FREE PREVIEW: Enjoy complementary access to Fanium’s top-quality articles and videos ahead of our paid launch.
Gary Davenport
FREE AGENT FEEDING FRENZY: Fantasy Football’s Top 10 Defensive Free Agents

Gary Davenport previews the 2019 free agent class.

Mar 9th

Yes, defensive free agents matter in fantasy football, too.

Not so much in standard fantasy football leagues. Sure, the addition of a big-name free agent can impact a team defense’s fantasy value. It can even do so substantially if a sack-artist edge-rusher or ball-hawking defensive back finds a new home. But a team defense isn’t leaping from outside the top-15 to inside the top-five just because they added a player or two—and until we see who lands where it’s nigh impossible to predict anyway.

But in Individual Defensive Player (IDP) leagues. It’s a different story. Just as on the offensive side of the ball, a change in scenery can be a YUGE! deal for the fantasy prospects of a linebacker, defensive lineman or defensive back.

There’s a ton of meat on the free agent IDP bone in 2019, too. Even after the franchise tag was applied to the likes of Demarcus Lawrence of the Dallas Cowboys and Jadeveon Clowney of the Houston Texans, there’s still significantly more impact players available on defense this year—including a pair of perennial top-10 performers at defensive back and linebacker.

On some level, it’s also easier to gauge the value of these players than their offensive counterparts. While a pass-catcher is only as good as the quarterback throwing to them, and a running back is only as good as the guys blocking in front of him, a high-end inside linebacker or strong safety is probably going to get his. In fact, in some cases a weaker supporting cast can be a good thing—it means less competition for tackles.

Just as with the offensive free agents previewed here at Fanium, we’ll circle back after the floodgates have opened to take a deeper dive into what the new situations for the top defensive free agents mean for their IDP value in 2019.

1. ILB CJ Mosley

You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a beat writer in an NFL city that wants that city’s team to sign Mosley. It’s not exactly hard to see why—the 26-year-old has topped 100 total tackles in four of five NFL seasons, and in each of the past three years Mosley’s been named to the Pro Bowl.

However, it’s just as likely that Mosley will stay put as find a new home in 2019. Yes, the Ravens balked at slapping a tag on him that would have paid Mosley north of $15 million this season, but the team’s made it clear they are interested in re-upping him and have been clearing cap space of late.

Mosley’s about as destination-proof as an IDP gets—a borderline elite inside linebacker in his prime. As such, it’s hard to imagine a landing spot where Mosley doesn’t remain in the fantasy conversation as at least a low-end LB1 in 12-team leagues.

2. SS Landon Collins

New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman is an idiot. There. I said it.

I’m not the only sportswriter who believes that New York’s decision not to franchise tag strong safety Landon Collins was dumb, either. “They allowed a 25-year-old defensive playmaker to hit the free-agent market after leading the team in tackles each of his four professional seasons and making the Pro Bowl in three of those four years,” ESPN’s Dan Graziano said. “Collins was also a first-team All-Pro safety in 2016 and a team captain this past year.”

Other than that? He’s a bum.

Like Mosley, teams are going to be lined up to take a run at the young box safety, who was the No. 1 IDP overall in 2016. Unlike Mosley, Collins is all but certainly going to be playing for a new team. Despite missing four games in 2018, Collins still posted 96 tackles and almost 70 solos en route to a top-15 finish among defensive backs in fantasy points per game. He’ll be a high-end DB1 again in 2019.

3. DE Trey Flowers

According to Mike Giardi of the NFL Network, just because Flowers wasn’t tagged by the New England Patriots doesn’t mean he won’t be back in Beantown. “The belief is the Patriots would like Trey Flowers to see what his value is on the market then circle back to the team to see if they can beat/match/come close,” he tweeted.

It’s a strategy that isn’t without risk. Flowers is without a doubt the best 4-3 end left on the market after logging 57 tackles and 7.5 sacks in 2018. There are going to teams lined up to take a run at the 25-year-old—including some 4-3 clubs with cap space out the wazoo in the AFC East.

Flowers’ production last year equated to a solid DL2 in terms of both total points and points per game. His ceiling’s a bit higher than that, but the best-case here might well be not fixing what isn’t broken and Flowers staying put.

Unfortunately, New England’s acquisition of Michael Bennett last week doesn’t bode well for that happening.

4. ILB Kwon Alexander

While doing a radio appearance in Tampa, Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network stated that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have already made a pitch to keep their young MIKE in town.

“I know that the Bucs have made him a fairly significant offer for a long-term deal,” Rapoport said, “and they’d like him to be a member of the Bucs for a long time. They’re not there yet. He is going to test free agency, but I would say this: the team has gone a long way toward making sure that Kwon Alexander knows that he is in their long-term plans.”

Alexander’s just 24 years old, and it wasn’t that long ago (2016) that he led the NFL with 108 solo tackles. However, he’s missed almost half of the last two seasons to either injury or suspension—including 10 games in 2018 with an ACL tear.

With the Buccaneers moving to a 3-4 base in 2019, a change of scenery might not be such a bad thing from an IDP perspective.

5. OLB KJ Wright

John Clayton of ESPN 710 in Seattle expects this to be the end of the line for Wright with the Seahawks. “Many think he’s going to make $11 million a year or more,” Clayton wrote. “Wright, if considered healthy, probably has a higher rating because of his leadership, play-making ability and skills in pass coverage. If he gets offers of more than $10 million a year, he’s probably going to leave.”

Wright’s 2018 was a mess—he had knee surgery just before the season started and wasn’t right until well after Christmas decorations went up, managing just 23 tackles all season long. But in his first five NFL seasons, Wright missed just five games, and from 2015 to 2017 he topped 100 total stops three years in a row—playing with Bobby Wagner.

Yes, he turns 30 in July, but Wright’s spent most of his career in Wagner’s shadow as one of the more underrated 4-3 outside linebackers in the NFL. On a team that doesn’t have a perennial All-Pro hogging up stats, a healthy Wright could provide some serious value in IDP drafts.

6. ILB Jordan Hicks

Ben Linsley of Pro Football Focus believes that Hicks may actually be the top off-ball linebacker in the free agent class of 2019. “Hicks rebounded from an Achilles injury that limited him to just 268 snaps in 2017 to record an overall grade of 80.7 in 2018, tenth-best among 92 qualifying linebackers,” he wrote. “It was the second time in his first four seasons that Hicks has found himself among the top ten at the position. His only two seasons that didn’t end on injured reserve produced two campaigns where Hicks showed himself to be among the top ten players at the position.”

There’s no denying that when healthy, Hicks plays the game at a high level. The problem is that Hicks has all sorts of issues staying healthy—He’s missed 21 games over four seasons (including four a year ago) and has finished two of those seasons on injured reserve.

Those durability issues are a bigger IDP concern than Hicks’ new home, although all things being equal it would be preferable if he joins a team that employs a 4-3 base defense with a big need at the position.

Looking at you, Cincinnati.

7. OLB Jamie Collins

After his recent release by the Cleveland Browns Tarringo Basile-Vaughan of FanSided thinks that a reunion may be in the works between Collins and the New England Patriots. “In 16 games last season with the Browns,” he wrote, “Collins led the team with 104 tackles.  He had four sacks, seven QB hits, an interception along with a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.  That same athleticism and versatility he showed with the Patriots early in his career is still there.  This time around, he would not take the formula to winning for granted.”

There’s no denying that Collins’ level of play fell off the past couple of years from an IDP perspective. But IDP-wise, he was solid in 2018—his 104 tackles and 73 solos were both the second-most of his career, and enough to keep the 29-year-old inside fantasy LB2 territory.

Collins is all but certainly going to have to take one toe-curler of a pay cut in 2019. If he lands on a team where he can secure an every-down role, Collins should remain very much on the IDP radar in his new (old?) home.

8. FS Tyrann Mathieu

Mathieu will be a hot commodity in free agency, and Doug Farrar of USA Today believes that the 26-year-old will move on from the Houston Texans this year. “When there are this many holes to be filled with developmental players,” Farrar said, “teams should find as many versatile veterans as possible. Mathieu certainly fits that description—through his career with the Cardinals and Texans, he’s played everywhere from outside cornerback to slot defender to deep safety. Mathieu isn’t quite the defender he once was, and he still gambles too often, but he would provide experience and athleticism.”

However, the same versatility that makes Mathieu so sought-after by NFL teams makes him a high-variance IDP option. Back in 2015, when he played more near the line of scrimmage for the Arizona Cardinals, Mathieu was a top-five defensive back in IDP leagues. Last year in Houston, however, Mathieu played more deep safety and slot corner and finished in DB2 territory.

Mathieu’s going to have IDP value in 2019. How much depends on both where he lands and how that new team plans to use him.

9. SS Adrian Phillips

According to Gregg Rosenthal and Chris Wesseling of NFL.com, Phillips checks in just outside the top 50 free agents available in 2019. “A former special teamer, Phillips earned his first Pro Bowl nod as a linebacker/safety hybrid in 2018,” they said. “It’s fair to wonder if he’s best suited to Gus Bradley’s defense, which makes heavy use of dime packages.”

Phillips broke out in a big way over the second half of last season. Forced into an increased role by injuries, Phillips responded with a career-high 94 tackles. Over the final month of the 2018 campaign, the 26-year-old Phillips was a fantasy DB1 in 12-team IDP leagues.

Among the top-10 defensive free agents, Phillips’ landing spot is the most important. If he stays in LA with the Chargers or moves to a team that uses him in a similar way, he’ll be a sneaky good late-draft target in the secondary. If he lands in a less favorable fantasy situation, however, Phillips could just as easily become an IDP afterthought.

10. DE Ezekiel Ansah

After another injury-marred season in Detroit, Lions GM Bob Quinn admitted to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press that Ansah’s future in the Motor City is murky at best. “Part of that is the medical,” Quinn said. “Part of that is the, ‘How long is he going to be out? What do we think when he gets recovered? Is he going to be the same?’ So all these things kind of factor in, so I don’t have an answer today. I’ll say this about Ziggy. Ziggy fought through some things this year. Ziggy’s extremely, extremely tough and I’m proud of him being a Detroit Lion.”

Ansah’s 2018 season was a mess, but as recently as 2017, the 29-year-old piled up 12 sacks. Of course, even that DL11 season came with an asterisk—nine of Ansah’s 12 sacks for the season came in three games.

That’s the thing with Ansah. While Ansah’s going to get a big payday as one of the top edge-rushers available, in addition to his rather lengthy injury, Ansah’s been inconsistent. He’s dominant one week and then disappears the next.

That’s not likely to change just because Ansah’s uniform does.

This is just the tip of the IDP iceberg. Whether it’s along the defensive line (Ndamukong Suh, Dante Fowler), at linebacker (Mark Barron, Deone Bucannon) or in the secondary (Adrian Amos, Ha Clinton-Dix) there are many more defensive free agents with the potential to be IDP-relevant in their new homes.

Be sure to check back here at Fanium next week once free agency’s underway to see who lands where—and it what it means for IDP owners.

Insight by
Gary Davenport
MORE FANIUM INSIGHTS FOR YOU