Last spring proved unkind for free-agent pass-rushers -- at least in financial terms. DE Cliff Avril and DL Michael Bennett hit the open market as productive players in their primes, but each signed surprisingly small deals in Seattle. (Guess a Super Bowl title helped.)
This year's group looks stronger up front, but some of the marquee names sit on the wrong side of 30. Will teams sit back again or chase after the D-line talent?
A pair of strong safeties hit the market, too, and should have little trouble landing large offers. The LBs, meanwhile, boast a pair of oldsters who outperformed expectations in 2013. Here's a look at the IDPs of interest before they reach free agency.
Note: Players are ranked based on potential 2014 fantasy impact.
1. LB Karlos Dansby
At 32 (until November), Dansby will be no team's long-term answer. But unlike a chick-flick star, we don't need that kind of commitment.
Miami made 1 of the biggest mistakes of 2013 free agency by dumping the aging Dansby and replacing him with Dannell Ellerbe. While the latter struggled with injuries and inconsistent play, Dansby moved to the desert and enjoyed arguably the best season of his career.
Pro Football Focus rated him the #5 ILB in the league, 3rd best at the position in coverage and top 14 as both a run defender and pass-rusher. More importantly, Dansby performed as the best LB in fantasy. NaVorro Bowman or Paul Posluszny might have finished #1 in scoring in your league, but Dansby didn't miss a game and finished each 1 with at least 5 tackles and a pass breakup.
Arizona has called re-signing the vet a "big priority," and he has said he hopes to come back. Wherever he lands, Dansby will certainly at least sit among the top 15 LBs in our 2014 IDP rankings.
2. DE Michael Johnson
The Bengals already invested big money in DE Carlos Dunlap and DT Geno Atkins over the past 2 years. So it's no shock that Johnson stands ready to hit the open market. He'll do so as arguably the best available pass-rusher.
Johnson's paltry 3.5 sacks in 2013 make that seem crazy, but pass-rushing's about much more than sacks. His 16 QB hits tied for 8th among 4-3 DEs last year, according to PFF. And Johnson added 40 hurries, tied with Dunlap for 11th at the position. That plus a #2 ranking in run defense made him the 4th best player at the position according to PFF's grades.
His pass-rushing performance actually graded out better than in 2012, when Johnson finished with 11.5 sacks. His 59.5 total QB disruptions in 2013 beat out his 53.5 the year before. Both numbers represent big jumps from his 26.5 tally in 2011 and 29.5 in 2010.
At 27, Johnson hits free agency as an ascending player with the potential to regularly deliver 10+ sacks. His stellar run D will also keep him on the field, boosting his overall stat profile.
Rumors and guesses focus on Johnson landing in Minnesota, which would make plenty of sense. Former Bengals DC Mike Zimmer now serves as the Vikings' head man, and Minny will let DE Jared Allen leave as a free agent.
The only potential concern is that Johnson gets satisfied with the big money and eases up on his work ethic. That's the question that knocked his 1st-round talent into the 3rd round of the 2009 NFL Draft. But we can't worry about that unless we hear negative reports in the spring and summer.
3. DE Jared Allen
The near-opposite of Johnson, Allen hits free agency for the 1st time as a declining player whose stats overstate his performance. He tallied 11.5 sacks in 2013 and played the 3rd most snaps of any 4-3 DE in the league. But he graded out as PFF's #34 player at the position overall.
Allen ranked 25th in pass-rushing performance, well down from his 11th-place finish in PFF's 2012 grading. Even his 22-sack 2011 found Allen rated just 7th at his position in pressuring the passer.
All that said, this guy has finished 7 straight seasons with 11 sacks or more. He has generated at least 7.5 in every 1 of his 9 NFL seasons across 2 franchises. And the only 2 games that Allen has missed since the start of 2005 came when DUIs drew a league suspension to open 2007.
As an IDP, Allen has clearly declined recently. His 36 and 33 solo-tackle tallies the past 2 years are the 2 lowest of his starting career. That helped push him down to 17th and 11th among fantasy D-linemen the past 2 years after 7 straight top 5 finishes.
So he's not quite the Jared Allen he used to be, but don't go cooking up the 32-year-old (come April) in 1 of his patented roadkill casseroles just yet. Even if Allen doesn't disrupt the QB as much as some younger rushers around the league, he knows how to tally sacks. The double-digit tallies may disappear if he winds up with lackluster complementary players, but we wouldn't mind drafting him outside the position's top 10 to find out.
4. S T.J. Ward
Ward finally stayed healthy in 2010, making it through 16 games for the 1st time since his 2010 rookie campaign. He also returned to fantasy's top 10 among DBs while playing under DC Ray Horton.
New GM Ray Farmer is reportedly trying to re-sign the 27-year-old, though he chose not to apply the franchise tag. Ward's injury history is sure to factor into negotiations this offseason. He missed half of 2011 with a foot injury and finished 2012 on IR with a knee problem. Red flags on his durability dogged Ward all the way back at draft time and made him a rather surprising 2nd-round pick by Cleveland.
But a healthy Ward has tallied 112 and 123 tackles in his 2 full campaigns. He also picked off 2 passes each of those years and defensed at least 7 others. Ward even added 2 sacks in 2013 to double his career total.
New Browns HC Mike Pettine hasn't produced special value in safeties as a coordinator, but Ward brings a high fantasy ceiling into any scheme.
5. DE Michael Bennett
Some dudes just can't quite convert consistently nagging pocket pressure into big sack totals. Look at Niners DE Justin Smith as a prime example.
One of the most disruptive D-linemen of his generation, Smith has never tallied more than 8.5 sacks in a season and has only reached 8 twice in 13 years. Bennett's building a similar profile -- at least in that category -- heading into his age-28 season.
PFF rated the versatile Seahawk #3 among 4-3 DEs in pass-rushing performance last season, and 12th among all defensive players in the league. Bennett racked up 17 QB hits and 39 hurries but a more average 8.5 sacks. Blame that at least in part on a mere 617 snaps played, 29th at the position. But Bennett posted similar numbers as a busier Buc in 2012. He ranked 5th in snaps and 10th in pass-rushing grade but tied for 23rd in the league with 9 sacks.
Perhaps the too-sharp focus on sack totals (plus a shoulder injury that eventually proved a non-issue) conspired to allow Bennett just a 1-year, $4.8 million deal on the 2013 NFL free agent market. Will more suitors come calling this time around?
The primary rumor has Bennett returning to Seattle, where we'd have to expect his snaps to be capped again. His shift inside to DT on passing downs could also hold down his sack ceiling. After ranking among the top 25 fantasy linemen in 2012, Bennett slipped outside the top 50 last year (thanks to just 18 solo tackles). He continues to bring plenty of athletic upside but might need to leave the Northwest to realize his full IDP potential.
6. DE Lamarr Houston
Houston told the Contra Costa Times back in December that he believes the Raiders would prefer to let him walk in free agency. HC Dennis Allen countered a few days later that, "We'd love to have (Houston) back," according to CSN Bay Area. Every day that passes without a deal at this point makes the player look more correct.
We're fairly surprised that Oakland hasn't moved to lock up Houston a little faster. Perhaps the problem is sheer money, a common issue with Houston's agent, Drew Rosenhaus. But the talent certainly suggests a defensive cornerstone.
Houston graded out tied for 11th among 4-3 DEs in PFF's 2013 ratings, following a tie for 9th at the position in 2012. The year before found him 19th among DEs, up from 29th in his 2010 rookie campaign.
Houston has always rated better in run defense than pass-rushing, but 2013 presented career highs in sacks (6), QB hits (16) and hurries (41). He went from 39 and 32 total QB disruptions in his 1st 2 seasons to 53.5 and 63 the past 2 years. That suggests a well-rounded player on a defense sorely lacking in such performers. And Houston won't turn 27 until June.
The 300-pounder cracked the top 20 among fantasy D-linemen each of the past 2 seasons, thanks largely to 67 and 69 total tackles. Expect him to stay in that range no matter whom he plays for in 2014.
7. S Jairus Byrd
Buffalo clearly decided that it wasn't worth the ballooning cap hit and the continued negotiating headaches to keep Byrd around. The fact that he'll hit the open market next week certainly stands as no knock on his ability.
Byrd started slowly in 2013 after holding out through training camp. He missed the 1st 5 games with plantar fasciitis and then sprained an ankle in the season finale. But Byrd finished the season 8th among PFF's safety rankings, tied for 7th in coverage. He graded out 2nd overall in 2012 and 3rd in 2011.
The soon-to-be former Bill can prove inconsistent as a fantasy scorer -- like most DBs -- but brings a high ceiling thanks to his big-play ability. Byrd picked 5 passes over just 11 games last season after snatching 4 in 2012. His ball-hawking ways date back to his 2009 rookie season, when Byrd led the league with 9 INTs despite ranking just 56th among safeties in snaps played.
He sitting squarely in his prime and will likely get the position's richest contract wherever he goes. Byrd will turn 28 in October.
8. LB Daryl Smith
We said on Twitter last preseason that Smith would outperform his fantasy football draft position and projected him aggressively. He delivered.
The 10-year veteran bounced back from an injury-dominated 2012 that only saw him play 117 snaps to set a career mark for fantasy points by a wide margin. Smith ranked among the top 10 LB scorers across most formats, hitting double digits 6 times in average-scoring IDP leagues.
Smith set career highs in tackles (123), sacks (5), pass breakups (18) and INTs (3) and scored his 1st career TD. Those 18 deflections tied Seahawks CB Richard Sherman (and others) for 8th in the league across positions. Only Karlos Dansby racked up more among LBs.
Smith's been a strong performer for a long time but finally landed in a playmaking position in his 1st Ravens season. He should find a stronger market this time around, though Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun reports that the Ravens consider Smith a "priority to retain." The team might limit its spending on that front, though, after drafting LB Arthur Brown in Round 2 last spring.
Sticking around Baltimore obviously wouldn't hurt his IDP value, but Smith can deliver fantasy numbers in plenty of other places as well.
9. LB Perry Riley
Washington would apparently like to retain its 25-year-old leading tackler -- at the right price.
The Washington Post reported back in early February that Riley wants something like the nearly $7 million a year that the Dolphins gave MLB Dannell Ellerbe last spring. Looks like that's too much for the team that drafted him, which is understandable.
Riley's a quality player who contributes in all facets. He ranked 16th among 40 qualifying ILBs in PFF's run stop percentage last year. Riley slipped from 129 tackles in 2012 to 115 in 2013 but still ranked among the league's top 30 for the 2nd straight season. He broke up a career-high 8 passes and nabbed his 1st NFL INT, increasing his passes defensed for the 3rd straight season. Riley also posted 3 sacks after delivering 3.5 in 2012.
He's no stud, grading out 46th among PFF's 55 ILBs, but Riley did finish 24th out of 53 in 2012 (27 spots ahead of London Fletcher). If he returns to Washington, Riley will remain a solid LB3. We'll see how he profiles in a new place should he leave.
10. LB Brandon Spikes
Spikes proved to be a stellar run defender over his 4 seasons with the Patriots. PFF graded him tops among all ILBs in that area last year. But he also proved fussier off the field than that franchise likes and will find a new NFL home in 2014.
That's good for Spikes' IDP value heading into his age-27 season. His coverage limitations caused New England to limit Spikes to less than 73% of the defensive snaps every year. That included playing just 59.5% in 2013 despite appearing in every game for the 1st time in his career. We're guessing he'll find a suitor on the open market willing to make Spikes a 3-down player.
Coverage may not be his strong suit, but the former Florida Gator isn't the worst in the league at dropping back. Back in his college days, Spikes nabbed 6 INTs over his final 2 seasons and returned 4 for TDs. Then PFF graded him 20th among 50 qualifying LBs in pass coverage as a 2010 rookie.
As some team's starting MLB, Spikes could deliver LB3 numbers for fantasy owners in 2014 -- with LB2 upside.
11. DE Justin Tuck
Tuck finally enjoyed a long-awaited rejuvenation to his game last season. But the only NFL team he's ever known still isn't buying long term.
"Justin is going to go to the market and see what's out there for him," GM Jerry Reese told ESPN New York in late February. "Free agency means free agency. It means you go out and get as much as you can."
The 2 sides reportedly didn't talk extension during last season, and Tuck said back in January that he planned to test the market. At the least, that says the 2 sides don't agree on his value. It might actually say that the Giants are ready to move one.
Tuck quietly enjoyed a terrific 2013, hitting double-digit sacks for the 1st time in 3 years. One could worry about the fact that 9.5 of the 11 came in the final 6 games of a contract year. But PFF credited Tuck with 3+ total QB disruptions in all but 2 games for the season.
We're not buying that Tuck's back to being an annual contender for the top spot among fantasy D-linemen, but he showed pretty clearly that he can still play. The free-agent market proved surprisingly cool last spring for top pass-rushers Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, both of whom are younger than Tuck (31 at the end of March). This offseason finds a stronger class of free-agent DEs. We'll be curious to see if Tuck indeed stirs up the interest he expects.
Other Free Agents