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Free agency primer: Ranking the top pass rushers

Around the League's positional free-agent previews are ranked according to the players we would want -- not the players who will make the most money. Our first in the series: Available pass rushers at defensive end and outside linebacker.

Note that "five-technique" (3-4 alignment) defensive ends will be included in the defensive tackle group. We listed each player with the team they played for in 2012. Here goes:

Proven pass rushers in their prime


1. **Michael Johnson, Cincinnati Bengals
2. Cliff Avril, Detroit Lions (UPDATE: Signed with the Seattle Seahawks)
3. Anthony Spencer, Dallas Cowboys
4. Paul Kruger, Baltimore Ravens (UPDATE: Signed with the Cleveland Browns)
5. Michael Bennett, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Notes: The most well-rounded of the young pass rushers, Johnson was strong against the run while compiling 11.5 sacks last season. Was it a coincidence that he finally put it all together in a contract year? Expect him to get the franchise tag if he doesn't reach agreement on an extension by Monday. ... Avril is soft against the run and was on the field for fewer snaps per game than any player in the top two tiers. On the positive side, he's the most naturally gifted pass rusher among those still in their prime.

Among the game's best run defenders at outside linebacker, Spencer has been an underrated sidekick to DeMarcus Ware for the past half decade. The cap-strapped Cowboys would like to find a way to keep him, but it's not a great scheme fit in Monte Kiffin's 4-3 defense. ... By the time the Ravens reached the Super Bowl, Kruger was arguably the most valuable defender on the team. A full-time starter for the first time, Kruger did most of his damage once Terrell Suggs returned from Achilles surgery at midseason. Does that make him more of a complementary player? ... Originally undrafted out of Texas A&M, Bennett has drawn less attention than brother Martellus despite having a far greater impact on the field. He's coming off back-to-back stellar campaigns as a complete three-down defensive end.

**3/1/2013 Update: Bengals assigned the franchise tag to Johnson.

Proven pass rushers with flaws

6. Dwight Freeney, Indianapolis Colts
7. Osi Umenyiora, New York Giants
8. John Abraham, Atlanta Falcons
9. Connor Barwin, Houston Texans (UPDATE: Agreed to terms with the Philadelphia Eagles)
10. Israel Idonije, Chicago Bears

Notes: Freeney was a poor fit for Chuck Pagano's 3-4 defense, but he's an ideal pickup for a contender seeking a situational pass rusher to reach the Super Bowl. The Broncos, Falcons, Seahawks, Giants and Patriots should be hot on the borderline Hall of Famer's trail. ... Umenyiora is just a year younger than Freeney, but hasn't displayed quite the same level of consistent dominance over the past decade. He should be a fallback option for teams that miss out on Freeney. ... Released by the Falcons due to a $7.25 million salary-cap number, Abraham enters the open market after recording 10 of the team's 29 sacks in 2012. Similar to Freeney and Umenyiora, Abraham can still help a contender by consistently getting to the quarterback as he enters his mid-30s. ... Barwin is a tricky player to evaluate. After tying for the NFL sacks lead in the second half of the 2011 season, he was one of the least effective pass rushers in the league last year. The Texans want him back, but he'll have to lower his asking price. ... Idonije is the rare player coming off the best season of his career at age 32. He settled for a one-year, $2.5 million deal from the Bears at this time last offseason.

Talented pass rushers with question marks

11. Victor Butler, Dallas Cowboys
12. William Hayes, St. Louis Rams
13. Matt Shaughnessy, Oakland Raiders
14. Lawrence Jackson, Detroit Lions
15. Shaun Phillips, San Diego Chargers
16. Juqua Parker, Cleveland Browns
17. Andre Carter, Oakland Raiders

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Notes: Playing behind Spencer and Ware, Butler compiled 11 sacks despite just two starts over the past four seasons. Still just 25 years old, he should appeal to teams seeking a breakout edge rusher in a 3-4 scheme. Don't be surprised if Rob Ryan brings him along while setting up his defense in New Orleans. ... Hayes bounced back as a productive situational pass rusher in St. Louis after battling knee and shoulder injuries in Tennessee. ... Shaughnessy was viewed as an up-and-comer two years ago, but hasn't been the same player since undergoing shoulder surgery in 2011. He has to prove he can stay healthy and effective.

"LoJack" has shown the ability to rush the passer and stop the run as a rotational end under Jim Schwartz the past three years. ... Phillips' entered the decline phase of his career last season, but could help Ray Horton transition the Browns to a 3-4 scheme under former coach Norv Turner. ... Similar to Idonije, Parker is coming off one of his best seasons at age 34. He keyed a surprising Browns pass rush as a situational 4-3 defensive end. ... Finally over a torn quadriceps muscle, Carter exceeded expectations upon signing in Oakland at mid-season. The Raiders want him back for his age-34 season.

Rotational/situational players

18. Kyle Vanden Bosch, Detroit Lions
19. Robert Geathers, Cincinnati Bengals (UPDATE: Agreed to terms with the Cincinnati Bengals)
20. Frostee Rucker, Cleveland Browns
21. Antwan Barnes, San Diego Chargers
22. Darryl Tapp, Philadelphia Eagles
23. Wallace Gilberry, Cincinnati Bengals (UPDATE: Signed with the Cincinnati Bengals.)<
24. Quentin Groves, Arizona Cardinals (UPDATE: Signed with the Cleveland Browns.)
25. Calvin Pace, New York Jets
26. Ray Edwards, Atlanta Falcons
27. Erik Walden, Green Bay Packers (UPDATE: Agreed to terms with the Indianapolis Colts)
28. Bryan Thomas, New York Jets
29. Kyle Moore, Buffalo Bills
30. Trevor Scott, New England Patriots
31. Shawne Merriman, Buffalo Bills
32. Jonathan Fanene, New England Patriots
33. Chris Wilson, Washington Redskins
34. Jamaal Westerman, Indianapolis Colts
35. Turk McBride, New Orleans Saints
36. Antwan Applewhite, Carolina Panthers

Notes: Vanden Bosch's tank might be on empty at age 34 after playing through severe knee pain last season. Former coach Jeff Fisher could import him to St. Louis as a mentor for Robert Quinn and Michael Brockers while playing 15-20 snaps per game. ... Geathers is more of a run plugger than a pass rusher. ... Rucker was a free-agent bust in Cleveland after playing strong run defense in Cincinnati. ... Barnes followed a surprising 2011 breakout season with a disappointing performance in 2012.

Gilberry can rush the passer as long as his snaps are limited to roughly 20 per game. ... Pace's career has been in steady decline. It's hard to find an outside linebacker putting less pressure on quarterbacks. ... NFL teams showed scant interest in Edwards after the Falcons cut him in November for refusing to join a team gathering in the locker room. It's fair to wonder if he's more interested in boxing than football.

Position overview


Beyond Spencer and Barwin, there's little depth available for teams seeking a 3-4 edge rusher.

The primary concern with the upper echelon pass-rushing free agents is whether they are capable of beating double teams or are merely complementary players. Is it a coincidence that Johnson and Bennett are coming off career years with three-technique tackles Geno Atkins and Gerald McCoy dominating in the trenches? Similarly, Kruger and Spencer have a smoother route to the quarterback with Suggs and Ware taking on extra defenders. For Super Bowl contenders seeking that final push, proven pocket crashers Freeney and Umenyiora might actually carry less risk than the under-30 crowd.

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Teams with a need


Arizona Cardinals: New coordinator Todd Bowles could use a pass rusher opposite Calais Campbell and depth at outside linebacker.
Atlanta Falcons: John Abraham is nearing the end of this career, and Ray Edwards was a free-agent flop.
Baltimore Ravens: Kruger's loss will be severe if Terrell Suggs doesn't recapture 2011 form.
Green Bay Packers: Clay Matthews still needs a sidekick.
Indianapolis Colts: Freeney's exit leaves a book-end vacancy opposite Robert Mathis.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Draft and free-agent busts have left the Jaguars without a pass rush at defensive end.
Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins need a pass rusher opposite Cameron Wake.
New England Patriots: Chandler Jones can't carry the load all by himself.
New York Jets: Rex Ryan desperately needs to add speed off the edge.
New Orleans Saints: Rob Ryan finds the cupboard bare at outside linebacker.
Oakland Raiders: Dennis Allen is overhauling his front-seven after finishing 31st in sacks last year.
Seattle Seahawks: "Elephant" pass rusher Chris Clemons just tore his ACL in early January.
Washington Redskins: Getting Brian Orakpo back will help, but the 'Skins still need more pressure up front.

Follow Chris Wesseling on Twitter @ChrisWesseling.

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