[NOTE:  Click the links to see our free agency rankings for quarterbacksrunning backs,fullbacks,tight endscentersguardsoffensive tackleswide receiverssafeties, cornerbacks, and linebackers.  We’ll continue our way through all of the positions this week.]

Well, I have to start this one with a disclosure.  The lines between a 4-3 defensive end and a 3-4 outside linebacker continue to blur more and more with each passing season.  We have already done the linebacker rankings in a previous post, but there are plenty of 3-4 defensive ends on today’s list that would be best suited as outside linebackers if the Vikings were to sign them.  Still, I wanted to keep these lists true to the current positions these guys are playing.

Okay, with that being said, onto the defensive end situation.  The Vikings seem very solid with Jared Alllen, Brian Robison, and Everson Griffen each continuing to play at a high level.  There has been talk that the Vikings might be best served to try and deal the aging Allen this offseason, but I think it is far more likely that they will try to extend his contract and ease the damage he does to the salary cap.  The Vikings have talented pass rushers with intriguing developmental guys already in place behind the top three.

I wouldn’t expect them to throw a ton of money at this position during this offseason, but it never hurts to take a look at what might be available (while also scoping out an outside linebacker or two):

Top Tier

I’m only putting guys in this category if I think they could possibly be upgrades over one of our current starters, and the guy I think that most represents that type of talent is defensive end Michael Johnson of the Bengals.  At age 26, Johnson is the exact age you want your big money free agent to be, and he is a Pro Bowl defender against both the run and the pass.  He is likely to get slapped with the franchise tag.

Next up is a guy that is probably not very well suited for the Vikings defensive scheme unless he plays outside linebacker.  Baltimore’s Paul Kruger is a very talented pass rusher that is plenty capable of covering any number of NFL tight ends and running backs.  His talents would be a waste as an outside linebacker in Minnesota, so don’t consider this a very likely scenario, as fun as it is to dream.  If Baltimore has to use their franchise tag on quarterback Joe Flacco, then Kruger could end up on the open market, but I expect a 3-4 team to be the most willing to pay the man what he deserves.

Tampa Bay’s Michael Bennett has quietly put together a very solid career on a team that has struggled to establish itself.  If for some reason the Vikings found themselves in the market for a run stuffing left end (which they’re not) then Bennett would have to be near the top of that list.  Tampa will likely make retaining his services a big priority this offseason, and they will have the cap space to make it happen.

Second Tier

4.  Anthony Spencer, DAL

5.  Cliff Avril, DET

6.  Connor Barwin, HOU

7.  William Hayes, STL

8.  Israele Idonije, CHI

9.  Shaun Phillips, SD

10.  Dwight Freeney, IND

11.  Osi Umenyiora, NYG

12.  Kyle Vanden Bosch, DET

Third Tier

13.  Trevor Scott, NE

14.  Andre Carter, OAK

15.  Patrick Chukwurah, SEA

16.  Jason Hunter, DEN

17.  Dave Ball, TEN

18.  Clark Haggans, SF

19.  Antwan Barnes, SD

20.  Darryl Tapp, PHI

21.  Lawrence Jackson, DET

22.  Quentin Groves, ARI

23.  Jarius Wynn, TEN

24.  Matt Shaughnessy, OAK

25.  Kyle Moore, BUF

26.  Shawne Merriman, BUF

The Rest

27.  Juqua Parker, CLE

28.  Victor Butler, DAL

29.  Wallace Gilberry, CIN

30.  Keyunta Dawson, TEN

31.  Bryan Thomas, NYJ

32.  Jamaal Westerman, IND

33.  Lawrence Sidbury, ATL

34.  Jesse Nading, HOU

35.  Edgar Jones, KC

36.  Turk McBride, NO

37.  Chris Wilson, WAS

38.  Antwan Applewhite, CAR

39.  Frostee Rucker, CLE

40.  Robert Geathers, CIN

41.  Erik Walden, GB