This week the IDP free agent preview moves on to the pass rushers of the league. While some play defensive end in 4-3 fronts and others outside linebacker in 3-4 fronts, we could very well see some players switch schemes. Since their positions for 2014 are unknown, this preview groups both positions together. Here you will find the top 10 players ranked by 2014 fantasy potential. We can expect a player’s fantasy value to stay close to the same if they stay with their team. Therefore we look at what will happen to both the player and the player’s former team assuming they change teams.
1. Lamarr Houston (OAK)
Houston was one of the few players retained by the Raiders defense after the 2012 season. In response, he ended up with the fifth-most fantasy points for defensive linemen in 2013. Part of his value came from the Raiders trusting him with 94.9% of snaps, but he is a good enough player that any team should be using him on a high percentage of snaps. Only 9.52% of his pass rushes ended up being a sack, where the average for 4-3 defensive ends is 14.67%. We can expect his sack percentage to regress to the mean and therefore increase in 2014. All signs point to him being a fantasy star wherever he plays. The only things that could hold him back are an injury or a team that greatly limits his playing time.
The Raiders other starting edge rusher from 2013 – Jason Hunter – is also a free agent. Currently Oakland is very thin at the position. Jack Crawford and Ryan Robinson are currently penciled in as the starters with a combined 216 unimpressive snaps last year. In the nickel and dime defense, it wouldn’t be surprising if Sio Moore plays more snaps as an edge rusher, which would increase his value. However, Moore would need to be considered a defensive end rather than a linebacker to have a lot of fantasy value, which is unlikely.
2. Greg Hardy (CAR)
When Greg Hardy entered the league, he played in Charles Johnson’s shadow. However over the last two years Hardy has outplayed his counterpart. Thanks to Hardy having the third-most sacks in the league, his fantasy value was in the high DL2 range. He played 136 snaps as a linebacker this year, so there is a chance he could play 3-4 outside linebacker, but ideally he sticks with a defensive end designation. He played in 86.6% of snaps, which is typical for a defensive end of his quality. If a team pays enough money to get him out of Carolina, then chances are he would play roughly the same amount of snaps. Regardless of if he plays in Carolina or not, his fantasy value should remain around the same in 2014 as it was in 2013.
If Hardy were to leave Carolina, then they would likely have a rotation of players replace him. Mario Addison, Frank Alexander and Wes Horton were the backup defensive ends in 2013 and remain under contract. Addison had the most snaps of the three at 264 and also played the best with 28 total pressures. Carolina invested a fourth-round draft pick in Alexander in 2012, but so far he hasn’t panned out with a -5.4 PFF overall rating last year. Horton made the roster as an undrafted rookie, but played so poorly that he might not get the same opportunity in 2014. Most likely Addison and Alexander would split playing time, but anything could change with a free agent or draft addition.
3. Michael Johnson (CIN)
Johnson was a high-end DE2 in 2013 similar to Hardy. This was thanks to some big plays including three forced fumbles. His value comes in his ability to stop the run, where his +21.2 PFF Run Defense rating was second-best among 4-3 defensive ends. This leads to a lot of tackles in the run game as well as tackles for losses. The only thing holding him back is a low sack total. He had 51 pressures, so his sack total should regress to the mean and increase. However, he was in on 575 pass rushes last year and is only an average pass rusher. There is a chance either the Bengals or a new team might decrease how often he is in on pass plays, which would decrease his opportunities for sacks. Most signs point to him remaining a DL2, but his average pass rushing holds him back.
Reports are that Johnson is unlikely to return to Cincinnati and in-house replacements are in place to take over. Wallace Gilberry was the backup defensive lineman for all four starters and could very well take over at right defensive end. He had a high sack total, but his sack-to-pressure ratio was high and that number could decrease. His value is also hurt because the Bengals could still move him inside on passing situations. Cincinnati also spent a second-round pick on Margus Hunt last year, but so far he hasn’t lived up to expectations. He had a low overall PFF rating of -8.0 on a low 165 snaps.
4. Michael Bennett (SEA)
It might be surprising to find Bennett this high on the list after basically being a non-factor in fantasy football in 2013. His value would increase greatly with a team that uses him the right way. One reason his fantasy value has been hurt is Seattle’s depth on the defensive line, which has led to a heavy rotation. Another reason is that nearly half of Bennett’s snaps came from a defensive tackle position rather than defensive end. If Bennett can go to a team that will use him as an every-down defensive end, he could be the best fantasy player on the list. When he lined up at defensive tackle, his fantasy points per snap was a low .055. When he lined up at defensive end, it was at .139. A conservative 750 snaps playing just at defensive end would put him in the low DE1 range.
If he were to leave Seattle, there would likely be a lot of players taking his place. The player it could help the most is Brandon Mebane, who was only in for 260 pass rushes but was a great pass rusher at defensive tackle. Bruce Irvin is someone who could see more time as an edge rusher. There are also many backups who were barely used in 2013 that could benefit from Bennett’s potential departure. Greg Scruggs and Benson Mayowa are both players who could start seeing some playing time at defensive end. Jordan Hill and Jesse Williams are both high 2013 draft picks at defensive tackle who should start seeing the field.
5. Brian Orakpo (WAS)
Orakpo is just as good of an edge rusher as the other players on this list. He had a PFF rating of +24.9, which was fourth-best for all 3-4 outside linebackers and is by far the best for the 3-4 outside linebackers available. He also was one of the 24 players with double-digit sacks. The problem is that he has only played 3-4 outside linebacker in the pros. He lined up with his hand on the ground 28 times, and not a single time since Week 11. If you are in a league that differentiates between ILB and OLB, then Orakpo will remain an OLB1 regardless of what team he plays for. If not, then Orakpo is around a LB6 in 12-team leagues, but would be a DE2 if he were to switch positions.
Washington currently has three outside linebackers on the roster. Of course Ryan Kerrigan will line up at one spot. 2013 fifth-round pick Brandon Jenkins played 41 snaps last year, and would be slated to play in nearly 100% of snaps if Orakpo isn’t signed and no major additions are made.
6. Justin Tuck (NYG)
In 2013 Tuck managed to be a DL1 thanks to some big plays. He was tied for the 11th-most sacks with 11, had seven tackles for losses, which was eighth best for defensive linemen, and had two forced fumbles. The problem is he will be turning 31 in a little over a month from now, so unlike the players above him his play should decline while others should improve. Plenty of his value came from his high sack total. However he was in 545 pass rushes despite only having a +0.8 PFF Pass Rush grade. Tuck wants to test the market, and it wouldn’t be surprising if other teams don’t give him the same number of snaps as the Giants have in pass rushing. This would result in a lower sack total. Best case he remains a low DE1/high DE2, but there are warning signs that a decline could happen.
The Giants drafted Damontre Moore with the 81st pick in last year’s draft, and he is the most likely replacement if Tuck were to leave. He saw nine snaps or fewer in each game to start the season up until Week 11. From Week 13 on he saw anywhere from 15 to 34 snaps per game. While he didn’t have a sack as a rookie, he did have seven hits on 100 pass rushes. Mathias Kiwanuka could also continue to see playing time, but he had a low -28.1 PFF rating. It might be in their best interest to give Moore the starting job over Kiwanuka.
7. Mike Neal (GB)
Mike Neal started his career as a defensive lineman and performed well as an interior pass rusher. He was moved to 3-4 outside linebacker last year but wasn’t nearly as successful. He might be best suited as a defensive lineman, which would help his fantasy value. He had a pressure on 11.6% of his pass rushes, which is decent, and would likely increase if rushing from his hand on the ground. However, he averaged playing just 66% of snaps, and is best suited only being in passing situations. If you’re in a league that values sacks then he could become a double-digit sacker. He would need to find the right situation to make that many sacks.
If Neal doesn’t return, then Nick Perry would return to a starting role with the team. Neither Perry nor Clay Matthews has been able to stay healthy and the Packers like some rotation at outside linebacker. This means the backups should see a decent amount of playing time. Those players are Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer, although both players disappointed last year. Regardless of if Neal returns, the Packers would likely add a player in free agency or draft someone.
8. Jason Worilds (PIT)
Jason Worilds makes this list mostly due to his play late in the 2013 season. Once Lamarr Woodley went down with an injury, Worilds moved from right outside linebacker to left. There he had a Pass Rushing Productivity of 11.3 compared to just 8.6 on the right. His PRP from the left was third-best for all outside linebackers with at least 200 pass rushes from the left. If he is on a team where he can continue playing to his strength, he should have a 10-sack season. Since he has played outside linebacker his entire NFL career, chances are he will stay there. At outside linebacker he only has value in leagues that differentiate outside and inside linebackers. Moving to left defensive end would put him around a low DL2/high DL3 range.
Regardless of what happens, it is likely that former 2013 first-round pick Jarvis Jones will get the opportunity to play 100% of snaps each game at right outside linebacker. Woodley could very well be considered a post June 1 cap cut, which would help the Steelers’ rough cap situation. It would be very surprising to see both Worilds and Woodley on the roster. If Woodley is cut and Worilds doesn’t return, then 2011 fifth-round pick Chris Carter is next in line to be a starter.
9. Shaun Phillips (DEN)
In his first year with Denver, Shaun Phillips had a big impact on defense. He had a double digit sack season, double digit tackles for losses and five passes defended. 39% of his snaps came as a defensive end while the other 61% came at linebacker. In leagues that he was considered a defensive end he was a mid DE2, but as a linebacker he was only a low LB6.
Denver wants to re-sign Phillips so chances are he returns. However, his fantasy value should decline regardless of if he stays or goes. When Von Miller was active and healthy, Phillips snaps decreased from 76% of snaps to 66%. He will be 33 by next season so his play will likely decline. While his sack number was decent, his PFF Pass Rush Rating of -11.3 so his sack total should decline. A lot is working against Phillips for 2014, but a strong 2013 is enough to keep an eye on Phillips. If he doesn’t return, a number of players would see an increase in time. Derek Wolfe, Malik Jackson and Jeremy Mincey would all stay outside on passing downs more often than they had been.
10. Jared Allen (MIN)
Allen is similar to Phillips in that he had a 10-sack season, but it wouldn’t be surprising if his best days are behind him. His three best games in terms of pass rushing came in the first four weeks of the season, and then he had some decent games beating up on some below-average left tackles. At his age and below-average play, it’s unlikely he averages 90.8% of snaps again. 20% of his pressures turned into sacks, so that should regress to the mean and also lower his sack number. While he was a mid DL2 last year, a likely decrease in playing time and production should drop him to at least the DL3 range if not lower.
For the past few seasons Everson Griffen has been Allen’s backup, but he is also slated for free agency. If Griffen is re-signed, he would likely take the right defensive end spot, but possibly move inside on passing downs. The only defensive ends on the roster outside of starter Brian Robison are Justin Trattou and Spencer Nealy. A new free agent pickup or draft pick could be the Vikings defensive right end next year.
Other Free Agents to keep an eye on: Matt Shaughnessy (ARZ), Corey Wootton (CHI), Robert Ayers (DEN), Willie Young (DET), Everson Griffen (MIN), Jason Hunter (OAK), O’Brien Schofield (SEA)