It was only about a month ago that the New England Patriots completed the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, but we’ve already turned the page to another season across the National Football League. And the first order of business (OK, maybe the second – there were franchise tags to be assigned first) for the 2017 campaign is the opening of free agency.
Free agency has been open for a about a week now, and we’ve already seen dozens of defensive players find new homes. Some of those players have struck it rich. Others signed more modest deals. But each signing, big and small alike, impacts both the NFL landscape and the value of those players in IDP leagues.
Let’s take a look back through the first week of free agency to see which players hit the road and hit the jackpot -- and what teams spent the first part of the 2017 offseason getting better on the defensive side of the ball.
Calais Campbell (Jacksonville Jaguars; Four years, $60 million)
Campbell was one of those defensive stars who hit the proverbial lottery, landing a mega-deal with the Jaguars that will pay him $30 million in guaranteed coin. It marks the second straight season that the Jaguars have spent big money to lure a 5-technique defensive end from a club that runs the 3-4 to come play in Jacksonville’s four-man front.
If there’s a rub involved in this deal, that’s it. I’m a huge fan of Campbell as a player (he’s one of the most underrated defensive ends in the NFL), but it’s going to be interesting to see if he can live up to that huge contract as (presumably) the strong side end for the Jaguars.
IDP Impact: For years Campbell’s been a consistent low-end DL1, a player who compensated for so-so sack numbers with outstanding tackle production. It’s entirely possible that the 31-year-old will be able to duplicate that success in his new digs, but Campbell’s a riskier IDP bet than he’s been in quite a while.
Kony Ealy (Traded to New England Patriots with Round 3 Pick for Round 2 Pick)
The New England Patriots have been quite busy so far this year. In addition to their free agent signings the Patriots have also swung no less than three trades in the past week or so. One was with the Carolina Panthers, who dealt defensive end Kony Ealy to the Pats in exchange for what amounted to a 10-slot swap of picks in the 2017 NFL draft.
It’s an inglorious end to Ealy’s three years with the Panthers. The former second-round pick had him moments in Carolina (including a huge outing in the team’s loss in Super Bowl 50). But those good times were few and far between, with Ealy never amassing more than 32 tackles or five sacks in a season.
Now, the 25-year-old will try to jump-start his lagging NFL career in New England, where he will join a Pats pass-rush that lost both Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long to free agency.
IDP Impact: Outside that three-sack explosion against the Broncos that Ealy had in Super Bowl 50, he hasn’t made much of a statistical dent in the NFL. The Patriots appear to be banking on his being a late-bloomer, and if the snaps are there in 2017 Ealy could have fantasy value as a later round “upside” pick.
William Hayes (Traded to Miami with Round 7 Pick for Round 6 Pick)
There’s been more than a little wheeling and dealing in free agency this year. And while it may not have been the most significant trade of the past week or so, the Miami Dolphins quietly made a move to strengthen their defensive front by sending a sixth-round pick to the Los Angeles Rams for a seventh-rounder and veteran defensive end William Hayes.
Hayes will be 32 in May and has never come especially close to posting a double-digit sack campaign. But in each of his four seasons with the Rams in which Hayes played in all 16 games he put up 29 or more tackles and had at least four sacks. Assuming he has something left in the tank Hayes will help the team as a rotational end.
IDP Impact: Hayes was a top-30 defensive lineman as recently as 2015, but that was a season in which injuries on the Rams’ front forced him into a full-time role. Snaps will probably be harder to come by in Florida, relegating the ninth-year pro to potential bye-week fill-in status at best.
Julius Peppers (Carolina Panthers; One year, $3.25 million)
It’s been seven years since Peppers last played for the team that drafted him No. 2 overall back in 2002. But the nine-time Pro Bowler and likely Hall of Famer told ESPN’s David Newton that it feels like he never departed. “It feels good to be home,” Peppers said. “It actually feels like I never left.”
At 37 years of age, Peppers is no longer the every-down force he was when he averaged over 10 sacks a season in eight years with the Panthers. The thing is – the Panthers don’t need him to be. After re-upping Charles Johnson and Mario Addison the Panthers have the depth to rotate their ends frequently. And it wasn’t that long ago (2015) that Peppers piled up 10.5 sacks for the Green Bay Packers.
IDP Impact: Peppers may be old, but he didn’t appear washed up in Green Bay in 2016, notching seven sacks in just over 700 snaps. If he gets a similar workload in Charlotte this year the six-time All Pro may sneak his way back to DL2 relevance for one more season.
A.J. Klein (New Orleans Saints; Three years, $15 million)
A reserve and spot-starter over his four years in Carolina, Klein started down the stretch last year for the Panthers when Luke Kuechly went down with a concussion. As he admitted to Newton, the opportunity to start was one of the factors in his decision to bolt for their NFC South rivals.
“I know I wanted the opportunity to start,” Klein said. But it wasn't necessarily frustrating because you can't be frustrated when you're playing behind two all-pros.”
The question for Klein now is where he will start – if indeed he does. The 25-year-old would appear best suited for a role in the middle, but the Saints still have Craig Robertson and Stephone Anthony, both of whom also have starts under their belt at the position.
IDP Impact: Klein’s position isn’t certain, nor is his role in sub-packages in the Big Easy. However, it’s unlikely the Saints are paying him $5 million to watch other linebackers play. We’ll know more once OTAs get underway, but for now Klein is at least on the fantasy radar as an IDP LB3/4.
Malcolm Smith (San Francisco 49ers; Five years, $26.5 million)
The San Francisco 49ers are undergoing a full-on rebuild under new general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan. And part of that rebuild is a change to a 4-3 defensive scheme similar to the one used (with great success) by the Niners’ rivals in Seattle. In order to ease with that transition the 49ers signed a player with experience in the 4-3 “Under,” signing six-year veteran Malcolm Smith to a five-year deal.
Smith, 27, spent the first four seasons of his career as a part-time player on the weak side of the Seahawks’ defense, winning MVP honors in Super Bowl XLIX. As a full-time player in Oakland the last two years, Smith led the Raiders in tackles both seasons, including a 99-solo, three-sack effort for the silver and black two years ago.
IDP Impact: Smith isn’t a great linebacker, and much of his fantasy value could depend on the health status of San Fran star Navorro Bowman. However, given his experience in the scheme and the likelihood he plays in sub-packages, Smith should be at least a serviceable third fantasy linebacker in 2017.
Lawrence Timmons (Miami Dolphins; Two years, $12 million)
The Dolphins didn’t just solidify their defensive line by re-upping Andre Branch and acquiring William Hayes in a trade. Miami also added a veteran inside linebacker, bringing over Lawrence Timmons from the Pittsburgh Steelers on a two-year deal in which $11 million of the pact is guaranteed.
Timmons isn’t a plus linebacker in coverage, but the 30-year-old has long been a productive run-stuffer, topping 100 total tackles in each of the last five seasons and six of the last seven. The best guess here is that Timmons will take over for Kiko Alonso in the middle of the Miami defense, allowing the Dolphins to move Alonso to the weak side where his speed will be more of an asset and his lack of physicality less of a hindrance.
IDP Impact: Assuming I’m correct, that Timmons plays MIKE and Alonso plays WILL – and further assuming that both linebackers play in the nickel, Timmons should essentially be for fantasy owners what he’s been in Pittsburgh the past several years – a high-floor IDP LB2.