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The NFL Combine is in our rear-view mirror, and it is time to look ahead to the start of NFL free agency in early March and then the draft in April. Yes indeed, it is that time of year when Individual Defensive Player (IDP) owners get to look around the league and play the age-old game of ‘who should sign where’ to offer the best fantasy production.
When compiling this initial list of defensive linemen and where they could best flourish from a fantasy perspective, I made a conscious effort to disregard whether or not the matchup would be an ideal one from a NFL standpoint.
As IDP owners, we are more concerned with what stats the individual amasses as opposed to how he would or wouldn’t help a NFL team to make the playoffs. The following assessments were made with that in mind, and, while they may not come to fruition, they would be very fantasy friendly landing spots for 2013.
Dwight Freeney, DE, Indianapolis : Freeney struggled as an outside linebacker last season for the Colts, finishing the 2012 season with only five sacks in 14 games played. That is the lowest total since he totaled 3.5 sacks back in 2007 when he missed the final seven games of the regular season.
Indianapolis has already decided to move on from the 33-year-old, 11-year veteran, so look for Freeney to sign with a team that will utilize him at his more familiar and productive defensive end position. A very favorable destination for Freeney would keep him in the AFC South by signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
While it is more likely that Freeney decides to sign with Denver, Dallas or Atlanta (as they are contenders), the Jaguars could be the better landing spot from a fantasy perspective. It depends on if Freeney is looking to be a rotational type of player on a contending team or is looking to land where he’ll get the most playing time.
In Jacksonville he would be the big fish in a little pond and potentially line up opposite another veteran sack specialist Jason Babin while seeing his defensive snap count rise above 800 again.
The Jaguars have selected numerous players at the defensive end position over the years (Andre Branch, Derrick Harvey, Quentin Groves) with high round draft choices and have nothing to show for it. It may be time for Jacksonville to look for veteran proven pass rushers to bolster their anemic pass rush. The Jaguars finished last in the league with 20 team sacks last season, and, let’s face it, could use a big name signing or two to get the fan base excited (no, the failed Aaron Kampman experiment does not count as big name).
Bringing Babin back and teaming him with a future Hall of Famer like Freeney would instantly improve the Jacksonville pass rush as well as their fantasy values. Freeney would be a solid DL3 for next season with low-end DL2 upside lining up opposite fellow pass rush specialist Babin and a fine mentor for the youngster Alan Branch moving forward.
Cliff Avril, DE, Detroit: The likelihood of Avril returning to Detroit is very slim as the Lions have stated that they will not use the franchise tag on him again and Avril has expressed no interest in giving a hometown discount. There will suitors lining up for his services as Avril has averaged just less than 10 sacks per season over the past three years and is versatile enough to play in any defensive scheme.
He has big play ability as seen by the 16 forced fumbles and two career defensive touchdowns he has scored, and he would be a perfect fit as a Dallas Cowboy in 2013. New defensive coordinator Monte Kiffen would love to be able to line Avril up opposite DeMarcus Ware to form a fearsome bookend pair of pass rushing defensive ends.
Kiffen’s 4-3 scheme is dependent on the front four providing consistent pressure, and adding Avril would go a long way to solidifying the position and allow Dallas to let outside linebacker Anthony Spencer leave via free agency.
Avril could post Top 10 fantasy numbers as a DL1 next season as a member of the Dallas Cowboys and would be worthy of an early-round IDP draft selection for 2013.
Michael Bennett, DE, Tampa Bay: With the Buccaneers’ defensive line decimated by injuries, looming suspensions (smooth move, Da’Quan Bowers) and inconsistent pass rushing production, Bennett is sitting in the proverbial ‘cat bird’s seat.’ Coming off of his best season to date (nine sacks and three forced fumbles), Bennett is positioned perfectly with free agency looming.
Tampa Bay finished tied for 30th in the NFL in total sacks last season (27), and my quick math tells me that Bennett accounted for one-third of that total. With youngsters Adrian Clayborn and Bowers struggling early in their careers with injuries as well as lack of judgment (again … smooth move Bowers), retaining Bennett is a priority for Tampa Bay.
If Bennett should avoid the franchise tag and be able to truly test the free agent market, he would be a perfect fit for Tampa Bay’s division rival, the Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta needs a solid pass rushing threat off the edge after the release of John Abraham while incumbents Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Babineaux combined for only 7.5 sacks in 2012.
Bennett played a career-high 985 snaps last season and shed the label as being mainly a solid run-stopping defensive end by amassing 48 quarterback hurries as well as 14 quarterback hits on his way to his nine sacks. The Falcons defense needs an option to line up with Abraham gone and bring consistent pressure. Bennett is just that player.
He is a high-end DL3 with solid DL2 upside should he remain in Tampa Bay for 2013. Should he find himself an Atlanta Falcon next season, the upside could be as high as a low-end DL1 as he could attempt to bring serious sack potential to the Falcons’ defensive line.
Osi Umenyiora, DE, New York Giants: Umenyiora has seen his run in New York come to an end, and, after spending the last few season’s squabbling over his contract, it can safely be assumed that both parties are fine with this parting of the ways. In his final season as a Giant, Umenyiora posted six sacks along with 42 total tackles and a pair of forced fumbles.
The main question regarding Umenyiora is just how many productive years he has left in him and how many snaps per season can he be productive playing? His snap count in New York has averaged out to approximately 710 per season since 2009 (not including 2011 when he missed seven games and played only 373), and he’s averaged eight sacks a year in that time frame.
Umenyiora is well-suited to take his talents to a contending team that will offer him more snaps and utilize his pure pass rushing skills. That team could well be the New Orleans Saints. Sedrick Ellis has not worked out for New Orleans and Will Smith will need to restructure his contract or be released, leaving the Saints desperate for some defensive line help.
Cameron Jordan had a productive season at the left defensive end position in 2012 and racked up eight sacks and 66 combined tackles. Lining up Umenyiora opposite Jordan would immediately boost the Saints’ pass rush and be an improvement over Smith, who hasn’t topped seven sacks since posting 13 back in 2009.
Umenyiora may be looking for a long-term deal but could be persuaded to join a team that has Super Bowl aspirations on a short-term deal if he’s promised the playing time he has lacked in the Giants’ defensive line rotation lately. A return to double-digit sacks is not out of the question for an inspired Umenyiora along the New Orleans defensive line.
He is a bit of a wild card heading into 2013 until we know where he lands, but Umenyiora has the upside of a solid DL2 should he land in New Orleans and can be had with a late-round draft pick and offer excellent fantasy value.
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