We're just a couple weeks from the start of free agency around the NFL—a frenzied period that will see dozens of prominent players change teams and hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts handed out.
So far this year, most of the publicity surrounding player movement hasn't involved free agency at all—three big names at quarterback (Matthew Stafford, Jared Goff, and Carson Wentz) have already changed teams in trades. More could follow—including megastars like Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson.
However, on Monday we saw some movement among defensive free agents when a recently-released defensive lineman found a new home—taking arguably the biggest name available in 2020 on that side of the ball off the board.
As ESPN's Josh Weinfuss reported, defensive end J.J. Watt (one of three men in league history to be named Defensive Player of the Year three times) has joined the Arizona Cardinals after agreeing to terms on a two-year, $31 million pact that reportedly includes $23 million in guarantees. It was the 31-year-old Watt who broke news of the signing on Twitter, and upon landing in Arizona he said he's eager to get started with his new club.
"I'm excited to get started," Watt said. "Very excited to get started, get to work, get to know the people of Arizona."
The Redbirds are no doubt excited as well—pairing Watt with Chandler Jones in the desert gives Arizona the makings of a formidable front seven. Watt may have had just five sacks in 16 games last year, but his pressure numbers were solid (again) and Watt was his usually stout self against the run. Watt may no longer be the player who amassed a pair of 20-sack seasons. But he's still pretty danged good—and quite relevant in fantasy formats that utilize individual defensive players.
Despite notching the fewest sacks of his career in a season in which he played all 16 games, Watt was still a DL1 in most 12-team IDP formats, checking in just outside the top 10. Assuming that Jones is healthy after a torn biceps cost him 11 games in 2020, his presence should help keep the double teams off of Watt this season. In turn, that should offer Watt an opportunity for a rebound season in the sack column.
The downside to all that upside is that this is Justin James freaking Watt we're talking about. He's rather a known commodity in IDP circles. Despite his age and injury history (both of which are absolutely valid concerns) Watt's career achievements and new team are going to get him picked relatively early in most IDP leagues this summer.
If you want to roster Watt in 2021, you're probably going to have to pay retail to do it.
Watt may be the biggest defensive name changing teams this year, but he isn't the only one. Here's a position-by-position breakdown of 2021's biggest defensive free agents—and what a change in scenery could mean for their IDP value.
Yannick Ngakoue – DE, Baltimore Ravens
The 2020 season was equal parts eventful and disappointing for Ngakoue, who was traded twice—first to the Minnesota Vikings and then in-season to the Baltimore Ravens. All that moving around (and the lack of an offseason caused by the COVID-19 pandemic) resulted in a down year in which the 25-year-old managed just three sacks in nine games after joining the Ravens.
The best thing for Ngakoue's IDP prospects would appear a return to a role where he's playing with his hand in the dirt—he piled up five sacks in seven games with the Vikings before being dealt to Baltimore. Two years ago with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Ngakoue was a top-12 fantasy option among D-linemen. Assuming at least a moderately favorable destination, the five-year veteran should at least be in the DL2 conversation.
Leonard Williams – DE, New York Giants
The 2020 campaign was a "lightbulb" season for Williams. After managing just half a sack during a 2019 season in which he traded across MetLife Stadium halfway through, Williams exploded in his first full season with the Giants—57 total tackles, a career-high 11.5 sacks and a top-10 fantasy finish at his position.
It's entirely possible that given the investment the Giants have already made in Williams will spur the team to make every effort to retain him—including the use of the franchise tag for a second straight year. If Williams does leave the Big Apple, then re-classification as a defensive tackle with some providers is a possibility. So is statistical regression after his career year.
Justin Houston – DE, Indianapolis Colts
In two years with the Indianapolis Colts, Houston has regained quite a bit of the form that made him one of the league's most feared pass-rushers in Kansas City—the 32-year-old has piled up 19 sacks, finished inside the top 25 defensive linemen twice and posted a top-10 fantasy finish in 2019.
The question now (and it's a big one) is what comes next for Houston. With over $43 million in cap space, the Colts can afford to bring Houston back, leaving him the same lower-end DL2 he was in 2020. But a move back to a role as a rush linebacker in the 3-4 can't be ruled out, and that could bring his positional eligibility for the upcoming season into question.
Romeo Okwara – DE, Detroit Lions
So far, the D-linemen mentioned here have been either aging stars or ascending talents. Okwara really isn't either of those—prior to 2020 he had spent four mostly unremarkable years in New York and Detroit. Last year was a different story though. Okwara came out of nowhere to pace the Lions with 10 sacks and was arguably the most surprising top-10 fantasy DL in the game.
Okwara's big year wasn't a complete aberration—the 25-year-old had 7.5 sacks back in 2018. Given that big season and Okwara's age, he's going to command quite a bit of interest on the open market. A favorable landing spot opposite an established edge-rusher could make Okwara an upside DL2. But if he lands somewhere without much in the way of help, it could be difficult to draft Okwara as an IDP starter.
Jadeveon Clowney – DE, Tennessee Titans
To say that Jadeveon Clowney's 2020 season was forgettable is an understatement—the 28-year-old played in just eight games in his first season with the Tennessee Titans and failed to record a single sack. That brings the career total for the first overall pick in the 2014 pick to 32 sacks—in seven years.
And that's the thing—while Clowney has shown flashes of the dominant player he was at South Carolina. But he has missed 29 games in seven years and just hasn't produced statistically with any consistency.
Should Clowney land somewhere like Cleveland (opposite Myles Garrett) there will no doubt be IDP managers who talk themselves into believing in him, but more likely than not Clowney is going to be overdrafted in IDP—again.
OTHER IDP-RELEVANT FREE AGENT DL: Denico Autry – DE, Indianapolis Colts; Jurrell Casey – DE, Denver Broncos; Kerry Hyder – DE, San Francisco 49ers; Melvin Ingram – DE, Los Angeles Chargers; Ryan Kerrigan – DE, Washington Football Team; Everson Griffen – DE, Detroit Lions; Alex Okafor – DE, Kansas City Chiefs; Ndamukong Suh – DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Aldon Smith – DE, Dallas Cowboys; Solomon Thomas – DT, San Francisco 49ers; Olivier Vernon – DE, Cleveland Browns; Stephen Weatherly – DE, Carolina Panthers
Lavonte David – OLB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
There isn't much that Lavonte David hasn't done in the NFL. In nine NFL seasons, David has topped 100 total tackles eight times. He has made over $50 million in career earnings. David has been a first-team All-Pro. And after Tampa's victory in Super Bowl LV, the 31-year-old has a ring.
Now David heads into free agency as easily the top off-ball linebacker available—and demand for his services should be high. If David remains with the Buccaneers, last year's 117 total stops and top-15 fantasy finish is a reasonable expectation for 2021. But if he signs with an LB-needy team like Cleveland where David would be top dog at the position (as opposed to 1B behind Devin White) then a return to the top-10 is well within reach.
Matt Milano – OLB, Buffalo Bills
At first glance, Milano's 2020 production might not seem like numbers that would generate a ton of interest on the open market—45 total tackles and 3.5 sacks. But those 3.5 sacks were actually a career-high, and Milano missed half a dozen games with a pectoral injury.
When healthy, the 26-year-old Milano is a highly capable WILL linebacker just now entering the prime of his career who has played well in coverage the past couple of seasons. Two years ago, Milano posted 101 total tackles and finished inside fantasy LB3 territory. That's not an unreasonable estimation for his 2021 value, and he could get a bump if he moves to a team where he's likely to lead the club in stops.
Avery Williamson – ILB, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers brought Williamson in last year in a trade with the New York Jets after inside linebacker Devin Bush tore his ACL. Despite the mid-season change of scenery, the 28-year-old was still relatively productive, tallying 111 total tackles. It marked the fourth time in five seasons that Williamson has surpassed 100 stops, and he finished the year as a top-30 fantasy option at his position.
The Steelers are in absolutely terrible position relative to the salary cap—only the Chiefs are farther in the red than Pittsburgh. Given those financial difficulties and Bush's return, it's a near-certainty that Williamson will be moving on. Assuming that it's into a three-down role, he'll have value as a third starter at least.
Eric Wilson – OLB, Minnesota Vikings
Among the top-12 fantasy linebackers in 2020, there wasn't a bigger surprise than Eric Wilson of the Minnesota Vikings. Pressed into full-time duty by the season-ending injury suffered by Anthony Barr, Wilson had easily the best season of his four-year career—122 total tackles, three sacks, three interceptions, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble.
Still, while Wilson piled up the numbers from an NFL perspective he struggled at times—enough so that there's a real question as to whether or not another team will give the 26-year-old a big contract and three-down role. For Wilson to have any chance at repeating his 2020 success, he's going to need the latter.
Christian Kirksey – ILB, Green Bay Packers
Christian Kirksey has shown the ability to produce at an elite level for IDP managers. In both 2017 and 2018, Kirksey topped 135 total tackles and finished as a top-10 fantasy option with the Cleveland Browns. That's the good news.
The bad news is that since then Kirksey has had exactly zero luck staying on the field. He missed nine games in 2018, 14 games in 2019 and five games in one disappointing season with the Green Bay Packers in 2020.
There are teams in the league with a need at the position great enough to slot Kirksey as an every-down player. Places where the 29-year-old would have LB2 upside. But it's folly at this point to expect him to stay healthy.
OTHER IDP-RELEVANT FREE AGENT LB: Shaquil Barrett – OLB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Jayon Brown -- ILB, Tennessee Titans; De'Vondre Campbell – OLB, Arizona Cardinals; Will Compton – ILB, Tennessee Titans; Jarrad Davis – ILB, Detroit Lions; Todd Davis – ILB, Minnesota Vikings, Alvin Dupree – OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers, Leonard Floyd – OLB, Los Angeles Rams; Reuben Foster – ILB, Washington Football Team; B.J. Goodson – ILB, Cleveland Browns; Neville Hewitt – ILB, New York Jets; Nicholas Morrow – OLB, Las Vegas Raiders; Patrick Onwuasor – ILB, New York Jets; Denzel Perryman – ILB, Los Angeles Chargers; Haason Reddick – OLB, Arizona Cardinals; Nick Vigil – OLB, Los Angeles Chargers; Tahir Whitehead - ILB, Carolina Panthers; K.J. Wright – OLB, Seattle Seahawks
Editor’s Note: Get an edge with our premium Betting Tools that are packed with live odds, betting trends, predictions, player prop projections, our extensive Edge Finder and much more. And don't forget to use promo code WELCOME10 to get 10% off. Click here to learn more!
Justin Simmons – S, Denver Broncos
Simmons doesn't get the run that players like Budda Baker of the Arizona Cardinals and Jamal Adams of the Seattle Seahawks do, but an argument can be made after a third straight season of 90-plus tackles that Simmons deserves to be mentioned with the league's elite safeties.
Simmons posted a career-high 77 solo tackles last year, numbers that slotted him inside the top-10 defensive backs. It marked his second consecutive top-10 and third-straight top-25 campaign. With signs pointing toward the fifth-year veteran getting the franchise tag treatment for the second straight year, the 27-year-old should be in the DB1 conversation again in 2021.
Keanu Neal – S, Atlanta Falcons
Neal's career has been a story of polar opposites over his five years in the NFL. In his first two seasons, Neal topped 100 total tackles and appeared headed toward stardom. But then an ACL tear and a ruptured Achilles tendon all but wiped out the 2018 and 2019 season.
Neal rebounded in 2020 to play in 15 games and tally 100 tackles on the nose—playing well enough that he's been mentioned as a candidate for Atlanta's franchise tag. But he finished just inside DB3 territory for the season due to a dearth of big plays, so there's some risk involved in drafting the 25-year-old as a fantasy starter regardless of where he plays next season.
Marcus Maye – S, New York Jets
The trade that sent Jamal Adams to the Seattle Seahawks was a major blow for the New York Jets. But if there was a silver lining, it's that Marcus Maye stepped up and had a career year in Adams' absence. For the season, Maye posted 88 total tackles and two interceptions. Both numbers either exceeded or tied career bests.
After a hot start to the season, Maye tailed off down the stretch, finishing just inside DB2 territory in 12-team leagues. Much like Simmons and Neal the Jets are expected to avail themselves of the reasonable safety tag to franchise Maye and keep him in town, so it's a reasonably safe bet to project the 27-year-old as a low-end DB2.
Shawn Williams – S, Cincinnati Bengals
There isn't a bigger defensive back in the league who saw their fortunes change more for the worse in 2020 than Shawn Williams of the Cincinnati Bengals. In both 2018 and 2019, Williams was a full-time box safety who piled up at least 110 total tackles. But with the arrival of Vonn Bell last year, Williams was relegated to a special teams role—he saw just 86 defensive snaps all season long.
Assuming that Williams likes to actually play on defense, he'll be moving on this offseason. And there's no guarantee that the ninth-year pro will be able to secure a full-time role heading into his age-30 season. But Williams has shown the ability to post big-time tackle numbers in the past, and that alone makes it worth monitoring where he winds up.
Troy Hill – CB, Los Angeles Rams
Hill isn't the best cornerback available this year in free agency from an NFL perspective. But thanks to a career high 77 total tackles and three interceptions (two of which were returned for touchdowns) the seventh-year pro is the highest-scoring fantasy corner who could be on the move.
Given the Rams sketchy salary cap situation and the $6 million or more annually that Hill could command on the open market, he more than likely will be moving on from the Rams. But that's not necessarily a good thing—a large part of the reason Hill was targeted over 90 times last season was playing opposite Jalen Ramsey.
OTHER IDP-RELEVANT FREE AGENT DB: Bashaud Breeland – CB, Kansas City Chiefs; Quinton Dunbar – CB, Seattle Seahawks; Tashaun Gipson – S, Chicago Bears; Shaquill Griffin – CB, Seattle Seahawks; Anthony Harris – S, Minnesota Vikings; Erik Harris – S, Las Vegas Raiders; Karl Joseph – S, Cleveland Browns; Desmond King – CB, Tennessee Titans; Bradley McDougald – S, New York Jets; Jalen Mills – S, Philadelphia Eagles; Terrance Mitchell – CB, Cleveland Browns; Brian Poole – CB, New York Jets; Xavier Rhodes – CB, Indianapolis Colts; Darryl Roberts – CB, Detroit Lions; Buster Skrine – CB, Chicago Bears; Daniel Sorensen – S, Kansas City Chiefs; Jaquiski Tartt – S, San Francisco 49ers; Marcus Williams – S, New Orleans Saints