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Free agency primer: Top 25 defensive linemen

While this year's free-agent market offers scant playmakers on offense, teams in need of a defensive lineman are in luck.

Even with Greg Hardy, Brian Orakpo and Jason Worildsremoved from the equation, there's still a cornucopia of situational pass rushers and run-stuffing interior linemen.

Here's our list of the best available defensive ends and defensive tackles:

Top defensive ends

Solid starters

  1. Michael Johnson, Cincinnati Bengals
    1. Lamarr Houston, Oakland Raiders
    2. Michael Bennett, Seattle Seahawks
    3. Jared Allen, Minnesota Vikings
    4. Arthur Jones, Baltimore Ravens
    5. Justin Tuck, New York Giants

Marc Sessler has suggested a reunion with new Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer as Johnson's best fit, but an Atlanta homecoming also makes sense for the former Georgia Tech star. ... Houston played at a Pro Bowl level in the first half of last season. He might be even more productive as a 3-4 end outside of Oakland. ... Bennett deserves to get paid after settling for a one-year deal last year. Will his brother succeed in luring him to Chicago?

Allen appears to be leaving Minnesota to chase a Super Bowl ring. The Seahawks and Broncos were reported to be interested at the trade deadline last season. ... Jones has been overshadowed by two of his brothers, but he's about to get paid as a disruptive five-technique end still in his prime. ... Just when we thought Tuck was washed up, he exploded for 9.5 sacks in the final six games of last season.

Rotational ends

  1. Tyson Jackson, Kansas City Chiefs
    1. Willie Young, Detroit Lions
    2. Shaun Phillips, Denver Broncos
    3. Anthony Spencer, Dallas Cowboys
    4. Antonio Smith, Houston Texans
    5. Alex Carrington, Buffalo Bills
    6. Robert Ayers, Denver Broncos
    7. Jason Babin, Jacksonville Jaguars
    8. Jeremy Mincey, Denver Broncos
    9. Corey Wootton, Chicago Bears

Formerly considered a first-round bust, Jackson has turned his career around as an early-down run-stopper. ... Young outplayed ballyhooed first-round pick Ziggy Ansah last season. ... Phillips was Denver's most valuable pass rusher after being left for dead on last year's market. ... Spencer is a risky signing coming off microfracture knee surgery.

Smith is a productive, scheme-versatile pass rusher on the wrong side of age 30. ... Carrington is a younger, poor man's version of Smith. ... Ayers is best teamed with a tandem partner who can rush the passer. ... Mincey's effectiveness has waned over the past two seasons. ... Coming off hip surgery, Wootton expects to be healthy by training camp.

Best of the rest

Teams with the biggest need

Top defensive tackles

Solid starters

  1. Jason Hatcher, Dallas Cowboys
    1. Henry Melton, Chicago Bears
    2. B.J. Raji, Green Bay Packers
    3. Randy Starks, Miami Dolphins
    4. Linval Joseph, New York Giants

Hatcher was the league's most dominant three-technique tackle in the first half of last season. On the down side, he turns 32 during training camp. ... Melton would have a strong argument as the most attractive free agent available if he weren't coming off ACL surgery. ... Raji reportedly turned down $8 million annually from the Packers. He will struggle to match that offer on the open market.

Starks has flown under the radar as one of the NFL's most well-rounded and productive interior defenders over the past half-decade, but he's now entering his age-30 season. ... Joseph is a durable, stout run defender just entering his prime.

Rotational run-pluggers

Best of the rest

A throwback to the days of monstrous nose tackles such as Ted Washington and Grady Jackson, Soliai is an unmovable fire hydrant in the run game. ... A mammoth run-stuffing five-technique end in Pete Carroll's defense, Bryant might have to move inside with another team. Will former Seahawks coordinator Gus Bradley import him to Jacksonville?

Sims quietly rivaled Houston as the Raiders' most effective defensive player in 2013. ... Babineaux remains strong against the run but offers little pass-rushing value entering his twilight years. ... Stolen from the Bengals in a 2011 trade, McDonald has developed into a key member of the Seahawks' vaunted pass-rushing rotation.

Teams with the biggest need

Most overrated: B.J. Raji

Raji will get paid because there's a scarcity of human beings with his size and talent level, but he's had just two sacks and four quarterback hits over his last 30 games. That lack of playmaking ability would be easier to stomach if his impact in the run game hadn't fallen off the map last season.

Most underrated: Randy Starks

Starks is everything Raji is billed to be: a disruptive pocket pusher who puts heat on quarterbacks and clogs lanes in the running game. After playing under the franchise tag in 2013, Starks is primed to cash in as a high-end three-technique tackle.

Best fit: Lamarr Houston to the Packers

General manager Ted Thompson is ready to open his checkbook for the first time in recent memory as the Packers retool their defensive line to add athleticism and versatility. Houston offers both qualities as a scheme-versatile lineman capable of stopping the run on early downs and kicking inside to rush the passer in nickel packages.

Toughest to evaluate: Pat Sims

Henry Melton fits this category as well, but Sims is the quintessential enigma. There are games in which he looks like the most dominant player on the field (versus the Giants in Week 10 and Chargers in Week 16 of last season) and others in which he disappears completely. If any coach can get his motor running consistently, Sims would be a free-agent steal.

The latest edition of the "Around The League Podcast" weighs in on Monday's franchise-tag surprises and unpacks all the 49ers drama out west.

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