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IDP FREE AGENT FEEDING FRENZY: Linebackers Recap

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The 2012 edition of free agency in the National Football League is three weeks old, and while the biggest splash so far this year remains the Denver Broncos agreeing to terms with quarterback Peyton Manning there’s been plenty of changes on the defensive side of the ball as well.

Let’s take a look back at some of the prominent free agent signings on defense so far this year and what they could mean for the fantasy prospects of these players, continuing with last week’s look at defensive linemen by moving on to the linebackers.

The biggest name among linebackers to be changing addresses is likely middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, who had 147 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, and two interceptions roaming the middle for the Atlanta Falcons in 2011.

With starter Jonathan Vilma staring at a possible suspension in the wake of the “player bounty” scandal that has engulfed the team the New Orleans Saints swooped in and signed the 4th year pro away from their division rivals, agreeing to terms with Lofton on a free agent contract.

New Falcons defensive coordinator reportedly viewed Lofton as a two-down linebacker and liability in coverage, an assessment that Lofton apparently did not agree with and one that paved the way for Lofton’s departure from the Falcons. If Lofton does indeed remain on the field for the Saints as he did for his first three seasons in Atlanta then this change of scenery will be a definite benefit to his IDP value and keep him at in low-end LB1 territory after an LB7 finish in Default IDP Manor Scoring in 2011.

Two of the other big names among free agent linebackers made news not by changing teams but by staying put, as middle linebackers D’Qwell Jackson of the Cleveland Browns and Stephen Tulloch of the Detroit Lions agreed to contract extensions that kept them with their respective teams.

The 28 year-old Jackson, who had a career-high 158 tackles last year after missing most of the past two seasons due to a pair of pectoral injuries, inked a five year, $42.5 million deal before free agency even began, and although injuries remain a concern there’s no reason to think that fantasy’s top linebacker from last season won’t again post top 10 numbers assuming he stays healthy.

Tulloch, who racked up 111 tackles, 3 sacks, and an interception in his first year in Motown, may not have received the megadeal he was searching for, but the seventh-year pro did manage a five year, $25.5 million dollar deal that will keep him in Detroit, where Tulloch maintains high-end IDP LB2 value with top 10 upside after finishing as the 11th-ranked player at his position in 2011.

Big news at the linebacker position wasn’t contained to free agency, as a trade went down that also could have serious fantasy implications when the Houston Texans dealt linebacker DeMeco Ryans to the Philadelphia Eagles for a fourth round pick and a swap of third-rounders.

Ryans was lost last season in the Texans’ new 3-4 defense, managing only 64 tackles, and the six-year veteran hasn’t topped 100 stops since 2009. However, the 27 year-old averaged better than 125 total tackles a season over his first four years in the NFL and was a top five fantasy linebacker in 2007 and 2008, so now that he appears locked in as an every-down MLB in Philly Ryans is an interesting IDP LB2 pick with considerable upside.

There are also a couple of fantasy-relevant linebackers who are still in limbo, including Seattle Seahawks middle linebacker David Hawthorne, who remains a free agent even after tallying 115 tackles last season. Hawthorne was a top 20 fantasy option at his position a season ago, and negotiations between Hawthorne and the team are reportedly heating up, but given the uncertainty surrounding his future and role in Seattle it’s hard to view Hawthorne as anything more than a higher-end IDP LB3 as things stand today.

UPDATE: The New Orleans Siants continued revamping their LB corps Tuesday, signing David Hawthorne to a five-year deal. It's likely that Hawthorne will man the weak side in the Big Easy, which leaves him in IDP LB3 territory and could drop Lofton a bit too given the tackle opportunities that Hawthorne may poach.

Also, the National Football League’s leading tackler in 2011 and second ranked fantasy linebacker is still looking for work, as veteran linebacker London Fletcher, who paced the NFL with 166 stops last season, has yet to procure a destination for his 15th year in the league. The Washington Redskins were hopeful that they would be able to retain the 36 year-old’s services, and it’s still the most likely potential scenario, and with the salary cap penalties that the Redskins were saddled with by the NFL Fletcher’s age and this uncertainty conspire to knock him into lower-end LB2 territory, at least for now.

Finally, IDP owners searching for an early sleeper candidate may wish to look no farther than the aforementioned Atlanta Falcons, where the team will endeavor to replace the departed Curtis Lofton with some combination of second-year pro Akeem Dent and veteran Lofa Tatupu, who inked a free agent deal after missing the entire 2011 season due to various injuries. It’s unknown how this training camp battle will shake out, and a platoon situation would likely sap both players’ IDP value, but if one player or the other asserts himself then there’s a chance for IDP LB2 value tomorrow if you choose correctly today.

Have a question about a particular signing? Check out the Fantasy Sharks IDP Forum or E-Mail me at askgary@fantasysharks.com and I’ll do my best to help!