As we said throughout our 2014 fantasy blueprints at Bleacher Report, drafters love following the money. We break down the top five defensive players who are playing for big contracts in free agency next winter:
1. DE Greg Hardy, Carolina Panthers
The Panthers' franchise player is playing under a one-year, $13.2 million tender this season. The prime-aged 26-year-old might not return to Carolina, but Greg Hardy is going to be motivated to earn a huge payday elsewhere.
His contract status just might have been enough to put him in Watt's elite tier among defensive linemen, but a potential league suspension hangs over Hardy right now, as The Charlotte Observer's Joseph Person reported.
2. DT Ndamukong Suh, Detroit Lions
Ndamukong Suh barely made it in our Top 100, because defensive tackles just don't generate huge fantasy totals. Suh is going to generate a another big-time contract, though. The 27-year-old hasn't quite been as good as his 65-tackle, 10-sack rookie season, but a contract year just might be the impetus he and his fantasy owners need.
3. DT Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Sticking with the front-four studs in their mid-20s, McCoy has steadily improved year to year. Now, he could be ready to erupt, particularly with defensive guru Smith as his head coach. It will be interesting to see whether he or Suh earns a bigger deal.
McCoy has fewer character questions and is better suited for a 65-10 season, but his fantasy value is higher, so his sleeper potential in a contract year is slightly lower than Suh's.
4. OLB Jason Worilds, Pittsburgh Steelers
Yet another player just now entering his prime at age 26, Jason Worilds is on the verge of becoming a defensive star for one of the most proud defensive franchises in football. He was transition tagged and signed only a one-year tender, so he is a candidate to trump his 63-tackle, eight-sack career year of 2013.
5. OLB Brian Orakpo, Washington Redskins
If not for injury questions (see the final slide on why to avoid these in fantasy), Brian Orakpo would have a lot more juice in fantasy. He is also more pass-rusher than tackle machine. When you pick linebackers, you need those huge tackle totals.
Still, playing under a franchise tender, Orakpo will be motivated for a career year along the lines of 75 tackles and 12-plus sacks. He will need health for a full 16-game season to do that.
For a more complete outline of pending 2015 defensive free agents, see Spotrac.com's comprehensive list here.