Draft & free agency: Defensive end

February, 14, 2014
Feb 14
5:00
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With free agency to begin March 11, and the draft from May 8-10, one thing NFL teams generally do at this time is marry the two to better assess the best approach to filling potential needs.

For example, if a team knows it's a deep draft for top-quality offensive tackles (2014 is such), it might be less inclined to be as aggressive at that position in free agency. With this in mind, our plan is to look at each position in the coming days through a similar lens.

Next on the list: Defensive end/outside linebacker (end of line player)

Draft: Not considered to have the same top-end quality/depth as some other positions, this group is headlined by South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney, who projects as a top-three pick. Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt and Missouri's Kony Ealy are viewed as other first-round possibilities, while Auburn's Dee Ford could be included in the mix although he projects more to linebacker in some schemes. Alabama's Jeoffrey Pagan's versatility and background in Nick Saban's system make him a prospect to keep on the radar in the middle rounds. The influx of underclassmen boost this group.

Free agency: Former Saints veteran Will Smith jumps near the top of the list as a potential lower-to-moderate-cost pass-rusher of interest after he was released Wednesday. He also wouldn't count against the compensatory pick formula. Carolina's Greg Hardy is viewed as one of the top pass-rushers on the market, and with Cincinnati's Michael Johnson also scheduled for free agency, that's two top players that make this position one of the best in free agency. Robert Ayers, Minnesota's Jared Allen, the New York Giants' Justin Tuck and Pittsburgh's Jason Worilds are others in this group who catch the eye for different reasons.

Patriots perspective: With starters Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones returning, the Patriots figure to be looking for help in a complementary role. Michael Buchanan (2013 seventh-round pick) is among those who could develop from within, and with that in mind, it could tilt the scales in favor of the Patriots tapping this position in free agency, where there is no shortage of options.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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