Free-agent fit: Defensive end/OLB

March, 4, 2014
Mar 4
5:00
AM ET
Second installment in a multipart series on free-agent fits at various positions leading into the start of free agency March 11.

Position: Defensive end/outside linebacker

Players under contract for 2013: Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Michael Buchanan, Jake Bequette

Level of need: High

Projected top targets: Jared Allen (Vikings), Robert Ayers (Broncos), Everson Griffen (Vikings)

Why Allen fits: Veteran pass-rusher could provide a boost to the Patriots' sub packages, which were run 67 percent of the time in 2013 and continue to be a big part of defensive football in today's NFL.

Why Ayers fits: At 6-foot-3 and 274 pounds, he was a first-round draft choice of the Broncos in 2009 when Josh McDaniels was in his first year as head coach. He hasn't produced at the level some draft analysts have anticipated, but is coming off a career-high 5.5-sack season and might be a good value signing.

Why Griffen fits: For a multiple defense that values versatility, the 6-foot-3, 273-pound Griffen could be an intriguing piece whether playing in a two- or three-point stance. First-year Patriots assistant coach Brendan Daly should have good intel on him from their time together the past two years in Minnesota (same with Jared Allen).

Other names of note: Andre Carter (Patriots), Tyson Jackson (Chiefs), Michael Johnson (Bengals), Matt Shaughnessy (Cardinals), Antonio Smith (Texans), Will Smith (Saints), Anthony Spencer (Cowboys), Justin Tuck (Giants), Corey Wootton (Bears), Jason Worilds (Steelers), Willie Young (Lions)

Franchise tag: Greg Hardy (Panthers), Brian Orakpo (Redskins)

Market conditions: Everyone is looking for pass-rushers, and draft analysts point to the pure 4-3 defensive end spot as one of the lighter positions in this year's draft. That could lead to some early action in free agency for teams with a need. The free-agent crop looks pretty deep, with a combination of later-career players who still have something to offer and younger, versatile players with upside.

Questions to answer at the position: Is it dangerous to rely on Chandler Jones (played 98.1 percent of defensive snaps) and Ninkovich (98.6 percent) to carry such a heavy load in 2014? Will the third year be the charm for 2012 third-round draft choice Bequette? Can 2013 seventh-round draft pick Michael Buchanan emerge as a regular defensive contributor? Would the Patriots consider using Dont'a Hightower or Jamie Collins coming off the edge in sub packages?

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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