IDP Free Agent Preview: Position Changes

Nathan Jahnke checks in on some of the high profile free agents that could be switching positions in 2013.

| 4 years ago

Nathan Jahnke checks in on some of the high profile free agents that could be switching positions in 2013.

IDP Free Agent Preview: Position Changes


Two weeks ago I began a free agent preview comparing defensive ends Michael Bennett and Michael Johnson. Today the focus shifts to some high profile free agents that could see a position change.  Here you can see what to expect if the player switches positions, as well as what position you can hope the player is listed as in your fantasy league in order to best take advantage of the situation.

Anthony Spencer

Spencer is the highest profile 3-4 outside linebacker available in free agency. With DeMarcus Ware fighting injury all season, Spencer helped pick up the pass rushing slack with 11 sacks on the year, and by far was the most dominant 3-4 outside linebacker in the run game with a Run Stop Percentage of 11.7%. Now he is an unrestricted free agent with a fate unknown. If he returns to the Cowboys, he will be going to a unit that is switching schemes where he would likely turn into a 4-3 defensive end. Spencer played as a 4-3 defensive end in college, so he should have no problem transitioning if need be.

In terms of run defense, there really isn’t much difference between a 3-4 outside linebacker and a 4-3 defensive end. In 2012, both recorded tackles on an average of 7.3% of their run snaps. For stops, 3-4 outside linebackers had a very slight advantage with stops on 5.6% of their run plays vs. 5.5% for 4-3 defensive ends. Whichever position he ends up playing should have no effect on his play in the run game.

How his pass rushing will do will greatly depend on how he is used. Outside linebackers in the 3-4 are more effective at getting sacks at a 2.1% sack per pass rush rate compared to 1.5% for defensive ends. This is likely due to the fact that 4-3 teams are much more consistent in who they rush the passer with than 3-4 teams, so the element of surprise is on the 3-4 outside linebacker’s side. However if a 3-4 outside linebacker goes into coverage they can’t get a sack. When you look at sacks per pass play, both 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers are even at 1.4%.

There are two reasons why Spencer should score more fantasy points in a 3-4 defense. First is that while he should get an equal numbers of sacks regardless of scheme, as a 3-4 outside linebacker he will make more tackles in coverage. On 6.2% of plays where a 3-4 outside linebacker goes into coverage they make a tackle, so this will lead to more tackles for Spencer. Second is that as an outside linebacker played in 92.0% of his teams snaps. Most outside linebackers see nearly every snap, where 4-3 teams are more likely to have a rotation at defensive end. If he makes the switch to end, there is a higher likelihood of his snaps decreasing, which would lead to less chances to score fantasy points. Unfortunately, most fantasy scoring systems tend to undervalue 3-4 outside linebackers, so it’s actually best for Spencer’s fantasy value if he lands in a 4-3 situation.

Jason Jones

In 2010, Jason Jones emerged as one of the better interior pass rushers in the league in Tennessee. Because he was doing so well rushing the passer, the Titans moved him to defensive end in 2011, and he wasn’t nearly as effective. He signed a one year “prove it” deal with the Seahawks in 2012. On running plays, Jones saw 55.6% of snaps as a defensive end, and 44.4% as a defensive tackle. On passing plays, he saw 39.0% of snaps at end, and 61.0% at tackle.

With Jones getting used like that, he gets the worst of both worlds.  In terms of run defense, defensive tackles tend to be more productive than ends, with tackles on 7.9% of plays compared to 7.3% at end. There is a similar difference in both run stops and forced fumbles.

On passing plays, ends tend to be more productive of the deal with sacks on 1.5% of pass rushes compared to 1.1% for defensive tackles. Defensive ends are more than twice as likely to force fumbles on passing plays than defensive tackles. Because Jones plays more end on run plays and more tackle on pass plays, he is on the short end of the stick.

Chances are Jones will get re-signed with the Seahawks. The best case is that the Seahawks use Jones even more at defensive tackle on run downs to help beef up his tackles number. Seattle is basically the only team that will put two defensive linemen wide to one side on passing downs which helps Jones pass rushing.  If the Seahawks do this even more, it could add a sack or two to his total.

Closing Thoughts

While these are two of the free agent options that have played multiple positions in the past, really anyone could see a position change if they switch schemes. These were just two of the more likely candidates. In general 3-4 outside linebackers will score a little higher than 4-3 defensive ends due to coverage tackles. On 4-3 fronts, the more a hybrid player plays end in the base defense and tackle on pass rushing downs, the worse off they are.

| Director of Analytics

Nathan has been with Pro Football Focus since 2010. He is the Director of Analytics, an NFL analyst, and a fantasy writer.

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