Gary Davenport
2014 IDP Free Agent Preview: Defensive Linemen

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Well, the dust has cleared from Super Bowl XLVIII (sort of, anyway. If you’re quiet and listen really hard, you can still hear Peyton Manning soulfully crying “Omaha?”), which means it’s time to turn our focus towards the new year.

For some, that means turning toward the 2014 NFL draft, but, between this month’s scouting combine and the big weekend in May, something else happens that could send shockwaves rattling across the Individual Defensive Player (IDP) landscape.

We’re talking of course about free agency, the annual free-for-all where veteran players search for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

The 2014 crop features a number of prominent defensive players, including one of the most productive defensive ends of the past decade.

Beginning with that mulleted mauler, let’s take a look at this year’s free agent crop on the defensive front, where those players might be headed, and what a change of scenery means for their IDP value in 2014 and beyond.

Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota

After six seasons and an eye-popping 85.5 sacks, it appears Jared Allen and the Minnesota Vikings are set to part ways. At least, that’s what ESPN’s Ben Goessling reported recently, writing “a new destination seems likely unless he’s willing to come back on a significantly reduced deal. It’s likely the Vikings are looking at the end of an era with Allen.”

This, in turn, has led to Allen being linked to any number of 4-3 teams, from the Denver Broncos (who need pass rush help) to the Cincinnati Bengals (who have tons of cap space).

However, there’s a reason why the Vikings are letting Allen walk. In calling Allen the most overrated free agent of 2014, ESPN’s Louis Riddick said, “I would approach signing a player like this with extreme caution, as “the wall” could be approaching faster than the stats say it is.”

Riddick has a point. In each of the past two years, Allen’s solo and sack numbers have come down, and it appears that age may be starting to get the best of the 32-year-old. Allen, who finished as the ninth-ranked defensive lineman in Fantasy Sharks Default IDP Scoring last year, probably has at least one more similar season left in the tank, but dynasty owners should consider selling if a decent offer comes along.

Michael Johnson, DE, Cincinnati

If Jared Allen is the grizzled veteran of this year’s free agent crop on the defensive line, then Michael Johnson is the young up-and-comer, a player who was going to parlay his franchise tag in 2013 into a monster year and even bigger payday.

Or not. After notching 11.5 sacks in 2012, Johnson’s sack numbers fell all the way to 3.5. With that said, there’s still going to be plenty of interest in a 26-year-old defensive end with Johnson’s two-way ability. ESPN’s Vaughn McClure thinks a homecoming of sorts could be in order, suggesting that the Atlanta Falcons make sense for the former Georgia Tech star.

It doesn’t look like a return to Cincinnati is in the cards. The Bengals just gave extensions to end Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins , and possess in-house replacements in the form of Wallace Gilberry and second-year pro Margus Hunt .

In any event, while Johnson’s precipitous dropoff in sacks last year was cause for some concern, the sixth-year veteran was still a top 25 IDP option by virtue of his strong tackle numbers. Barring something unforeseen, Johnson will likely enter 2014 just as he did the year before … as a low-end IDP DL1/high-end DL2.

Greg Hardy, DE, Carolina

The Carolina Panthers were one of the NFL’s biggest surprises in 2013, propelled to an NFC South title by their stifling and physical defense. The star of that defense may be 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly, but it’s anchored up front by end Greg Hardy .

The 25-year-old surpassed batterymate Charles Johnson as the pre-eminent pass rusher for the Panthers in 2013, pacing the team to the tune of a club-record 15 sacks. That performance led Hardy to tell Dan Hanzus of NFL.com that he’s waiting for the Panthers to “give me a phone call and offer me a crapload of money.”

Hardy was smiling when he said that, and with good reason. He’s going to get it. As head coach Ron Rivera told ESPN’s David Newton, “It’d be hard to imagine doing things without him.”

In other words, no way in hell is Hardy going anywhere. Locked into a long-term deal, on a great defense entering the prime of his career, Hardy should pick up in 2014 right where he left off – as a top 5 IDP option.

LaMarr Houston, DE, Oakland

On some level, it may seem strange for a defensive end who has never had more than six sacks in a season to be expecting a big payday. However, in this age where all anyone cares about are sacks, there also aren’t a lot of defensive ends like Houston.

The four-year veteran is annually among the NFL’s best defensive ends against the run, and 2013 was no different. For the second-year in a row Houston posted 69 tackles and led all 4-3 ends in solos.  Pro Football Focus ranked Houston fifth at his position against the run in 2013.

Houston’s value to the Raiders isn’t lost on ESPN’s Mike Sando. “The Raiders do not possess enough talent to let productive young players get away,” Sando wrote. “Houston, 25, tied Cameron Wake with 41 quarterback hurries this season, according to Pro Football Focus. Not bad for a 300-pounder.”

The Raiders also have more cap space than any team in the NFL, making it highly unlikely that they’ll let a young and talented player like Houston walk. Assuming he stays put, Houston will remain a high-floor IDP DL2 for the upcoming campaign.

Justin Tuck, DE, New York Giants

The phrase “better late than never” certainly applies to Justin Tuck's contract year. The 30-year-old, who managed only nine sacks in 2011 and 2012 combined, looked headed for another down year in 2013, with only 1.5 sacks over the first 11 weeks of the season.

However, Tuck went bananas down the stretch, tallying 9.5 sacks over the last six games of the year. Add it all together, and you get 63 tackles, 11 sacks and Tuck’s first top 10 IDP season since 2010.

Given his age, this is probably Tuck’s last shot at any sort of long-term deal, and Dan Graziano of ESPN reports the nine-year veteran has every intention of exploring the free agent market. “I will see what the market is for me,” Tuck told The New York Post. “I’ve never been in this situation before, and it’s a great opportunity for myself. I would be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t see what the market is, and I will.”

With that said, both potential NFL suitors and IDP owners would be well-advised to keep this in mind before making a significant investment in Tuck in 2014. Before last year’s 9.5 sacks in six games, Tuck had only 10.5 sacks in the previous 42 games.

The Best of the Rest

Julius Peppers, DE, Chicago: Peppers isn’t technically a free agent, but there’s no way the Bears are going to pay the 33-year-old $14 million in 2014. Peppers managed a top 20 IDP finish in his 12th NFL season, but at this point in his career Peppers is just too inconsistent to trust as more than an IDP DL3.

Michael Bennett, DE, Seattle: Despite playing through a shoulder injury, Bennett still managed 31 stops and 8.5 sacks for the Seahawks in 2013. A best-case landing spot or more snaps in Seattle might be enough to bump the fifth-year pro into DL2 territory, but Bennett is more likely a higher-end IDP reserve.

Jason Hatcher, DT, Dallas: Hatcher was one of the bigger IDP surprises of 2013, coming from nowhere to lead the Cowboys with 11 sacks and finish as fantasy’s fourth-ranked defensive tackle. Still, a “breakout” season at 31 is less likely than a fluke, and there’s no guarantee the cap-strapped Cowboys will bring Hatcher back.

Be sure to check back here at Fantasy Sharks throughout the offseason for all your IDP needs. Whether it’s information on free agency and the 2014 NFL draft, updated dynasty and redraft player rankings or strategy tips and sleepers, Fantasy Sharks has everything you need to dominate your IDP league in 2014!

Gary Davenport is the IDP Senior Staff Writer at Fantasy Sharks and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. Davenport’s IDP work has been featured in a number of national print publications and on both satellite and terrestrial radio, and he was a finalist for the FSWA Web Article of the Year in 2013.