alualu, New England’s Alan Branch, Denver’s Sylvester Williams, Detroit’s Tyrunn Walker, Dallas’ Terrell McClain, Oakland’s Stacy McGee, Washington’s Ziggy Hood and Chris Baker (a 300-pounder who was an end for the Redskins).
So the Dolphins will have options in finding a third tackle to start ahead of Jordan Phillips or share time with him and also back up Ndamukong Suh.