The rise of the 3-4 and hybrid defensive schemes has made outside linebackers and rush ends valued commodities in the modern NFL. The 2013 free agent market features some excellent options at the position. The group is headed by Super Bowl winner Paul Kruger.
The Cleveland Browns, New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles will be making the switch to 3-4 fronts this season. Each will need a dominant outside pass-rusher from this group. Here are the top five 3-4 pass-rushers available in free agency.
5. Antwan Barnes, San Diego Chargers
Antwan Barnes struggles to stay on the field, appearing in only 11 games in 2012. He posted a mere three sacks, after registering a career-best 11 sacks the season before. However, when healthy, there are few better situational, edge rushers in the league than the ex-Florida International standout.
Barnes rushes with good first-step quickness and deceptive power. He possesses a good dip and rip move to get around offensive tackles and can be a valuable weapon in the right scheme. Any team looking for a cheap pass-rusher to boost their 3-4 front, should give Barnes strong consideration.
4. Shaun Phillips, San Diego Chargers
Chargers veteran Shuan Phillips may be getting up there in years, but he remains a dynamic and versatile 3-4 pass-rusher. Capable of opertaing on either side of a formation, Phillips has reinvented himself, after beginning his career on the inside.
After switching to the edge, he wasted no time becoming San Diego's most consistent and feared pass-rusher. The 31-year-old registered 9.5 sacks in 2012 and posted 11 quarterback takedowns in 2010.
Phillips still has the skills to be an asset for any 3-4 defense. He is a complete playmaker, but his prowess as a pass-rusher is his most valuable quality and makes his age worth the risk.
3. Connor Barwin, Houston Texans
Connor Barwin suffered a down year with the Houston Texans in 2012. He only posted three sacks, just one season after tallying a career-high 11.5. However, the relelntless bruiser is still perfect rush end material.
Barwin has played in a 4-3, but converted to standup rusher under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips in 2011. Because Phillips' version of the 3-4 resembles a 5-2, Barwin still spends the majority of his snaps pressuring the edges and targeting quarterbacks.
He offers a defense true hybrid flexibility. If a 3-4 coordinator wants to have one of his four linebackers join the line and put his hand down, Barwin is the ideal man for the job. The 26-year-old can still flourish in an attack-minded scheme.
If Barwin is forced out of Houston by younger counterparts Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus, 3-4 teams should be queuing up to secure his signature.
2. Anthony Spencer, Dallas Cowboys
A switch to a 4-3 front seems to spell the end for Anthony Spencer with the Dallas Cowboys. A first-round pick in 2007, Spencer has been inconsistent, offering only glimpses of his significant talent. He was certainly on form in 2012, registering 11 sacks and 95 tackles, both career-best marks.
Spencer is a powerful player on the edge. He is a stout force against the run and when he combines his strength with takeoff speed, not many offensive tackles can keep him off a quarterback.
After a breakout season, Spencer will likely command major money in free agency. Teams willing to pay it will have to be certain the streaky star is ready to dominate on a regular basis. Moving to a new defense and emerging from DeMarcus Ware's considerable shadow, could see Spencer finally put up big numbers with greater consistency.
1. Paul Kruger, Baltimore Ravens
Paul Kruger will likely be the most sought-after 3-4 pass-rusher on the free agent market. NFL.com's Chris Wesseling has reported that Kruger is unlikely to return to the Baltimore Ravens and will seek a contract that matches his stellar performances in 2012.
Those performances saw Kruger overtake Terrell Suggs as the most dominant pass-rusher on the Ravens' defense. He collected nine sacks and applied consistent pressure on the pocket. Like Barwin, Kruger is more of a rush end than a true outside linebacker.
However, the 6'4", 270-pounder also combines intelligence with his raw power and underrated athleticism. Kruger has a good understanding of zone drops and can be rushed from anywhere across a formation. Kruger is the kind of dynamic linchpin every 3-4 scheme needs in order to succeed.
With more teams joining the growing number operating a 3-4 base, these five pass-rushers can practically write their own tickets in this year's free agent market.