At this time last year we were trying to figure out what effect Mike Pettine's hybrid multi-front scheme would have on the box score production of Buffalo defenders. We now have the stability of a Jim Schwartz 4-3 to work with. What makes this situation even better if that Schwartz has good talent to work with. In Mario Williams the Bills have one of the league's elite three down defensive ends. Williams has even been successful when asked to play linebacker in a 3-4 a couple of times, but his most productive seasons have been in a straight 4-3 base defense. Throw out an injury shortened 2011 and Williams has turned in at least 9 sacks every season since 2006. A glance at his career numbers shows a couple of seasons with fewer than 30 solo tackles, but a closer look tells us that he has at least 35 solos to show for every year that he had worked in a 4-3. He is 29 years old, still at the top of his game and working in a scheme that fits his skill set. He should push the 40 solo mark and may threaten his career best of 14 sacks. Target him as a solid second tier DL1 with top five upside.
History and a strong track record give us a pretty good idea what to expect from Williams, but he is not the only DE prospect worthy of strong consideration here. The Colts used a first round pick on Jerry Hughes in 2010. He was a weekly inactive for much of his first two seasons, then spent an uneventful year as a backup outside linebacker when the Colts moved to a 3-4 in 2012. Hughes was acquired by the Bills in a trade last April and was finally given an opportunity to play. He displayed versatility in working from both the OLB and DE positions in the Bills hybrid scheme, but most importantly he had a good deal of success. Hughes finished the year at 32-14-9.5 and was second on the team in sacks. At 254 pounds he is a little lighter than the proto-typical three down end in a 4-3, but he proved last season that he can hold up in that role. I will stop short of predicting 40 solo tackles, but will not be at all surprised if Hughes gives us 35 stops and double digit sacks. Best of all, he is a guy that has been flying under the radar in drafts this summer and can be picked up late. Target him in the area of a priority DL3 but do not be surprised if he lands in the top twenty.
The defensive ends are not the only players in this front four with fantasy value. In fact the Bills may have the only defensive line in the league that has all four players finish among the top twenty at their positions and possibly the top 25 among all linemen. Tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams each finished with more than 40 solo tackles in 2013 and they had a whopping 17.5 sacks between them. Williams totaled 42-25-10 with a couple of takeaways last year and was on a tier by himself at the top of the final defensive tackle rankings. We need to be careful not to over draft him though. While Williams has exceeded the 40 solo mark three times since 2009, his previous high in sacks was five. There is no reason to doubt his ability to post similar tackle numbers but expect his sack total and fantasy value to come back to the pack a little in 2014. Target Williams as an upper echelon DT1 with the potential to repeat as #1 at the position, but I would stop short of putting him in a tier by himself this time around. In leagues that lump the positions together he should make a solid DL2 or an excellent DL3.
Dareus finished 2013 at 46-25-7.5 and was the fantasy game's number two tackle, about fifteen points behind his teammate. While all of those numbers were career highs, he has posted at least 5.5 sacks in each of his three seasons as a pro. What is most important to know is that Dareus is a rare talent. At 6'3" and 331 pounds he is as stout at the point of attack as any lineman in the league. It is his quickness and athleticism that set him apart. Dareus moves better than most players that are 35+ pounds lighter. He is a great fit in the Schwartz scheme and will likely have a similar role to that of Ndamukong Suh in recent years. The only thing that is likely to keep Dareus from repeating as a top five defensive tackle is his off-field issues. He is facing both drug and drag racing charges that could land him in jail for a while and at the least are likely to cost him a four game league imposed suspension at some point. With an initial court date of September 9th, Dareus may manage to drag out the legal process until after this season. Since the league is unlikely to act before the legal process has run its course, fantasy owners may well get full use out of him this year. Consider Dareus as a high risk high reward DT1 with top five potential.
DE Mario Williams - Solid DL1 with top five potential
DE Jerry Hughes - Low end DL2 or excellent DL3
DE Alan Branch - Injury/suspension sleeper that could move inside if Dareus is out
DT Kyle Williams - Solid low end DL2 or top shelf DT1 with potential to repeat as #1
DT Marcell Dareus - High risk high reward player with top five tackle potential
DT Corbin Bryant - Injury/suspension sleeper with limited upside
Kiko Alonso exploded onto the scene in 2013 with a huge rookie season. He quickly assumed a leadership role and established himself as a cornerstone of this defense. His season ending ACL injury has set the Bills back and has fantasy owners scrambling to figure out who his replacement will be. Initially everyone looked at 2012 fourth round pick Nigel Bradham and veteran free agent addition Keith Rivers as the most likely candidates. As a rookie Bradham started eleven games as strong side backer in a 4-3. Last season he had a part time role as an inside backer in the Bills 3-4. Bradham is a physical run defender and a good bet to end up starting on the strong side, but his coverage skills are average at best. He may get a look at the weak side position during camp but has been lining up as the starter on the strong side during most of the offseason. Bradham's skill set is best suited for the responsibilities of that position and that is ultimately where he is likely to stay.
Rivers has plenty of experience at both the strong and weak side positions in 4-3 schemes. However, the Bengals 2008 first round pick has never lived up to expectations. He was a two down starter in Cincinnati for a couple of years before becoming a journeyman free agent in recent years. Rivers spent 2013 with a Giants squad that was in dire need of help at the outside linebacker positions. Rivers made 5 starts on the weak side and 3 on the strong side but again was unable to earn a spot i any of the passing down sub packages. We cannot completely rule out either Bradham or Rivers as possible starters on the weak side, but it is pretty clear that neither are going to be three down players. Nor will they give fantasy owners much to get excited about. If the Bills were to go with either of these guys on early downs, we would likely see another situation where a safety (Da'Norris Searcy most likely) would lineup as the second linebacker in nickel situations.
The player most likely to land the job on the weak side this season is rookie Preston Brown. The fourth round pick is best suited to play in the middle and may end up there in the long run, but the Bills coaching staff has been impressed with him thus far. He is a physical tackler with excellent size, a high football IQ and three years of experience as an every down starter for Louisville. Brown is not particularly fast and is only adequate in coverage. He struggles to stay with fast athletic tight ends or backs in man to man but was pretty solid in the short zones that he was asked to play in college. It is no sure thing that Brown will win the starting job on the weak side, or that he will be a three down player if he does. There is however, a better chance that he will emerge as a quality fantasy option than either of the other two potential answers at the Bills disposal. Slip Brown in as a late round sleeper and target him as your fourth or fifth linebacker with LB3 potential.
From a fantasy perspective the player most likely to benefit from the Alonso injury is middle linebacker Brandon Spikes. Like all the other Bills linebackers that have been mentioned, the former Patriots starter is a big physical thumper versus the run, but has questionable cover skills. Spikes was given a few opportunities to play in the nickel packages during his four years in New England. In those instances he flashed rather strong box score numbers, but apparently the coaching staff was unimpressed to the point that he was soon returned to a two down role. Coverage has been the focus of Spikes offseasons over the past couple of years and he has shown improvement. The fact of this matter is that without Alonso, the Bills have no standout coverage linebackers. They will still need to have someone on the field in those situations. Right now Spikes is their best option. His dynasty value remains somewhat questionable but I like his chances of breaking into the top twenty for the first time in 2014.
MLB Brandon Spikes - Solid LB3 with LB2 upside
WLB Preston Brown - Sleeper to target as depth with LB3 potential
SLB Nigel Bradham - Minimal value at best
SLB Keith Rivers - No value
OLB Manny Lawson - No value
In 2013 the Buffalo secondary gave us four players who averaged more than 9 points a game and one that averaged more than eleven. Yet those of us who were trying to mine the value out of this group seemed to be shooting at a moving target. Aaron Williams started twelve games at strong safety and two at corner before missing the final two contests with injury. He finished with a mark of 60-22-0 with 5 takeaways and 11 passes defended to make him the top point scorer of the group. Williams week to week inconsistency however, was frustrating to say the least. He put up double digit fantasy point in seven games. In four others he failed to reach 6. Being just under 200 pounds and having the skill set of a corner, it was strange that the previous coaching staff elected to play Williams at strong safety. Under Jim Schwartz he has been shifted over to the free safety spot where his coverage skills and ball hawking ability can be best displayed. That move could cost Williams a few tackles but should add some big play opportunity. With so much change in Buffalo it is hard to say how everything will play out in the box scores. At this point I have Williams ranked in the area of a somewhat risky DB3 with a little more potential in big play based leagues.
Entering camp, four year veteran Da'Norris Searcy has the edge over second year pro Duke Williams in the battle for the starting job at strong safety. By the nature of the position, the winner of this battle will have the most fantasy potential of the group. Searcy opened last season as the starting free safety and held that spot until Jairus Byrd returned. In his seven starts, Searcy totaled 37-14-2 with 4 passes defended and a fumble recovery for a score. Over that span he averaged over 14 points a game and was on pace to go 84-32-4.5 with 9 passes defended and over 200 fantasy points. Despite his on field production, Searcy was not treated as a starter by the previous coaching regime. At 216 pounds he is a physical presence versus the run and an intimidating hitter over the middle. While his coverage skills are not stellar, Searcy is more than suited as an in the box strong safety. Maybe most important of all, he seems to have a real knack for making game changing plays. I believe that Searcy will finally win the starting safety job. There is also a chance that he will be used as a linebacker in nickel situations with Williams coming on to play strong safety in those packages. Again, nothing has been settled here when it comes to the starting job, but I believe Searcy will emerge as a quality DB2 with the potential to be a top twelve defensive back in 2014.
Duke Williams skill set may be best suited at the free safety position. He has added a few pound of muscle since checking in at 190 pounds for last year's combine, but remains a bit undersized to play strong safety. His speed and cover skills are better than Searcy and Williams is certainly not afraid to put his shoulder into a ball carrier. Williams led Nevada in tackles over each of his last two seasons there. As a senior he totaled 105 combined tackles with 9 passes defended and a pick. So he clearly has a history of solid box score production. While Searcy enters camp with the lead and is one my favorite sleepers this year, I will not hesitate to shift gears and grab Williams if he moves ahead in the competition.
The Bills corner positions have not provided great box score production in recent years but they are not totally without value. Leodis McKelvin returns as the starter on the left side. His 60 solo tackles and 20 passes defended were enough to cover for a lack of big play production, making him a top twenty corner in 2013. McKelvin has battled injuries over much of his six year career, thus last season's 138 points was a personal best for him in fantasy terms. A general lack of big play production has plagued his fantasy value. McKelvin has just 7 career interceptions and has not recorded more than 1 in a season since 2010. We cannot count on him reaching the 60 tackle mark again, nor can we count on another top twenty finish. If he stays healthy however, we can count on 50+ tackles, a couple of takeaways, 15 or so passes defended and a fantasy ranking in the low 30s. Just enough value to make McKelvin a decent bye week throw in with a little upside for owners in corner required leagues.
Stephon Gilmore missed the first five games last season so his low numbers do not give a completely accurate perspective of his value. They are not all that far off however. Even so, he is yet another example of the rookie corner rule in action. As a rookie starter in 2012 Gilmore went 51-9- with 16 passes defended and 3 takeaways for a total of 126 fantasy points. In eleven starts last season he was on pace to finish at 43-7-0 with 3 takeaways and 15 passes defended. He is a good cover corner but is not particularly physical and is generally not very active in run support. He organization expects Gilmore to step up in the big play columns this season but unless/until he does so, there is nothing to see here in terms of fantasy value.
The guy to keep an eye on here is free agent addition Corey Graham. As a nickel corner for the Ravens last season, he totaled 56-18-1 with 5 takeaways (4 picks) and 12 passes defended. He is likely to open the season in the same role for the Bills, but with the history of both McKelvin and Gilmore struggling to stay healthy, Graham could easily find himself with a bigger role. Should he land a starting job, Graham would likely be a solid CB3 with CB2 potential.
SS Da'Norris Searcy - My favorite DB sleeper this year
FS Aaron Williams - DB3 with a little upside
SS Duke Williams - Sleeper with a high upside if he wins the job
CB Stephon Gilmore - No value
CB Leodis McKelvin - Possible depth in corner required leagues
CB Corey Graham - Injury sleeper with CB2 upside if he get into the starting lineup
CB Nickell Robey - No value
CB Ron Brooks - No Value
When we think about great pressure defenses the Dolphins are not among the first teams that come to mind. Miami quietly totaled 42 sacks in 2013 with 31.5 of those being credited to the defensive line. Maybe the most surprising thing about those numbers is that the Dolphins did it with only a modest contribution from Cameron Wake. Wake finished 2013 at 28-9-8.5 with three takeaways. Many fantasy owners will look at those numbers and slot him well down the draft board without realizing his situation last season. Wake suffered a knee injury in week two, missing three games completely and playing in a limited role in three others. He was not full speed again until week nine. If we crunch the numbers we have a guy who was 26-8-8.5 with 3 takeaways in ten games. Project that production over a full season and we get 42-13-13.5. Those numbers are very similar to his 2012 production that made Wake the number three defensive lineman. If this is not enough to convince you that Wake is a top five prospect in 2014, just look back a little further. Over the three seasons prior to last he averaged 41-10-12.5. Wake is healthy entering camp and is poised for another big season. Best of all, last year's numbers will help us to land him at a bargain price in many leagues.
Olivier Vernon was arguably the biggest surprise at the defensive line position in 2013. After posting 26 tackles and 3.5 sacks in a part time role as a rookie, the 2012 third round pick landed a starting job last summer. The result was a stat line of 45-12-10 and a top fifteen finish among defensive linemen. Vernon is a solid point of attack run defender with tenacity to chase down running plays from the back side. He is a high effort guy that does not take plays off and has solidified his role as a three down end. The return of a healthy Wake can do nothing but help Vernon as offenses will be forced to choose their poison when it comes to who gets the extra attention from the blocking scheme. The one area that Vernon needs to improve is forcing turnovers. He had none last season and has just one forced fumble to show for his first two years in the league. He should be good for 40+ solo stops and low double digits in sacks again this season. If Vernon can come up with a few big plays, he could squeeze into the top twelve. Target him as a priority DL2.
The Dolphins used the third overall pick on Dion Jordan in 2013. While it is too early to put the bust tag on him, Jordan has certainly fallen way short of expectations. As a part time pass rush specialist last season he recorded just 2 sacks and was basically a non-factor. The emergence of Vernon is going to make it tough for Jordan to earn a bigger role in the near future. The four game suspension for performance enhancing drugs is another obstacle for the young man to overcome. After making such a big investment in him, the Dolphins are going to give Jordan every opportunity to become a contributor, but there are no high expectations for him in 2014.
One guy to keep an eye on here is Derrick Shelby. The 2012 undrafted free agent played well in a part time role last season, recording 23 tackles and 2.5 sacks. At 280 pounds he is the biggest of the Dolphins top four at the DE position and has the potential to be a three down option if there is an injury to either of the starters. Shelby will have an expanded role over the first four games for sure. If he continues to impress he could continue to see most of the playing time as the third end even after Jordan returns. Unless you are in a deep drafted 14-16 team league, Shelby is probably not worth a draft pick or a roster spot at this point, but he is a name to be familiar with in case the opportunity arises.
Miami also has something to offer owners in leagues that require interior linemen. Jared Odrick was a defensive end in 2012 but moved inside to pair with Randy Starks at tackle last season. Both players posted solid tackle numbers for the position with Starks totaling 35 solos and Odrick 34. Starks added a couple of sacks early on and finished with 2.5. The eleven year veteran had a career best of 7 sacks in 2009 and has averaged 4 per season over the last five years. Odrick totaled 4.5 sacks in 2013, giving him a total of 15.5 over the past three seasons. Both players are strong run defenders and above average inside pass rushers who landed among the top fifteen defensive tackles in 2013. While neither is a threat to blow up for top five numbers, they are quality targets as solid DT2 with low end DT1 potential at a position where big production is scarce.
Former Houston nose tackle Earl Mitchell will be the third man in the inside rotation. He too is capable of decent production in this defense as Miami's top three interior linemen could end up with a similar number of snaps. Mitchell was 30-18-1.5 for the Texans last season. Take a wait and see approach with Mitchell but do not hesitate to move on him if he produces early on.
DE Cameron Wake - Quality DL1 with top five potential
DE Oliver Vernon - Priority DL2 with top twelve potential
DE Dion Jordan - Minimal value at best
DE Derrick Shelby - Injury sleeper
DT Jared Odrick - Solid DT2 with low end DT1 upside
DT Randy Starks - Solid DT2
DT Earl Mitchell - Sleeper with DT2 potential
Last offseason the Dolphins let Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett go and replaced them with Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler. The move was said to be an effort to get faster and stronger at the point of attack. Those moves did not work out as well as the organization would have liked. As they soon learned, there was a reason Ellerbe was never much more than a nickel linebacker during his time in Baltimore, and there was a reason that Oakland did not make a big push to retain Wheeler. On the field Ellerbe was a step down from Dansby in nearly every aspect, but was an adequate starter. His box score totals of 70-31-1 with a couple of picks and 2 fumble recoveries are a bit misleading in that he missed two games with injuries. If we figure those games into his totals, Ellerbe finishes with 80+ tackles, 4-5 takeaways and a fantasy ranking in the area of a solid LB3.
After playing on the strong side for most of his career, the Miami coaching staff plugged Wheeler in on the weak side in 2013. As a three down WLB Wheeler led the team with 84 solo stops, adding 35 assists, a sack and a half and a fumble recovery. While the tackle numbers were a little better than his 2012 total, Wheeler's big play production slipped considerably from the already modest totals he had posted for Oakland.
Neither Ellerbe nor Wheeler were particularly productive in the big play columns even before coming to Miami, but before we put the blame on them alone for the lack of production in those areas, maybe we should consider this interesting fact. Between them Dansby and Burnett produced 3.5 sacks, 1 takeaway and 14 passes defended for the Dolphins in 2012. Last season with Arizona and Oakland respectively, they combined for 8.5 sacks, 11 takeaways and 23 passes defended. Does the weak production in Miami have more to do with scheme than players?
Since they have paid both guys a good amount of money and have made no significant additions at the second level; the coaching staff is looking for ways to improve with the players they already have. Their answer is a position shuffle that will move strong side starter Koa Misi into the middle, shift Ellerbe to the weak side and put Wheeler back in his comfort zone on the strong side. As the starting middle backer Misi has drawn a lot of interest from fantasy owners. Before we get too excited however, let me point out that this is not the first time Misi has gotten a look in the middle. He has seen a bit of time there in the past with less than stellar results.
The bottom line here is that a lack of standout talent and a history of marginal production within the scheme, limits the expectations of all Miami linebackers. It is a safe bet that Ellerbe will be the leading tackler and best fantasy option of the group. This is mostly because he is clearly the best coverage option of the trio and is all but certain to have a three down role. Wheeler has worked in passing down sub packages for the past two seasons and did so at times while he was with the Colts prior to 2012. Since Misi has seen virtually no action on passing downs over his four years with the team, it is a good bet that wheeler will be a three down strong side backer in 2014. I see Ellerbe as a quality LB3 with low end LB2 upside at best. Wheeler's tackle totals will suffer as an early down strong side backer but the nickel snaps should help him to be a solid LB4 option for us. Misi is worthy as a late round flier simply because anything can happen, but I will be surprised if he give us much value at all.
MLB Koa Misi - Sleeper with limited upside
WLB Dannell Ellerbe - Quality LB3 with low end LB2 potential
SLB Phillip Wheeler - Target as depth with low end LB3 upside at best
OLB Jelani Jenkins - Injury sleeper with limited upside
OLB Jason Trusnik - No value
Miami defensive backs were credited with a whopping 373 solo tackles in 2013. In contrast, Seattle DBs totaled just 279. Strong safeyy Reshad Jones led the charge for the Dolphins secondary at 84-23.1.5. Like their linebackers however, Jones also struggled in the takeaway area with only a single interception on the season. Despite being the fourth leading tackler among all defensive backs in 2013, Jones's lack of big plays caused him to finish outside the top fifteen. There is also the consideration of his week to week consistency. Jones reached double digits in fantasy points seven times last season. Yet for a string of seven games starting in week eight, he had no more than 8 points and averaged just under 7. While 7 points is not a horrible from a DB on a given week, we should be able to expect more from a player that will be drafted among the top ten at the position in most leagues. I am not a Jones hater and see him as a quality safety in NFL terms. I simply believe that he is overvalued by many fantasy owners as a DB1. Jones was much better in the big play columns in 2012 when he posted 8 total takeaways and a sack, but even then he struggled with the same inconsistency issues. Considering that he has no more than 1 takeaway in either of his other two seasons as a starter, the 2012 numbers have to be considered somewhat of a fluke. I like Jones as a solid DB2 with upside for the 2014 season but do not expect that he will end up on any of my rosters due to where he ranks on my DB list.
With such a large number of tackles to spread around, one might expect more than a single Miami DB to have good fantasy value. Unfortunately, due to injuries and other issues, all those tackles were spread among thirteen players. As a result free safety Chris Clemons was the second leading tackler in the Miami secondary last season with 62 solo stops. He has moved on via free agency and will be replaced by former Lions starter Louis Delmas. As a rookie in 2009 Delmas posted a career best of 64 solo stops. After struggling through injuries and missing several game in both 2011 and 2012; Delmas was healthy for sixteen games last season. Still he could muster only 49-15-2 with 3 turnovers and 9 passes defended. The free safety position in Miami has been only marginally fantasy productive in recent years so there is no reason to expect a sudden breakout by Delmas. At best he will be a 60-65 tackle guy with a handful of big plays and some value as a DB4 with a little upside.
Brent Grimes was the only Miami corner to start all sixteen games last season. He is a solid if unspectacular Cover corner that would probably be best suited as a number two in a perfect world. His respectable tackle totals of 52-8 along with the 16 passes defended and four interceptions, made Grimes a top twelve corner last season. While the overall totals would suggest that he is a solid fantasy option, keep in mind that nearly 22% of his fantasy points came in one big game. Grimes had more outings with 5 of fewer points than he did with double digits. During his two full seasons as a starter in Atlanta (2009 and 2010) Grimes averaged 69-7, 6 takeaways and 18 passes defended. He missed a number of games with injury in 2011 and 2012 so we have little more to go on. Because he has some history of quality productions, I consider him a CB3 target with low end CB2 upside.
Free agent addition Cortland Finnegan missed most of last season with injury. Prior to that he had been a very good if somewhat inconsistent fantasy option at corner. Leading up to 2013, Finnegan had posted at least 55 solo tackles in every season since his rookie year of 2006. Over the course of those seven years, he posted 79 or more solo stops three time with his best fantasy totals coming as a member of the Rams in 2012. That season Finnegan finished at 83-18-1 with 4 takeaways, 9 passes defended and a score, making him the fantasy game's number five corner. While it is debatable if Fnnnegan has the skill set to be the Dolphins number one corner, there is no doubt that he has the potential to be a number one for fantasy owners. That said, it is far from a sure thing that he will be. Fantasy owners tend to have a short memory. Thus Finnegan's injury shortened 2013 numbers will cause a lot of owners to overlook his potential. Pick him up in the area of a low end CB2 with the potential to finish in the top twelve.
Last year's second round pick Jamar Taylor missed most of his rookie season with injuries. Because he missed so much time early on, his learning curve was affected causing him to see limited action even when he was healthy. Taylor may prove to be a long term starter for the team but is likely to serve as the nickel corner in 2014. due to his lack of experience Taylor is basically a rookie this year in the eyes of offensive coordinators. As such the rookie corner rule could come into play if he somehow lands a starting job this summer.
SS Reshad Jones - Top shelf DB2 with low end DB1 upside, consistency is an issue
FS Louis Delmas - Minimal value at best
FS Jimmy Wilson - Injury sleeper
CB Brent Grimes - Possible CB2
CB Cortland Finnegan - Solid CB2 with low end CB1 upside
CB Jamar Taylor - Sleeper, rookie corner rule could apply
CB Will Davis - No value
New England Patriots
Over the past couple of years the Patriots have completely moved away from a 3-4 scheme. No one is more happy about that than fantasy owners, as New England gave us a pair of top five defensive linemen last season. 2012 first round pick Chandler Jones gets the most attention here. He was plugged in as a starter from day one and was on his way to solid tackle numbers and double digit sacks as a rookie before being slowed by an ankle injury around mid season. Jones showed plenty of toughness by playing through the pain but both his snap count and effectiveness was diminished over the second half of the year. In the end he totaled 24-21-5 with 3 forced fumbles and 5 passes defended. Not eye catching totals but pretty solid for a rookie defensive end. If you read last year's preseason offerings from our IDP staff, you know that I and most of the other staff were very high on Jones entering 2013. His huge season surprised even us. 40 tackles, 39 assists, 11.5 sacks, 2 takeaways, a score and 187 fantasy points made him the number three defensive lineman. Jones was more than 30 points behind J.J. Watt for the number two slot in 2013, but keep in mind that he is only 24 years old and just entering the prime of his career. At the least I expect Jones to join Watt and Robert Quinn on their elite tier and I would not be at all surprised if he challenges for both the league sack title and the number one fantasy ranking at the position.
If someone beats you to the punch on Jones, do not despair. Simply wait a few round and grab Rob Ninkovich. His sack totals are not going to be as flashy but in the long run he may actually prove to be a better value based on where he will be drafted. Ninkovich broke into the starting lineup as a 3-4 outside linebacker in 2010. Over his first two seasons as a starter the Patriots were predominantly a 3-4 defense. In each of those seasons Ninkovich exceeded the 40 tackle mark but his sack total of 10.5 was not particularly impressive. As the team shifted to the 4-3 starting in 2012, Ninkovich looked even better with his hand down as a 4-3 end. Over the past two years he has combined for 75-75-17 with his career best of 9 sacks coming in 2012. While those numbers alone are very solid, it is a knack for the big play that boosts his value. Over his four seasons as a starter Ninkovich has averaged 7.25 turnovers. He was the number four defensive lineman last season, just 5 points behind Jones. Unlike Jones however, Ninkovich is 30 years old and at the peak if his career. While I do not expect him to repeat the top five finish, I do expect him to once again finish among the top twelve and be a solid DL1.
The Patriots added veteran end Will Smith via free agency this summer. Barring an injury, he is no threat to claim a starting job but Smith is expected to have a role as the third defensive end. One thing the organization set out to do this offseason was lighten the load on Jones, who was on the field for a whopping 1281 snaps last year. The coaching staff believes that Jones will be even more productive (especially late in the season) if they can spell him more and keep him fresh. The 33 year old Smith was a great answer for their situation. Not only was he inexpensive having spent all of last season on IR, Smith has a history of solid if unspectacular production. Over the course of his ten years as a pro, Smith has averaged 6.5 sacks a season and has reached double digits twice. He has been a three down end for most of his career as well, and is a solid run defender at the point of attack. In short, Smith is the perfect backup. A veteran player who can step in and spell the starters without a big drop off in play, and a guy who can step in as a three down starter should there be a significant injury. Smith has no draft value at this point but move quickly on him if one of the starters go down.
New England opened 2013 with Tommy Kelly and Vince Wilfork as their staring tackle tandem. They ended the season with Chris Jones and Sealver Silga at those spots. Kelly played five games before going down with a knee injury while Wilfork made it through only three before tearing his Achilles. Both are expected to be ready and should return to their starting roles entering camp. When healthy both of these guys are exceptional players in NFL terms. Together they give the team a pair of 310+ pound road blocks to anchor the run defense, and a couple of bulldozers to push the pocket when opponents look to throw. If they can stay healthy, Kelly and Wilfork can also give fantasy owners a couple of pretty good interior line options. In 2012 Wilfork went 29-20-3 with a career best 7 takeaways, a career best 6 batted passes and a top three fantasy finish among interior linemen. From 2005 through 2011 Kelly was a perennial top ten tackle. Last season he was 12-10-2.5 with a fumble recovery in just five games, so there is still fuel in the tank. The problem for both New England and fantasy owners is that Kelly will turn 34 and Wilfork 33 this fall, and both are coming off season ending injuries. Making the water even muddier for fantasy owners, the Patriots covered themselves by using their first round pick on one of the best interior linemen to come out this year. Many draft experts agreed that Dominique Easley was a first round talent but expected him to drop because he is coming off an ACL injury suffered last September. He will be ready for camp and is expected to push for playing time right away. Easley could even challenge for a starting job. In a perfect world the coaching staff would like to see Easley earn a role as the third man in the interior rotation as a rookie before becoming a starter in his second season. The bottom line here is that New England's interior positions have a lot to offer owners in tackle required leagues. We just need to figure out with whom that value lies. Dynasty owners will want to tuck Easley away for safe keeping. Everyone else may want to wait and see what happens early in training camp.
DE Chandler Jones - Top five DL1 with the potential to join the elite first tier
DE Rob Ninkovich - Solid low end DL1
DE Will Smith - Injury sleeper
DE Michael Buchanan - No value
DT Vince Wilfork - Potential DT1 if healthy
DT Tommy Kelly - Potential DT1 if healthy
DT Dominique Easley - Dynasty prospect with DT1 potential
DT/NT Chris Jones - Injury sleeper at best
With Brandon Spikes out of the picture it is not hard to figure out who the Patriots will be starting at linebacker in 2014. It is a little more difficult however, to say for certain where everyone will line up. The Patriots opened 2013 with Jerod Mayo on the weak side, Spikes in the middle and Donte Hightower on the strong side. That lasted through week six when Mayo was lost to a torn pectoral muscle. After that both Hightower and Jamie Collins Sr made starts at each of the OLB positions with the coaching staff never really settling on either combination. Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that both Mayo and Hightower have been middle linebackers for much if not most of their playing careers. Mix in the tight lipped nature of Bilichick and the entire organization and we get a situation that is ripe with speculation and short on certainty.
Here is what we do know; Mayo is a fantasy stud regardless of where he lines up. He was number seven among linebackers in 2012 and was averaging nearly 13 fantasy points a game before the injury last season. His excellent versatility gives the coaching staff options, but in the end he is probably best suited for a return to the middle where he played for the first four of his six years as a pro. In fantasy terms this would be the best possible scenario. Mayo missed some time with an injury in 2011 but he reached triple digits in solo tackles both as a rookie in 2008 and again in 2010 when he posted a career high 114. Mayo will post strong tackle numbers for us and will contribute in the big play columns as well. Excluding the injury shortened 2013, he has averaged 2+ sacks and better than 4 takeaways a season since 2010.
Adding to the logic of Mayo in the middle is the fact that while Hightower has seen time there, he has not impressed as a middle backer at the pro level. With only a few exceptions, his lacking cover skills have relegated the 2012 first round pick to a two down role over his two seasons as a pro. He was initially shifted to the weak outside backer position when Mayo was lost last year, but Hightower graded out much better when he was moved to the strong side where he started nine of the final twelve games. At 6'3" and 270 pounds, Hightower is built for the responsibilities of a strong side linebacker, where he is often tasked with stuffing lead blockers and forcing runners back toward the middle of the field where pursuit can catch up. I expect that Hightower will once again secure the role os a two down thumper lining up on the strong side.
That brings us to the wildcard in the mix; last year's second round pick Jamie Collins Sr. As a rookie he was called upon to start ten games including two in the playoffs. Seven of those starts came on the weak side. Interestingly, it was not until the playoff that he was on the field in sub package situations. Coming out of college Collins was seen by many as an explosive edge rusher who would best fit as an outside linebacker in a 3-4. He recorded 10 sacks and a number of other big plays as a senior at Southern Miss but coverage was not considered to be among the strengths of his game. Many owners have targeted Collins as a late round sleeper this summer. While I cannot argue with his potential, I am less optimistic than most on this player. With the addition of veteran James Anderson, I can easily see both Hightower and Collins continuing as two down players much like Hightower and Spikes have done for the past two seasons. Anderson is a versatile veteran with plenty of starting experience at both outside positions in a 4-3. Most significantly, he is very good in coverage. We know that one of the things Bilichick does to promote chemistry is to have a role for nearly everyone. He rarely signs a veteran like Anderson simply to provide depth. Thus I believe we will see Anderson and Mayo on the field together in passing down sub packages. I also can see Anderson having good value as a three down linebacker if there is an injury to any of the three starters.
MLB/WLB Jerod Mayo - Quality LB1
SLB/MLB Dont'a Hightower - Minimal value at best
WLB/SLB Jamie Collins Sr - Risk/reward sleeper with good upside
WLB/SLB James Anderson - Injury sleeper with LB3 potential
In 2010 Patrick Chung averaged better than 12.5 points a game as the Patriots strong safety. Had he not missed a couple of contests with injury, he would have been a top twelve defensive back that year. For the next two seasons he struggled with injuries until he was finally let go by the team last offseason. Since 2010 the Patriots have been searching for a long term answer at the position. Over the past three years we have seen guys like James Ihedigbo, Steve Gregory and an aging Adrian Wilson give it a go, but no one has proven to be more than a stop gap. Chung spent 2013 with the Eagles, starting ten regular season games and again missing four with injury. He was however, able to stay healthy for the final nine contests including the playoff loss. Chung will compete with last year's third round pick Duron Harmon and possibly 2012 second round selection Tavon Wilson for the starting job opposite free safety Devin McCourty. As a rookie Wilson started four games and was on the field for 500 total snaps. In that limited action he was 28-13-0 with 4 interceptions and a pair of fumble recoveries. While there was plenty to like about his fantasy production, apparently Bill Bilichick was less than impressed with something. As a result Wilson finished the season on the bench. Harmon started three games last year and was on the field for 433 total snaps. In his limited action he was 24-7-0 with a pair of picks, but like Austin, apparently did not impress the head coach enough to continue starting. This trio will enter training camp in a wide open competition for the strong safety position. If history repeats itself, none of them will start all sixteen games while they will all see just enough playing time to spread the numbers out between then. If however, one of these guys is able to stand out and lay claim to the job, he could be a solid pickup for us. Owners who draft early should either avoid this mess all together until we get some clarity, or at best throw a last round flier on one of the three.
McCourty spent the first three years of his career as a corner for the Patriots before being moved to free safety last season. Fantasy owners wish they would move him back. He posted at least 63 solo stops in each of his years as a corner, adding 14 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles and a sack while averaging 14 passes defended. In his first year at safety McCourty was totally useless to us at 48-21-0 with 4 takeaways (only 1 pick) and 8 passes defended. He played the position well but the free safety in New England simply does not have a great deal of opportunity. McCourty often lined up 15+ yards off the ball and was generally tasked with being the safety net. It has been a long time since a New England free safety has given up useful numbers. There is no reason to believe that trend will change now.
In years prior to last we saw some rather strong numbers from the Patriots corner positions. In 2013 however, Kyle Arrington's 48 led the way. After both he and McCourty posted 60+ solo stops in three consecutive seasons, it is hard to put a finger on what caused the drop in production at the position. It is possible that the team changed their cover schemes with the move to the 4-3, but that would generally mean a jump in numbers for the safeties. Since We did not see that happen, the only answer is either a change in stats crew procedures, or a simple fluke. Either way the addition of Darrelle Revis is likely going to give someone an increase in opportunity. Revis is one of the league's true shutdown corners and a player that most offenses will try to avoid. Many fantasy owners will draft Revis on name recognition, not realizing that his opportunity will be limited by his reputation. Meanwhile the smart fantasy owner will be watching closely to see who wins the starting job on the other side. With Brandon Browner suspended for the first four games, that competition will be between Arrington and second year man Alfonso Dennard. It is anyone's guess who will come away with that job but I will say that the Patriots have been trying to replace Arrington for the past couple of years and he simply will not go away. This is another situation that we will need to take a wait and see approach on. If forced to make a bet at this early stage, my money would be on Arrington to possibly be a decent CB2.
FS Devin McCourty - Minimal value at best
SS Duron Harmon - Sleeper with good upside
SS Patrick Chung - Could be as much as a DB2 but is just as likely to be a DB4
FS Tavon Wilson - Sleeper with good upside
CB Darrelle Revis - Minimal value at best
CB Kyle Arrington - Possible CB2 if things fall right
CB Brandon Browner - Suspension clouds his value
CB Alfonso Dennard - Minimal value at best
New York Jets
Before we get into players values with the Jets, it is important to take a look at the scheme as it could provide an interesting fantasy opportunity. New York is still running a 3-4 of sorts, but it is not your typical alignment. It was hard to figure out at first, but then I realized they seem to be using the same approach that my high school team used back in the early 80s. They are basically running a 4-3 on one half of the field and a 3-4 on the other. Nose tackle Damon Harrison will line up in one of the center/guard gaps, much as a nose tackle would do in either scheme. The side that he is on will show a 4-3 look with Muhammad Wilkerson lining up wider than a typical 3-4 end. He will often line up over or on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle as a 4-3 end would typically do. One of the outside linebackers will be in the same area, creating and overload and putting a lot of pressure on the blocking scheme by giving the Jets two of their best pass rushers coming off the edge. On the other half of the field, Sheldon Richardson will align somewhere between head up on the guard and head up in the offensive tackle, most often in the gap between the two. On that half of the field the outside linebacker sets up out wide. The inside linebackers will usually shift a little to the 3-4 side so that all the gaps are accounted for. This could come into play for fantasy owners because the Jets are calling Richardson a defensive tackle. They are still using three linemen but only Wilkerson is designated an end. Harrison is designated as a nose tackle and Richardson a defensive tackle. It is unclear what the major league hosting companies are going to do with this situation. Most of them currently call Richardson an end, but that could change when the NFL posts their "official" depth charts later this summer. As a rookie last season Richardson totaled 41-36-3 with a forced fumble. His 138 fantasy points ranked twenty fourth among all defensive linemen, making him a borderline second starter. As a defensive tackle he would have landed at number four. Richardson was the thirteenth overall pick last year for good reason. He is an athletic and powerful big man, who at age 23, has not yet peaked physically. Regardless of his positional designation, I expect even better numbers from him in 2014, especially in the big play columns. If he is a defensive end, slot Richardson as a low end DL2. As a tackle he belongs in the same conversation as Geno Atkins, Gerald McCoy and Ndamukong Suh.
While Richardson's value could get a big boost from his positional designation, Wilkerson's production gets a boost due to how he is used on the field. When two quality pass rushers come from the same area, it is difficult for the blocking scheme to double team both of them. Being out wide also puts Wilkerson in position to be a force versus the run. He will still see a good share of double teams, but more of those will have the tight end as the second blocker as the guard will be helping the center root out Harrison. Wilkerson's numbers have steadily increased each year since he was drafted in 2011. I am not sure that we can expect much more from him than the 43-21-10.5 he posted last year, but neither is there much to suggest a big drop off. He was the number seven defensive lineman in 2014. I will not target Wilkerson quite that high, but do consider him a solid low end DL1 or an excellent DL2.
Even the Jets nose tackle was productive for us in 2013. While Harrison was not flashy and made little splash in the big play columns, his 36 tackles, 30 assists and 110 fantasy points were enough for a top ten finish among interior linemen. Harrison is a 350+ pound road block versus the run. He will not impress anyone with quickness or agility but he is one tough hombre to move out of the way. Harrison's solid tackle numbers (for a defensive tackle) come from his ability to stand up and shed blockers inside the tackle box. He is not much of a presence as a pass rusher so there is no reason to expect a big jump in sacks or takeaways, but Harrison could be even more productive in the tackle columns in his second season.
One thing that all three of these players benefit from, is the generosity of the Jets stats crew when it comes to awarding assists. Only three teams totaled more than the 370 assists awarded to Jets players last season.
DE Muhammad Wilkerson - Low end DL1 or priority DL2
DE/DT Sheldon Richardson - Low end DL2 or excellent depth, top shelf DT1 if you can play him there
DE Leger Douzable - No value
DE/DT Kendrick Ellis - No value
NT Damon Harrison - Priority DT2 with top ten potential
The Jets inside linebackers present one of the most puzzling statistical anomalies in the fantasy game. Both David Harris and Demorio Davis are quality inside linebacker by NFL standards. Both players are strong run defenders who are good in coverage, and both hold three down roles. The Jets defense was on the field for 1007 snaps last season which was not an unusually low number. Neither was the combination of 421 rushing attempts and 345 completed passes for a total of roughly 766 (minus scoring plays) tackle opportunities. While it is no surprise that Harris led the team in tackles and Davis was tied for second, it is hard to explain the perennially low totals that have come from these two positions.
Harris had a huge rookie season in 2007, finishing at 90-37-5 despite having a part time role early in the year. Since that time he has exceeded 80 solo stops just once (2009), and he has averaged only 71-37-3 over the past four seasons. Harris has consistently contributed 2-3 sacks as season with a career best of 5.5 in 2009. He had a career best 4 interceptions in 2011, which gives him a career total of 6. One thing Harris has been is consistent. Unfortunately he has been consistently average in all the important statistical categories. In 2013 he finished at 70-52-2 with a forced fumble and a single pass defended. I am not sure how a three down LB has just 1 pass defended in over 1000 snaps. His 155 fantasy points landed Harris at number thirty eight among linebackers. In 2012 he was only slightly better coming in at around number thirty. The one thing we can say about Harris is that we know what we are going to get from him. He is going to be a marginal LB3 or quality depth with little upside.
Davis took over next to Harris after Bart Scott was jettisoned by the team. Regardless of who has lined up there, the results have been the same. Similar struggles as those of Harris, with even lower total production. Scheme, stats crew, alien intervention? I have been trying to figure this one out for years. The only answer I have at this point is to look somewhere else.
The Jets outside linebacker positions do not offer much more than the inside spots. Twelve year veteran Calvin Pace was able to feed off of Mohammad Wilkerson's success to post a career best 10 sacks in 2013, but his 37 solo stops and 18 assists left him well short of fantasy considerations for all but those in big play based leagues. Pace had a career best of 79 solo stops in 2007, but has not exceeded 53 in any of the past four years.
2012 first round pick Quinton Coples starts at the other outside position. As a rookie he totaled just 21-9-5 with 61 fantasy points. It is not uncommon for first year players to struggle at the outside linebacker positions in 3-4 schemes. Entering his second season the expectations were greater. He responded with 24-15-5 and 68 fantasy points in his fourteen games. The organization is looking for a breakout year from their young star. Fantasy owners should be less optimistic until he gives us reason to think otherwise.
ILB David Harris - Middle of the roal LB3 with little upside
ILB Demario Davis - Depth in large leagues at best
ILB Nick Bellore - No value
OLB Calvn Pace - Possible LB3 in big play based scoring
OLB Quinton Coples - Depth with some upside in big play based scoring
OLB Garrett McIntyre - No value
OLB Antwan Barnes - No value
Jets fans have been accustomed to seeing excellent play from their corner positions over the past few years. Darrelle Revis and now Antonio Cromartie are long gone, passing the responsibility of upholding the tradition to last year's first round pick Dee Milliner. As a rookie Milliner got off to a slow start, missing four of the first six games with injury and doing very little in the other two. What we saw from him after that gives both Jets fans and fantasy owners some hope. Over the final ten games Milliner averaged 4.5 solo tackles with 3 interceptions, 15 passes defended and a little over 10 fantasy points a game. In weeks sixteen and seventeen he was huge, posting nearly 55 of his 119 points between those two games. What we have seen is a small sampling so the jury is still out on him, but Milliner has earned at least some consideration from owners in corner required leagues. Target him as your third corner and hope he picks up where he left off.
Veteran free agent addition Dimitri Patterson and third year man Darrin Walls will compete for the starting job opposite Milliner, with Kyle Wilson expected to continue in his nickel corner role. Patterson has been a backup for most of his seven years as a pro, but does have some experience as a starter. Due to injuries, he only played in six games for the Dolphins last season. Patterson made the best of his playing time however, totaling 18-1-1 with 4 interceptions. If he can stay healthy, he will be the favorite for the starting job and an interesting fantasy sleeper. Pass on him in the draft, but if he starts fast in September do not hesitate to make a move.
Walls played little over his first two seasons with the Jets and got on the field sparingly last season. Special teams helped him to make the roster as an undrafted free agent in 2011. The coaching staff is happy with his development thus far but it will be interesting to see just how comfortable they are with him. If Walls can land a starting job, he could be targeted as a potential weakness by offensive coordinators. A rookie corner situation could be the result. Barring an injury to Patterson however, Walls is more likely to be the team's fourth corner.
For Jets fans looking to have a home town product on their fantasy team, Calvin Pryor is probably your best hope on the defensive side. Recent history does not paint a pretty picture even for him. Dawan Landry led the secondary in tackles and fantasy points last season at 63-37-1 with an interception, 7 passes defended and 146 total points. Pryor began working with the first team as soon as he set foot on the field and is all but certain to be one of the starters on opening day. What we do not know for sure here, is which position he will play and who will start opposite him. Pryor was a free safety at Louisville, but his skills set screams strong safety at the pro level. Mike Mayock called him "a bigger Bob Sanders" because like Sanders, Pryor is a fearless hitter in run support and an intimidator over the middle of the pass defense. He has good range, reacts quickly and is a good zone defender in coverage. Pryor's scouting report also gives us some good reasons why the Jets should not play him at free safety. He plays with too much recless abandon, lacks discipline and will bite on misdirection, sometimes looses outside contain due to taking poor angles, is not particularly good in man coverage and is not a ball hawk. When I look at the Jets defense and read Pryor's scouting report, visions of Victor Green pop up in my head. Let us just hope that Pryor can be the fantasy contributor that Green was. I am cautiously optimistic that Pryor will be at least a solid CB3 for us in 2014. He certainly has the potential to be much more in the long run.
Landry has been spending a lot of time with the second team during offseason activities. Rex Ryan keeps telling us not to read anything into that, but it is hard not too. It will be either Landry or Antonio Allen in the lineup come week one. In 2013 Landry started seven games at strong safety where his skill set is best suited, and nine at free safety. He has seen a good deal of action at both positions over the course of his eight year career so it would be no surprise to see him get the call at either. Landry is a proven, dependable veteran presence who would bring some much needed leadership to the secondary. What he does not bring is big play ability or upside. He has not grabbed more than 2 interceptions in a season since 2009 and has averaged just over 2 takeaways over his eight years as a pro. As a starter for the Jaguars Landry could be counted on for 70+ tackles a year and was a solid DB3 prospect. Until we see something from him as a Jet however, his tackle history before last season means little.
Allen was the Jets seventh round pick in 2012. He saw little action as a rookie before earning a bigger role last season. In all Allen made nine starts for the Jets in 2013. Eight of those starts came a strong safety though he did see a good deal of action at free safety along the way as well. Reports out of New York tell us that Allen was working with Pryor on the first team during much of the offseason, but those reports fail to say who was lining up where. Because this group is so young, I have to believe it will be Landry at free safety when we get to week one. Regardless of who earns the starting nod opposite Pryor, fantasy owners will want to wait and see if that player has any value before adding them to a roster.
FS Dawan Landry - DB3 at best
SS Calvin Pryor - DB3 target with big long term potential
FS Antonio Allen - Sleeper with DB3 upside
CB Dimitri Patterson - Sleeper with CB2 potential
CB Dee Milliner - Sleeper with low end CB1 upside
CB Kyle Wilson - No value
CB Darrin Walls - No value
That does it for the AFC East. Next up the NFC East.