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FREE AGENT FEEDING FRENZY: Linebackers

The 2011 fantasy football campaign has concluded, and with Super Bowl XLVI now a done deal and the New York Giants the 2011-12 National Football League champions, the NFL season has ended as well.

However, for fantasy football fanatics in dynasty Individual Defensive Player (IDP) leagues or any owner looking to get an early edge on the competition, the offseason is basically non-existent, which means that no sooner does one season end than another begins.

While any number of folks will be turning their eyes towards next month’s NFL Scouting Combine and April’s NFL Draft (which I’ll be doing plenty of myself with the IDP Draft Preview Series at IDP Manor), before we get to New York City we must first navigate the treacherous waters of the annual insanity that is free agency in the NFL.

Player movement can have a huge IDP impact not only on the players that join new teams but also their former and new teammates, so this article will be the second in a three-part series looking at some of the prominent free agents at each of the major IDP positions, where those players might be headed, and what it all could mean for their fantasy football value in 2012 and beyond.

D’Qwell Jackson, MLB, Cleveland:

After missing all of the 2010 and most of the 2009 seasons with separate pectoral injuries, there was plenty of doubt as to whether the Cleveland Browns middle linebacker would ever recover his 2008 form, when he led the NFL with 154 tackles.

Jackson answered those doubts and the some in 2011, playing in 16 games, racking up 158 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks, a forced fumble, an interception, and finishing as the top fantasy option at his position in Default IDP Manor Scoring.

The sixth-year pro is still only 28 years old, and while his two lost seasons raise durability concerns, that drop his value a bit for the cautious sort he should remain a Top 5 IDP option at his position as long as he remains in Cleveland, which appears to be a likely scenario given his amenability to being labeled with the franchise tag. A new team may actually bump Jackson down a notch, as he faces precious little competition for tackles with the woeful Browns and spends a lot of time on the field given the anemic Cleveland offense.

Curtis Lofton, MLB, Atlanta:

The Atlanta middle linebacker enjoyed the finest season of his four-year career in 2011, tallying 147 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and an interception while rolling to his third consecutive Top 20 fantasy finish at his position.

Atlanta would certainly love to bring the 25 year-old defensive cornerstone back, but the team may be unable to franchise tag the youngster, who could generate quite a bit of interest on the open market given his age and production to this point.

So long as Lofton remains in the 4-3 defense it’s hard to envision a scenario in which he’d fall any lower than high-end IDP LB2 territory, as staying in Atlanta would probably leave him the same solid LB1 he was last season, while a favorable move might even bump Lofton’s fantasy value slightly should he find himself on a team where he won’t have as much competition for stops.

London Fletcher, ILB, Washington:

After making only 22 total tackles in the first four games of the season, some folks began to wonder if Father Time may have finally caught up to the 36 year-old IDP stalwart.

Fletcher then proceeded to beat Father Time senseless, ending the 2011 campaign with an NFL-leading 166 tackles, 1 1/2 sacks, two interceptions, three forced fumbles, and a runner-up IDP finish at linebacker, Fletcher’s third straight Top 10 fantasy season.

Fletcher’s age and staggeringly high assist total (70) are causes for some concern for 2012, but so long as he remains in Washington on a short-term deal (which seems to be the prevailing school of thought) he would be hard to pass on in redrafts in the 15-20 range among linebackers given his ceiling, although his dynasty value is obviously somewhat lower.

Now, let’s chat about three 4-3 defense middle linebackers who could set the entire market for the position depending on which domino (if any) falls where.

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FantasySharks.com began in 2003, disseminating fantasy football content on the web for free. It is, or has been, home to some of the most talented and best known fantasy writers on the planet. Owned and operated by Tony Holm (5 time Fantasy Sports Writer Association Hall-of-Fame nominee,) Tony started writing fantasy content in 1993 for the only three fantasy football web sites in existence at the time.