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Reading the Defense: Defensive Free Agency Review

A full review of this year's signings, trades, releases, and...retirements.

I don’t know how else to put it. Free agency was weird this year.

I’m not even sure we should refer to it as free agency. I changed the header of the table in the free agency running blog to “defensive movement” as unexpected releases, big trades, and even bigger and unexpected retirements were bigger stories than all but a couple of free agent signings.

And, although we’re less than two weeks from the start of the first negotiating window, “free agency” is pretty much over. With Greg Hardy signed by Dallas, there are just a small handful of lower tier linebackers and safeties still on the market. None of those players can be expected to make a major impact on a team’s depth chart.

So it’s time to put all the blog notes (you can still read those here) in one place and add a few additional notes to tie a bow around this phase of the NFL offseason. It’s also time to start re-formulating the positional tiers and ramping up preparations for the NFL draft in late April.


edge rusher

The two highest profile potential free agent edge players – Justin Houston and Jason Pierre-Paul – were franchised by their respective teams as expected. But every other major story on this list was something of a surprise.

I’m frankly shocked Greg Hardy got a contract in March. I would’ve given Buffalo and Philadelphia less than a 50-50 chance to re-sign Jerry Hughes and Brandon Graham, respectively. Michael Johnson and Trent Cole were dumped by their teams and quickly signed elsewhere. And the teams that arguably needed the most edge rushing help – Atlanta and Arizona – added some veteran depth but were never really in play for the most talented players on the list.

IDP owners are going to hate the updated defensive line tiers. You can cross Hughes and Graham and Cole and Jabaal Sheard and Pernell McPhee off the list. All of them will be re-classified to linebacker this summer, as will Mario Williams and DeMarcus Ware. There’s a faint light at the end of the tunnel, however. This year’s group of edge rush prospects is extremely deep and talented. Many will be drafted to play linebacker, but there will be some new blood added to the defensive line tiers soon.

Justin Houston franchised by Kansas City
Jason Pierre-Paul franchised by New York Giants

If a team with an option to control their elite edge rusher allows them to leave, it’s a huge red flag. There was very little chance the Chiefs or Giants were going to let their stud pass rushers to leave. Though there’s still a faintly burning ember of concern over Pierre-Paul’s neck and shoulder in my mind, both players can be expected to produce elite numbers again this year.

However, the franchise tag designations likely mean Damontre Moore and Dee Ford may struggle to top 500 snaps again this year. Both remain holds in dynasty leagues (Ford in leagues with very deep rosters only), with Moore having an outside chance at matchup value in redraft leagues.

Greg Hardy signed by Dallas

Though I was not so naïve as to think Hardy wouldn’t find a team willing to sign him despite his personal issues, I didn’t think Hardy would be signed before the length of his suspension was announced. The Cowboys, whose need for a pass rusher apparently outweighed Jerry Jones’ recent feeling that domestic violence was “intolerable,” signed Hardy to a heavily incentive-laden one year deal despite what seemed to be a lukewarm market at best.

Hardy played only 52 snaps last season and is facing a multiple game suspension. When he returns to the active roster, however, there’s a strong chance he’ll again put up elite fantasy numbers. The Dallas scheme will ask him to play the run on the way to the quarterback and the Cowboys’ offense should still be good enough to provide an above-average number of pass rush opportunities.

Jerry Hughes re-signed by Buffalo

Hughes first broke out as a 3-4 outside linebacker under Mike Pettine, so he will be comfortable and should do well in Rex Ryan’s similar scheme. But he’ll be re-classified to linebacker this year. If your scoring system isn’t at least to the big play side of balanced, his fantasy value takes a major hit.

Pernell McPhee signed by Chicago

McPhee is going to be an interesting test case this year. His 2014 numbers were strikingly good on a per snap basis, reminiscent of former favorites like Cameron Wake and Justin Houston. However, those players were productive per snap for multiple seasons before getting a bump in playing time. McPhee’s statistical blowup is a one year thing. He also doesn’t strike me as a foundation edge rusher and we’ve seen Baltimore second-bananas struggle (e.g. Paul Kruger, Jarret Johnson) after moving onto new teams and being asked to play 800+ snaps. I think McPhee will fit well in Vic Fangio’s 3-4, but I’d feel better if there were more options than a lukewarm Jared Allen and a recovering Lamarr Houston to support McPhee. I don’t see more than rotational / matchup fantasy value here.

Brandon Graham re-signed by Philadelphia

This isn’t the freedom I had in mind. But it’s hard to fault Graham for agreeing to sign a competitive deal after the Eagles cut Trent Cole and opened up the depth chart. Graham can be expected to see 750+ snaps this year and I’m reasonably confident he’ll be productive with the higher usage. Unfortunately for all of us hoping to see Graham sign with a 4-3 team and earn a defensive end classification, those snaps will come at linebacker. As such, your scoring system will define Graham’s fantasy upside.

Michael Johnson signed by Cincinnati

Johnson wasn’t healthy last year and failed miserably in Lovie Smith’s scheme. I don’t have a great explanation for Johnson’s struggles, but I’m not writing him off as a post-contract bust either. After his release, he was strongly courted by Mike Zimmer (who knew him well from his coordinator days in Cincinnati) and then signed a sizable contract in Cincinnati. It’s a good situation for Johnson, who is comfortable with his former teammates, his likely rotation and role with the Bengals. I won’t shy away from considering Johnson in the DL2 tiers this year, particularly with the limited number of options with 8+ sack upside.

Johnson’s signing can also be seen as a sign the Bengals lack confidence in the development of Margus Hunt, who showed little improvement last year. With Will Clarke also in development and the Bengals now invested in both Johnson and Carlos Dunlap, Hunt’s road to playing time has even more roadblocks in 2015.

Trent Cole signed by Indianapolis

The Colts badly needed pass rush help, with Robert Mathis no lock to return from a setback while rehabbing after Achilles’ tendon repair, Erik Walden and Bjoern Werner providing very little, and Jonathan Newsome still an unknown commodity. Cole brings a smart, veteran presence with some fuel left in the tank. He’ll be classified as a linebacker and likely slot in my Matchup LB3 tier.

Adrian Clayborn, Brooks Reed and O’Brien Schofield signed by Atlanta

The Falcons are going to move toward the Pete Carroll / Gus Bradley school of aggressive 4-3 underfront looks under Dan Quinn. Those Seattle defenses had speed and instincts, something the Falcons lacked when Quinn was hired. These signings (and that of Justin Durant) improve the Atlanta depth chart, but none bring an elite talent to the defense. Clayborn, who will play one end position, and Reed, who likely slots to strong side linebacker and rotational pass rusher, aren’t likely to be more than role players. Schofield could finally blossom as a Falcon, but he’s a watch list candidate only for now.

Brian Orakpo signed and Derrick Morgan re-signed by Tennessee

I still like both these players. Morgan was high on my list of upside picks earlier in his career and I loved Orakpo’s potential in a contract year last season. Unfortunately, neither has been durable enough to take advantage of the edge rush potential each had flashed. More than anything else, this pairing reflects the philosophy of new assistant defensive coach Dick LeBeau. In Pittsburgh, LeBeau valued athleticism but his outside linebackers always married power with speed. Orakpo and Morgan no longer have the speed rush capability of guys like Chad Brown or Kevin Greene, but their veteran savvy compares favorably to the guys LeBeau preferred for his fire zone scheme.

If healthy, we might see a career renaissance for one or both players this year. With apologies for the repetition, their fantasy value (i.e. 40-8 as a reasonable ceiling with a little additional upside) is dependent on your scoring system.

Jabaal Sheard signed by New England

I’m also still a big Sheard fan. He’s versatile, capable of setting the edge against the run and there’s more athleticism to his pass rush than his build suggests. His signing gives Belichick lots of versatility with his front seven personnel. As I wrote in the running blog, Sheard will join…

…Rob Ninkovich and Dont'a Hightower in a group of athletic strength and power players that pairs well with the athletic speed and range talents of Jamie Collins, Chandler Jones and Jerod Mayo. I'd expect Sheard to rotate in the first group, primarily on the edge. It also makes it more likely Jones will see a majority of his base snaps at 5-technique.

If that proves accurate, there won’t be much fantasy value for Sheard unless there’s an injury to the group of power players. But it could mean Jones will stay classified as a defensive end. If things break that way, hopefully it’s evident early enough in the preseason to force Rotoworld to change Jones’ classification in time for MFL leagues.


linebacker

This is where the bulk of the unexpected occurred over the past three weeks. The Eagles-Bills trade sending Kiko Alonso to Philadelphia was the first shock, but the release of Curtis Lofton and the retirement of Patrick Willis quickly followed as “Huh?” moments across the league. Chris Borland’s decision to retire put a cap on a wild month.

Though David Harris and Rey Maualuga re-signed with their teams before free agency officially opened, there are many second and third tier linebackers who changed uniforms.

kiko Alonso traded to Philadelphia

Though I’ve written previously about the decline in linebacker value around the league, an athletic, every-down, non-edge rushing is still a prized commodity. Alonso definitely fits the profile. He’ll give the Eagles a quick and physical presence to pair with Mychal Kendricks at inside linebacker, something Chip Kelly clearly covets. The Bills, while interested in LeSean McCoy, felt he was expendable with Preston Brown and Nigel Bradham available to play inside for Rex Ryan.

Alonso benefited from one of the most favorable stat crews in the league two seasons ago. The Philadelphia crew isn’t likely to buoy his stats with high numbers of assists and the presence of Kendricks and a solid defensive line means more competition than he had in 2013. Don’t pencil Alonso in for elite numbers yet. Kendricks’ value takes a slight hit, too, and it’s hard to see DeMeco Ryans getting many snaps whether he recovers well from the Achilles’ injury or not.

After Alonso’s trade, it was expected the Bills would make a run at David Harris. That didn’t happen, leaving Brown and Bradham heavy favorites to start – and likely play every down – unless Ryan adds a linebacker in the early rounds of the draft. I like Brown just a bit better than Bradham, but there’s room for both to put up LB2 numbers.

Patrick willis and chris Borland retire

Two weeks ago, the Niners were said to be shopping Michael Wilhoite, hoping to get a late draft pick for the least dynamic of their four inside linebackers. Now, though all offseason reports on NaVorro Bowman have been reassuring, Wilhoite may be the surest option on the roster.

Keep an eye on Nick Moody, who filled in late last season, and Shayne Skov, who is limited but still kicking around the Niners’ deep depth chart. Those names will rise on the watch list if San Francisco doesn’t add an inside linebacker in the draft. If there are no additions, the fantasy value of both Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid looks better, too.

Though I thought the speculation was a little overblown when writing the scheme change feature in February, it’s also possible the depth chart changes will push the Niners toward a 4-3 front after all. Consider this a developing situation from multiple angles.

david harris re-signed by new York jets

New York paid Harris well to continue in his role as their defensive anchor – and possibly to keep him away from Rex Ryan and division rival Buffalo. Todd Bowles’ scheme is aggressive and has supported strong numbers for inside linebackers in the past. Harris’ value, however, will continue to depend on the volume of tackle opportunities he sees.

Curtis lofton and Malcolm smith signed by Oakland

The Saints went through a massive amount of turnover on both sides of the ball this month. Lofton didn’t attract any buyers in trade, prompting New Orleans to cut him. The Raiders made Lofton an immediate priority, despite already adding Smith, and added him within 24 hours.

Jack Del Rio and Ken Norton strongly implied they’d run a 3-4 front this year. And the general feeling is Sio Moore will recover from his hip surgery. That leaves four linebackers for three spots here, unless something gives. That could be Khalil Mack playing more defensive end, Moore or Smith playing a rotational role, or the Raiders playing more 3-4 than expected. The addition of mountainous nose tackle Dan Williams makes the latter a stronger possibility than originally expected, but we’ve yet to hear from the team on this.

Don’t rush out and add Lofton – who is no lock to play in subpackages with this group – or drop Moore until we know more.

dannell Ellerbe traded to new Orleans

The strange offseason continued for the Saints with the acquisition of Ellerbe, who seemingly everyone but the Miami front office identified as a limited talent two offseasons ago. If the thought was Lofton wasn’t playing the run as well as he once did, had lost some of his range, and was an injury risk not worth his current contract…well, you can cross out Lofton in that sentence and replace it with Ellerbe and no one would argue.

For now, Ellerbe and David Hawthorne (who restructured his deal to stay with the team) will be every-down linebackers. They will slot into the LB3 tiers on the strength of expected volume, but durability and talent questions will keep them from anything more than week-to-week fantasy plays.

sean Weatherspoon signed by Arizona

I think Weatherspoon was in decline before the Achilles’ injury. I didn’t see the range in 2012 or 2013 he had previously. He’s not the type of player to lose a fraction of a step and be successful – unless he can re-invent himself as a stouter, between-the-tackles run defender. That’s possible and the Arizona scheme can allow him to do that. And with Daryl Washington’s discipline still undecided and the lack of development from Kevin Minter, Weatherspoon could have LB3 or better value this year. But I don’t see a high ceiling here.

bruce carter signed by tampa bay

Carter had brief flashes of putting it together in Dallas, but eventually stagnated as an athlete who struggled to put himself in position to make plays. The team hasn’t discussed their plans for Carter, but multiple local writers project him to play middle linebacker. Let’s just say I’m not optimistic that plan would end well.

Keep your eye on Danny Lansanah, who was effective both inside and outside last year. I’d rather see him play an every-down middle linebacker role, with Carter playing on the strong side in a more defined role. If Carter does play inside, he’ll be competing with Lavonte David and Lansanah for tackles. That isn’t a recipe for fantasy success.

Justin Durant signed by Atlanta

If he can stay healthy, Durant will play an every-down weak side linebacker role next to Paul Worrilow in Dan Quinn’s 4-3 scheme. It’s not a terrible situation, but it’s not flush with fantasy upside either.

rey maualuga re-signed and a.j. hawk signed by Cincinnati

Vontaze Burfict remains a critical unknown for Cincinnati (and the fantasy linebacker tiers). Repeated concussions and ongoing recovery from microfracture surgery are high hurdles to overcome. The Bengals like to keep the devil they know on their depth chart as often as they can, so Maualuga’s return is no surprise. Neither is the addition of a veteran defender who will be where’s he supposed to be on the field on every play like Hawk.

It’s possible – and probably likely given what we saw from Emmanuel Lamur and Vinny Rey when asked to play 60+ snaps per week – the Bengals will start Burfict – Maualuga – Hawk in the base defense. Expect to see Burfict and Lamur as your subpackage players. But the roles will hinge on Burfict’s health.

jonathan Casillas and j.t. Thomas signed by new York giants

Casillas and Thomas were valuable role players for their former teams. Both have shown versatility, playing inside and outside in varying schemes, and were used on passing downs, too. They will replace Jacquian Williams and Spencer Paysinger in the New York outside linebacker rotation. It’s the most crowder the Giants’ depth chart has been in years, with Jon Beason hoping to reclaim the middle linebacker role, Jameel McClain still in the mix as another versatile body with starting experience and Devon Kennard looking for snaps.

Teams tell you what they think of their personnel with these signings. The Giants usually do not prioritize the linebacker position. Casillas got a deal that will pay him over $3 million per year for three years. There are rumblings in the New York media that Thomas could be ticketed for a larger role than Kennard. And that’s before considering what previous starters Beason and McClain will be expected to do.

There won’t be an elite fantasy performer in this group, but those hoping for Kennard to earn more playing time or needing to flesh out every depth chart battle in deeper leagues should have their ears to the ground when the Giants’ front office and coaches take questions from the media leading up to the draft.

jasper Brinkley signed by dallas

The Cowboys did not heavily pursue Justin Durant or Bruce Carter. They expect to get Sean Lee back to full health and are pleased with the development of Anthony Hitchens. They added Keith Rivers before free agency began – though he’s no lock to make the team – and Brinkley. Rolando McClain has yet to sign with a team and remains available.

Lee, Hitchens and Brinkley are all capable of playing multiple positions. Brinkley’s best role is middle linebacker, but he’s not a great fit for the coverage responsibilities of the Tampa-2 scheme the Cowboys often use. That likely means Lee is ticketed to stay inside, though Hitchens could see time there as well. For now, Lee and Hitchens hold the most fantasy value. That’s not likely to change, though specific roles and responsibilities (and whether McClain returns) will better define the floor and ceiling for each.

Brandon spikes, mason foster, Rolando mcclain, and nate irving unsigned

Other than a spare second tier safety or two, these are the players who remain on the market with the highest chance of signing into a fantasy friendly role. Both Foster and Irving have been rumored to visit multiple teams over the past two weeks, but the linebacker market tends to dry up until after the draft at this point of the offseason. Should one of these players sign before the next tier update, I’ll add them there.


defensive line

I’m only going to cover a small handful of signings here, but the first two on this list could have important ripple effects. Ndamukong Suh will add to an already strong front four in Miami. The Lions acquired Haloti Ngata to fill the void left by Suh. It also further fueled speculation about a potential change in Detroit’s base defensive scheme.

There are quite a few other signings of note along the defensive line. I’ll be accounting for everything listed here in the next tier update.

ndamukong suh signed by Miami

Suh signed the biggest contract ever for a defensive player and will be expected to be a cornerstone of a Miami front four that already features Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon. If the Dolphins ever figure out how to make use of Dion Jordan’s talents – getting him on the field somewhere would be a good start – this could be an extremely formidable unit. Suh is best when penetrating but he’ll protect the Miami linebackers as well.

haloti ngata traded to Detroit

The Ngata acquisition is a good one; he still has enough left in the tank to contribute positively to the Detroit front. But there are two other important developments connected to this deal.

First, there were rumblings shortly after the Lions chose not to tag Ndamukong Suh about the depth chart supporting a 3-4 front. That report came from a beat writer citing an anonymous player’s opinion of the team’s personnel without Suh. It’s not without merit. As much as I like Ezekiel Ansah as a 4-3 defensive end, it’s not completely unreasonable to think he can standup on the weak side or be used in a one-gap 5-technique role as the Patriots chose to do with Chandler Jones last year. Fantasy owners won’t like it, of course. It’s also a way to get Kyle Van Noy on the field in a hybrid role. We’ll see how this one goes.

Second, the Ravens have a pair of impressive young defensive line bodies in Timmy Jernigan and Brandon Williams. Jernigan should be firmly on your radar as an upside target in leagues requiring defensive tackles.

henry melton signed by tampa bay

Melton has had many big games as a penetrating 3-technique tackle for Chicago and Dallas in recent seasons. Tampa Bay runs a defense that makes heavy use of the 3-technique tackle. Unfortunately, the Bucs already have an elite 3-technique tackle – Gerald McCoy. We’ll see how the team chooses to deploy McCoy and Melton, but I still expect McCoy to get the majority of his snaps in that favorable role.

jared odrick signed by Jacksonville

The Pete Carroll defense – which Gus Bradley favors – uses a 3-technique tackle. Odrick may fill that role for the Jaguars until San’Derrick Marks proves he’s recovered from January ACL surgery before filling a Red Bryant like heavy strong side end responsibility. Fantasy value will depend on Odrick’s role, but he’s a player to keep on your radar.


secondary

The Jets seemingly signed every cornerback available, but there were nice scraps left over for Philadelphia (Byron Maxwell), Cleveland (Tramon Williams) and Seattle (Cary Williams). Maxwell and Tramon Williams will be much better on the field than Cary Williams, but Cary Williams earns a note here as he’ll likely be targeted often opposite Richard Sherman.

devin mccourty re-signed by new England

McCourty is a top tier cover safety. His tackle numbers suffer from his role in the New England scheme and the strong competition throughout the front seven, but this signing is notable. The Patriots had to have either McCourty or Revis, even if they are likely to prioritize pass rush over coverage in their game plans this year.

antrel rolle signed by Chicago

The Bears used four different safeties last year, looking for the right combination of talent, execution and durability. Rolle will bring stability and could, with two young inside linebackers assimilating the new 3-4 scheme, bring lots of production if he’s used around the slot and tackle box as he was in New York.

da’norris searcy signed by Tennessee

This signing has fostered much discussion, but Searcy may finally have landed himself a full time in the box role where he won’t be looking over his shoulder. There will be lots of competition for tackles from the front seven and secondary mates, but Tennessee should continue to see one of the highest tackle opportunity per game figures in the NFL.

darrelle revis, buster skrine, Antonio Cromartie, marcus gilchrist signed by new York jets

The Jets secondary was among the worst positional units in recent memory last year – they had Antonio Allen, a player best suited to play strong safety in the box, as the CB1 for a stretch last year. Signing Darrelle Revis would have gone a long, long way to improving this group but the Jets didn’t stop there, adding Buster Skrine, Antonio Cromartie and Marcus Gilchrist (a cornerback turned safety) to a depth chart that includes Dee Milliner recovering from an Achilles' tear.

Revis isn’t likely to hold much fantasy value here, but these signings will give Calvin Pryor a chance to play in the box where he belongs. The improvement in coverage should also increase the pass rush expectation of Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson.

Follow and ask questions on Twitter @JeneBramel. Reading the Defense will be a regular feature this offseason with free agent commentary, draft prospect previews, tier discussion, links to our offseason IDP roundtable podcasts and much more. Subscribe to The Audible on iTunes or download our IDP podcast here.