Free Agent Preview: Defensive Ends

Posted Feb 28, 2013

Eugene Sims had a breakthrough season in 2012 and figures to be back for more in 2013.

It was a good year to be a defensive end playing for the Rams in 2012.

With a new defensive scheme that emphasizes getting pressure on the quarterback from the front four and a defensive line coach in Mike Waufle that’s as good as any in the league, the Rams’ defensive line took flight last season in leading the way to a tie for the most sacks in the league with 52.

Heading up that production was a quartet of four ends capable of dropping the passer on any given down. Chris Long, the leader of the group, put up a team-leading 11.5 sacks followed closely by fellow starter Robert Quinn, who got to double digits for the first time in his young career with 10.5 in just his second season.

That Long and Quinn were getting to the quarterback didn’t come as much of a surprise but the lack of a dropoff to their backups in the rotation certainly caught some, especially opponents, off guard.

Signed as a free agent from Tennessee, there was probably not a more pleasant surprise on the team than third end William Hayes. Hayes came over after some injury-plagued seasons with the Titans and signed on a one-year deal.

You’d be hard pressed to find any player who provided more bang for the buck than Hayes. He posted seven sacks, good for third on the team, while showing the versatility to rush from the outside and move inside to collapse the pocket as well.

Hayes was also one of the team’s best run defenders and proved to be one of the defense’s most valuable players, starter or not.

Much like Hayes, fellow backup end Eugene Sims also began to reach his potential in 2012. He finished with three sacks of his own and was also versatile and stout against the run.

Entering this offseason and the start of free agency on March 12, the Rams could have been in a precarious position when it comes to defensive end. But that problem was solved when Long inked a lucrative long term contract with the team at the outset of training camp.

Having Long in the fold as a cornerstone player, Quinn under control for at least two more years and Sims with one more year before he can hit free agency leaves the Rams with just one pressing need amongst their own free agents.

That would be Hayes, a player who undoubtedly earned himself some money and attention on the free agent market with his performance last season. In his year in St. Louis, Hayes made fast friends with his line mates and openly acknowledged how much he enjoyed his first season here.

Likewise, the Rams want to bring Hayes back and keep him as the valuable piece of the rotation that he was last year. Of course, any end who puts up seven sacks and shows the ability to play all over the line that Hayes did figures to draw some attention on the open market.

If a team opts to pay Hayes starter money and offer him that type of a role, it could make him difficult to retain. Still, coach Jeff Fisher said at last week’s scouting combine that both sides would like to work something out.

Barring an agreement with Hayes, this year’s free agent class does provide some intriguing options though the Rams aren’t going to fork over big money for another end.

Leading the free agent class is Cincinnati’s underrated Michael Johnson, a player who could end up getting the franchise tag after another big season. Detroit’s Cliff Avril, Indianapolis’ Dwight Freeney and Dallas’ Anthony Spencer all represent top tier options for teams in need of a 4-3 end or even a 3-4 rush linebacker though only Spencer projects best in that role.

In terms of backup options that the Rams could have interest in should Hayes depart, players like Seattle’s Jason Jones (who has versatility and visited the Rams last year), Atlanta’s Lawrence Sidbury and Oakland’s Matt Shaughnessy could be among the choices.

Of course, only in the event that Hayes leaves will defensive end become any sort of need for the Rams to fill. And they could opt to wait until the mid to late rounds of the draft to do it by handing over a prospect they like to Waufle and letting him bring that player along.

Defensive Ends

1. Michael Johnson, Cincinnati: Quietly has been a consistent terror as a pass rusher. Bengals desperate to keep him but he’ll get major money if he hits the market.
2. Cliff Avril, Detroit: He’s still only 27 and pass rushers with his production and youth always cash in.
3. Dwight Freeney, Indianapolis: Still has some gas in the tank and would likely be well served to go back to a 4-3 team.
4. Anthony Spencer, Dallas: Major pass rush skills but has been inconsistent for much of his career. Still has upside at 29 and fits in well for any 3-4 team.
5. Michael Bennett, Tampa Bay: Better against the run than as a pass rusher but capable of being a solid starter for any team.

Others to Watch: Glenn Dorsey, Kansas City; Jason Jones, Seattle; Lawrence Sidbury, Atlanta; Juqua Parker, Cleveland; Osi Umenyiora, New York Giants; Matt Shaughnessy, Oakland.

Rams Free Agents: William Hayes