As we always say, it is never too early to start building next year's champion. In keeping with tradition, my week seventeen column will focus on players we should be keeping an eye on with 2015 in mind. Each offseason brings a great deal of change in the NFL. Coaching changes, free agency, draft and a number of other less significant issues such as contracts and salary cap, will have a big impact. Here are the guys on my watch list that could be significant contributors, or were contributors this season but may not be when we start this whole thing over in September.
The Cardinals defense was near the top in many statistical categories but it is a safe bet that they will look a lot different next season. Daryl Washington is officially serving an indefinite suspension but history tells us that usually means one year so long as the player takes the necessary steps (counseling/rehab etc.) that is deemed appropriate for the violation. If Washington is not going to be reinstated and possibly even if he is, Arizona is going to address their inside linebacker position either via draft or free agency. Larry Foote signed a one year deal. He is not going to be the team's three down ILB in 2015 and may not even be with the team. If you can add Washington on your last waiver of the year, he would be a good stash.
The linebacker situation is going to have a direct impact on the safeties. The Cardinals have done an outstanding job of rotating in four of them to compensate for the lack of inside backers. Rashad Johnson has performed admirably as the only full time option of the group this year, but there is no guarantee that he will hold that spot in 2015. Tyrann Mathieu should be all the way back from his knee injury and we cannot overlook the fact that Deone Bucannon was a first round pick. All we really know is that Tony Jefferson is the first safety out here. If you are sitting on any of the other three, sit tight and see what happens when the fog clears.
When William Moore went down early in the season, 2013 seventh round pick Kemal Ishmael was his replacement. Ishmael quickly developed into both a solid fantasy option and a pretty good player on the field as well. When Moore returned to action in week fifteen it was somewhat of a surprise, if not a shock, that Ishmael was sent back to the bench instead of Dwight Lowery. The Falcons had a change of heart in week sixteen when Ishmael started ahead of Lowery at free safety. What we know here is that Lowery is a career backup and that the youngster played well enough to earn at least a serious shot at a starting job.
Chances are the Falcons will put a lot of resources into their defense this offseason. The biggest needs of this unit are an improved pass rush and a stud inside linebacker with leadership qualities. Paul Worrilow has been an adequate place holder and could continue to start next season but he is not likely to have the same role. We saw enough of Sean Weatherspoon before his injury to know that he is not the answer even if he does come back healthy.
The big question with the Bills is how they will look at linebacker when Kiko Alonso returns from injury. In last week's column I made mention that Preston Brown might be the odd man out but after taking a longer look I am second guessing that. Brown may be best suited as a middle backer which is where Alonso plays, but Brown has performed well as a three down strong side backer. Brandon Spikes is going to be a free agent so I expect we will see Alonso in the middle with Brown on the strong side and Nigel Bradham on the weak side. Alonso is sure to be a three down player and considering that Brown was the team's dime backer for most of this season, it is reasonable to expect that Bradham will be relegated to early downs.
It is noteworthy that Da'Norris Searcy is going to be a free agent at the end of the season. He has been a solid player for the Bills and a good fantasy option when playing in an every down strong safety role. There are a lot of teams out there who could be interested in his services. We need to see where he lands as the right situation could mean fantasy relevance. This could also mean that Duke Williams becomes an every down player for the Bills. That said, I have not been at all impressed with him.
The Bears were a disaster defensively this season so a great deal of change is expected. Ryan Mundy helped a lot of fantasy owners this season but he is no more than a marginal starter at best. If he is still the starter in 2015 it will be only because the organization elected to address bigger needs such as defensive end and possibly linebacker. It is the linebacker position that brings the most questions heading into the offseason. 2013 second round pick Jon Bostic saw a lot of action due mostly to injuries this year, with mixed results. By the end of the season he was posting good numbers but the Bears were being gashed on the field. It all comes down to how much of those struggles the coaching staff pins on Bostic's play. At times he looked very good so they may elect to roll with him as their middle linebacker and try to build around him.
One player that emerged big time over the final few games is weak side backer Christian Jones. The undrafted rookie put up big numbers in weeks fifteen and sixteen and actually looked pretty good on the field as well. We have only a small sampling to look at with him but he clearly outplayed Khaseem Greene who got his shot earlier in the season. Lance Briggs is going to be a free agent and has likely played his last down in Chicago so the door is open for Jones to lay claim to the job.
My biggest concern with the Bengals is the concussions suffered by Vontaze Burfict. It is noteworthy to mention that it was officially a knee injury that landed him on injured reserve, but he was struggling with concussion issues as well. Hopefully the extra time off will help to solve a lot of that but remember that he went through protocol at the end of the 2013 season and then twice in five game this year. So that is three times in his last six or seven games. It is enough to make me nervous to say the least.
The Browns have some significant contributors heading to free agency including Jabaal Sheard, Buster Skrine, Ahtyba Rubin, Tashaun Gipson Sr and Craig Robertson. Sheard is a marginal fantasy player in his current situation but if he lands as a defensive end in a 4-3, he could have much more value. Robertson is the other interesting name here. Not so much for his value but for the fact that if he is not back in Cleveland it would mean a much bigger role for Christian Kirksey. Kirksey has shown flashes as a rookie but has not been consistent. He has the talent and potential to emerge as the leader of the Browns defense down the road. Karlos Dansby will be back in 2015 so our best hope for Kirksey in the near future is a three down role as Dansby's sidekick.
Entering the 2014 season we all expect the Cowboys defense to be horrible. That has clearly not been the case but they do still have some holes to fill. Dallas is still holding out hope that rookie Demarcus Lawrence will emerge as the pass rush threat to replace DeMarcus Ware. Lawrence missed much of the season with injury and thus far has shown no sign of being that guy. How much the team invests at end this offseason will tell us a lot about what they expect from Lawrence.
All the injuries at linebacker helped the Cowboys to learn what they have in rookie Anthony Hitchens. What they seem to have is a quality starter with the versatility to play any of the three positions. Justin Durant, Bruce Carter and Rolando McClain are all going to be free agents. Carter is all but certain to be gone and the team has talked about trying to keep McClain. If they do so it will be interesting to see what happens when Sean Lee is healthy. My fear here is that McClain will be a two down MLB with Lee on the weak side and Hitchens strong. The best case for us would be Lee in the middle with Hitchens as a three down WLB. The bottom line here is that Hitchens has a lot of potential if he lands in the right situation.
The only really muddy situation in Denver is at linebacker where the injuries to Danny Trevathan are a concern. I spoke with resident FBG doctor Jene Bramel about my concerns that there may be some sort of underlying issue with Trevathan. In his opinion (which I value greatly) the multiple problems were more an issue of his trying to come back too quickly. Bramel believes that with the proper time to heal, Trevathan will be fine.
Brandon Marshall is set to be a free agent. He has played well all season and it will be a shocker if the Broncos let him get away. The bigger question is what will his role be? Nate Irving is also a free agent and the team is not likely to bring both players back. I can easily see Marshall at MLB and Trevathan on the weak side in 2015.
Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and C.J. Mosley are all heading to free agency, leaving the Lions with a big hole to fill. It is highly unlikely that all three will be back and it would seem that Fairley will be the odd man. He has struggled with weight issues and has been a disappointment in general for the team. I do not expect Detroit to let Suh get away but it will be interesting to see if they ink Mosley to a new deal. If they do, he could have decent value for those in tackle required leagues next season.
Green Bay Packers
Sam Barrington is the Packers defender that is most intriguing when it comes to future potential. Clay Matthews is back in his outside linebacker spot with A.J. Hawk having a greatly reduced role down the stretch. Barrington has not yet earned a spot in all the sub packages but then he is only a rookie. He has looked good on the field for the most part and has posted solid numbers for a guy not playing every snap. I like his upside and will be watching closely to see if the team makes any significant additions at the position over the offseason.
The LaRon Landry situation still has me scratching my head. It is somewhat noteworthy that he was the starter in week sixteen, but I am not sure how much to read into it. The Colts pulled a lot of starters early in that game, even before it became a blowout, so it could be a case that they started Landry but still consider him their third safety. He remains under contract for 2015 so it is not as if he can escape via free agency. That said, both Mike Adams and Sergio Brown are free agents. There is also the point that Landry is making starters money. I have no idea what to expect here but this is a situation we need to monitor as Landry is a box score friendly player when on the field. Let us hope he is in a much better situation next season be it in Indianapolis or not.
After resisting for most of the season, the Jaguars finally inserted Telvin Smith Sr as a three down weak side backer over the final few games. The box score results were nothing short of impressive. What remains to be seen however, is if he made enough of an impression on the field to have earned the job going forward. J.T. Thomas is heading to free agency so it will be interesting to see what the team does to replenish the position. Paul Posluszny will be back in the middle so if they use a significant pick or pay a top free agent addition, it will be a bad sign for Smith.
Ryan Davis is also headed to free agency. He made enough of an impact as the replacement for Andre Branch that some team in need of pass rush help will be looking at him hard. If he lands in the right place he could be a factor for us.
Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City enters the offseason with some questions and potential holes to fill. Ron Parker impressed this season as both the replacement for Eric Berry at safety and as a starting corner when Berry returned. Both Parker and Justin Houston are at the end of their contracts. With Berry's status for 2015 uncertain at best, it is a strong possibility that Parker will get a new contract. Any team would love to have a talent like Houston but it will take big money to get that deal done. The Chiefs took Dee Ford early in this year's draft as an insurance policy, so they may be looking at letting Houston walk if the contract demands are too high.
The Chiefs also have issue at inside linebacker. Derrick Johnson will be back but he will be 33 in November and is coming off a major injury. Josh Mauga filled in adequately this season but he too is set to be a free agent. I look for the Chiefs to use significant resources on the position.
Louis Delmas started a little slow but played well for the Dolphins once he got comfortable. When Delmas was injured Jimmy Wilson took over and looked pretty good as well. Both players are headed to free agency and chances are only one of them will be back. Wilson will probably come much cheaper so he may be the favorite.
The more significant situation for Miami to deal with is at linebacker. Jelani Jenkins stepped up and played well after Dannell Ellerbe was injured. He should get the first shot at the weak side position. After that it is anyone's guess. Koa Misi started in the middle whenever he was healthy with Jason Trusnik and Phillip Wheeler coming off the bench to contribute off and on all season. The problem is, other than maybe Jenkins, none of these guys are more than marginal NFL starters including Ellerbe. The Dolphins have been putting a temporary fix on this position seemingly every year since Zach Thomas left. At some point they have to land another stud.
With Chad Greenway and Anthony Barr locked in as starters there may not be much opportunity for Gerald Hodges in 2015 unless he can make the move inside. Hodges has shown the ability to be productive and has filled in well as an injury replacement. He is versatile enough to possibly make that move and the fact that Jasper Brinkley is a free agent could mean Hodges will get that shot.
I for one am keeping my fingers crossed that the Vikings do not make significant additions at safety. Robert Blanton came from nowhere this year and seemed to play well. He was certainly a solid fantasy contributor. From a talent perspective the Vikings defense looks solid going forward. I would expect them to use an early pick or some serious free agent money on the corner position as they really have no great players at that position.
New York Giants
The Giants have some free agent situations to deal with as Jason Pierre-Paul, Antrel Rolle, Stevie Brown and Jacquian Williams are all free agents after this season. They may elect to let Pierre-Paul move on because they have Damontre Moore waiting in the wings at end. Moore has not been particularly impressive but has shown flashes. Pierre-Paul has not been the same since his big 2011 season, but he does have double digit sacks this year and will be among the top options at the position in free agency. If he gets too expensive the Giants may let him walk.
The guy I am really interested in here is Devon Kennard. Early on he was used only as a two down strong side backer and a pass rusher on occasion. Later in the season however, Kennard saw action on the weak side and in some sub packages. He looked solid for the most part whatever his role. I could easily see the Giants with Jon Beason in the middle, Jameel McClain on the strong side and Kennard on the weak side. The question them would become who plays in the nickel? I believe Kennard would have a good shot at that role.
Charles Woodson is still playing well and helped me to a championship yet again this year, but could this be his last season? He is 38 years old and is at the end of his contract. The problem for Oakland is that they have no one behind him. Tyvon Branch will be back from injury at strong safety but the Raiders have been playing guys basically right off the street throughout much of this season. I look for Oakland to put much effort into improving the secondary this offseason.
Jene Bramel is the president of the Free Brandon Graham club with the rest of our staff being most of the membership. Graham is a free agent at the end of this year and has expressed a desire to play in a 4-3 scheme where he can return to his natural defensive end position. The Eagles are going to offer him a deal and likely promise a future starting spot when the soon to be 33 year old Trent Cole moves on, but that could be a while. If he lands in a 4-3 role this guy has 40+ tackle and double digit sacks written all over him. Here is to the hope that he escapes Philadelphia.
San Diego Chargers
It took almost two seasons but Manti Te'o is finally getting a chance to be an every down player for the Chargers. Donald Butler seems to have fallen out of grace with the coaching staff. His role had been greatly reduced even before he landed on injured reserve. Te'o is 13-4-1 over the last two games including his best career fantasy production (8-3-1) in week sixteen. I will be watching to see if the Chargers make any significant additions at inside backer this offseason. If not, Te'o could step up big next year.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers have three of the league’s best inside linebackers on injured reserve heading to week seventeen. Could we see a three man rotation at the position in 2015? That may be an unlikely scenario but someone is going to have to sit. it may simply come down to who is the most healthy. The injury to rookie Chris Borland is relatively minor compared to those of Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman. At this point I have to wonder if Bowman can ever be the same. If everyone is 100% Borland will likely be the odd man out and will have to wait his turn.
St. Louis Rams
When the Rams traded for Mark Barron it was expected by most that he would step right into a starting spot. Instead he has been working as the third safety in the big nickel packages. He is a talented player who should push for a starting spot next summer. Maybe the best thing Barron brought to the defense this year is a kick in the seat of T.J. McDonald who has played like a man looking over his shoulder down the stretch.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
With Mason Foster out for a couple of games, Danny Lansanah moved inside and played full time. This brought a lot of speculation that Foster would lose his job or at the least be replaced in the sub packages. Foster played just ten snaps in week sixteen before leaving the game but he was right back in the every down role while he was in, with Lansanah resuming the two down role. This may not be the final word on the situation as Foster is going to be a free agent. Lansanah owners will want to carry him at least into next preseason and see what happens. For Foster owners this is a positive sign that he will be fine in 2015 regardless of the uniform he wears on Sundays.
Major Wright is also set to enter free agency. He is a Lovie Smith favorite who followed from Chicago so there is a good chance he will at least get an offer from the Buccaneers. On the other hand, Bradley McDougald has played pretty well down the stretch. In fact, there are some rumblings that it was the presence of McDougald as much as that of Wright that made Mark Barron expendable. Even if Wright does stay in Tampa Bay, he could be challenged for the starting job.
As many of you know I have been a fan of safety Phillip Thomas. This young man has missed most of his first two seasons with injuries but once he is all the way back he could give Washington the playmaker they have been missing since the death of Sean Taylor. Both Brandon Meriweather and Ryan Clark are free agents at the end of the season so the stage is set for Thomas to step up. He has looked pretty good in the last few weeks after knocking the rust off.
That is going to do it for another great fantasy season. We will look forward to doing it all again next year. Have a great holiday season and try to keep the football withdraws in perspective.