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The Broncos have made a considerable investment in their defensive line over the past few years, and have assembled a unit that should be very good both on the field and in the box scores. Free agent prize DeMarcus Ware is coming off a down season that saw him record career low numbers across the board. Keep in mind however, that Ware battled nagging injuries all year and even missed three games around mid season. He got back on the field in week ten but was not the same player down the stretch. There is some concern that Ware's low production was due to the switch from 3-4 OLB to 4-3 end. My guess is that it had more to do with the back, thigh and elbow injuries. The fact that he recorded 4 sacks in the first three games last season tells me that he is just fine with his hand down at end. Ware had a minor surgery on the elbow after the season and is healthy entering camp. He will be 32 years old before the first preseason game but he is neither out of gas nor out of position. Ware has averaged 49.5 tackles, 13 sacks and 4.5 takeaways a season over his nine year career. The move to end could have some negative effect on tackle totals but he is still a playmaker. It does not hurt that Denver has surrounded him with a talented group of linemen as well as one of the leagues premier big play linebacker in Von Miller. I like Ware's chances of bouncing back strong with 40+ tackles and double digit sacks in 2014.
Ware is the headliner up front for the Broncos and will be high on most draft lists. Owners who miss out on him or are looking for value later in the draft, will want to be familiar with the name Malik Jackson. This 2012 fifth round pick saw little action as a rookie before landing a significant role as the third defensive end last season. Jackson held that part time role until week thirteen when he replaced an injured Derek Wolf as the starter. Over the final five games Jackson was 17-1-2, giving him a season total of 30-12-6 with a forced fumble and 4 batted passes. If we do a little math and project Jackson's final five games over a full season, we get 54 solo tackles and 8 sacks. Shaun Phillips and Robert Ayers have moved on, leaving Jackson and Wolfe to compete for the starting job opposite Ware. at 6'5" and 293 pounds, Jackson has prototypical size for a 4-3 end. He can stand up to double teams at the point of attack, pursues well down the line and can get after the passer. It is not a given that he will win the starting job but per game, he was more productive as a starter than Wolfe in 2013. At the least Jackson will continue to have a significant role and should be provide quality depth for owners in twelve team leagues that start two or more linemen. If he can land the starting job we could see solid DL2 numbers from the third year pro.
Wolfe is not going to go quietly and will continue to have a big role regardless. The 2012 second round pick had started twenty seven consecutive games for the Broncos before an illness landed him on IR in week thirteen last year. He has recovered and has been participating in team activities since May. Like Jackson, Wolfe's 6'5" and 285 pounds is prototypical size for a defensive end in this scheme. What makes Wolfe even more valuable to the Broncos is his versatility. He played both end an tackle during his college career at Cincinnati and has admitted that he is most comfortable on the inside. With 37 solo tackles and 10 sacks in his twenty seven NFL starts, Wolfe has not exactly been killing it in the box scores. He is however, a solid starting caliber NFL lineman. What we could see here is Wolfe continuing to line up at end on early downs then shifting inside in passing situations. Unless he is designated as an interior lineman however, Wolfe stands to have minimal fantasy value. What we need to know here is if he will be on the field enough to kill Jackson's potential. This is one I will be watching closely when the preseason opens.
2013 fifth round pick Quanterus Smith was considered to be a developmental prospect with a lot of raw talent as a pass rusher. Smith is a little light to be a three down starter at end, but if the coaching staff elects to move Wolfe inside on a regular basis, Smith could land a significant role as the third defensive end in 2014. I am not too excited about him at this point but will be looking to see how far he has come since an uneventful rookie campaign.
Denver's interior linemen were a complete non-factor for fantasy owners in 2013. That could change this year. Last year's starters Terrance Knighton and Kevin Vickerson are solid players in NFL terms. Knighton is a 335 pound space eater versus the run. Other than his ability to push the pocket however, he provides little in the way of a pass rush. Knighton has neither exceeded 20 solo stops nor posted more than 3 sacks in a season since 2010 and is likely to have a two down role as a run stuffer again this year. When it comes to stature, skill set and fantasy value, Vickerson is cast from the same mould as Knighton. The player that could add a little pop to the fantasy production here is 2013 first round pick Sylvester Williams. He is a bit smaller but more athletic/mobile than the veterans. As a rookie Williams saw little action until Vickerson was injured late in the season. Williams saw his first significant action as a starter over the final three regular season games. In those games he was an impressive (for a tackle) 9-3-2 with a fumble recovery and 35 fantasy points. Williams will compete for the starting job as the team's 3-technique tackle this summer. Considering that no NFL team uses a first round pick on a guy that they expect to be a part time player, there is a pretty good chance that he will win that job. Williams has enough quickness and athletic ability to stay on the field in the passing down sub packages where he would most likely be joined by Wolfe. As one of my favorite sleepers at the defensive tackle position, I expect to see 35+ tackles and 5-6 sacks out of Williams this season.
DE DeMarcus Ware - Solid low end DL1
DE/DT Derek Wolfe - Marginal value at best as a defensive end
DE Malik Jackson - Strong sleeper prospect with DL2 potential
DE Quanterus Smith - Deep/dynasty sleeper with marginal short term potential
DT Terrance Knighton - Depth in 12+ team leagues that start two tackles
DT Sylvester Williams - Sleeper with low end DT1 upside
DT Kevin Vickerson - No value
DT Mitch Unrein - No value
2011 first round pick Von Miller wasted no time establishing himself as one of the league's outstanding big play linebackers. Over his first two seasons in the league Miller racked up 30 sacks, 10 turnovers and a score. At 55-13-18.5 with 6 forced fumbles, an interception and a score, Miller was a top twenty linebacker in 2012. Those are incredible numbers for a strong side linebacker in a 4-3. Unfortunately they are also totals that Miller is unlikely to ever reproduce. Off field problems bit Miller at the beginning of last season, costing him six games. He was injured in week sixteen and missed the final regular season contest. In between Miller started nine games, totaling 27-7-5 with three takeaways. Those numbers averaged over a full schedule would be roughly 48-12-9 with 7 turnovers. Miller brings a lot to the field for the Broncos and in the right scoring system, he will do the same for fantasy owners. Barring injury he should be the top scoring 4-3 strong side linebacker in the game. With neither injury nor legal issues being a problem heading into 2014, it is a safe bet that Miller will once again put up somewhere in the area of 50+ solo stops with double digit sacks and a strong contribution in the turnover column. The big problem that I have with Miller is the same one that comes into play with 3-4 outside backers; inconsistency. Like most pass rushing outside linebackers, he has his share of big games while vanishing in others. In twenty three games over the past two years Miller has exploded for 30+ points twice, exceeded 20 in two others and has posted double digit fantasy points a total of twelve times. He has fallen short of 8 points in all of the other eleven games, totaling 3 points or fewer in seven of them. For owners in big play based leagues Miller is a solid LB1 with top five potential. For everyone else he is a risk/reward third starter with the potential to blow up and win, or vanish and lose a game in any given week.
With the emergence of Danny Trevathan at weak side linebacker, Denver seems set for a long time at both outside spots. Trevathan was a little known sixth round pick by the team in 2012, and was generally considered a project who would make most of his contributions as a backup playing special teams. He surprisingly earned a limited role as a rookie, playing well enough to gain the confidence of the coaching staff. Trevathan landed the starting job on the weak side during camp last summer then went on to prove that the decision to start him was a good one. In 2013 Trevathan showed that he can be effective in all aspects of the game. He is a physical presence versus the run, displaying both the ability to take on and shed blockers at the point of attack and the range to make plays all over the field in pursuit. He fared well as a pass defender, picking off 3 balls and recording 10 breakups. Trevathan even showed well on the blitz, recording a pair of sacks. In the end his 87-41-3 with 7 turnovers and 10 passes defended, were enough to land the young man among the top twelve linebackers. He is just 24 years old, is under contract beyond this year (through 2015 I believe) and is just entering the prime of his career. All the signs point to this young man becoming a perennial top fifteen linebacker.
While the team is rock solid on the outside, things are not so peachy at middle linebacker. Wesley Woodyard held down the fort at that position last season. He did a decent job but in reality, was little more than a decent weak side backer playing out of position. The emergence of Trevathan solidified the WLB position and made Woodyard expendable. Now that Woodyard has gone on to Tennessee the team is looking for plan C. If I had a hundred dollars for every time the Broncos have said that Nate Irving is in line for the starting job in the middle, my wife and I could spend a week in Vegas. Over the past three years the 2011 third round pick has been given plenty of opportunity to step up. Irving has actually started seven games in his three seasons as a pro. All seven of those games were last year. He has never played more than 30 snaps in an NFL game and at best, would be a two down thumper. The other veteran option for Denver is former Eagles "starter" Jamar Chaney. I use the term starter loosely here because Chaney had that opportunity as a second year player in 2011, but was not able to hold onto the job. He proved to be good in passing situation but struggled versus the run. In sixteen starts (fourteen at MLB) Chaney was 67-24-1 with 8 passes defended and 3 picks. He played little in 2012 and had a cup of coffee with the Falcons in 2013 before watching games on TV like the rest of us for most of last season. The bottom line here is that neither Irving nor Chaney are going to be a long term answer for the Broncos, and neither is going to have a nickel's worth of fantasy value this year.
There are two interesting rookie prospects that are also going to get a shot at this job. Fifth round pick Lamin Barrow and seventh round selection Corey Nelson. Barrow led LSU in tackles and was a team captain as a senior. He excels in zone coverage, is tough, smart and athletic. The knock on Barrow is that he makes too many plays down field, is not physical enough at the point of attack and lacks big play ability. There is also the point that he was a weak side linebacker throughout his career with the Tigers. Nelson's scouting report calls him an undersized speed linebacker with a good motor and a history of durability issues that include a partially torn Pectoral that ended his 2013 season after just five games. To his credit, Nelson was a three year starter at Oklahoma where he too played on the outside.
We have seen enough of Irving and Chaney to know that they are nothing special. Unless one of these rookies shocks us, there is not much to consider here. Keep an eye on Barrow and Nelson during the preseason but save that last roster spot for someone with a little more promise.
MLB Nate Irving - Minimal value at best
MLB Jamar Chaney - Minimal value at best
MLB/WLB Lamin Barrow - Deep sleeper and possible dynasty stash
OLB/MLB Corey Nelson - Deep sleeper
SLB Von Miller - Quality LB1 in big play leagues, risk/reward LB3 or depth for everyone else
WLB Danny Trevathan - Low end LB1 or priority LB2
Before I dig into the Denver defensive backs, let’s play a little IDP trivia. How many Broncos defensive backs have finished among the top twenty since the turn of the century? I will let you chew on that thought while I explain why I do not think that T.J. Ward will add to that list this year.
Ward's 2013 season was solid and landed him in the top five for the second time in his four year career. Those who argue that he is a very good player will get no rebuttal from me on that point. Lets dissect his career a little further though. As a rookie Ward started all sixteen games at strong safety, posting a monster 95-28 in the tackles columns. His 10 passes defended were a plus and had he managed more than 3 takeaways he might have been #1 in 2010. His stock was sky high and he was the top DB of the board in many leagues in 2011. No one paid much attention to the fact that he had been moved to free safety in his second year. Ward missed half of that season with an injury. In the eight games that he did play, he was on pace to go 56-22-2 with 2 takeaways and 6 passes defended. Huh? You read that right. He remained at free safety in 2012 when in fourteen games he totaled 50-18-1 with 4 takeaways and 4 passes defended. Adding in his average for the two games he missed helps a little, but the totals are still not pretty. Now fast forward to 2013. Ward goes back to strong safety and is the #4 DB going 76-36-2 with 3 takeaways, 7 passes defended and a pair of scores. His final ranking is a bit skewed by the touchdowns, but even if we deduct those points he is still a top ten defensive back. The important factor that his two big seasons have had in common is that he was playing strong safety in both of them. Ward is best suited for a role as an in the box strong safety where he can make physical plays and rack up a lot of tackles. He is more than capable of handling the free safety duties, but that position does not take full advantage of his strengths. Ward reminds me greatly of Donte Whitner in this situation. The two have virtually the same skill set. We can follow Whitner's career and see the exact same trends. This is all important because too many people have been ignoring the fact that Ward is playing at free safety thus far in Denver. Now for the answer to the trivia question; which is another good reason to let someone else take Ward early. In the thirteen football seasons this century, exactly two Denver defensive backs have graced the top twenty. Champ Bailey did it twice (2005 & 2006), and Brian Dawkins did it in 2009. Is there a chance that Ward can buck both trends and post good numbers? Sure there is, but are you willing to gamble and pick him among the top ten defensive backs?
While I do not believe that Ward will be a top twenty DB this year, I think that Duke Ihenacho might. He was a surprise opening day starter at strong safety last season, grabbing the attention of everyone when he piled up 11 solo tackles and 3 passes defended against the Ravens in week one. Over the first seven games Ihenacho had 7 passed defended and 3 takeaways while averaging better than 5.5 tackles and nearly 13 fantasy points a game. He was on a string of five consecutive double digit scores when he left the week eight contest with a sprained knee. He only missed a couple of weeks but was clearly bothered by the injury over the second half of the season. This is another of those situations where his overall totals of 56-17-0 with 4 takeaways and 9 passes defended, will cause Ihenacho to be overlooked by many. If he can pick up where he left off before the injury, he could be one of the big surprise sleepers of 2014. I have been getting him as my fourth or fifth defensive back this summer. He may not come so cheap once the preseason games get going and he is exposed.
For owners in leagues that break out the defensive back positions, the drought of useful corners has not been so long. As recently as 2012 Chris Harris was the number fourteen corner. Harris however, has been the only Denver entry into the top 32 at that position in any of the past three seasons. Unfortunately Harris is recovering from a torn ACL he suffered in the AFC championship game. He hopes to participate late in the preseason but may not make it back even for week one. At best Harris is not going to be 100%. The organization prepared for this possibility by adding arguably the best free agent corner on the market Aqib Talib, and then drafting Bradley Roby in the first round. With the uncertainty of Harris at this point, Talib is the only sure starter of this group. He is an excellent cover man and is going to a situation that has been somewhat productive in recent years, but keep in mind that Talib has not recorded more than 38 tackles in a season since 2010. The team change and somewhat historically productive situation he is going to, makes me somewhat optimistic that Talib will have CB2 numbers in 2014, but I am not confident enough to draft him as my second corner. last/late round depth is a possibility in some situations, but for the most part I will be watching him as a possible free agent addition should he step up.
Opposite Talib is where it could get interesting. Last year's third round pick Kayvon Webster will be in the mix with Harris and Roby for the second starting spot. Webster saw significant action as a rookie when he served as the team's nickel corner for much of the season. He is a solid heady player with good cover skills and a high ceiling when it comes to big plays. Webster is right in the thick of things entering camp and could get serious consideration for the job.
Roby is a player that received mixed reviews from the scouting community. He has excellent speed and athletic ability with a knack for the big play. Roby also showed inconsistency during his career at Ohio State and had some off field issues. As is generally the case with rookie corners, the Broncos will not be sure what they have in Roby until they get to see him work under pressure.
An educated guess here is that until Harris is all the way back (which may be mid season or later) Talib will be joined by Webster in the starting lineup with Roby seeing time in the nickel. If the rookie learns quickly however, he could be a day one starter. In that event the rookie corner rule would be in play. Someone at the Denver corner position is likely to be at least a decent CB2. Picking that player out of a lineup at this stage however, is too much like guess work. I am avoiding the Denver corners completely on draft day but will be keeping tabs on the situation as it develops.
SS Duke Ihenacho - Strong sleeper with DB2 upside
FS T.J. Ward - Draft at your own risk if taking him as more than a DB3
FS Raheem Moore - No value
CB Aqib Talib - CB3 with CB2 upside
CB Bradley Roby - Rookie corner rule could be in play
CB Chris Harris - Solid CB3 with upside once he gets healthy
CB Kayvon Webster - Sleeper with CB2 potential
Kansas City Chiefs
When the Chiefs made the move to a 3-4 several years back they made the decision to build from the ground up. In 2008 and 2009 the organization used early first round picks on Glen Dorsey and Tyson Jackson respectively. Then in 2012 they went back to the defensive line in round one with Dontari Poe. What the Chiefs were looking for in those players was a J.J. Watt, Justin Smith or Calais Campbell. What they got were good players who fit the skill set of a three man front but were not among that rare breed. Over the past two seasons both Dorsey and Jackson were allowed to play out their contracts and move on. In 2014 the Chiefs have added free agent Vance Walker to join last season's free agent pickup Mike DeVito and 2011 third round selection Allen Bailey as their three man rotation at end. Devito and Bailey each saw significant action last season and are the likely starters. The organization has no grand expectations that one of these three will join the ranks of the elite. What is expected of them is to be serviceable hardnosed players with the ability to get the job done with similar results at a much more reasonable price. That is just what they should get. None of these three players are a threat to total more than 30-35 tackles and maybe 2-3 sacks at best.
Early last season it looked as if Poe might be one of those rare breed players. At the end of week two he had already totaled 9-1-3.5 with a batted pass and 38 fantasy points. Heading to week three owners were scrambling to add him as one of their free agent saviors. Somewhere between the end of week two and kickoff of week three, the clock struck midnight and Poe turned back into a pumpkin. Over the rest of the season Poe averaged about 2.5 tackles and half an assist a game. He recorded just 1 sack after the week two contest and none after week six. Poe is a powerful 346 pound mountain who will continue to be the anchor of the Chiefs run defense for at least the next couple of years. He forces opponents to commit two blockers on running plays and his bull rush is a handful for any guard or center to handle alone on pass plays. These abilities make him an excellent fit as a 3-4 nose tackle. Poe's season totals were enough to land him among the top ten defensive tackles in 2013. Even with the consideration that over 31% of his production came in those two games, the shortage of productive defensive tackles makes Poe a solid option as a low end DT1 or a priority #2 with some upside. So long as we are not expecting much more than 40 tackles and maybe 4 sacks, Poe should not disappoint.
In each of the past two seasons Derrick Johnson has finished among the elite linebackers in terms of solo tackles, yet he has been outside the top fifteen at the position in total fantasy points. He is not a player that will light up the big play columns, but Johnson has consistently made a contribution in that area. In fact he has posted at least 4 takeaways in each of the last seven seasons and has averaged roughly 2.5 sacks over his nine year career. Johnson's 4 takeaways and career best 4.5 sacks in 2013 were more than respectable. His handicap comes from the people who keep statistics for the Chiefs. Among the fantasy game's top sixty linebackers in 2013, only Karlos Dansby was credited with fewer assists than Johnson's 12. As a team Kansas City players were awarded a total of 133 assists last year. The league average was 275. Johnson is an excellent player in both NFL and fantasy terms. Sideline to sideline range, good speed, coverage skills, leadership and physical play versus the run make Johnson everything an NFL team wants at their inside linebacker positions. Triple digit solo tackles, excellent week to week consistency and solid big play numbers are everything a fantasy owner could ask for. Had Johnson not missed the week seventeen games last year, he would almost surely have completed his fourth consecutive season with at least 94 solo stops and his third in a row with 100+. He will be 32 years old in November but has shown no sign of slowing down. The stingy stats crew may cause Johnson to finish outside the top twelve in fantasy points again in 2014, but he is as close as it gets to a sure thing. That is enough for me to move Johnson up a few slots and consider him a dependable low end LB1 or a high priority LB2.
There is some fantasy potential at Chiefs other inside linebacker position as well, but chances are it will continue to go untapped. Akeem Jordan was the starter at that position for most of 2013. His totals of 54-13-0 with a couple of takeaways are not impressive until you consider that he only played 486 total snaps. Johnson played 1105 so in reality, Jordan was more productive on a per snap basis. In all Jordan, James-Michael Johnson and Nico Johnson totaled 76 solo tackles opposite Johnson. Those too seem average until you consider that none of those players saw action in passing down sub packages. The Chiefs used strong safety Quentin Demps as their nickel linebacker last season. Jordan has moved on and free agent addition Joe Mays is the frontrunner for the starting job entering camp. Mays is little more than a veteran journeyman who has logged a few games as a starter over the course of his six years in the league. Even then he was marginal at best and was only on the field as a two down thumper. He had that same role last season in Houston even after Brian Cushing was lost for the year. If we choose to believe that the Eagles, Broncos and Texans may have all been wrong about him, Mays could have a little last round flier. I am going to be passing on him.
In Tamba Hali and Justin Houston the Chiefs have an outstanding tandem of outside linebackers who are arguably among the best in the league at their positions. In fantasy terms however, they are pretty much the typical 3-4 outside linebackers. I expect to get some argument over that statement, especially when it comes to Houston, but take a closer look at them before deciding that I am wrong. Both players were red hot to start last season. There is no argument there. By week seven Hali already had 10 sacks, 5 takeaways and a touchdown. The problem is that at season's end he had a total of 12 sacks, 6 takeaways and 2 touchdowns. After putting up double digit points in four of the first seven games, Hali posted more than 5 points only twice the rest of the way. In the end he had recorded "typical" 3-4 OLB numbers of 38-7-12 with 6 takeaways in fifteen games (he sat out week seventeen).
Houston finished the season at 41-3-11 with three takeaways. Those are also typical numbers for a 3-4 OLB. But he missed he missed five games at the end of the year with injury you say. Since he left the week twelve game early, I am even going to call it six games. As I often do, we can average those numbers over a full season and get 66-5-16 with 4 takeaways. That production would be excellent for a player at that position and would have pushed Houston into the top twenty five. Let us take a hard look at Houston's season though. He too was red hot coming out of the gate. Through three games he was 16-1-7.5 with three takeaways and three passes defended. In week three alone Houston scored 41 points. The problem is that over the next seven games he totaled 3.5 sacks with no takeaways while posting more than 4 tackles and reaching double digit points just once. Inconsistency and low tackle production are the bane of 3-4 outside linebackers when it comes to fantasy value. I will say that among the players at that position, Houston is my highest rated. For owners in big play based scoring he is clearly a high potential LB1. For everyone else he is just another 3-4 OLB who is worthy as depth or as a matchup based bye week fill in.
The Chiefs used this year's first round pick on Auburn defensive end Dee Ford. Initially there was some uncertainty among draft expert as to where he would play, but at 252 pounds there was little doubt that he would ultimately be asked to make the move to linebacker. My initial reaction to this pick had nothing to do with where he would play, but rather which of the current starters the club expects him to replace in the not too distant future. Houston is signed through 2015 and Hali through 2016 but salary cap could become a factor before those contracts are up. Ford needs to improve as a run defended and to clean up some rough edges before he can take on an every down role. The Chiefs have plenty of time to develop him. He will likely see limited action as the third OLB this year but Ford is clearly expected to be the future at the position.
ILB Derrick Johnson - Ultra dependable low end LB1 or priority LB2
ILB Joe Mays - Minimal value at best
ILB Nico Johnson - No value
ILB James-Michael Johnson - Minimal value at best
OLB Tamba Hali - Quality starter in big play based leagues
OLB Justin Houston - LB1 in big play based leagues, LB3 at best for everyone else
OLB Dee Ford - Dynasty target for big play leagues
With former starters Brandon Flowers and Kendrick Lewis gone, the Chiefs secondary is going to look a lot different in 2014. The jury is still out when it comes to if they will be better or worse for those losses. What we do know for sure is that Eric Berry will be back at strong safety after his top ten finish in 2013. The 2010 fifth overall pick had a big rookie season that included 77 solo stops, 5 takeaways, a pair of sacks, 10 passes defended and a defensive score. We all saw a star in the making and many owners made Berry the top defensive back off the board in 2011. Unfortunately a knee injury took him out for the year before he made a single tackle. Berry returned in 2012 but was clearly not the same player. He still managed 73 solo stops and 10 passed defended but his big play production amounted to a single interception. Entering last season the thought was that being two full seasons removed from the injury would make him the same player we saw as a rookie. That thought turned out to be correct. The Chiefs sat nearly all of their defensive starters for a meaningless week seventeen game. In his fifteen starts Berry was just short of 70 solo stops with 7 assists and 10 passes defended. As with his previous year's productions, those numbers were respectable on their own. It was Berry's big play explosion that made all the difference. The 3.5 sacks, 6 takeaways and two scores helped him to 188 fantasy points and a top ten finish. Berry is a fast, intensely competitive, hard hitting playmaker with no glaring weakness to his game. He may not be a pure tackling machine when it comes to box score totals, but is certainly no stranger to run support. Berry excels in coverage, can blitz and most importantly he has a knack for the big play. He can be counted on for 70-75 tackles, a hand full of assists, double digit passes defended with 6-8 turnovers and 2-3 sacks. Pencil Berry in for a third career top ten and do not be surprised if he makes the top three.
The Chiefs free safety position is unsettled entering camp. Lewis had been the starter for most of the last three years, but he was never much more than adequate. The problem is, the team does not seem to have a replacement option that is sure to be an upgrade. Their options at this point are Husain Abdullah who made a handful of starts for the Vikings in 2011 and was a backup for the Chiefs last year; Third year pro Jerron McMillan who spent two seasons as a backup in Green Bay and an undrafted rookie that no one seems to have heard of. Abdullah has been working with the starters but I have to believe that the organization will be looking to add a veteran either via trade or off the waiver wire when teams start making salary cap related decisions. Regardless of who ends up starting at free safety, keep in mind that the last fantasy productive player at the position in Kansas City was Jarrad Page back in 2008 and even he was only marginal.
The Chiefs organization has been mum on their reason for releasing Brandon Flowers. It may have been cap related or that he does not really fit the scheme or possibly it could be that they were unhappy with his locker room presence. The one thing that is evident is that he was not released for a lack of ability. Regardless of the reason, the Chiefs are confident that they will be fine without him. Sean Smith came over from Miami last season and played well for Kansas City. His numbers were not all that impressive from a fantasy perspective but the 43 tackles, 2 picks and 15 passes defended were enough to give him a little value as a third corner. The totals from his first year with the Chiefs was very similar to what we had come to expect from Smith as a Dolphin and is a pretty good sign of things to come. There is no reason to expect much of a change.
Marcus Cooper is a very interesting prospect. He is a tall lanky corner who never earned a starting job at Rutgers but made an impression at the school's pro day. His impressive workout caught the eye of several teams including the Chiefs. He was the seventh round pick of the 49ers last year but when he was released with the final cuts. Cooper was claimed off waivers by the Chiefs in early September and by week four had earned a role as the team's nickel corner. On about 60% of the defensive snaps Cooper managed to go 41-3-0 with 5 takeaways (3 picks), an impressive 20 passes defended and a score. The coaching staff has been so impressed with the young man that he has been inserted into the starting role opposite Smith. It is hard to say for certain that Cooper will pick up where he left off in the box scores, but the young man is hungry and has a lot to prove. Call it a gut feeling but I like his chances of being a solid starter for both the Chiefs and fantasy owners in 2014 and possibly beyond. Sneak Cooper onto your roster as a backup corner but do not hesitate to promote him quickly if he produces early.
The other interesting prospect here is second round pick Phillip Gaines. Mike Mayock called him a developmental player with starter skills. Impressive combine numbers helped his draft stock as did his production during his college career at Rice. Gaines grabbed 4 interceptions as a senior and set a school record with 38 career passes defended. He will battle Chris Owens, Ron Parker and Sanders Commings to determine the pecking order behind the starters. The coaching staff would like to see Gaines win the nickel job as a rookie and could have bigger plans for him down the road if he pans out.
SS Eric Berry - Top ten DB1
FS Jerron McMillan - No value
FS Husain Abdullah - Minimal value at best
CB Marcus Cooper - Sleeper with CB2 or better upside
CB Sean Smith - CB3 at best
CB Phillip Gaines - Dynasty sleeper to keep an eye on
CB Chris Owens - Minimal value at best
CB Ron Parker - No value
The Oakland front four will be filled with new faces in 2014. In typical Raiders fashion, the team added 31 year old free agent Justin Tuck, who had come to the end of the line with the Giants. Tuck was a monster both on the field and in the box scores between 2007 and 2010. Over that four year span he averaged 49 tackles, 10 sacks and nearly 6 turnovers a season while establishing himself as one of the league's, and the fantasy game's premier defensive ends. In 2011 he was slowed by a myriad of injuries including neck, toe, ankle, groin and shoulder problems. Tuck toughed it out and played through the pain on most weeks, but his production dropped significantly to a season total of 27-10-5 with 1 forced fumble in twelve games. In 2012 there were few mentions of injury issues, but no one could tell by his play. Even though he was supposedly healthy, Tuck's totals of 27-14-4 with no takeaways, did not look like it. Heading into last season Tuck told everyone that he was not at all happy with his play in 2012, adding that he felt healthy and rejuvenated for the first time since 2010 and was going to get back to form. Even with the extra motivation of a contract year, Tuck was not that dominating player early in 2013. Heading to week seven he was still looking for his first full sack. After two and a half seasons of very average play, both fantasy owners and the Giants had all but given up on him. Then in week twelve is seemed as if someone flipped the switch back on. Over the final six games last season Tuck was 21-8-9.5 with three takeaways and a batted pass. For fantasy owners he averaged 18 points a game over that span, scoring no fewer than 9 in any of those six games. That was enough to show the Raiders that Tuck still has some tread on the tires. This organization is notorious for getting the most out of aging veteran stars that other teams have given up on. I expect they with get a couple of good years out of Tuck as well. I am not confident enough to call him a DL1 just yet, but I am willing to gamble on him as a value pick second starter on many of my teams. In the leagues that I do this I will also look to add a couple of high upside late round sleepers just in case.
With former Pittsburgh starting outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, we have a strikingly similar scenario. Woodley became a starter for the Steelers as a second year player in 2008. That season he recorded 41 tackles, 11.5 sacks, 6 turnovers and a score as an outside linebacker in the 3-4. Over his first four years as the starter he averaged 40 tackles, 15 assists, 4.5 takeaways and 10.5 sacks. In 2012 Woodley showed up for camp a little out of shape and had an "un-Steeler like" attitude. There was some perception that a rift was opened between he and the organization. Woodley went on to miss three games with hamstring and ankle injuries but even when healthy he did not play up to his normal standards. His thirteen games that season yielded only 27-11-4 with 3 turnovers. In 2013 Woodley showed up in shape and seemed to have mended his relationship with the team. He recorded a sack in five of the first six games and it seemed like business as usual until a calf injury caused him to miss five of the final seven contests. After refusing to take a pay cut Woodley was released in March. He will be 30 years old in November, is a proven veteran with a chip on his shoulder, plenty of fuel in the tank and something to prove. Once again the perfect formula for a Raider. There is no doubt that Woodley can still play. My only concern is that he will be asked to put his hand down as a 4-3 end for the first time in his professional career. If that transition goes well I can see both Oakland defensive ends reaching 40 solo stops and double digit sacks in 2014. In a pinch I would be willing to gamble on Woodley as a DL2. Without the chance to see him in action however, I would feel much better about him as a high upside DL3 at this early stage.
2012 fifth round pick Jack Crawford will likely be the third defensive end with former Packer C.J. Wilson possibly pushing him for that spot. If one of the starters were to go down we could see Wilson in the base packages with Crawford on passing downs.
Over the past several year the Raiders interior line positions have consistently turned out quality options for fantasy owners in tackle required leagues. Tommy Kelly was a mainstay for the team for years and had multiple top ten fantasy finishes during his tenure. La'Roi Glover, Richard Seymour and Desmond Bryant are a few others who have been quality starting tackles in fantasy terms. Last year it was Pat Sims who had never posted more than 22 solo tackles during his five seasons in Cincinnati. His first year with Oakland conjured up a mark of 40-13-2 with a ranking of sixteen among interior linemen. Sims is a good player and should post useful numbers again in 2014, but it is newcomer Antonio Smith that I am more excited about. He has been successful as both a 4-3 tackle and a 3-4 end over the course of his nine year career. Smith has averaged 4.5 sacks a season and has posted 6 or more three times, including two of the past three years. In two years as a starting tackle in the Cardinals 4-3 (2007 & 2008) Smith totaled 69-16-10 with 6 forced fumbles and 3 recoveries. As is typical with an Oakland free agent addition, Smith will turn 33 in October and was perceived by the Houston organization to be in decline. That means he should be good for a couple of productive seasons with the Raiders. I like his skill set, his history and his situation. At worst Smith should be a solid DT2 and it would be no surprise to see him sneak into the top twelve.
2013 sixth round pick Stacy McGee saw a fair amount of action as a rookie and is likely to be the third man in the tackle rotation in his second season. If he continues to develop, McGee may be the future at the position for the Raiders. It is worth keeping an eye on his progress. Rookie fourth round pick Justin Ellis could be a factor as an early down run stuffer. He is a 334 pound fire plug with a low center of gravity and the ability to dig in and hold ground against double teams. His limited range and athleticism probably means that he will be no more than a two down role even if he is able to claim a starting job in the future.
DE LaMarr Woodley - Target as a DL3 with high end DL2 upside
DE Justin Tuck - Solid DL2 with low end DL1 potential
DE Jack Crawford - Injury sleeper
DE/DT C.J. Wilson - No value at this time
DT Antonio Smith - Sleeper with DT1 potential
DT Pat Sims - Decent DT2 or quality DT3
DT Stacy McGee - Long term dynasty prospect
DT Justin Ellis - Limited (2 down) potential
The Raiders have a good situation at linebacker in that they have four potential starters. For fantasy owners this takes on a totally different perspective in that we have no idea who will hold the most value. There is even speculation that the team will play some 3-4 this season. They certainly have the personnel to pull that off both up front and at the linebacker positions. It is likely that they will throw some of those looks into the playbook, but I seriously doubt they will become a 3-4 base defense this year. They may however, be heading in that direction for the future. What we can safely assume for now is that first round pick Kalil Mack will start on the strong side and is all but certain to be a three down player. In passing situation he will most often become an edge pass rusher to take advantage of his skills. This is much the same way that Von Miller is used in Denver and is no surprise since the two players are very similar in many ways. Mack was a four year starter at outside linebacker in the Buffalo 3-4. In forty eight games he totaled 28.5 sacks, forced 16 fumbles, broke up 21 passed and picked off 4. What is highly unusually about Mack is that even as an OLB in a 3-4, he was the Bulls leading tackler in each of his last two seasons there. While there is little doubt that he will continue to make a lot of impact plays, there is some question about Mack's ability to contribute substantial tackle numbers at the pro level. If he is able to manage 70+ solo stops along with the anticipated sack and turnover totals, Mack could be a fantasy force. If on the other hand, he experiences the traditional challenges of the position, Mack could be no more than a decent LB3. Hopefully the preseason will shed some light on this for us.
After Mack there are a lot of possibilities here. As a rookie in 2013, Sio Moore was often used in the role that Mack is expected to have this season. Moore however, is a versatile player with the ability to play well at any of the linebacker spots. Last season he started eleven games at strong side backer and played a total of 587 snaps, which was roughly half of the team's total. Moore finished at 38-11-4.5 with a forced fumble and 84 fantasy points. While his role for 2014 is not yet confirmed, Moore is arguably the most talented option the coaching staff has at either middle or weak side linebacker. He has sideline to sideline range, is a physical tackler with good fundamentals and is just as solid in coverage as he is at rushing the passer. I am keeping my fingers crossed that Moore lands the starting job in the middle. If he can do so, we could have a top fifteen linebacker in Oakland for the first time since Kirk Morrison. If Moore lands on as a starter on the weak side he should still give us good production and solid value as a quality LB3 or possibly a low end LB2. Anything could happen here but I believe that Moore will have a significant role in some form.
Nick Roach signed a four year thirteen million dollar deal with the Raiders last season, but it is important to note that only five million of that is guaranteed. That tells us the team can afford to keep him as a quality backup or they can cut him without breaking the bank if they decide to do so. Roach was the starter in the middle last season and did a more than adequate job, but he is not necessarily a long term solution for the club. He is a solid run defender, a high effort player and a positive locker room presence. Heading into last season I questioned his coverage skills since he had been a two down strong side backer for most of his career with the Bears. While he was not exactly impressive as a pass defended, Roach did a surprisingly solid job in that area as well. He is not the most talented of the coaching staff's options but his experience and dependability could be deciding factors. Roach will certainly not go quietly and there is a good chance that he will log at least one more year at the Raiders starter. Last season's totals of 82-29-5.5 with 4 forced fumbles, an interception and 3 passes defended were by far the best overall production of Roach's seven year career. The 186 fantasy points landed him on the outskirts of an LB2. I do not see a lot of box score upside here but if Roach can hold onto the starting job he should be a quality third starter for us again in 2014.
2012 fourth round pick Miles Burris is the wild card here. As a rookie he started fifteen games on the weak side, totaling a modest 62-34-1.5 on the season. Despite the marginal numbers, Burris showed a lot of promise on the field while playing through a knee injury that would require offseason surgery. The organization had high expectations for him heading into 2013 and was even considering him for the middle linebacker job. Unfortunately his recovery from that surgery did not go as well as expected, forcing the team to invest in Roach. Burris opened last season on the physically unable to perform list and was not much of a factor even after he was activated. He has fully recovered now and has been seeing significant time at weak side backer with the first team during offseason workouts. Most people have written him off but Burris has a legitimate chance of winning that job. If he does so, he has a legitimate shot at being a quality LB3 option for us as well.
Let me fan the flames of the 3-4 speculation for a moment. Up front the Raiders have added Antonio Smith who has ample experience as a 3-4 end and they have drafted Justin "Jelly" Ellis who would seem an excellent fit at nose tackle. They added a highly successful free agent outside linebacker in LaMarr Woodley then drafted a college 3-4 outside backer in Kalil Mack. They have Moore who would seem a good fit at outside or inside backer and they could easily plug in Burris next to Roach or Moore. As stated earlier, I believe the Raiders will be a 4-3 base scheme in 2014 but I also believe that they will begin installing the 3-4 concept. It will be no surprise at all to see them make the switch going into 2015. It may already be in the works.
MLB Nick Roach - Quality LB3 if he lands a three down role at MLB
MLB/WLB Miles Burris - Deep sleeper with LB3 or better upside
MLB/OLB Sio Moore - Risk/reward sleeper with big potential if he lands the right role
SLB Kahlil Mack - Wildcard that could be anywhere from a top shelf LB2 to a low end LB3
The Raiders are both strong and deep in the front seven. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the secondary and particularly at the corner positions. 2012 first round pick D.J. Hayden will help solidify the position when/if he can ever get healthy. Hayden's health issues date all the way back to a heart problem he had while in college. Shortly after being drafted last year he underwent abdominal surgery. The recovery from that slowed his learning curve and when he was finally back in action Hayden lasted just eight games before going on IR with a sports hernia. In late May he suffered an ankle injury that kept him in a walking boot for a couple of weeks. Hayden is out of the boot now but has still not been a full participant in practice and could end up on the PUP list. When healthy Hayden is fast, athletic, excels in man coverage and has a knack for separating opponents from the ball. In his seven full games last season he was on pace for 50+ tackles and had a couple of takeaways, but was not particularly impressive in the box scores. It has been a long time since the Raiders have given us a highly productive option at corner. Tracy Porter came close last season when he finished among the top 24, but even he was no more than a marginal second starter at best. If Hayden can get healthy he has the potential to break the trend and be at least a solid second starter. That said, we may be better off to sit tight and let him show us something before gambling a roster spot.
The Raiders added former San Francisco corners Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown to round out their top three at the position. Rogers is a 33 year old nine year veteran (do you see a pattern here?). He was a six year starter in Washington before moving to San Francisco for the past three. Rogers is a quality cover man and a dependable number two corner at this stage of his career, but he has never been a difference maker in the box scores. His career best of 6 interceptions came in 2011 but he has no more than 2 in any other season. Rogers has only exceeded 50 solo tackles in a season once and that was all the way back in 2006. He will be a vital key for the Raiders in 2014 but has little to offer fantasy owners.
Brown has spent his entire seven year career with the 49ers. He has been in and out of the starting lineup and has spent a lot of time as the teams nickel corner. The Raiders would like to have him fill that same role for them this season but Brown may be pressed into service as a starter. Like Rogers, Brown's statistical credentials are not impressive. He has reached 50 solo stops only once in his career and has just 11 career interceptions. Even if he starts there is not much chance that Brown will be a factor in the box scores.
Behind these three guys the team has a pair of young fourth round picks. Chimdi Chekwa is a third year pro who saw his first significant playing time late last season when the Oakland secondary was depleted by injury. Rookie Keith McGill has an interesting size/speed combination and has drawn some comparisons to Brandon Browner. unfortunately those comparisons include the off field issues. He has the physical skills to develop into a starter but has a long way to go when it comes to maturity and professionalism.
With the return of Tyvon Branch from last year's ankle injury, Oakland is in a little better shape at the safety positions. Branch is not a major big play threat, though he will make some contribution in that area. The strength of his game both on the field and in the box scores comes from his physical, hard hitting nature. Branch is like having another linebacker on the field when it comes to run support, without the liability of a linebackers coverage skills. Improvement in the front seven is a strong indicator that we may never see Branch repeat the 97 solo stops he racked up in 2009 but he should continue to give us consistent value. Had he not missed a couple of games with injury in 2012, Branch would have entered last season on a streak of four consecutive 80 solo tackle campaigns. Marginal big play totals will likely keep him out of the top ten in total points at the defensive back position but week to week consistency in the tackle columns is enough to make Branch a quality option as a second starter.
Despite being 37 years old, Charles Woodson gave us the best of both worlds in 2012. 75 solo tackles and 22 assists are solid numbers for any defensive back. Adding in six turnovers, a pair of sacks and a score gave Woodson 173 fantasy points and a top ten finish among defensive backs. Woodson will turn 38 in October and is undoubtedly nearing the end of his stellar career, but the "old guy" is still managing to get it done somehow. With Branch back and a defense that should be improved in general, I expect to see his tackle production dip into the mid 60s range. That said, Woodson's most important contribution in both NFL and fantasy terms comes from his uncanny big play ability. That part of his game is likely to be business as usual in 2014. Woodson has been responsible for as many as 14 turnovers in a single season. Take away a couple of injury shortened campaigns and he has averaged 7.5 turnovers a year since 2001. Woodson has probably given us his last top ten finish but I expect that he has one more top 20 in him before hanging up the cleats and riding off to the hall of fame.
Brandain Ross came off the bench to replace Branch in week two last season. He proved to be a serviceable backup on the field and had a few good statistical outings along the way, but Ross was clearly not the answer for fantasy owners who lost Branch. He will enter 2014 as the third safety but will have little value eve if pressed into action.
SS Tyvon Branch - Solid DB2
FS Charles Woodson - Quality DB2 with DB1 potential in leagues that favor the big play
SS Brandain Ross - No value
CB Carlos Rogers - No value
CB D.J. Hayden - Possible CB2 option
CB Tarell Brown - No value
CB Chimdi Chekwa - No value
CB Keith McGill - Possible dynasty option
San Diego Chargers
Defensive ends in three man fronts have much common with interior linemen in 4-3 schemes. From where they lineup to how offensive blocking schemes attack them. This is why quality 3-4 ends like Corey Liuget fall short in terms of fantasy value. In his first full season as a starter (2012) Liuget finished with 34 tackles, 16 assists, 6 sacks, a fumble recovery and enough fantasy points to finish in the top twenty. As is too often the case with players at this position, it now looks as if he was a one year wonder. In 2013 his production dropped significantly across the board and Liuget fell all the way to number forty nine. Like many 3-4 ends, he is an athletic and mobile big man who does his job well, but his contributions are not realized in the numbers. If he were a defensive tackle in a 4-3, we would probably be talking about Liuget as a top twelve player. Unfortunately he is not, thus he is unlikely to be more than a fourth defensive lineman with DL3 upside.
Kendall Reyes joins Liuget in the starting lineup. Reyes led the Chargers defensive line with 5 sacks in 2013 and is another athletic big man with similar qualities. Together these two give the Chargers defense exactly what the scheme asks of them. They are space eaters with enough size and strength to absorb more than one blocker and keep the linebacker clean, yet they have enough athletic ability to make some plays when opponents do not give them enough attention. The problem for us is that they will be hard pressed to make enough of those plays.
Sean Lissemore has been penciled in as the starter at nose tackle but he may feel some heat from rookie Ryan Carrethers. Lissemore has played both tackle and end in the 3-4 over his four seasons as a pro. He has a total of eight starts to his credit. Six of those starts have been at nose tackle but he has actually logged more playing time at end. Regardless of that fact, he has never been more than a spot starter at any position. Carrethers may have been a fifth round pick but he has the right skill set to anchor a three man front. He is a short, powerful (was number one at the bench press at the combine) player with a low center of gravity and an understanding of leverage that comes with being a collegiate wrestler. Lissemore may be the starter to open the season but it is not a sure thing that he will be there at the end. The important point for fantasy owners is that no San Diego nose tackle has ever given us more than marginal value, even is leagues that start two interior linemen. Chances are pretty good that neither of these guys will be the first.
At a glance last year’s statistics would suggest that the Chargers do not have much to offer fantasy owners at the linebacker positions. Donald Butler led the group in tackles with 71 and no San Diego linebacker totaled more than 4.5 sacks. That is not good news for a 3-4 defense. Butler's numbers are a bit deceiving unless you take into consideration that he missed four games early in the season. Average in those four games and Butler's totals are a much more useful 95-17-1 with 3 takeaways, 6 passes defended and about 183 fantasy points. Those numbers would have landed him on the cusp of an LB2. He has both the ability and potential to approach triple digits in solo tackles but there are some concerns that hold Butler's fantasy value in check. The San Diego stats crew tends to be rather stingy with assists. As a team Chargers defenders were credited with 206 last season. That is 69 fewer than the league average. A couple of assists a game does not seem like much but it can make a big difference in point totals over the course of a season. Marginal big play production is another issue for Butler. As a rookie in 2011 he recorded an interception, 2 forced fumbles and a recovery. In the past two seasons he has a combined 4 takeaways. With 2 sacks as a rookie and 3.5 in 2012, Butler has shown the ability to be successful on the blitz but he had just half a sack last year. Durability has also been a problem. Butler has missed four games in each of the last two seasons. He has little control over the assist numbers and is not going to be a big play linebacker, but Butler shown the ability to contribute more in that area than what he has over the past two seasons. If he can stay healthy for a full sixteen games, Butler has the potential to be a solid LB2. Target him as a risk/reward third starter and keep your fingers crossed that you get more of the reward.
Manti Te'o's rookie campaign was a huge disappointment for fantasy owners. He missed time early in the season with injury and was a two down player when he finally did get into the lineup. Te'o played in thirteen games finishing with 42 solo stops and no big plays. He totaled 3 or fewer solo tackle seven times and reached double digit fantasy points for the first time in week seventeen. Despite the low rookie production, there is little doubt that he has some potential. Te'o is not particularly fast, nor is he graceful in coverage, but the guy was able to get it done at a high level against quality competition during his college career at Notre Dame. As a senior he was a tackling machine with 112 combined stops and a productive pass defender with 7 pass interceptions. The big question surrounding Te'o's value comes down to his ability to stay on the field full time. In 2013 the Chargers used several different players as nickel package replacements with none of them really standing out. I have the same stance on Te'o that I did at this time last year. I just do not see the Chargers using a first round pick on a two down linebacker. Expect Te'o to get every opportunity to win a three down role this preseason, but until we are sure that he has done that he has no fantasy value. This situation is high on the preseason watch list.
Both Bront Bird and Andrew Gachkar saw action as replacement starters when Te'o and Butler were injured and as nickel linebackers when Te'o was playing. They will be in line for similar roles this year if Te'o is not included in the sub packages. Neither Bird nor Gachkar were impressive in the box score when they had their shot, so we should not expect much from these guys even if they get on the field.
The Chargers let Shaun Phillips walk last year and signed Dwight Freeney to take up the slack. Phillips went on to have a big year with the Broncos while Freeney recorded 1 tackle, 1 assist, 1 pass breakup and half a sack in four starts before landing on IR with a quadriceps injury. 2012 first round pick Melvin Ingram III sat out the first twelve games with a knee injury, making his first start in week sixteen. As a result of these injuries the Chargers struggled at the outside linebacker positions. Jarrett Johnson, Thomas Kaiser, Tourek Williams and Reggie Walker all made starts at the position. Johnson is a solid veteran contributor that will continue to see significant action and may even start, but he is not a great pass rusher. His career best of 6 sacks came as a Raven in 2009. Johnson has just 5.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles in twenty six games with San Diego.
Walker, Williams and Kaiser are all on the roster entering training camp. With both Freeney and Ingram healthy and the addition of second round pick Jeremiah Attaochu, it is doubtful that all of last year's place holders will make the final roster. Johnson will see plenty of action but the club is counting on Freeney and Ingram to be their impact players at the outside linebacker positions. Neither are a sure thing to provide that impact however. Freeney's first experience as a 3-4 outside backer came in 2012 with the Colts. In fourteen games that season he had all of 14 tackles and 5 sacks. His slow start prior to last year's injury also does little to instill confidence. As a rookie in 2012 Ingram started two games and played in all sixteen. In 475 snaps he totaled 27 solo tackles and 1 sacks. His play/production (5-7-1 with a forced fumble) in the final two games if 2013 do lend reason for optimism but leave Ingram far short of a sure thing. Owners in big play based leagues should target Ingram as a late round sleeper with good upside. I would stay away from the 34 year old Freeney all together.
As a rookie Attaochu will likely see a good amount of action while he is groomed to replace Freeney in the near future. If Attoachu shows well and Freeney continues not too, that switch could happen very early. Attoachu needs to get stronger at the point of attack but is a high motor, relentless pass rusher who was highly productive at Georgia Tech where he has the school record of 31.5 career sacks. He is a high character guy as well and was a team captain. As 3-4 outside backers go, this kid has a great deal of potential.
ILB Donald Butler - Solid LB3 with LB2 upside if he stays healthy
ILB Manti Te'o - Risky sleeper with LB3 potential if he plays all three downs
ILB Bront Bird - No value
ILB Andrew Gachkar - No value
ILB Reggie Walker - No value
OLB Jarrett Johnson - No value
OLB Dwight Freeney - Risky dark horse candidate in big play leagues
OLB Melvin Ingram III - Late round sleeper with good upside in big play leagues
OLB Jeremiah Attaochu - Sleeper with good long term potential in big play scoring
Eric Weddle is one of the few fantasy friendly free safeties working behind 3-4 fronts. In years past inconsistency had soured my opinion of Weddle in terms of fantasy value, but his production over the past two seasons has made me a believer again. Weddle had three weak outings in 2013 but that can be expected from anyone. He also had nine games in double digits. His 88 solo stops were second only to Barry Church among defensive backs, he added 5 takeaways, 10 pass breakups and even had a sack in 2013. Weddle's 199 fantasy points ranked third among defensive backs and his 12.4 points a game were sixth. He is 29 years old and has not missed a game since 2009. There is simply nothing to dislike like about the guy and no reason to expect less than a third straight top ten finish.
Marcus Gilchrist converted from corner last season and started all sixteen games at strong safety. The positional designation here is somewhat misleading. Gilchrist may have lined up on the strong side, but his responsibilities were more like those of a free safety. It was Weddle who usually lined up closer to football and had the majority of the run support duties. As a result Gilchrist was less than impressive in the box scores. His big play totals were a solid 4 takeaways and a sack, but the low tackle numbers of 59-18 dropped him outside the top fifty. Gilchrist is not the most physical of safeties but is a reliable center fielder for the Chargers. He could be challenged for playing time by Jahleel Addae who saw a good deal of action in the passing down sub packages last year. Regardless of who starts at this position they are destined to have little fantasy value unless the scheme changes and puts them in position to make more plays.
With the addition of free agent Brandon Flowers and the selection of Jason Verrett in the first round, San Diego has an abundance of quality options at the corner positions. Flowers is the self proclaimed best corner in the game. While that may be a bit of a stretch, he is a good one. The coaching staff has not yet disclosed their plan with this group but it is safe to expect that Flowers will be one of the starters. He totaled 63 tackles in fourteen games with the Chiefs last year while both Richard Marshall and Shareece Wright exceeded 50 in San Diego despite having only 22 starts between them. Those numbers give a pretty good hint that will be some fantasy value here. All four of these players will be in the mix for starting jobs with the pecking order being determined during camp. Individually each of them have something to offer both the Chargers and fantasy owners. During his six years with the Chiefs Flowers averaged 55 tackles, 4.5 takeaways and 15 passes defended. He has good size, plays a physical game and does not hesitate in run support. Marshall has eight years of starting experience over his nine seasons as a pro and has averaged 70+ solo stops as a starter. Big play production was all but absent from his game last season but Marshall has 18 career picks and 29 total takeaways. Wright was the team's third round pick in 2011 and got his first shot at starting last year. In fourteen games he went 53-2 with a pick and 9 passes defended. Verrett is a little on the small side but is tough, tenacious player with blazing speed, excellent athleticism and good instincts. He plays bigger than his 5'9" 189 pound stature and is more than willing in run support. Add in his knack for the big play (led the Big 12 in interceptions in 2012) and you have a player with the tools to succeed on the field and in the box scores. Verrett would also have the rookie corner rule working in his favor if he can win a starting job. Keep an eye on this competition as it develops and do not hesitate to grab either of the winners as potential second starters with good upside.
FS Eric Weddle - Quality DB1 with top five potential
SS Marcus Gilchrist - Minimal value at best
SS Darrell Stuckey - No Value
FS Jahleel Addae - Injury sleeper
CB Brandon Flowers - CB2 with upside
CB Shareece Wright - Deep sleeper with CB2 potential if he starts
CB Richard Marshall - Sleeper with high end CB2 potential if he starts
CB Jason Verrett - Rookie corner rule makes him a strong sleeper with CB2 or better potential
That does it for the AFC West. Only the NFC West remains as we head toward the first round of preseason games. Best of luck to everyone as we enter the heat of the draft season.