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Free agent buyer's guide: Finding value on defense

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With free agency set to begin in just a few weeks, we'll all line up to declare winners and losers before the ink is dry on all the new deals. But time and time again, the teams who actually 'win' free agency are the ones looking for fairly-priced, complementary pieces on the open market and not players who will fill a gaping void on offense or defense. Think the Patriots, not the Bills. Think the Broncos and Panthers, not the Dolphins.

So who are these complementary pieces, you ask? Here is a primer on some of the defensive players at each position who will come at a good bargain with a high upside, assuming they are not tagged or re-signed before the market opens. Bargain is a relative term in this context, as some players will inevitably command a higher price tag than others.

On Tuesday, we tackled offense. Now, it's time for the defense.

Defensive tackles

Damon Harrison headlines this position group thanks in part to his versatility. Harrison earned a payday because of his performance as a nose tackle in a 3-4 defense, but there's little doubt he can bump a shade over and play a strong defensive tackle in a 4-3.

If you don't feel like spending that much, 49ers defensive tackle Ian Williams might be more your speed. Williams is probably a level below Harrison but he's only 26 and has plenty of room to grow. Expect him to draw a good amount of interest from teams looking to beef up against the run.

Nick Fairley will be a more interesting case. There's a good chance this is his breakout year. The Rams got him on a one-year bargain deal, but he only played 427 snaps. In that time he played well -- but well enough to earn a multi-year deal? And well enough to lead other teams to believe he has a consistent motor? If there are questions, there are doubts and Fairley at the right price again would be a gift for a team in need of some bulk.

Still too pricey? You're in luck. There is a talented veteran class that includes Haloti Ngata, B.J. Raji, Terrance Knighton and Cullen Jenkins that should get you through a few weeks. Ngata might be the steal of the class if the 32-year-old, who previously said he doesn't know how many years he has left, wants to play for a contender and hog up space in the middle. His second half in Detroit was promising.

Defensive ends

Assuming Muhammad Wilkerson gets hit with the franchise tag, that leaves us to wonder what will happen with Olivier Vernon. The 25-year-old should be at the top of the market for multi-faceted defensive ends and could fit nicely in a lot of schemes. That also means he's probably going to be too expensive for the savvy general manager.

If situational pass rushing is a need, look no further than Robert Ayers, who was fantastic and woefully underused during his time with the Giants. Ayers will be 31 by Week 1, but if his deal is anywhere near the two-year, $3.75 million contract he signed with the Giants, Ayers' future employer will be in luck. Contract analysis site Spotrac values his next deal at three years, $18.4 million, but he can probably be had for less. William Hayes is in a similar boat.

For a team looking at the long haul, Jaye Howard in Kansas City and Derrick Shelby out of Miami will be more expensive but also more effective over a longer period of time.

Outside linebackers

Tahir Whitehead, a former fifth-round pick of the Detroit Lions, played well above his rookie contract and was probably one of the 10 best 4-3 outside linebackers. While the rush element of his game is not quite there, Whitehead does the dirty work -- covering and stuffing the run -- quite well. On the veteran side, Chad Greenway already has been taking paycuts to remain in Minnesota. The 33-year-old might be an interesting addition for a team looking at a quick fix on defense.

Need a rusher and don't feel like paying Bruce Irvin? Tamba Hali could be an interesting one-year option that might come under market value depending on who is looking. Hali wants to play in 2016 despite some health concerns and might end up being a beautiful fit as a situational pass rusher with a contending team if he is not steadfast on finishing his career in Kansas City. Sam Acho could also be effective for the price in the right system.

Shea McClellin is also a free agent after the Bears experimented with him on the inside. While many will be quick to jump on an underwhelming career to date, Mclellin might just need to be in the right place at the right time. A 3-4 team looking at him as an edge presence could find a valuable contributor for a prove-it price.

Inside linebackers

Rolando McClain comes to mind, even if he is a bit of a mystery. He finally started coming around in Dallas, and his 600-plus snaps in 2015 were among the best in football for inside linebackers in that scheme. Does a spotty past drive that number down to something enticing? Perhaps. If not, you're hoping that Demario Davis can have a bounce back year for the money. Jasper Brinkley also played exceedingly well over the final half of the 2015 season and could easily find his way into a starting lineup somewhere.

Danny Trevathan would seem to be the top dog in this class and likely will set the market. At 25, he was an excellent player on the best defense in the NFL and could end up with a flurry of offers much like Dannell Ellerbe a few years back. But some general managers are starting to get the hint with linebackers: Unless you have Luke Kuechly, who can transcend scheme, it's more about finding the right fit and relationships. Brinkley was a good example of that a year ago despite a woeful overall performance by the Giants.

Spencer Paysinger might be another good example, with an ability to play all three linebacker spots in a 4-3.

Cornerbacks

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This is one of the few spots where you don't really want to be frugal.

Josh Norman will be the headliner if Carolina does not use the franchise tag or sign him to a long-term deal. Prince Amukamara, a former first-round pick, also will be considered a top-tier cornerback along with Sean Smith and Adam Jones. Jones likely will not create a free-agent frenzy, but he will be a priority for the Bengals and he seems to be getting better with age.

That leaves us with names like Casey Hayward on the younger side. Hayward can play well in the slot and is an ascending player in the league, but for the price, developing someone like Brandon Boykin might be more cost-effective. Boykin could come cheap after he was dealt from the Eagles and resurfaced in Pittsburgh with playing time issues in a thin secondary.

On the veteran side, Leon Hall could be a steal for a team looking at a dependable, versatile defensive player as well as William Gay. The same can be said on a smaller scale about Trumaine McBride.

Safeties

Eric Berry and Eric Weddle are your prime options. But is there a chance that Weddle slips into the value category based on his age (31) and scheme fit? Weddle will be one of the most interesting names to watch this offseason. A team could get lucky based on the plodding nature of San Diego's front office, which allowed Weddle's current situation to come to this point. If a general manager with salary-cap space managed to get Weddle on a higher-end, one-year deal, that could be considered value in itself.

George Iloka won't break the bank, but he won't come cheap, either. Teams looking in the middle to high-end market at strong safety could do worse than the 25 year old, who should be a priority for the Bengals. Iloka's mate in the secondary, Reggie Nelson, could be a more realistic bargain signing given his age (32).

In terms of an all-out steal, a club is going to sign Walter Thurmond and be very happy about it. Thurmond was on pace for an excellent 2014 before his season was derailed by injury. Chip Kelly brought him in to play safety and he was an underrated bright spot on an Eagles defense that should have been better. Thurmond played last year on a one-year deal that counted just $3.25 million against the cap.

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