Now normally I'd just name the player I want the Redskins to pursue, but I think this is one position where they have multiple interesting options to fill their void at NT. Now I realize some Redskins fans might be content to go with what they have at nose tackle and relying on some combination of Ma'ake Kemoeatu being healthy, Anthony Bryant being effective, and Chris Neild being an instant impact. While that would be nice, I think it is a risky proposition that any of them occur much less two or three. Kemoeatu, simply looked awful last season as he was recovering from an injury, and it would be a major risk to bank on him this year. Bryant looked alright towards the end of the season, but he is the very definition of a journeyman player, meaning the chances of him having a significant impact are pretty minimal. As for Neild, he looks like a promising young prospect, but he is probably 2-3 years away from being anything more than a depth player. I doubt he'd be good for even 100 snaps next season, which is about a fifth of what you'd typically look for from at least a good NT. This leaves opening up the checkbook for a starting caliber guy, and allowing the incumbent options fight it out for the backup roles.
There appear to be 3 quality options on the free agent market, and the Redskins need to make sure they land one of them, because there is a significant talent dropoff below them. The three primary names the Redskins should be looking at are Aubrayo Franklin, Barry Cofield and Brandon Mebane.
Franklin is the top name on the short list, and with good reason. He is a classic NT plugger, who has played in a 3-4 system his entire career (first with Baltimore and then as a starter with the 49ers). These last 3 years with San Francisco he has developed into one of the better nose tackles in the game, and would be a major upgrade for Washington. Franklin comes with some risk though, as he will be 31 when the season starts and command a premium NT salary (between $7-9 million a year). Franklin is also a bit one dimensional as he is really just a run plugger and should be subbed out on passing downs. Despite those concerns, Franklin is a great target for Washington and would offer an instant upgrade that would be felt by the entire defense. Given that Franklin doesn't have a big history of major injuries the age factor isn't a real concern, as surprisingly NT's usually age well. As for only doing one thing well, the fact that Franklin does it so well mitigates the fact that he is only going to play 50-60% of the snaps. Franklin is arguably the best run defending DT in the league right now, so adding him to the middle of the lineup could help turn the Redskins from among the league's worst, to a pretty good unit.
Cofield has never played the traditional 3-4 NT role, but he has been the NT in a 4-3 system for years. While there is more leeway in a 4-3 system, essentially your role is the same, occupy blockers and eliminate plays in the middle of the line. Cofield has been quite good, and shows abilities against both the run and the pass. He's 4 years younger than Franklin and can probably offer more when the Redskins are in a 4-man line. Cofield doesn't have as good of a track record these past couple of years, despite being able to impact both the run and pass. Cofield will probably be in line for a good $6-8 million contract, giving his breakout 2010 campaign. He's not as good as a fit as Franklin for the Redskins NT role, but still should have enough impact to make his signing worthwhile.
Mebane came into this league a lot like Cofield as a primary 4-3 run-stuffing NT. He has developed to be an all-around tackle and in fact rarely plays the NT role anymore. While he represents more risk in moving to a 3-4 NT role, he still commands double teams and is very good against the run. He is a better all-around player, but the NT role could stifle some of his big play ability. He's probably in line for a similar salary as Cofield and would be another younger option for the Redskins.
I know primarily I've focused on the under 30 crowd in these Free Agent posts, but I'm quite alright with going after Franklin. While I like both Cofield and Mebane, there is a little concern of how they'll transition to the NT role (and if it will turn them away from the Redskins in FA). If they would end up signing, I don't think they'd be horrible flops, but I do think there is a chance they'd be basically above average players. That's not the worst thing in the world but Franklin should continue to be a dominate run defender and can really improve that aspect of the defense. While his pass rush is more suspect, it will be better than what we currently have, and will only impact a few plays since we could sub him out on most obvious passing situations. I also think Franklin might be an easier signing than Cofield and Mebane, because he will likely only be pursued by 3-4 teams, while they will have a fair share of 4-3 suitors. With most 3-4 teams already set at NT, the Redskins might not have as much competition, and there could be less of a chance of them having to 'overpay'.
Steve Shoup has been a Redskins fan his entire life and dreams of the day they get back to the glory days of his youth. In addition to his regular piece on Hogs Haven, you can find his daily writings at Fanspeak.com.