For reference, when I mention where players finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system. This is the standard stuff;
Tackles = 1.5
Assists = .75
Sacks = 4
Forced fumbles = 3
Fumble recoveries = 3
Interceptions = 4
passes defended = 1.5
Touchdowns = 6
Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league. From time to time I will reference the "rookie corner rule". For those who are new to IDP or the EOTG, the rookie corner rule is basically the fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie at corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses, thus these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. Most often these guys are the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon) and their numbers will begin to drop sharply after their rookie seasons. When I mention tackle numbers, I do not lump assists and solo tackles together. Unless I make a reference one way or the other, I am talking about solo tackles. When I talk about a total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries and fumbles forced since all of these score very similarly in most scoring systems.
With Aubrayo Franklin gone, the Colts will enter training camp looking for a starting nose tackle. Second year man Josh Chapman and veteran Ricky Jean-Francois would seem to be the top candidates. At 341 pounds, Chapman is a big powerful road block that is tough to move at the point of attack. He is not particularly nimble or athletic. Chapman saw limited action as a rookie, recording 9 tackles and 6 assists. If he can land the starting job, Chapman could provide fairly strong tackle numbers, but he will likely be on the sideline in passing situations. Jean-Francois played mostly at end for the Colts last year but has also seen plenty of action as a 3-4 nose tackle over his four year career. At about 300 pounds, he gives up a little girth but brings more quickness and mobility to the field. Jean-Francois missed six games with injury last seasons and finished at 13-6-2.5. Considering that the nose tackle position as a whole was credited with only 30 tackles in 2013, we need to let one of these guys show us something before giving either of them any consideration.
Cory Redding and free agent addition Arthur Jones have been penciled in as the starting ends for the Colts. Redding led the Colts defensive line in both tackles and sacks in 2013 despite finishing with a modest 23-14-4.5. Jones posted a similar 27-25-4 with the Ravens last season. Both players are a good fit as 3-4 ends. They are each 315+ pounds with the ability to stand up at the point of attack and enough athleticism/quickness to make a contribution to the pass rush. While there is some limited fantasy potential to be found here, keep in mind that no Colts lineman has totaled more than 23 tackles or 4.5 sacks in the two seasons that Indianapolis has used a 3-4 scheme. Unless they show us something different during the preseason, consider Redding and Jones no more than DL3 options in very deep (14-16 team) leagues.
From Mike Peterson to Gary Brackett and now Jerrell Freeman, it seems that the Colts have always provided fantasy owners with an underrated but solid option at linebacker. Freeman is a bit undersized at 6'0" and 232 pounds, but has proven to be an excellent fit as the weak inside linebacker in the Colts 3-4. He took over the starting job in 2012 and quietly finished with 90 solo stops, 55 assists and a handful of big plays. Freeman's tackle numbers actually dropped a bit last season, but he more than made up for it with an explosion in the big play columns. A final mark of 83-43-5.5 with 10 takeaways and 7 passes defended were enough to elevate Freeman into the top ten at the position. His 6 forced fumbles will be hard to repeat but the nature of the scheme will continue to provide big play opportunity. Based on last year's production alone, Freeman would be a candidate to be drafted as a low end LB1. The addition of former Cleveland starter D'Qwell Jackson however, could take a bite out of Freeman's opportunity. In 2013 Freeman was the Colts leading tackler. The next two players on the list were safeties Antoine Bethea and LaRon Landry, while Kavell Conner, Kelvin Shepherd and a banged up Pat Angerer combined to post 77 solo stops from the other ILB position. With Jackson in the mix, Freeman will have a lot more competition for both tackles and big plays. I will be targeting Freeman as a solid LB2 prospect in the area of number fifteen to twenty off the board.
The Jackson addition was a good move for the Colts in that it gives them another three down playmaker at the inside linebacker position. The only question I have is; who will line up at strong ILB? Jackson is a little bigger which probably makes him the lead candidate for that role, but history tells us that his skill set is better suited for the weak ILB spot. After piling up 115 solo stops for the Browns in 2011, Jackson has averaged only 69-59-2.5 over the past two seasons. His big play production slipped in 2013 as well. Maybe Jackson just needed a change of scenery to kick start his box score production. I like his chances of rebounding in 2013 but will not be targeting Jackson as more than a priority LB3 with a little upside. We know he has the potential for big numbers but at a soon to be age of 31, I need him to show the world that he still has the fire and fuel in the tank.
Robert Mathis is one of the few veteran 4-3 ends to not only successfully make the transition to a stand up role in a 3-4, but flourish at the new position. He blew up for a career best 18.5 sacks in 2013, adding 7 forced fumbles as well. History tells us rather clearly that players rarely repeat such a performance, but even at age 33 it is a safe bet that Mathis will come close. As is generally the case with 3-4 outside backers, a lack of tackle opportunity/production kept Mathis just out of the top twenty five in balanced or tackle heavy leagues last season. On the other hand, he was a top five linebacker in most big play based leagues. The commissioner has awarded Mathis a four game vacation to start the 2014 season. Once he returns, figure him for around 35 tackles, 12 assists, 12 sacks and a handful of forced fumbles. See where that fits in your scoring and rank Mathis accordingly.
It generally takes a year for rookie outside backers to get comfortable with the responsibilities of a 3-4 scheme. Thus it was not a big surprise that last year's first round pick Bjoern Werner was quiet in his inaugural campaign. Much more will be expected from him in his second season. With Mathis suspended, Werner will join Eric Walden as the starting tandem for the first four games. This will give the coaching staff plenty of time to see who earns the opportunity to start opposite Mathis for the remainder of the season. The organization already knows that what they have in Walden is no more than a seat warmer. They are counting on Werner to step up to make the decision an easy one. If he is able to do so, look for about 45 tackles and double digit sacks from the youngster.
One young developmental prospect to keep an eye on here is sixth round pick Andrew Jackson. At 6'1" and 254 pounds, he is a down hill thumper with the right skill set to be a strong inside linebacker in a 3-4. Jackson had some off field issues at Western Kentucky that hurt his draft status, but recorded 217 combined tackles with 3 sacks, 4 forced fumbles and a handful of passes defended over his final 21 starts in college. He is a nice taxi squad candidate for owners in deep drafted dynasty leagues.
ILB Jerrell Freeman - Quality LB2 with low end LB1 upside
ILB D'Qwell Jackson - Solid LB3 target with low end LB2 potential
ILB Kelvin Sheppard - No value
ILB Andrew Jackson - Dynasty sleeper
OLB Robert Mathis - Solid starter after week four, in big play based leagues
OLB Bjoern Werner - Sleeper with long term upside in big play leagues
OLB Erik Walden - Minimal value at best
On paper the Colts should be pretty solid in the front seven. It is at the safety positions that Indianapolis has the most work to do. If he can remain healthy, LaRon Landry can be a force at one of those spots. Landry is a 226 pound intimidator who is excellent in run support and no slouch in coverage. The best fantasy production of his career came in 2012 when he was 75-25-0 with 6 takeaways, 8 passes defended and a score while playing for the Jets. Landry racked up 16 tackles and 10 assists in his first two games with the Colts last season, then missed four games with an injury. He was uncharacteristically quiet in the big play department all last season, but still managed to finish with 62 tackles and 25 assists. Average in those four games and he was on pace for roughly 83 solo stops, 33 assists. The problem with Landry over the past few years has been a nagging Achilles injury. It was the reason Washington let him walk after the 2011 season and may still be giving him problems. Landry has already missed time this summer with what has been called a "lower body injury". He could be a quality option both for the Colts and fantasy owners, but the injury situation makes it tough for either to put a great deal of faith in him.
Unfortunately for Indianapolis, they have no other option than to count heavily on Landy. Long time stalwart Antoine Bethea signed with San Francisco via free agency and Corey Lynch was recently released after suffering a season ending injury during OTAs. That leaves journeymen Sergio Brown, Colt Anderson and Mike Adams as the top three prospects for the other spot. Neither Brown nor Anderson have any starting experience and Adams has just enough for us to know that he is neither an NFL quality starter nor a fantasy prospect. I expect the Colts to be watching the waiver wire closely for the first decent safety to be cut.
In NFL terms the trio of Vontae Davis, Greg Toler and Darius Butler give the Colts a serviceable lineup at corner. In fantasy terms, not so much. Davis put up 49 tackles and 4 picks as a rookie in 2009, and has totaled no more than 46 and 4 in any season since. Last year he could only muster 41 solo stops and a single takeaway. Toler had a big season in 2010 with the Rams. That year he was 82-8-1 with 6 takeaways and a score. His two injury shortened seasons since have produced a total of 43-7-0 with 3 takeaways. Even when healthy he is little more than a decent number two corner in NFL terms and his fantasy value is sketchy at best. He will go undrafted even in most leagues that break out the DB positions, so we can afford to take a wait and see approach. Butler is very similar in that he is a solid second or quality nickel coverman on the field, but has questionable at best fantasy potential. He has shown some big game flashes at times but has never put up more than 44 tackles in any of his five seasons as a pro.
SS LaRon Landry - Target as a high risk, high reward DB3
FS Sergio Brown - No value
S Mike Adams - Minimal value at best
S Colt Anderson - No value until proven otherwise
CB Vontae Davis - Depth at best in leagues that start two corners
CB Greg Toler - Deep sleeper to keep an eye on
CB Darius Butler - No value
CB Josh Gordon - No value
The Titans plan to use a lot of 3-4 looks this season and may be using the 3-4 as their base defense. That means a lot of different responsibilities for the guys up front. Jurrell Casey is the main player of interest here. Initially it was thought that he would be the nose tackle in three man fronts, but recently it was reported that he is looking to improve his quickness so he can play outside. An official move to end could mean a bump in box score totals for Casey but it may actually hurt his value for many owners. As an interior lineman in a 4-3 Casey has put up at least 34 tackles and 2.5 sacks in each of his three seasons as a pro. Those numbers solidified him as a solid DT1. In 2013 he blew up for 37-16-9.5 with a couple of takeaways and a top three finish among interior linemen. Casey has all the tools to be the next Calais Campbell as a 3-4 end. He is strong at the point of attack, is one of the quickest and most athletic big men in the league, and has a motor that never stops. The dilemma here is that while last year's numbers made Casey a stud as a defensive tackle, they would have landed him outside the top twelve as a defensive end. There is always risk with such a big change but Casey is certainly capable of pushing the 40 solo tackle mark with 8-10 sacks.
The other guy I will be watching here is Karl Klug. At 275 pounds he was a bit undersized as a 4-3 tackle but may find that the 3-4 end spot is a much better fit for his skill set. As a rookie in 2011 Klug had 7 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 4 batted passes in a part time role. Even with a reduced role over the past two seasons, he managed 5.5 sacks with a pair of forced fumbles and a recovery. If he can earn a significant role in the new scheme, Klug could be a pleasant surprise; especially if he continues to be designated as an interior lineman.
There are several other veteran players competing to playing time in Tennessee. Popati Pitoitua and 2011 third round pick Mike Martin will be in the mix for playing time at end. Martin could also get some looks at nose tackle where Sammy Lee Hill is the early favorite to start.
DE Ropati Pitoitua - No value
DT/DE Jurrell Casey - Quality DT1 or top 15 as a DE
DE/DT Karl Klug - Interesting sleeper prospect to keep an eye on
NT/DT Sammie Lee Hill - Minimal value at best
DE/DT Mike Martin - minimal value
Anytime a team switches between a 4-3 and a 3-4 scheme it takes a while for players to get comfortable and for organizations to populate their roster with players that fit. While the Titans would seem to have plenty of guys who fit up front, they still have some things to figure out at the second level. The free agent addition of Shaun Phillips gives them an outside linebacker with plenty of 3-4 experience. Phillips worked as a 4-3 end in Denver last year after spending his first nine seasons in the Chargers 3-4. with 78 career sacks, he is a proven commodity. At age 33 however, Phillips is not a long term answer for Tennessee. Fantasy owners in big play leagues can count on him to be a contributor in the area of 45 tackles and 7-9 sacks in 2014. He may not be in Tennessee beyond that.
After Phillips the Titans have a trio of players trying to make the move to an unfamiliar position. Former defensive end Kamerion Wimbley was with the Browns when they made the switch in 2009. He did not fare particularly well in that situation and moved on to the Raiders in 2010. Former end Derrick Morgan came to the Tennessee as their first round pick in 2010. Injuries slowed his development early on and while he has 13.5 sacks over the past two years, he has not exactly lived up to expectations. Akeem Ayers has spent his three seasons as a pro lining up as a 4-3 strong side linebacker. With 9 career sacks (6 in 2012), he has shown the ability to get after the passer from a stand up position. Only time will tell which, if any of these guys will be successful in the new scheme. From a skill set perspective Ayers would seem to have the most potential.
There are just as many questions on the inside. Wesley Woodyard was signed away from the Broncos in free agency. After spending most of his six pro seasons on the weak side in a 4-3, Woodyard will get the first shot at the usually box score friendly weak inside position. At 6'0" and 233 pounds, he may be a bit undersized for the job but otherwise should to be a good fit. Woodyard would seem to be the only "safe" fantasy prospect of the ILB group, but he is not a lock to hold that job come September. Expectations of fantasy prognosticators are all over the place on this player. Let me point out that he has only turned in one fantasy productive season. That was in 2012 when Woodyard had 5.5 sacks, 5 takeaways and 6 passes defended, but only 73 solo tackles. He could surprise, but I am not sold that he will be either highly productive, or a long term answer for the team. There will be a ton of opportunity as the Titans work through the growing pains of the new philosophy. That said, my suggestion would be to target Woodyard as a low end LB3 or priority depth with some upside.
Veterans Colin McCarthy, Zach Brown and Zavier Gooden will be joined by fifth round pick Avery Williamson in the competition to establish a pecking order on the inside. McCarthy gave fantasy owners a lot to be excited about when he put up big numbers down the stretch in 2011. A serious ankle injury derailed his career early in 2012 and he has never been the same since. Brown has been the Titans starter on the weak side over most of the past two seasons but has not been particularly impressive in that role. Gooden was the teams third round pick in 2013 but was slowed by injuries as a rookie, causing him to miss seven games and play sparingly or not at all in the rest. Williamson's scouting report suggests that he has the potential to be a starting inside linebacker at the pro level, but points out that he will need to improve in coverage if he is going to have a three down role. Any of these players have the potential to emerge as a starter and a fantasy friendly option. Dynasty owners may want to tuck Williamson away on a taxi squad. Everyone else would be better off to avoid this whole mess until we have some clarity.
ILB Wesley Woodyard - Low end LB3 or priority LB4 with some upside
ILB Colin McCarthy - Deep sleeper with decent upside
ILB Zach Brown - Sleeper with LB3 potential
ILB Zavier Gooden - Deep sleeper at best
ILB Avery Williamson - Dynasty sleeper with good long term potential
OLB Akeem Ayers - Minimal value at best
OLB Derrick Morgan - Minimal value
OLB Shaun Phillips - Quality LB2 in big play leagues, depth at best for everyone else
OLB Kamerion Wimbley - No value
In 2013 strong safety Bernard Pollard landed in a highly productive situation with the Titans. He was able to take advantage of it with 78 solo tackles, 22 assists, 3 takeaways, 1.5 sacks and 10 passes defended. Those numbers added up to better than ten fantasy points a week on average and a top fifteen overall finish in most leagues. With no sure studs at the second level of the defense, Pollard could have an even better season in 2014. At 6'1" and 226 pounds he is basically a linebacker disguised as a safety to begin with. The 3-4 scheme could also work to his benefit when it comes to box score production. It is not a coincidence that three of the top six fantasy defensive backs in 2013 were strong safeties on 3-4 teams. Even if he falls short of the top ten in total points, there is something to be said for Pollard's consistency. He has posted at least 71 solo stops in seven of his eight seasons as a starter in the league, has recorded at least a sack and a half in five consecutive seasons, and has 3 or more takeaways in six of the last seven seasons. Pollard has top five potential and is as close to a sure thing as it gets in this game. Target him as a low end DB1 or a high priority DB2 if he lasts that long.
Michael Griffin had a career year in 2010 when the Titans were a complete disaster. That season he exceeded 85 tackles and was the number two safety in the fantasy game. Unfortunately he has posted no more than 61 tackles in any of his other six seasons as a pro, and has finished higher than 27th among safeties only one other time. His big play contribution is usually enough to boost Griffin's total points to a level of usefulness and a backup in deep drafted leagues.
In the three years prior to last the Titans corner back positions had been a goldmine of fantasy value. During that span Cortland Finnegan, Jason McCourty (twice) and Alrerraun Verner had all finished among the top five corners, and twice Tennessee had two guys in the top twelve at the position in the same season. That all came to a crashing halt in 2013 when Jason McCourty was the highest ranking Tennessee corner at number twenty eight. In his first two seasons as a starter McCourty had averaged 79 tackles, 14 passes defended and 5 takeaways. Last season his production tumbled to 54 tackles, 10 pass breakups and 2 takeaways with no interceptions. Verner started opposite McCourty in 2013 and saw his production take a similar plunge from the previous year. The predicament we are in here, is trying to determine if last year's slump was a fluke or simply the beginning of a new trend? Unfortunately there is no way to know the answer until the teams take the field in September. I am not yet ready to write McCourty off just yet, but neither do I feel that he can be trusted as a lead man at the corner position. I will be looking to pick him up late as a priority CB3 with a lot of upside. One thing we do know for sure is that the scheme change is not going to have much of an impact on this position. Five of last year's top twelve fantasy corners, including DeAngelo Hall at number one, were on 3-4 teams.
Verner has moved on via free agency so McCourty will be joined in the lineup by last year's third round pick Blidi Wreh Wilson. As a rookie Wilson saw little action before week ten when he was promoted to nickel corner. He is a tall, fast coverman with good ball skills and is big enough to be a factor in run support. All things considered however, we are better off to let him show us something before we give any thought to rostering Wilson.
SS Bernard Pollard - Quality DB1 with top 5 potential
FS Michael Griffin - Bye week depth in 12 team leagues that start 3
S George Wilson - Injury sleeper
CB Jason McCourty - Target as a CB3 with big upside
CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson - Sleeper with CB2 upside
CB Tommie Campbell - Nickel corner with no value
Over the past two seasons Houston defensive end J.J. Watt has emerged as not only an elite fantasy option but possibly the most disruptive 3-4 lineman ever to play the game. Heading into last season I cautioned not to expect a repeat of his 68 tackle, 20.5 sack, 16 batted pass 2012 season. Most of Watt's totals slipped a bit as anticipated but his 65 tackles were still 9 more than any other lineman while he once again reached double digits in sacks, batted down a lot of passes and accounted for 6 turnovers. With the emergence of Robert Quinn in St. Louis, Watt is no longer on a tier of his own. In fact, Quinn was the top point scorer at the position in 2013. These two however, outscored the number three guy (Chandler Jones) by nearly thirty points. Watt may not be the clear cut number one IDP going into this draft season, but he clearly belongs in the top five.
Other than Watt the Texans front line has little to offer in fantasy terms. Antonio Smith has moved on and will be replaced by either third year man Jared Crick or fourth year pro Tim Jamison. Neither player has much of a resume to date. Crick has recorded 24 solo tackles, 18 assists and 5 passes defended over his two seasons, while Jamison has amassed all of 16-6-3 with a couple of takeaways and 3 passes defended. Offenses will have their hands full with Watt and the Texans outside linebacker duo, so whoever comes away with this job could have a little value for us.
At nose tackle there will be a competition between former Chiefs backup Jerrell Powe and rookie third round pick Louis Nix. Both are powerful big men who will do a good job of anchoring the run defense, but neither of them have much to offer as pass rushers. Nix is the early favorite to win the job. He has the potential for 30-35 tackles and could possibly be a decent DT2.
DE J.J. Watt - One of the top two linemen in the fantasy game
DE Jared Crick - Deep sleeper with limited upside at best
DE Tim Jamison - Deep sleeper with limited upside
NT Louis Nix - Possible DT2
NT Jerrell Powe - No value
It is the linebackers and particularly the outside linebackers, that ultimately determine the success of any 3-4 defense. If those outside guys struggle to provide pressure on the passer or consistently let the running back get outside them, it is difficult for the rest of the unit to overcome. Over the past couple of years the Texans outside backers have played well versus the run, but have been lacking in the pass rush. In 2012 and 2013 starters Whitney Mercilus and Brooks Reed combined for a pedestrian 18 total sacks while J.J. Watt had 31 over that span from the defensive end position. The organization addressed the problem by using the number one overall pick on Jadaveon Clowney. I could throw all the numbers from his college career out there to show how good this player can be, but instead I will simply point out that on draft day Mike Mayock called Clowney "the most talented defensive lineman on the planet". He may not be the most talented outside linebacker on the planet, but he certainly has the skill set to become one of the best in the game. The Texans will help him out even more by lining Clowney up on the same side as Watt. It is rare for first year players to excel at the OLB positions in 3-4 schemes. Just look at Jarvis Jones and Barkavious Mingo from last year. However, the Texans are a little different situation and Clowney is a different breed. In fantasy terms we can expect him to suffer the same struggles as other 3-4 OLBs when it comes to tackle numbers, but it will be no surprise to see Clowney hit double digits in sacks as a rookie. It may not happen as a rookie but he should soon emerge as one of the top defensive options in big play based leagues.
Although he will lineup on the opposite end of the defense, Mercilus should also bennefit considerably from the addition of Clowney. Offenses will undoubtedly have to game plan to slow down the combination of Clowney and Watt, so Mercilus will see a lot more one on one pass blocking. He could also see a boost in tackle opportunity as offenses may elect to run away from the big two as well. Merculis had just 33 solo tackles a year ago so I am not going to predict big tackle numbers for him. That said, it will come as no surprise if he puts up 45-50 tackles and double digit sacks for the first time in his young career.
The Clowney addition will do more for the Texans defense than just adding punch to their pass rush. It will allow the coaching staff to finally shift Reed inside as they have wanted to do since early last year. The 2011 second round pick did an adequate job during his three years on the outside but was only able to produce 11.5 sacks over that span. At 6'3" and 254 pounds, Reed is a strong run defender with the ability to take on and shed blockers without giving ground. He should be an excellent fit as a physical strong inside backer and could post surprisingly solid numbers from that position. It would be no surprise to see Brooks exceed the 80 solo tackles mark adding 3 or 4 sacks and a handful of other big plays. he could be even better if Brian chushing continues to struggle with injuries. Reed is flying well under the radar thus far and could be a steal as a late round LB4 target.
Cushing is the wildcard here. Not so much because his potential is unknown, but because his ability to stay healthy is such a question mark. Through six games last season he was on pace to go 88-30-5.5 with about 5 takeaways. A broken fibula and torn LCL ended his season in week seven. Cushing made it through only four full games in 2012 before being lost to a knee injury. He has also battled ankle and concussion injuries during the past two years. In all he has started only 56 of the Texans 80 regular season games since he was drafted in 2009. If he can stay healthy Cushing will likely finish 2014 as a high end LB2. The risk factor however, will force me to let someone else take the chance on him as their number two. I will shy away until around the middle of the LB3 tier at the soonest.
ILB Brian Cushing - LB2 with considerable injury risk
ILB Brooks Reed - Sleeper with LB3 or possibly low end LB2 potential
ILB Jeff Tarpinian - Injury sleeper at best
ILB Akeen Dent - Injury sleeper with limited upside
OLB Whitney Mercilus - Second starter in big play based leagues
OLB Jadaveon Clowney - Early target in big play based dynasty leagues
OLB Trevardo Williams - No immediate value
Over the course of their brief history the Texans secondary has given fantasy owners little to be excited about. In 2013 no Houston defensive back recorded more than 54 solo tackles and only corner Jonathan Joseph recorded more than a single interception. If we sift through the dismal numbers however, there may be some late round gold to be mined here. It was last year's second round pick D.J. Swearinger Sr who led the secondary with those 54 tackles. What most fantasy owners will not remember is that he did so despite playing in a part time role for a good portion of the season. Once swearinger settled in as the full time strong safety, his production was rather solid. Over the final five games of the season he averaged a little better than 5 solos, 2 assists and 10 fantasy points a game adding 4 passes defended and a couple of takeaways. He is a versatile player with good size, speed and cover skills. Swearinger spent time at both safety positions and even saw some action as a corner during his college career at South Carolina. It was initially thought that he would be the Texans long term answer at free safety. It now appears that the team plans to have free agent additions Chris Clemons and Kendrick Lewis compete for the free safety spot. Slip Swearinger onto your sleeper list and target him in the later rounds as a DB3 or priority depth. He could end up as an every week starter for us.
There is no reason to expect any consistent value from the free safety position regardless of who wins the job. Both Clemons and Lewis were starters with their former teams but neither has ever amounted to much in fantasy terms. Clemons had some good games over his last two seasons in Miami but struggled with consistency and a lack of big play production. As a three year starter with the Chiefs, Lewis never totaled more than 48 tackles and he had all of 1 takeaway over the past two seasons.
In Jonathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson the Texans have a talented veteran corner tandem that is among the best in the league at sticking with receivers. The coaching staff however, would like to get more big play production from them and from Jackson in particular. The 2010 first round pick has 7 career picks including 4 in 2012, but his lone big play contribution last season was a fumble recovery. He has exceeded 50 solo tackles twice in his career, including 51 in fourteen games last year. If he can put together a 50+ tackle year and add a handful of big plays, he could emerge as a solid CB3.
Joseph may have a little value as a marginal second corner or a quality CB3. His best numbers came with the Bengals in 2009 when he was 59-11 with 6 picks, a forced fumble, 20 passes defended and a score. Joseph generally finishes with tackle totals in the upped 40s range, about 15 passes defended and 3 or 4 takeaways. He has also recorded a defensive score in 5 of the last seven seasons. There is no reason to think he will suddenly breakout for a big year, but based on his 2009 totals there is a little upside potential.
SS D.J. Swearinger Sr - Target as a late round DB3 or priority DB4 with upside
FS Chris Clemons - Minimal value
FS Kendrick Lewis - No value
CB Johnathan Joseph - Depth in corner required leagues that start two
CB Kareem Jackson - Minimal value at best
CB Elbert Mack - No value
CB Brandon Harris - No value
The Jaguars finished each of the last two season with the lowest sack totals in the league. In response they used their first four draft picks on offense and then released Jason Babin who had led the club in sacks in each of the past two seasons.. What? Okay, Jacksonville has a lot of holes to fill on both sides of the ball so they went for what they hope will be their franchise quarterback in the first, then gave him some weapons and protection. It is hard to argue with those moves considering the situation. While Babin did lead the club in sacks over the past two seasons, it is not as if his total of 14 could really be considered lighting it up. In Babin's place the Jaguars signed free agent Chris Clemons away from the Super Bowl champions. It is debatable if that move is actually an upgrade, but it did gain the team a little cap room. When trying to put a draft value on Clemons we need to keep in mind that he suffered a serious knee injury late in the 2012 season. Thus he was far from 100% last year. Over the three years prior to last, Clemons averaged 32-14-11 with a total of 9 takeaways and 13 batted passes. He should be all the way back from the injury now and has drawn a great deal of praise from the Jacksonville coaching staff for his work throughout the offseason. There are however, some things to consider before we expect a return to his pre-injury production levels. For starters Clemons will turn 33 in October. That and the fact that he is a bit undersized at 254 pounds, could mean that he will be used mostly as a third down pass rush specialist. Clemons could still reach double digit sacks in that role, but his already suspect tackle numbers would likely slip even further. We will continue looking for clarity on this situation but chances are we will not know for certain how Clemons will be used until we get a look in the preseason. If you have an early draft, you cannot go wrong by targeting Clemons as a late round DL3 prospect.
In 2013 the Jaguars used Tyson Alualu at end on early downs then had him check out in favor of Babin in passing situations. As a result Alualu led the team's linemen in tackles with 34, but recorded just 1 sack. At best he will have a similar role with similar results in 2014. At worst he could lose his base package snaps to Clemons and become the third man that comes off the bench when one of the starters needs a breather.
The Clemons situation is high on my summer watch list, but the potential emergence of Andre Branch is also something I will be looking at closely. The team's defensive coaches have been raving about the third year player and have grand expectations for him this year. With the Jaguars being so bad last year, no one seemed to notice that Branch went 16-7-5 over a six game stretch starting in week eleven. If he can pick up where he left off at the end of last season, Branch could be the first Jacksonville end to post 40 tackles and double digit sacks since in nearly a decade. He will be high on my sleeper list and is a player I will target as my second starter if I get into a pinch.
In Roy Miller, Sen'Derrick Marks and Ziggy Hood the Jaguars have a strong three man rotation on the inside. All three players are good at the point of attack but Marks is the favorite to stay on the field in passing situations. In 2013 he recorded a modest 28 tackles but added 4 sacks, 5 takeaways and 8 batted passes on the way to a top ten finish among interior linemen. The turnover total will be tough to repeat but Marks should give us enough production to be counted on as a solid low end DT1 or an excellent DT2.
After playing end in the Steelers 3-4 for the first five seasons of his career, it will be interesting to see how Hood produces as a 4-3 tackle. He is coming off his most productive season at 26-13-3 with a fumble recovery, and could also be in the mix to stay on the field in passing situations as well. Hood is a dark horse prospect as a fantasy option but there is some potential.
DE Chris Clemons - Target as a DL3 with upside
DE Andre Branch - Sneak him in as your third lineman in early drafts but do not be surprised if he becomes an every week starter
DE Tyson Alualu - No value
DT Roy Miller - No value
DT Senderrick Marks - Solid DT2 with low end DT1 upside
DT Ziggy Hood - Deep sleeper to keep an eye on
Jaguars middle linebacker Paul Posluszny has been a highly productive three down player over the course of his eight year career. With the exception 2011, he has recorded at least 87 solo tackles in every season since 2008. Three times in the last four years, Posluszny has reached triple digits in solo stop. Averaging better than 3 takeaways and just under 3 sacks a season since 2008, he is also a healthy contributor in the big play columns. Despite missing the week eleven contest, Posluszny capitalized on the Jaguars struggles in 2013 by leading the league in solo stops with 121. Adding his 4 takeaways, 3 sacks, 9 pass breakups with a touchdown, made Posluszny a top five fantasy option last season. Considering that the team used most of their resources to improve the offense this offseason, we should see similar production from him in 2014. Target Posluszny as an elite tier LB1 and do not hesitate to make him your first defensive pick if you get caught on the back end of the first defensive run.
Jacksonville may have put the emphasis on improving offensively, but they did not ignore the defense completely on draft day. In the fifth round they selected Florida State linebacker Telvin Smith Sr. Upon reading his scouting report, my initial reaction to Smith was to picture him as a linebacker trapped in the 218 pound body of a strong safety. He is undersized with a slight frame that will make it difficult to add thickness, Bench pressed 225 pounds only sixteen times at the combine and was only a one year starter for the Seminoles. Those are all the things about Smith that caused him to be available in round five. After doing a little more homework on him, I am starting to warm to his potential. Smith has outstanding instincts, excellent leadership qualities, good speed, strong cover skills and was the leading tackler on his team in 2013. If the coaching staff can fine a way to protect him, Smith could add a lot to this unit and may well emerge as a surprisingly strong fantasy option. Considering that he is giving up 45 or more pounds to most tight ends, I am still concerned with his ability to stay healthy. Even so I have moved him up on both my sleeper list and rookie draft board.
Geno Hayes will enter camp as the starter on the weak side. He is a serviceable veteran player with a good deal of starting experience, but is clearly not the long term answer for the Jaguars. At 226 pounds, Hayes is not all that much bigger than Smith and he lacks the intangibles that Smith brings to the field. If he manages to hold onto the job, Hayes could have a little value in leagues with fourteen or more teams starting three or more linebackers. That said, I will be surprised if he can hold off Smith into the regular season.
Free agent addition Dekoda Watson is the projected starter on the strong side entering camp. He too is a marginal at best NFL starter. In fact, if Smith suplants Hayes on the weak side, there could be a three way competition between Watson, Hayes and backup middle linebacker LaRoy Reynolds for the starting job on the strong side. Regardless of who lines up there, this spot provides no fantasy potential.
Jacksonville may have done relatively little to improve the defense this offseason, but last year they used their second and third round selections on John Cyprien and Dwayne Gratz respectively. Cyprien stepped in as an immediate starter at strong safety and finished second on the team with 87 solo stops in fifteen games. He is a big physical safety with a nose for the ball in run support, but is also capable as a pass defender and an enforcer over the middle in coverage. Cyprien made a respectable contribution in the big play columns with 3 forced fumbles, an interception and a sack as a rookie, finishing among the top fifteen defensive backs. The Jaguars still have a long way to go in their efforts to turn the organization around, so Cyprien will once again find himself in a target rich environment. At the worst he should be a solid low end DB1 for us in 2014 and no one should be surprised if he breaks the 90 solo mark, adds a few big plays and lands in the top five.
Josh Evans started at free safety in 2013 but did very little with the opportunity. Thus third year pro Winston Guy will enter camp as the leader at the position. Guy was the sixth round pick of the Seahawks in 2012 before joining Jacksonville last year. He saw some action down the stretch in 2013, posting 22-7-1 with a forced fumble over the final two months. He is a largely unknown commodity but it is noteworthy to mention that Guy put up double digit fantasy points in consecutive games last December. He is a big safety at 6'1" and 218 pounds, and will have plenty of opportunity to step up. If you are in a very deep league and are looking to get the jump on anyone with some potential, this might be your opportunity to land a useful contributor. For most owners however, he is just another player in a good situation that is worth keeping an eye on.
Gratz spent the early part of his rookie season on the shelf with an injury and failed to make much of an impact. He is expected to take his place as a starter this season with Alan Ball, Will Blackmon and Mike Harris competing to determine the rest of the pecking order at corner. In a different situation Gratz could be a decent corner prospect. With the Jaguars likely playing from behind early in most games, the corners are once again going to see a reduced number of opportunities on a lot of weeks. A look at last year's final numbers speaks volumes about the fantasy prospects of this group. In 2013 the Jaguars top four corners combined to produce 138 tackles and 5 interceptions between them. Ball was the most productive of the group at 41-6 with 2 picks and 14 passes defended. Simply put, look elsewhere for your needs at corner.
SS John Cyprien - Solid DB1 with top 5 potential
FS Winston Guy - Deep sleeper with DB3 potential
FS Josh Evans - No value
FS Christopher Prosinski - No value
CB Dwayne Gratz - Minimal value at best
CB Alan Ball - Minimal value at best
CB Mike Harris - No value
CB Will Blackmon - No value
Three down and five to go. Next up the NFC South.