IDP Free Agent Preview: Linebackers
Free agency is less than a month away, which means it’s time to begin the IDP fantasy free agency coverage. To kick things off, here are the ten most interesting free agent 4-3 linebackers/3-4 inside linebackers ranked in terms of likely 2014 fantasy success. If the player re-signs with their own team we can expect them to have a similar role/production, so the interest is in if they change teams. Here you’ll see analysis on how the player’s role might change if they switch teams as well as which players might see an increased role if the free agent departs.
1. Karlos Dansby (ARZ)
Prior to the 2013 season Dansby signed a one-year “prove it” deal with the Cardinals, and he certainly showed he deserves a better contract. He played nearly every snap last season, helping him to a 122-tackle performance and putting him in the LB1 category. Even if he switches teams, we should expect him to remain an every-down linebacker who can excel in stopping the run and pass. He had a high 6.5 sacks, which should regress to the mean. This might lower him to the high LB2 category, but Dansby will certainly remain on the fantasy radar.
If he leaves Arizona, it wouldn’t be surprising if his replacement is already on the roster. The Cardinals drafted Kevin Minter in the second round of the 2013 draft and is the most logical replacement. In dynasty leagues Minter should already be owned, but if Dansby leaves, Minter should be worth drafted in redraft leagues as well. If Minter isn’t ready to be a starter yet, then Jasper Brinkley is also on the roster and could start. Over the first four weeks of the season during Daryl Washington’s suspension, Jasper Brinkley was a LB4 while starting across from Dansby.
2. Brandon Spikes (NE)
Over the past few years, Spikes has had huge fantasy weeks mixed in with mediocre ones. There were five weeks this year where he had seven or more solo tackles, but also five weeks where he had two or fewer. He is easily one of the best linebackers in the league against the run, but his fantasy value is very dependent on what role he gets with a new team. If someone takes a chance on him as an every-down linebacker, he will get all of his past fantasy value against the run as well as getting more tackles when people target him in coverage. He could be one of the best fantasy linebackers in 2014 if this happens. If he plays in just the base defense, he will continue to see mixed results that fantasy owners are used to.
It would not at all be surprising for him to leave New England. If the Patriots return to a 4-3 defense, they have Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins for a starting lineup. If they stick with a 3-4 then only two of those players will be on the field at a time. Keeping Spikes would just make the position more crowded. In each of his two playoff games, Collins had six solo tackles while playing nearly every snap, so he seems ready for a bigger role, which means he would also become fantasy-relevant.
3. Donald Butler (SD)
For the last two years when Butler has been healthy, he has been an every-down linebacker for the Chargers. This year even though his play was sub-par, he was a consistent fantasy producer with six-or-more tackles in two-thirds of his games. Due to his poor play especially against the run, there is certainly a chance if he switches teams that he could become just a part-time linebacker. His injuries are also a concern as he missed a lot of time early this season as well as late last season. When he is healthy and playing every down he is a LB2, but it’s unlikely he moves up to the LB1 range and there are concerns that could drop him down.
If Butler leaves, the only thing that will be known in San Diego is Manti Te’o will at least play on run downs. There is a chance he could become an every-down player if Butler departs, which would put Te’o in the low LB2/high LB3 category. Andrew Gachkar and Bront Bird are both players who are under contract for 2014 and could see roles as part time or full time linebackers. Reggie Walker is a free agent, and if re-signed would likely move back to inside linebacker after playing outside late in the 2013 season.
4. Erin Henderson (MIN)
An injury, a series of arrests, and the emergence of Audie Cole allowed the Vikings to recently release Henderson after a productive fantasy 2013. Despite missing two games, Henderson finished in the LB3 range with 69 solo tackles including a high ten tackles for losses. His fantasy value could plummet if his next team only views him as a two-down linebacker, as he had a +5.4 PFF grade against the run compared to a -7.9 PFF grade in coverage. If he remains an every-down LB, he is capable of being in the LB2 range.
5. Perry Riley (WAS)
Riley didn’t have the best 2013 season in terms of his production on the field, but any time you have over 1,000 snaps as an ILB, you are bound to have fantasy value regardless of quality of play. He was in the LB3 category despite 0.16 fantasy points per snap in tackle heavy leagues, which is average for a linebacker in general, but low for an inside linebacker. Because he is both young and experienced and played well in coverage late in the season, it would not be surprising for him to get an every-down role elsewhere if he doesn’t return to Washington. There just isn’t much reason to believe his fantasy value will get much better than it was in 2013.
Washington has already lost one of their two inside linebackers with London Fletcher retiring. The most likely candidate to start at one spot is Keenan Robinson, who was a fourth round pick in 2012. Nick Barnett was the top backup inside linebacker in 2013 but will be 33 by next season and is also a free agent. Washington will definitely need to re-sign one of their inside linebackers, or bring in someone from the draft or from a different team. Will Compton and Jeremy Kimbrough were both undrafted players picked up by Washington last year, and are the only other inside linebackers currently on the roster.
6. Daryl Smith (BLT)
Smith is a better actual player than fantasy producer. He was one of the best linebackers in the league on passing downs but failed to be very productive in run downs. He certainly played well enough this year to have a job in Baltimore or elsewhere when the nickel and dime defense comes in, but playing in just those roles isn’t enough to be a draftable fantasy linebacker. There is a chance he could lose run downs to a younger linebacker. At best he will be a LB3 next year if he keeps an every-down role, and at worst he would dip down to the LB4/LB5 range with less playing time.
The Ravens are expected to cut Jameel McClain, who played poorly in the run game and is not worth his 2014 cap value. Regardless of if Smith stays or goes, 2013 second round pick Arthur Brown is expected to have a larger role than he did as a rookie. Brown had a very low 0.06 fantasy points per snap, which isn’t promising, but due to his high draft status it would be expected for that number to drastically improve. If both Smith and McClain leave, we could see Arthur Brown and Josh Bynes in every-down roles. Albert McClellan was at the back of the depth chart in 2013, but could see more snaps in 2014 with those departures.
7. Jon Beason (NYG)
The Giants traded for Beason mid-season last year and were happy with the result. The Giants defense played much better with Beason than without him even though Beason doesn’t play well in coverage. His fantasy production was very inconsistent, with two games of 11-or-more tackles, but had four-or-fewer tackles in 64% of his 2013 games. He is better suited to play just run downs, but if he returns to New York he will likely keep an every-down role. He has some fantasy upside due to his excellent games, but the more likely scenario is those exceptional games will remain rare, which would keep him to a low LB3.
In all likelihood the Giants re-sign Beason. The Giants have a decision to make on Keith Rivers, who is also an unrestricted free agent. Worst case scenario, the linebackers of New York next year will be Jacquian Williams, Mark Herzlich and Spencer Paysinger. It is a position that needs upgrading, and even if Beason and Rivers are re-signed they will likely upgrade at one spot.
8. James Anderson (CHI)
Most productive fantasy linebackers are either 4-3 middle linebackers or 3-4 inside linebackers. James Anderson was one of the best 4-3 outside linebackers in the fantasy world after playing all 16 games and accumulating 85 tackles. Part of the reason he was an every-down linebacker was the injuries and youth of the Bears’ backups. The best case scenario for Anderson is that he remains a Bear, or goes to another team that views him as an every-down linebacker, which would leave him in the LB3 range. However Anderson is excellent in the pass game and shouldn’t be included in a base defense, so if the team that has Anderson has enough depth then Anderson won’t receive enough snaps to stay a productive fantasy producer.
The Bears are probably the most interesting team this free agency as they have 27 free agents. At linebacker Chicago already has long time starter Lance Briggs as well as two high 2013 draft picks Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene. D.J. Williams was also on the team last year and is an unrestricted free agent. If neither Anderson nor Williams are re-signed, then Bostic would likely have an every-down role along with Briggs.
9. Wesley Woodyard (DEN)
In 2013 Woodyard started the season as an every-down player, but then was reduced to just playing in the nickel defense. He had a decent 0.18 fantasy points per snap, but failed to remain fantasy relevant due to his role. He makes enough tackles when he’s on the field that a change of scenery could lead to a bigger role and a return to being a top fantasy linebacker. Due to the Broncos preferring Paris Lenon to Woodyard for their base defense, it would likely take an injury for Woodyard to be given a full time role again.
Both Woodyard and Lenon are free agents, and if neither are re-signed there is a spot open for Denver at linebacker. Nate Irving is the most logical person to take that role after being drafted in the third round in 2011. In 2013 he had 0.18 fantasy points per snap, which is above average for a linebacker, and if he is given a full time role then he could sneak his way into being a fantasy starter. The Broncos in recent years have used multiple part time linebackers, so there is certainly a chance both Irving and another player get the role.
10. Darryl Sharpton (HST)
Another year of injury for Brian Cushing led to another year of Darryl Sharpton becoming an every-down linebacker in Houston. He managed 119 fantasy points in tackle-heavy leagues, which was mostly due to the quantity of snaps he was in for. He is best suited for a base defense role only with a +8.8 run defense grade compared to a -11.9 coverage grade. On the off chance he gets an every-down role, he will probably be a low LB3/high LB4 again. As a run down only player he no longer is fantasy relevant.
Assuming Brian Cushing becomes healthy, he will have one of the every-down linebacker roles. Joe Mays is also a free agent. The in-house replacements opposite Cushing are Jeff Tarpinian, Mike Mohamed and Justin Tuggle. In all likelihood the Texans will address the position this free agency with re-signing Sharpton or Mays, or adding someone else.
Other free agents to keep an eye on: Vincent Rey (CIN), Pat Angerer (IND), Kavell Conner (IND), Desmond Bishop (MIN), Ramon Humber (NO)