At least four players who were starting 3-4 nose tackles in 2011 — Paul Soliai (Miami), Sione Pouha (New York Jets), Antonio Garay (San Diego), and Kelly Gregg (Kansas City) — are pending unrestricted free agents. There is also a strong possibility that salary cap and injury considerations could prompt Pittsburgh to release five-time Pro Bowl performer Casey Hampton.
The Jets will make a big push before the start of free agency on March 13 to get an extension completed with Pouha, a player coach Rex Ryan feels is the unheralded key to his defense and who has been characterized as a priority. If there is no deal, though, look for Pouha to be very attractive in the market. Ditto Soliai, the Dolphins' designated franchise player a year ago, but perhaps a fish out of water (pun intended) with the Dolphins moving to a 4-3 defense under new coordinator Kevin Coyle in 2012.
"With the 3-4, it all starts with the nose (tackle)," acknowledged Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome.
And even though at least two teams are switching from the 3-4 to a 4-3 alignment for 2012, there is a definite need for nose tackles. In addition to the teams cited, the Washington Redskins, while pleased with the work of former 4-3 tackle Barry Cofield in transitioning to nose tackle in 2011, could seek a more traditional inside defender for their defense. And there could be the usual domino effect created by free agency moves.
Garay isn't a typical nose tackle type and Gregg is 35 and was only modestly effective in 2011. So, their markets could be more diminished. If he is released, Hampton, despite being 34, might be a one-year stop-gap for someone, but only if he is sufficiently recovered from a late-season anterior cruciate injury and has his weight under control.
Soliai and Pouha, though, will have plenty of suitors if they hit the open market.
One guy who didn't play nose tackle in 2011, but who might consider moving back to the position if the price is right, is Aubrayo Franklin. The nine-year veteran signed just a one-year, $4 million contract with New Orleans in 2011, playing tackle in the 4-3 after the 3-4 market never really developed for him. Two personnel directors at the Super Bowl last week mentioned Franklin as a possible "sleeper" at the position.
Franklin, 31, started 60 games at nose tackle over four seasons in San Francisco (2007 through 2010), and was a force at the position before signing with the Saints for 2011. His 17 tackles for the Saints represented his lowest yearly total since he became a starter in the league. There are pro scouts who contend that Franklin was more effective in a 3-4, and who haven't forgotten about him as a possible nose tackle for 2012.
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Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.