Reading the Defense: Defensive Free Agency Running Blog

An updated, running blog of the major defensive free agent signings, trades, releases and rumors.

Free agency used to feel like a series of waves. The first few hours were a flurry of wining, dining, and negotating with the big name players. The next 2-3 days featured another handful of signings before things quieted down for days and sometimes weeks as the second and third tier free agents finally came off the market.

That wasn't the case last year.

A new 72 hour negotiating window and a high number of teams with cash to burn due to a higher than expected salary cap figure caused a frighteningly brisk first week of free agency. Twitter was moving at warp speed -- which included an amazing run of breaking news from Adam Schefter just as the signing period officially opened -- as stud and role players alike were pulled off the market. The usual 4-6 weeks of free agency seemed condensed into a single week.

I expect the same to happen this year. A number of teams have positioned themselves to be major players on the market with lots of available cap space. The negotiating window will open Saturday afternoon. With it will come three days worth of rumors upon rumors about player visits and team interest. We'll see a few nuggets of big news through Monday, then the frenzy of reports again on Tuesday afternoon and evening.

[Sunday night edit: Or the majority of teams will make re-signing their own players a priority while the remaining big free agent names will agree to contracts by Sunday evening, making the Tuesday afternoon deadline mean very little.]

While I'll be part of the post-signing analysis frenzy on Twitter -- follow along here -- this page will be a running blog of analysis of every key defensive happening on the market. The most recent news (updated as often as my schedule allows) will be at the top of this page. I'll have a tracker for the most significant players (updated daily) as a sidebar. Sometime later this month, I'll group the major pieces of analysis by position and post a new feature for easy reference throughout the offseason.

Though the negotiating window isn't open yet, there have already been some major pieces of news. 

Let the blogging begin...

March 12 | 500 ET

bears sign antrel rolle

Last year, the Bears rotated four different players through their safety positions looking for consistency and durability. Though 32 years old, Rolle has been both consistent and durable. Rolle will work at either safety position and allow Vic Fangio more flexibility in subpackages with his ability to play around the box or in the slot if needed. Ryan Mundy and Brock Vereen will compete for snaps at the other safety position.

It's a big loss for the Giants, who used Rolle in lots of ways and don't have a ready replacement on the roster. Expect New York to target secondary bodies in the coming days and months.

IDP implications: The Bears may decide to use Rolle as a coverage safety primarily. Although Rolle has long been one of the most physical safeties in the league, he needs to be within ten yards of the line of scrimmage to threaten the 65+ solo tackle plateau. I'll be watching the New York depth chart for any viable candidates for IDP value.

falcons sign adrian clayborn

I have Clayborn listed with the defensive line group here, but he's likely to be used as a physical SOLB in the Falcons' 3-4 front. I don't see him as a true edge player, but he's athletic enough to impact the pocket in this scheme if healthy.

IDP implications: It's unlikely Clayborn will have more than marginal matchup value, even if he plays every down.

buccaneers sign henry melton

Melton is a great fit for 3-technique in an underfront scheme. Tampa Bay, however, already has the gold standard in that role right now in Gerald McCoy. I don't believe we'll see McCoy moved to 1-technique, so Melton probably plays a mostly rotational role here, even if his contract ($3.5 million) suggests a larger role.

IDP implications: McCoy's value shouldn't take a major hit. Melton has an outside shot at DT2 value, but his upside will depend on his role and snap count.

The safety market is closing quickly. In addition to Rolle, two other cover safeties were signed today. Nate Allen moves to Oakland and Rahim Moore moves to Houston. I like Moore better than Allen and his signing will allow the Texans to move D.J. Swearinger Sr around the box to support a relatively weak inside linebacker group.

Also, the Jets have addressed their corner issues and then some. Darrelle Revis, Buster Skrine, and Antonio Cromartie have been signed over the past 48 hours and join first round pick Dee Milliner. It'll be interesting to see what Todd Bowles has planned for that group. The presence of Revis and multiple subpackage corner options should open the depth chart up for Calvin Pryor and put him around the box every down.

March 11 | 1200 ET

raiders sign curtis lofton

It didn't take long for the Raiders to convince Lofton to play in Oakland. After a visit last evening, Lofton signed a deal this morning. He'll likely be the team's new middle linebacker. With Malcolm Smith also added to a group already including Khalil Mack and Sio Moore, the Oakland depth chart is as deep as it's been in some time.

Assuming the Raiders continue in a 4-3 front, which is what Jack Del Rio implied in his first press conference, and all four players are fully healthy, it's not immediately clear who will start at weak side linebacker and who will play in subpackages. The details of Smith's contract are yet to be reported, but it's hard to see new defensive coordinator Ken Norton, who knows Smith well from his days in Seattle, advocating for Smith on the first day of free agency if he's to be used in a reserve or rotational role. It's hard to see Smith agreeing to that, too.

But there's a long way to go here. We'll get a sense of what the Oakland coaches think soon. Will we see a 3-4 with Mack, Moore and others play outside linebacker? Will we see Mack move to defensive end? Lots of possibilities to consider.

IDP implications: Don't over-react and get too down on Moore yet. Don't over-react and get overly excited about Lofton, who isn't guaranteed to play every down with the other talented and athletic linebackers on the roster.

buccaneers sign bruce carter

Carter has the ability to be a very good all-around linebacker and showed those skills at times in Dallas. Unfortunately, his athleticism isn't enough to overcome relatively poor instincts, inconsistency against the run, and durability concerns. It's interesting the Cowboys didn't aggressively pursue Carter, but it seems Rod Marinelli felt positively enough that Lovie Smith wasn't scared to add Carter.

Local Tampa Bay sources suggested Carter was signed to play middle linebacker, but I think it's just as likely Carter will play strong side linebacker and Danny Lansanah is moved inside. Those two will compete to play in subpackages alongside Lavonte David as well.

The Cowboys have now lost Carter and Justin Durant and don't seem motivated to re-sign Rolando McClain yet. There's lots of work to do on the Dallas depth chart, even if the team sees Sean Lee as a lock to return to form.

IDP implications: Inconsistency and poor durability will keep me from tiering Carter highly unless it becomes absolutely clear he's been signed to be an every-down middle linebacker. Until that happens, I'll be higher on Lansanah.

patriots sign jabaal sheard

I love this signing. I think Sheard is an underrated talent. He can set the edge and is a more athletic pass rusher than his build would suggest. His signing gives the Patriots lots of versatility along the front seven -- joining 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 Sr, 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.

I think the signing is Bill Belichick's response to the loss of Darrelle Revis (and to a much lesser extent, Brandon Browner). Without an elite corner, the Patriots will need to generate more pass rush. Adding Sheard's versatility and talent is a smart way to do that.

buccaneers release michael johnson

Johnson was a huge disappointment last year and never seemed to fit into Lovie Smith's scheme. Though Johnson has always been inconsistent, he's shown he can defend the run and impact the pocket. I expect he'll get more suitors on the market than some might think. Cincinnati and Minnesota (Mike Zimmer connection) come immediately to mind.

March 10 | 600 ET

haloti ngata traded to detroit

It will be odd to see Ngata in a uniform other than Baltimore this year, but the Ravens needed the cap space and have two young, talented defensive linemen ready to take on a larger role in Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan. The Lions moved to replace Ndamukong Suh with another elite interior lineman, albeit one much nearer the end of his career.

The Ngata trade sparked even more discussion about a potential move to a hybrid, 3-4 base in Detroit. Don't expect to hear much more on a scheme change until after the draft and possibly not until OTAs. And there's still no guarantee it occurs. Ngata fits well as a 1-technique tackle in a 4-3 front, too.

IDP implications: Watch for a Lions' draft that tips their hand or any other news on a scheme change. Scroll down to earlier notes for the potential impact on Ezekiel Ansah and others. Ngata's IDP value will depend on his role and classification. Jernigan gets a small bump, but it's too soon to consider him a legitimate threat to join the ranks of solid 3-4 defensive ends who put up High Floor DE2 numbers.

raiders sign malcolm smith, host curtis lofton

Jack Del Rio and Ken Norton are looking for linebacker help with Nick Roach lost to lingering concussion symptoms. Smith is talented but wasn't able to crack a loaded depth chart in Seattle and was expendable with second-year talent Kevin Pierre-Louis ready to play a bigger reserve role. Lofton has anchored defenses in both Atlanta and New Orleans.

If Smith was signed to start at outside linebacker opposite Khalil Mack, it implies the Oakland coaching staff didn't like what they saw from Sio Moore on tape or have concerns he'll not be able to recover from a hip injury. And the pursuit of Lofton suggests -- rightly, I believe -- that neither Smith nor Moore are candidates to play middle linebacker.

IDP implications: This dampers any LB2 expectations you may have for Moore for now. Smith has upside, but he'll need an every-down role to hold value. This would be a good situation for Lofton, though he'll have an uphill battle to play every down if Mack continues to play passing downs as a linebacker.

report: colts sign trent cole

Erik Walden and Bjoern Werner were well below average pass rushers last year and Robert Mathis had a setback in his Achilles' recovery, putting the Colts in dire need of edge players. Cole fits the bill here and should have enough left in his tank for a productive season or more.

IDP implications: Cole should be a near every-down player for the Colts even if Mathis recovers more quickly than expected. He fits in the Matchup LB3 tiers in most formats.

There were quite a few second-tier signings made official today. Da'Norris Searcy signed with Tennessee and will be a heavy favorite to be the starting strong safety in a favorable fantasy role. A.J. Hawk signed with Cincinnati and will be a useful hedge for Vontaze Burfict. It's possible Hawk could put Emmanuel Lamur on the bench on base defensive downs if Burfict is healthy. The Falcons added Brooks Reed and Justin Durant. Reed will start at outside linebacker, with Durant likely aligning next to Paul Worrilow. If Durant can stay healthy, he'll have every-down potential and LB3 upside. Prince Shembo will likely transition back outside. Tyvon Branch signed with Kansas City and will compete for snaps at safety. His fantasy value will hinge on the recovery of Eric Berry. Lamarr Woodley will go back to a 3-4 outside linebacker role in Arizona but isn't likely to have fantasy value. Stephen Paea may lose his defensive tackle designation after signing with Washington. He's likely to play defensive end in the 3-4 base and move inside in passing situations. Cary Williams (Seattle) and Buster Skrine (New York Jets) may both be in very fantasy friendly situations. And it's possible Jonathan Casillas could slip into an every-down outside linebacker role if things break just right for him with the Giants.

In addition to Lofton's visit with the Raiders, reports have Derrick Morgan visiting Atlanta, Antrel Rolle visiting Chicago, Bruce Carter visiting Tampa Bay, Nick Fairley visiting Cincinnati, and Tramon Williams visiting New Orleans. Brian Orakpo is reportedly still in play for both Tennessee and Arizona. And, surprisingly, there are also rumors of possible interest in Greg Hardy in San Francisco.

March 9 | 430 ET

eagles re-sign brandon graham

This isn't precisely the type of "FREEDOM!!!" I had in mind for Graham over the past two seasons. I expected him to leave Philadelphia and (hopefully) blossom elsewhere. With Trent Cole no longer with the Eagles -- and possibly no other team willing to give him a big contract guarantee -- the stage was set for Graham to return in an expanded role.

Graham has been a running theme in my writing for two years as I stump for underappreciated reserves. On a per snap basis, Graham has been as productive, both against the run and as a pass rusher, as any other edge player for two consecutive years. The injury concerns from earlier in his career are behind him. We'll now get a clear answer on whether his part time production will translate to 750+ snaps.

IDP implications: This is a clear downer for those of us who were hoping to see Graham sign with a 3-4 team. However, while Graham was drafted in the days when 'tweener was standard lexicon, he was one of the first true "edge" players capable of playing in either scheme. He'll be a solid Matchup Rush LB3 in balanced leagues with the potential for more.

saints release curtis lofton

Ian Rapoport reported the Saints were shopping Lofton this weekend, presumably to free up cap space. Today, New Orleans released the veteran inside linebacker. David Hawthorne is likely to be next, leaving the Saints extremely thin at linebacker. 

IDP implications: Lofton will be very attractive to a number of teams. He'll fit in either a 4-3 or 3-4 front and hasn't declined so much teams will shy away. Whomever fills the hole(s) on the Saints' depth chart should have strong value, especially if it's an every-down talent.

patriots decline option on darrelle revis

The Patriots are still working hard on signing Revis, but had no interest in bringing him back on a one year, $20 million option. The Jets are also in the mix here, too.

March 9 | 200 ET

bills re-sign jerry hughes

Rumored to be on the verge of happening late last night, multiple reports now have Hughes returning to the Bills on a 5-year, $45 million deal with $22 million guaranteed. Hughes was the best available edge rusher without baggage (things have been and will likely stay quiet around Greg Hardy) and his signing will likely open up a wave of secondary signings for guys like Brandon Graham and others.

Hughes will be the weak outside linebacker for Rex Ryan's multiple 3-4 and should do well. Two years ago, in a nearly identical scheme under Mike Pettine, Hughes broke out with 9.5 sacks. He'll be surrounded by the same talent in Ryan's scheme and, in his age 27 season, remains in the prime of his career.

IDP implications: Expect the same statistical line from Hughes this year. He'll again have double-digit sack upside. But he'll undoubtedly be re-classified to linebacker in your league management software system, which makes your scoring system the primary driver of Hughes' 2015 value. In balanced leagues, Hughes will be near the top of the Matchup Rush LB3 tier. Big play league owners can slot him into the LB2 tiers.

report: patrick willis to retire

Reading unexpected news on Twitter is to be expected during the early negotiating periods of free agency. Today's unexpected news didn't have anything to do with surprising team interest in a player, shockingly high contract figures, or a critical player traded without warning.

Last week, any discussion of the San Francisco linebacker depth chart centered on how the team would get all of its talented players on the field together. Today, with Willis reportedly retiring on Tuesday and the health of NaVorro Bowman still an unknown, that depth chart looks markedly different.

While it's possible health concerns may have played a role, most reports suggest otherwise. Willis appears to be walking away from the game healthy. We'll likely know more tomorrow.

IDP implications: With Willis retired, Chris Borland will again step up and play every down. Presumably that'll be next to NaVorro Bowman, though that cannot be guaranteed until we see him recovered and effective in OTAs. Borland will likely work into my Risk-Reward LB2 tier for now, though his ultimate slot will be determined by Bowman readiness.

Cardinals sign Sean Weatherspoon

With Daryl Washington still at risk of a multiple game suspension, Larry Foote on the coaching staff, and the team clearly not interested in building around Kevin Minter, linebacker was a need for Arizona. Weatherspoon seemed to be a priority target and the Cardinals moved on him quickly.

This is just a one year deal, however, and not a long term signing. And Weatherspoon, who was already slowing down before his Achilles injury last year, isn't the type of player who profiles well as likely to fully recover from a major tendon tear. 

IDP implications: If healthy, Weatherspoon is a lock to start and play every down this year. I'll wait to hear more from Ray Horton and Dick LeBeau before deciding whether he belongs in the LB3 tiers or somewhere in this Risk-Reward LB2 group. It's still not clear where Washington fits into Arizona's plans, but dynasty owners with room on their bench should hold until the situation is defined. The depth chart is still open for Minter, but the team didn't use him in the nickel and continues to target veteran inside linebackers in free agency. That tells you what they plan for him.

Bears sign Pernell McPhee

McPhee got less than Hughes, but a five year contract with $18 million guaranteed is a nice haul. Vic Fangio will likely run a 3-4 in Chicago and McPhee fills a critical need for an outside edge rusher. Jared Allen would slot to the weak outside spot right now, with McPhee on the strong side. McPhee is more athletic than he may appear, but it remains to be seen if he can carry a team's pass rush over 800+ snaps without an established threat opposite him.

IDP implications: I may be underrating him, but McPhee will be in the middle of the Matchup LB3 tier at best until he proves capable of getting pressure when teams have no one else to game plan against.

rumor: bears interested in mason foster

John Mullin of CSNChicago tweeted the Bears are interested in Foster. I'm not passing on every rumor on team or player interest, but this one caught my eye. If true -- whether Foster signs in Chicago or not -- it means John Fox and Vic Fangio aren't impressed with Jon Bostic or Christian Jones (or both) on tape. 

Foster has proven he's no better than replacement level against the run and in coverage. That's not a great fit for a Fangio fire zone scheme. It'll be interesting to see whether this quickly becomes a forgotten note or there's more to come with the linebacker depth chart in Chicago.

March 8

dolphins sign ndamukong suh (expected)

What could've been a weekend full of rumors and reports of a bidding war over Suh fizzled before it began. Suh was strongly rumored to be headed to Miami before the negotiating window opened and it didn't take long for the usual Twitter suspects to report Suh had agreed to a contract on Saturday afternoon. And, by Sunday afternoon, it was official: Suh will join the Dolphins on a contract that will make him the highest paid defensive player in NFL history.

The Dolphins now have a potentially dominant front four, with Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon at end and Randy Starks next to Suh at tackle. Should Miami finally make good use of Dion Jordan's talents, this defense may be an elite unit.

IDP implications: Suh's DT1 value is unchanged. The signing certainly won't hurt the potential of Wake and Vernon, but I'm not ready to cement either in the elite tier yet. More on the ripple effect in Detroit just below.

report: bills expected to re-sign jerry hughes

This one isn't official yet, but there are multiple reports on Sunday night detailing the Bills' push to keep Hughes in Buffalo with a deal that may be worth $10 million annually. Hughes is the only edge player getting serious attention on the market right now -- second tier guys like Brandon Graham, Trent Cole, and Brian Orakpo are visiting teams and considering options -- so there's still room for a bidding war and change in plans for Hughes.

cornerback market breaks early

Byron Maxwell (reportedly signed by Philadelphia), Brandon Flowers (re-signed by San Diego) and Kareem Jackson (re-signed by Houston) were all taken off the market quickly this weekend. Tramon Williams and Buster Skrine are still gaining attention.

IDP implications: The Eagles are still looking at Williams, but Maxwell may have CB2+ value with the number of snaps the Philadelphia defense usually sees each week.

rumor: detroit may consider 3-4 front

Detroit News beat writer Josh Katzenstein tweeted Sunday afternoon that a Lions' player told him the team could switch to a 3-4 front, presumably due to the relative depth at linebacker and defensive line.

As you might expect, that spurred a flurry of conversation after I passed the tweet along to my Twitter followers. To be absolutely clear, there's nothing official from the team here and no guarantee the player is aware of any coming changes.

However, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has 3-4 experience from his days in Baltimore and told reporters to expect a multiple defense after taking over in Detroit last winter. So, a switch isn't out of the realm of possibility.

At first glance, I'd think the Lions would use Kyle Van Noy and Ezekiel Ansah as outside linebackers in a 3-4, but Ansah could potentially play a 5-technique role. And, in a later tweet, Katzenstein suggested that would be Ansah's likely position. Again, this is all speculation, but I'll be watching the Lions' post free agency press conferences and draft selections closely for more clues.

IDP implications: Obviously, this would have huge implications for Ansah, whose ceiling would drop significantly were he moved to a 5-technique role on base downs or be re-classified to linebacker if used as a 3-4 outside linebacker. It's way, way too early to panic here, but be mindful that we could see a Chandler Jones like situation develop here this summer.

March 6

eagles acquire kiko alonso from buffalo

The first major news story this week wasn't a player release or free agent signing. Instead, it was a trade no one expected as the Eagles sent running back LeSean McCoy to the Bills for Kiko Alonso. I'll save the extra paragraphs on what this trade may mean for the value of running backs and every-down non-rush linebackers and focus on the defensive implications for both Philadelphia and Buffalo.

It's not clear whether the Bills were actively looking to move Alonso -- probably not -- but we can take this as a sign Rex Ryan felt he was dealing from a position of strength. Though Alonso is recovering from an ACL injury, he was still arguably the best interior linebacker on the roster. The Bills still have Preston Brown and Nigel Bradham capable of playing every down. And, with the Jets taking David Harris off the market before the negotiating period began, there isn't an obvious Ryan-esque fit among the remaining free agents. 

In Philadelphia, Alonso will pair with Mychal Kendricks as one of the most athletic inside linebacker duos in the league. While I wasn't as impressed with Alonso as many were in his rookie season -- I felt he was stellar in coverage but not as physical and productive against the run as he could've been -- there's youth and upside to burn here if he's fully recovered from the ACL injury.

IDP implications: Alonso stays in Risk-Reward LB2 tier. Kendricks drops a bit in the Elite LB1 Upside tier. Brown moves up to the Risk-Reward LB2 tier. Bradham will tentatively slot into the Upside LB3 tier.

jets re-sign david harris

After the Bills moved Kiko Alonso, many expected Rex Ryan to make a play to bring Harris to Buffalo. We'll never know how likely that was to happen, as the Jets kept Harris from reaching the market. It's a three year contract with a sizable guarantee, which ensures New York will have Harris and Demario Davis together inside for another season.

IDP implications: No change in value for Harris, who anchors the High Floor LB3 tier.

rumor: ndamukong suh priority for miami

With Justin Houston and Jason Pierre-Paul tagged and Greg Hardy an off-field landmine, Suh is the premier defensive free agent on this year's market. He's been linked to lots of teams already, but the Dolphins seem to be the team to beat here.

Adding Suh would give the Dolphins a potentially dominant line, with Suh and Randy Starks flanked by Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon. It would also help keep Koa Misi and Jelani Jenkins free from interior line blocks against the run.

Suh has also been discussed as a potential closed 4-3 end in the Red Bryant / Lamarr Houston mold or as a 5-technique in the J.J. Watt / Calais Campbell mold. Wherever he ends up and whatever role he's asked to play, Suh will be doing it after signing for a truckload of money.

More on Suh after his signing is official.

rumor: saints shopping curtis lofton

Ian Rapoport first reported this Tuesday afternoon on Twitter and it -- rightfully so -- stirred some conversation about Lofton's recent play in New Orleans and how critical he is to the Saints' defense. Lofton was less consistent last year in all phases, but he's rightfully seen as the anchor of their run defense. The Saints appear to be actively manuevering for cap room, and that may have more to do with this rumor / report than Lofton's play.

If the Saints do trade (or release) Lofton, there are no young talents on the depth chart ready to make an impact.

bengals re-sign rey maualuga

With Vontaze Burfict a major question mark due to a history of multiple concussions and a late 2014 microfracture procedure on a poorly healing knee, the Bengals were looking at relying on Vinny Rey and Emmanuel Lamur as their primary linebackers for 2015. Rey and Lamur struggled when asked to play 60+ snaps last year, and neither held up physically late in the season.

Maualuga had a relatively strong season in 2014, but he's still prone to inconsistency against the run and isn't a factor in coverage. If Burfict cannot return to form, however, Maualuga may be the Bengals' best run defender.

IDP implications: Maualuga is a replacement level fantasy option unless he's forced into an every down role due to lack of other options.

chiefs re-sign josh mauga

This signing won't generate much discussion, but the 3 year, $8 million deal gives the Chiefs flexibility after the release of Joe Mays and the ongoing rehab of Derrick Johnson from last season's Achilles tear. Unless the Chiefs add another talented linebacker, expect Mauga to have a starting role next year.

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.

More articles from Jene Bramel

See all

More articles on: IDP

See all

More articles on: Offseason

See all