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Free agency was a whirlwind this year. In the past, there were three clear waves of free agency. The top players (and a handful of lesser talents teams identified as strong mid-level roster additions) came off the board quickly. A second run of signings happened a few days later after teams and players sifted through the leftovers looking for fits. The rest of free agency was often a trickle on a need and fit basis over the following weeks and months of the offseason.
This year, the three day negotiate-but-can't-sign window allowed a flurry of signings and reports immediately as free agency opened. And the unexpected late increase in the salary cap put more teams than anticipated into the mix early. Those factors ensured that the market moved quickly and then dried up, with nearly every notable free agent name finding his new home within a week.
It also made for a lively "live" blog feature earlier this month, where I reported news and signings and releases with some quick-fire analysis. You can read that feature, in its original presentation, here. To make those blurbs easier to read and reference throughout the offseason, I'm editing and presenting them by position in this separate feature.
Michael Johnson was the prize of the class, but this was a deep group this year. It eventually included two solid veterans in DeMarcus Ware and Julius Peppers, who were released just after free agency opened. There's room for another impact signing at this position if Anthony Spencer can fully recover from microfracture surgery and earn a significant role with a new team.
MICHAEL JOHNSON SIGNS WITH TAMPA BAY
Johnson was rumored to reunite with Mike Zimmer early in the process. The Vikings quickly decided Johnson was too costly and elected to re-sign Everson Griffen to a big contract last week. Lovie Smith and Leslie Frazier will ask Johnson to play the run on the way to the quarterback, something he did very well, if inconsistently, for Zimmer in Cincinnati. It's a good fit for Johnson, who joins a line with an improving (and recovering) Adrian Clayborn and a dominant Gerald McCoy.
What it means for IDP owners: Johnson lands in a prime spot for big play production should he play consistently enough to take advantage. It's good news for Clayborn, who won't see much attention opposite Johnson and McCoy. And if the contract size wasn't enough, it's further confirmation that the Vikings are hitching their pass rush wagon to Griffen and Brian Robison. Griffen has been an attractive sleeper for the past two seasons. He quietly put up solid numbers in 700 snaps last year and should be poised to become an every-week fantasy starter.
DEMARCUS WARE SIGNS WITH DENVER
It didn't take long for the Broncos to close the deal with Ware, who ended up getting more from Denver than he would've had he stayed with the Cowboys. The 10 million dollar per season contract means Ware is seen as an anchor pass rusher for the Broncos and they have no concerns with the neck and shoulder and elbow injuries that have hampered his play at times over the past two seasons. If Von Miller can recover fully from his torn ACL by opening weekend, the Denver pass rush will be formidable.
What it means for IDP owners: Ware should project to 800 snaps in Denver. In a perfect world, the Broncos will face lots of passing attempts with bookend stud pass rushers. That would make Ware a lock to stay in the elite tier of fantasy defensive ends.
lamarr houston, WILLIE YOUNG and jared allen SIGN WITH CHICAGO
The Bears entirely overhauled their defensive line. Gone are Julius Peppers, Henry Melton, Corey Wootton. Shea McClellin will move to linebacker. Houston was signed first, with Young shortly after and finally Allen after the veteran simmered on the market (and threatened retirement) before joining the team. All three additions -- yes, including Allen -- have a lot to offer as pass rushers. Expect a rotation on base downs at defensive end, with Houston moving inside on passing downs. I don't expect Houston to move inside full time as he'll be too valuable against the run on the edge. This group of signings will also impact Devin Taylor, who should see an expanded role in Detroit, and Everson Griffen, who now will be expected to play to his new contract and depth chart opportunity.
What it means for IDP owners: The rotation and likely roles for each player should put them in good positions to succeed. If the Chicago defense can stop the run and the offense scores consistently, there should be lots of opportunity for fantasy production here. Taylor and Griffen will also be see lots of upside and sleeper discussion in the coming months.
Julius Peppers signs with Green Bay
At first glance, the Packers-Peppers partnership doesn't seem like a great fit. Peppers has little experience in a two-point stance and isn't likely to be comfortable in a true 5-technique role either. The edge rushing outside linebacker role is already ably filled by Clay Matthews. But you can never have enough pass rushers and former first rounder Nick Perry has been a disappointment. Expect Dom Capers to find a strong rotational pass rushing role for Peppers at minimum and there's good reason to believe Capers will be able to teach an old dog like Peppers some new 3-4, zone blitz tricks.
What it means for IDP owners: The partnership isn't good for Peppers' fantasy value. He'll likely be reclassifed to outside linebacker. If Capers does use him in a role that keeps him at defensive line, that usage won't support good statistical production either.
JUSTIN TUCK SIGNS WITH OAKLAND
Tuck didn't generate much attention on the early market and the Giants weren't motivated to bring him back. But the Raiders gave him $11 million over two years after losing Lamarr Houston. Tuck has durability concerns but played over 900 snaps last year. He'll be expected to play a similar number of snaps for Oakland, where he'll be the lone defensive lineman of any experience.
What it means for IDP owners: Tuck will get enough snaps to compile numbers. If he is healthy enough to be productive, he'll slot into the DL2 tier (with an even higher ceiling). Unfortunately, that's a big if. There's also concern about the number of pass rush opportunities he'll see on a struggling team without another pass rush presence to keep offenses from focusing on him even if he's in form. The loss of Tuck will likely mean more playing time for Damontre Moore, who flashed nice pass rush upside in a limited role last year.
LAMARR WOODLEY SIGNS WITH OAKLAND
The Raiders couldn't find the money or the sales pitch to keep Lamarr Houston in Oakland, but they've since splurged on two veteran pass rushers whose best play and health are likely behind them. Woodley joins Justin Tuck as new additions to the Oakland line. Expect Woodley to play weak side end and Tuck to play strong side end, but both are capable of handling both spots. The defensive line makeover isn't yet complete, but the Raiders are paying both Woodley and Tuck as 700+ snap players.
What it means for IDP owners: Woodley will be reclassified as a DL. That bumps his value -- in theory. He has had serious issues with hamstring and other soft tissue injuries in recent years and will be tough to project to 700 snaps. Consider him a low floor, high variance matchup DL2.
CHRIS CLEMONS SIGNS WITH JACKSONVILLE
Some free agent dominoes are easy to read. Clemons reuniting with his former defensive coordinator Gus Bradley after his release was one. Clemons was a rotational player for Seattle in his first year back from a late 2012 ACL tear, but was productive on a per-snap basis. He'll step into a good opportunity in Jacksonville, who have added Red Bryant and re-signed Jason Babin in the past week.
What it means for IDP owners: Clemons knows the defensive scheme and is another year removed from his ACL repair. There won't be elite fantasy upside here and he'll be better in sack heavy scoring systems, but put Clemons back on your IDP radar as a matchup DL2 option or better. In Seattle, the loss of Clemons should mean a higher snap count for Cliff Avril.
JEREMY MINCEY SIGNS WITH DALLAS
The Cowboys cap situation will forced them to make a tough decision on DeMarcus Ware, who wasn't about to do the team any favors by taking a pay cut. With Jason Hatcher also likely to sign elsewhere, the Cowboys are trolling for low cost defensive linemen and they quickly moved on Mincey this afternoon. Mincey has been up and down over the past two seasons, since putting up eight sacks in Jacksonville in 2011. I expect we'll see the Cowboys add more bodies to the depth chart, but Mincey would start opposite George Selvie if the season started today.
What it means for IDP owners: Mincey is 30 years old and hasn't been consistent, even in a rotational role. Rod Marinelli tends to get the most from his talent, however, and the scheme may provide Mincey enough pass rush opportunity to consider him in a matchup DL2 tier in sack heavy scoring leagues.
Jason Hatcher signs with Washington
Hatcher drew attention from multiple teams after it became clear that the Cowboys didn't have the cap space to bring him back. It's a major change in role for Hatcher, who will go from a penetrating, 3-technique to an 5-technique end who may be asked to 2-gap frequently.
What it means for IDP owners: Hatcher has a fantasy-friendly 5-technique skill set, but he won't be nearly as valuable for IDP owners as he was as a defensive tackle. Someone will benefit from the vacant 3-technique job in Rod Marinelli's scheme, but there's not an obvious bet on the current depth chart. Tyrone Crawford has some upside, as does the recently signed Terrell McClain, but neither offers the same pass rushing ability that Hatcher did.
Antonio Smith signs with Oakland
This isn't a headline signing, though Smith is still a valuable contributor to an NFL defense. I'm including it here because it may be a sign that the Raiders are considering more 3-4 looks. Dennis Allen has experience with 3-4 playbooks and has said he'd like to use some hybrid fronts in the past. Smith and LaMarr Woodley could survive as a 4-3 tackle and end, but their best fit is in an attacking 3-4 front. That would allow some rotational and hybrid roles for Justin Tuck and Sio Moore.
What it means for IDP owners: Nothing...yet. But it might be too soon to assume a new positional classification for Woodley. Keep an eye on the plans for Moore, too.
The defensive tackle market was mostly quiet from a fantasy perspective. Jason Hatcher signed with Washington and will see his position re-classified, leaving Henry Melton the lone signing of IDP note. There were lots of solid football signings, however, with Linval Joseph moving to the Vikings and Clinton McDonald headed to Tampa.
Henry Melton signs with Dallas
Melton leaves Chicago, but heads to a Dallas team that will use him exactly as the Bears did. Melton will remain a 3-technique, penetrating player. If he's recovered from last year's ACL tear and the Cowboys find enough talent to surround him and keep him isolated on offensive guards, he should remain productive.
What it means for IDP owners: It's a good fit for Melton. His IDP upside is going to depend on his health and surrounding cast. Neither of those is a given at this point in the offseason.
ATLANTA SIGNS PAUL SOLIAI AND TYSON JACKSON
The Falcons experimented with more 3-4 looks last year, using Kroy Biermann in a Leo-like role and standing Osi Umenyiora up at times. The additions of two-gapping talent like Soliai and Jackson is a strong indication of more 3-4 fronts in 2014. The linebacker depth chart will support the change in philosophy, with Paul Worrilow and Sean Weatherspoon capable inside backers. With the sixth pick in the draft, the Falcons are also in prime position to add an elite edge rushing prospect to complete the transition.
What it means for IDP owners: Don't worry about Worrilow and Weatherspoon. Any philosophical change won't disrupt their value much. But big play owners should be watching the Falcons draft closely for upside plays.
In most seasons, there would still be a few free agents of note left on the market. Last year, the top two names on this year's list -- Karlos Dansby and Daryl Smith -- were still nowhere close to signing with a team. That's not the case this year. The market is nearly picked clean. I don't expect names like Pat Angerer, Desmond Bishop, Jon Vilma and James Anderson to land in as good a situation as Dansby and Smith did a year ago.
KARLOS DANSBY SIGNED BY CLEVELAND
When the Browns released D'Qwell Jackson and decided not to tag T.J Ward, the back seven was a mess. Aside from an overrated Joe Haden and the high ceiling, but unproven Barkevious Mingo, there wasn't much clarity on the Cleveland depth chart. That changed with a quickness this afternoon, after the Browns gave big money to Dansby and Donte Whitner. Dansby will be the anchor and veteran presence Mike Pettine needs to run his multiple front defense. Dansby's loss leaves the door open for a huge jump in playing time for Kevin Minter in Arizona, especially if Daryl Washington's off-field issues result in further suspensions.
What it means for IDP owners: Dansby goes to a target rich environment and a favorable stat crew. He didn't play to his birth certificate last year and will have the opportunity to stay near the top of the linebacker tiers in Cleveland. Craig Robertson was never a viable upside bet this year anyway. Minter should now be rostered in all leagues where you hold at least five linebackers. There's no guarantee he'll pan out, but he is now likely to get the chance we expected he'd see before the Cardinals added Dansby last year.
Baltimore re-signs Daryl Smith
Smith was courted by Denver, but the Broncos ultimately couldn't offer him what the Ravens could. Smith will return as the anchor of the Baltimore run defense and continue to be an every-down player. With a healthy offseason, Arthur Brown should join him. There are a few options left on the market for teams like Denver, which may now be looking to Nate Irving as their full time middle linebacker.
What it means for IDP owners: Though he wasn't helped by the high assist to solo ratio so many AFC North backers have, Smith was an nice addition for fantasy owners last year. His value shouldn't change much this year, but I expect we'll see Arthur Brown begin to cut into some of his coverage and range tackles.
Wesley Woodyard signs with Tennessee
The Broncos never seemed interested in bringing Woodyard back. Though he also considered the Patriots, Woodyard decided on Tennessee, where he'll join an athletic, but underachieving group of linebackers. Ray Horton likes his inside linebackers aggressive and athletic in all phases. That description fits Woodyard well. What we don't know yet is what Horton thinks of the inside backers Tennessee used last year. The Titans were aggressive in their pursuit of D'Qwell Jackson and have now added Woodyard. We'll soon know if that means Horton didn't like what he saw of Zach Brown or Zaviar Gooden. I think it's most likely that we'll see Woodyard and Brown as the starters. As noted above, the Broncos will likely start Nate Irving at middle linebacker unless they address the position in the draft.
What it means for IDP owners: I may be overthinking the Tennessee situation, particularly with regard to Brown, but I'm not ready to write any names -- other than Woodyard -- in ink on the Tennessee depth chart. Assume that Woodyard and Brown will be starters, with Woodyard a near lock to play every down. Also assume that Akeem Ayers is likely to play a hybrid outside linebacker role.
GIANTS RE-SIGN JON BEASON
There was a brief Beason-Broncos flirtation earlier today, which seems only to have accelerated the process of Beason staying in New York. As noted earlier, Beason's instincts and reaction time are intact but last year showed that he cannot execute sideline to sideline or in coverage. There's a chance that the extra year of healing and recovery will revitalize Beason, but the odds aren't great. Still, Beason was the arguably the best linebacker on the roster in New York and the Giants haven't drafted the position aggressively in years.
What it means for IDP owners: I'm obviously lukewarm on Beason's upside, but the relative weakness of his surrounding cast and the likelihood of high opportunity will keep him in the LB3 with variance tiers.
PERRY RILEY SIGNS WITH WASHINGTON
As recently as this weekend, it looked like Riley would sign elsewhere, leaving a massive hole in the middle of the Washington defense. Surprisingly, given the high dollar deals signed by Donald Butler, D'Qwell Jackson and Karlos Dansby, Washington seems to have gotten off cheaply with a three-year, $13 million dollar contract before free agency officially opened. There's still a hole next to Riley, but this signing gives Washington something to build upon in the coming weeks.
What it means for IDP owners: Riley has never developed the range or coverage ability to be an elite tier IDP option. The opportunity and stat crew make him a high floor fantasy player, however. If Washington doesn't add another strong linebacker alongside him, Riley's value will only increase.
Brandon Spikes signs with Buffalo
This move took a few hours to be confirmed, but there were clear indications that the Bills had prioritized a thumping inside linebacker -- and probably Spikes in particular -- when they revealed that Kiko Alonso would be moving outside during a press conference yesterday. Spikes is a good match for Jim Schwartz, who likes his middle backers strong between the tackles. Spikes may be given a chance to play on passing downs, but his primary duty will be to stuff the run. Behind Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, Spikes should be a physical force if his knee issues are behind him.
What it means for IDP owners: Spikes has been a dominant run defender when healthy and he'll play behind a very strong defensive tackle duo. If he wins an every-down job, he'll be a valuable fantasy option. Unfortunately, I've felt the same for three years with Spikes in New England and he's not been durable enough to take full advantage.
JOE MAYS SIGNS WITH KANSAS CITY
KEITH RIVERS SIGNS WITH BUFFALO
DARRYL SHARPTON SIGNS WITH WASHINGTON
A trio of lesser signings that are notable only in that three teams with needy depth charts at linebacker made moves very early in free agency. None of these players will be more than a rotational player barring an injury. And their rotational snaps won't be guaranteed should their respective teams add a linebacker in the draft.
What it means for IDP owners: Don't overreact to any of these signings. These are replacement level talents who will struggle to put up consistently strong tackle numbers even if their role increases.
A huge number of safeties were signed in the first hours of free agency. Still, there are some notable names still looking for jobs. Chris Clemons, Major Wright, Ryan Clark, Quintin Mikell, Patrick Chung and Thomas DeCoud are still on the market. Most will eventually be signed, but none is currently a good bet to land in a starting role.
T.J. WARD SIGNED BY DENVER
The Broncos made do with Duke Ihenacho, Rahim Moore, Mike Adams and others in recent years, but have continued to search for a strong two way safety option for some time. Contract details have yet to be released but Adam Schefter is tweeting that the Broncos are adding Ward. It's a strong move for a team who has defensive holes at each level of the defense. Ward could fit at either safety position.
What it means for IDP owners: Ward lands in a prime fantasy slot, especially if he plays the traditional strong safety role. His value may drop slighlty if Ihenacho is the starting strong safety and/or the Broncos sign a solid inside linebacker, but Ward should see plenty of opportunity.
Donte Whitner signs with Cleveland
Whitner, though arguably way overpaid by the Browns, is a reasonable replacement for T.J. Ward. Whitner was better in coverage last year, but he'll be asked to do more in Mike Pettine's coverage schemes. Expect him to do more blitzing than deep coverage. The Niners quickly moved to replace Whitner, signing Antoine Bethea.
What it means for IDP owners: Whitner's value gets a marginal upgrade in tackle heavy leagues. The Cleveland statkeeper will likely pad his line with an extra 10-20 assisted tackles.
MALCOLM JENKINS SIGNS WITH PHILADELPHIA
Jenkins isn't an elite player, but he'll upgrade a Philadelphia secondary that's been forced to use Kurt Coleman and Colt Anderson in coverage and struggled through the durability worries of Patrick Chung, Nate Allen and Earl Wolff. Jenkins will be an immediate every-down player. It's not a surprise that Jenkins left New Orleans, but the Saints went from a deep depth chart of Jenkins, Roman Harper, Kenny Vaccaro and Rafael Bush to a group that may rely heavily on Bush, who's best fit is as a rotational player, and Vaccaro, who's recovering from a torn ACL.
What it means for IDP owners: Jenkins has a chance to emerge from the matchup cloud tier. If Vaccaro recovers well, he'll be an elite tier player. It's not yet certain who will play alongside either Jenkins or Vaccaro. Both teams will be adding bodies to the safety depth chart in the next two months.
JAIRUS BYRD SIGNS WITH NEW ORLEANS
The Saints quickly moved to replace Malcolm Jenkins with Byrd, who will team with Kenny Vaccaro to form one of the best coverage safety duos in the league. Byrd and Vaccaro are flexible, interchangeable fits for Rob Ryan's multiple blitz, multiple coverage playbook. Byrd is also a strong hedge if Vaccaro isn't ready early this season and enables the Saints to keep Rafael Bush in a reserve role. With Byrd now officially off the Bills' depth chart, the favorites to play safety in Buffalo are Da'Norris Searcy and Aaron Williams.
What it means for IDP owners: Byrd won't have any more tackle upside in New Orleans than he did in Buffalo. Vaccaro, if healthy, has a chance to become an elite tier safety. He'll see plenty of time around the box with Byrd playing deep and should see lots of big play opportunity. Should the Bills not add another safety, Da'Norris Searcy should be in line for full time duty once again.
ALTERRAUN VERNER SIGNS WITH TAMPA BAY
Verner was connected to lots of teams this week, but the Bucs were arguably the best fit available to him. Lovie Smith's scheme uses primarily zone concepts, with just the right mix of man coverage to fit Verner's style. Darrelle Revis hasn't been released yet, but that will happen as soon as the Bucs confirm that there's no trade market for him.
What it means for IDP owners: Verner ran up good stats based on strong zone cover play and high opportunity in Tennessee. The style of play is a good fit for continued fantasy production, but the surrounding cast (especially LaVonte David) could cut into some of his tackle opportunity.
ANTOINE BETHEA SIGNS WITH SAN FRANCISCO
The Niners wasted no time in replacing Donte Whitner. Bethea will be a great fit in San Francisco and a strong mentor for second year safety Eric Reid. Bethea is a solid two-way safety and will allow the Niners to use more interchangeable concepts should they choose. That could put Reid up closer to the line of scrimmage more often.
What it means for IDP owners: We'll have to wait for Jim Harbaugh and Vic Fangio to add details about the expected usage of Bethea and Reid before knowing for certain. I doubt either player will be used as a traditional strong safety. That, plus the presence of tackle monsters NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, will keep either player from rising above the matchup cloud tier of defensive backs.
MIKE MITCHELL SIGNS WITH PITTSBURGH
It was a great day to be a safety in the NFL, as nearly every player in the top 2-3 tiers found a home and a long deal with good guaranteed money by nightfall. Mitchell will replace Ryan Clark in Pittsburgh. He isn't a perfect player, but his physical and athletic style of play should be put to good use by Dick LeBeau. The Panthers have some work to do -- as they seemingly always do -- to bolster their secondary again this year, but Mitchell is not a huge schematic loss.
What it means for IDP owners: Probably not much. Mitchell has some matchup upside in Pittsburgh, but isn't likely to have a major statistical effect as a Steeler. The most attractive fantasy option in the Carolina secondary may not be on their roster yet.
Roman Harper signs with Carolina
Harper has always been a boom-bust safety, making more than his share of splash plays -- both positive and negative. The Saints transitioned him to a transitional role last year after drafting Kenny Vaccaro, then let him go this offseason despite Vaccaro's ACL injury and the knowledge that they were losing Malcolm Jenkins. Harper wasn't a part of the day one safety signing extravaganza either, settling into the second wave of signings and choosing a relatively low cost deal with a divisional rival. It's not yet clear if he'll have more than a rotational role with Charles Godfrey and Robert Lester.
What it means for IDP owners: There's not much tackle opportunity behind Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis in Carolina. And there's no guarantee Harper will play on passing downs. That likely leads to more variance than we saw from Harper in New Orleans and a slot in the matchup cloud DB tier.
Chicago re-signs Charles Tillman
Tillman didn't find a very welcoming market -- possibly because he refused to consider a switch to safety -- and a rumored move to join Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay never materialized. The Bears are a comfortable spot for him and he can still be productive if he avoids the injury bug that's started to nag him in the same way it did London Fletcher during the former Washington linebacker's slow decline.
What it means for IDP owners: Tillman's value isn't what it once was, but he will continue to have CB2+ upside unless his role changes.
Darrelle Revis signs with new England
Though it took a $12 million offer, this is a coup for the Patriots. Revis is a major upgrade on Aqib Talib and will allow Bill Belichick a lot of flexibility in coverage. Revis will also positively affect the New England pass rush.
What it means for IDP owners: Revis has never racked up great tackle stats and isn't likely to in New England unfortunately. Revis' presence will give a small boost to the value of Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, but not enough to boost them into their already high tiers. Alfonzo Dennard is the best bet to start opposite Revis and benefit from a higher target count, but keep an eye on Logan Ryan, too.
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.