There has been plenty of offseason discussion about how bad the Cowboys will be defensively in 2014. Admittedly they do not look very strong on paper, but if I have learned anything from a lifetime as an NFL fan, it is that bad teams rarely perform as poorly as the hype suggests they will. With the departure of Demarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, Dallas has no big name talent up front. What they do have is a collection of serviceable veterans with a sprinkling of youth and potential.
George Selvie entered the league as a seventh round pick of the Rams in 2010. He has since spent time with Carolina and Jacksonville before being picked up by Dallas last summer. Selvie went on to start all sixteen games at left end for the Cowboys in 2013. The veteran journeyman did a more than adequate job on the field. In the box scores his 36-9-6.5 with a couple of takeaways were enough to earn him a spot as a third linemen in many fantasy leagues. Selvie does not have a great deal of upside from a talent perspective. What he does have to offer is a strong work ethic, and a motor that never stops. He will enter training camp as the starter and will be tough to unseat. We should not expect big numbers from him, but Selvie could show a little improvement over last season. It would be no surprise to see him lead the Cowboys defensive line in both tackles and sacks in 2014. I like his chances of reaching 40 solo stops and adding 7-8 sacks to once again be a quality DL3 or possibly even a low end DL2.
At the other defensive end position there will be an open competition between veterans Jeremy Mincey, Anthony Spencer and rookie second round pick Demarcus Lawrence. While no one expects any of these guys to be invited to the next Pro Bowl, they are not as short on potential as most would suggest. Mincey spent some time as a starter for the Jaguars earlier in his career. In 2011 he posted career highs in nearly every statistical category when he finished at 40-17-8 with six takeaways. In 2012 his numbers slipped below usefulness for fantasy owners. While that does not look good on his resume', we should not overlook the fact that he was playing for a Jacksonville defense that was statistically horrible across the board. Mincey spent last season as a backup in Denver where he played only sparingly. The nine year veteran will not enter camp as the favorite to start opposite Selvie, but he is likely to have a role and has the potential to surprise.
The organization would like to see Anthony Spencer step up and lay claim to the job. The 2007 first round pick had a breakout season in 2012 when he piled up a mark of 56-39-11.5 with 3 takeaways and 3 passes defended while working as an outside linebacker in Rob Ryan's 3-4. Spencer clearly has the most talent and upside of the team's options, but there are some question marks surrounding him as well. First and foremost, he is trying to come back from microfracture knee surgery. A good number of players who have had this procedure in the past have failed make a full recovery and have seen their careers cut short. Spencer has started running and is hopeful that he will be able to participate at some point during camp, but he is not even a lock to be available for the season opener at this point. It is a good bet that even if he does play, Spencer will not be 100%. There is also the consideration that we have not seen Spencer work as a 4-3 end at the pro level. He would seem to have the right skill set, but NFL history is littered with talented players that have struggled with the transition between the two schemes. Dynasty owners may want to pick Spencer up and tuck him away for a while as he could eventually become a 40+ tackle and double digit sack guy for the Cowboys. I am far less optimistic about his short
On paper it is the rookie who would seem most likely to make an impact opposite Selvie this season. His status as a second round pick adds to the speculation that Lawrence will have a significant role, as teams like to get some immediate return on early round investments. The Boise State product showed his versatility in college by playing both tackle and end for the Broncos. He is highly athletic and was considered by many to be among the best pure edge rushers in the 2013 class. It is hard to argue with Lawrence's production over his final two years in college. As a junior he totaled 9.5 sacks with an interception and 4 forced fumbles. Last year he had 72 combined tackles and assists, with 10.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles in twelve games. There is no doubt that Lawrence will contribute to the Cowboys pass rush right out of the gate. There are however, some questions about his being a three down player right away. He is a bit undersized at only 251 pounds and struggled at the point of attack in college. To quote one respected scout; "He is weak at the point of attack and gets wiped out by double teams". Lawrence will undoubtedly hit the weight room and work hard to improve as a run defender. With the current situation in Dallas being as it is, he could be thrown into the fire right away and has the potential
to post useful fantasy numbers as a rookie. There is also a good chance that he will be a nickel package rush specialist for much if not all of 2014. Lawrence is the top defensive line prospect among this year's rookie class. He packs a lot of long term potential but redraft owners should temper expectations.
In 2013 Jason Hatcher led the league's interior linemen with 11 sacks and was the fantasy games number five defensive tackle. In 2014 former Bears starter Henry Melton will have the task of filling the void Hatcher left when he signed with the Redskins. Melton spent most of last season on IR, but managed 31-11-5 as a starter for Chicago in 2012. With a total of 11 sacks over his final two seasons with the Bears, the fifth year player may prove to be a better replacement than most expect. From a physical perspective he is very similar to Hatcher. Both players are mobile and versatile big men who are more than adequate versus the run and have a second gear when it comes to getting after the passer. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is known for using a lot of stunts to help his interior pass rushers break free. He was the DC for the Bears from 2009 to 2012 and was instrumental in Melton being drafted by Chicago. These two know each other well and we know that Melton is a good fit. I will stop well short of predicting double digit sacks for him but will not be surprised if Melton gives us 35 tackles, 7-8 sacks and a top 10 finish among interior linemen.
Veteran Nick Hayden should get the call at the nose tackle position with rookie seventh round pick Ken Bishop likely being the third man in the rotation. Both of these players are stout run defenders with the ability to take on double teams and keep the linebackers clean behind them, but neither are particularly athletic or mobile. Hayden started all sixteen games for the Cowboys last season, posting modest numbers of 25-19-0 with a forced fumble and a recovery. Bishop is a hardnosed player who gives a lot of effort. He may push Hayden for the starting job at some point but is not likely to make a much bigger splash in the box scores. These two will be serviceable options for the Cowboys but have little to offer in fantasy terms.
DE George Selvie - Solid DL3 with low end DL2 potential
DE Jeremy Mincey - Minimal value at best
DE Anthony Spencer - Risk/Reward sleeper with a lot of long term upside
DE Demarcus Lawrence - Dynasty prospect with DL3 potential in 2014
DT Henry Melton - Strong DT2 with top ten potential
DT Nick Hayden - No value
DT Ken Bishop - No value
There is no team in the league with more questions at the linebacker positions than Dallas. With the free agent defections up front, Sean Lee was hands down the Cowboys best defender as well as their emotional leader. When he was lost to injury it seemed like a blow that the team would not be able to recover from. It remains to be seen how well the patchwork will hold up in terms of wins and losses, but the scramble to cover the position could create some interesting opportunities for fantasy owners. Lee's injury happened after all the best free agents had already signed so there was little help to be had on the open market, and there were no teams looking to trade a quality linebacker. The best addition Dallas has come up with thus far is Rolando McClain. He may have some talent but no one knows where his head or his heart are at this point. It is not even a sure thing that he will show up for training camp.
Plan A for the Cowboys at middle linebacker will be journeyman Justin Durant. Durant played in ten games for Dallas in 2013, starting five times on the strong side and once on the weak side. The versatile seven year veteran has worked at all three positions in a 4-3 scheme during his time in the league. Durant made a number of starts in the middle for the Jaguars early in his career. The experience is a plus but in the end he is little more than an average at best NFL starter. Durant is solid versus the run and is adequate in coverage, but brings little to the table in terms of playmaking ability. Over his entire career Durant has produced 2 interceptions, forced 2 fumbles, recovered 1 and gotten to the quarterback 4.5 times. Lee nearly put up better numbers than that in ten games last season. If the organization is willing to settle for an average veteran place holder, Durant will be the guy. Being a three down middle backer on a team that is expected to struggle should provide a great deal of opportunity for box score production. The question is; does Durant have the ability to capitalize? He has never posted more than 82 solo stops in a season, nor produced more than a pair of takeaways. If he holds onto the job, Durant would be no more than a decent LB3 at best.
The team knows what they have in Durant and will plug him in as the starter to open camp, but he is not their only hope. 2013 sixth round pick DaVonte Holloman and rookie fourth round selection Anthony Hitchens will also get looks at the position. Holloman is a particularly interesting prospect and is the player that the coaching staff would like to see step up. He was a strong safety for his first three years at South Carolina before moving to linebacker as a senior. Holloman is a physical tackler with good range, excellent cover skills for a linebacker, and a knack for the big play. He can even be successful as a pass rusher. In his one season at linebacker for the Gamecocks he recorded A pair of sacks and 3 picks. Holloman saw little action early in his rookie season, then missed seven games with an injury. He returned to start the final two games of 2013 at MLB going a combined 7-10-2 in those starts. If he can show improvement at the point of attack, Holloman may come out of camp as a three down middle linebacker in a target rich environment. He clearly has the highest ceiling of the Cowboys options and could prove to be a steal as a late round sleeper.
Hitchens is considered to be more of a developmental player and is probably not ready for a starting job at the pro level. He does however, have some positive traits that could make him a surprise contender. He has good combination of size and range, is an aggressive tackler and had excellent production at Iowa where he racked up 236 combined tackles and assists over his final two seasons. Hitchens is a tough and durable player with a great work ethic and leadership qualities. His struggles are in coverage where he is not very polished and has shown little big play potential.
The moral of this story is that Cowboys MLB position holds a great deal of potential for someone. The only way this can be completely negated is if the coaching staff elects to have one player work in the base package and another in passing situations. Durant will get the first shot and could have some value, but his upside is seriously limited. Holloman may prove to be a bust but I would rather take a chance on his upside.
The outside linebacker spots are much easier to figure out. Bruce Carter will get the call on the weak side while former defensive end Kyle Wilbur is expected to start on the strong side. Wilbur should be a good fit at his new position. He is not likely to have much of a box score impact, but his size, physical nature and pass rush ability should be a plus in Marinelli's scheme. Carter on the other hand, could prove to be the Cowboys leading tackler and best fantasy option at the second level. All we heard about Carter last season was how he struggled in coverage and missed assignments. In order to "teach him a lesson", Carter was even benched for a while in favor of journeyman Ernie Sims. Carter did play through some through some nagging injuries that may have affected his play a little, but in my opinion he was being used as a scapegoat for a scheme that simply did not work. Ultimately it was defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin who was replaced and not Carter. That speaks volumes to me. If Carter had really played so poorly, the organization would surely have added some "better" players at the position would they not? Instead head coach Jason Garrett told us in June that Carter will get another chance to prove himself. Despite all of his so called struggles and the drama that surrounded him, Carter managed to finish second on the team in tackles last season. He was a three down player in twelve games, posting at least 8 fantasy points in nine of them and reached double digits in seven. Considering that the Cowboys have no one to seriously consider as a replacement, it is a safe bet that Carter will continue to be a productive three down linebacker. Hopefully Marinelli's scheme will inject a few big plays into Carter's production as well, as that was his one glaring shortcoming last year from a fantasy perspective. His overall numbers were rather modest in 2013. That will have a lot of fantasy owners overlooking his situation and potential for 2014. I like Carter's chances of bouncing back strong and being at least a solid LB3.
MLB Justin Durant - Decent LB3 with minimal upside
MLB Anthony Hitchens - Deep sleeper with some dynasty potential
MLB Devonte Holloman - Risk/Reward sleeper with big upside
MLB Rolando McClain - No value unless proven otherwise
WLB Bruce Carter - Solid LB3 with low end LB2 potential
SLB Kyle Wilbur - Minimal value at best
SLB Martez Wilson - No value
Even though I believe the Cowboys will be better than expected defensively, strong safety Barry Church is still the favorite to repeat as the fantasy game's top defensive back. Church spent the first three years of his career in relative obscurity. When he put up 27 fantasy points in week one last year, it was hard for many to believe it was more than fluke. When he backed it up with 7 more solo stops in week two, it was time to take notice. Church went on to lead the league in both tackles by a defensive back and fantasy points by a huge margin. When a player blows up like Church did last year, we usually see him fall back to the pack the next season. Church's 107-28-0 with 5 takeaways, 6 passes defended and a score will certainly be tough to repeat. Considering the situation in front of him however, Church just may pull it off. Keep in mind that he averaged 6.7 solo stops a game even when Sean Lee was playing. Church is a 6'2" 218 pound physical in the box safety. He is not going to intercept a lot of passes but will make a mark in the big play columns with forced fumbles. The only thing that concerns me with Church is the change of defensive coordinator. That said, I have to believe Marinelli will realize what he has in Church and will continue to take advantage of his strengths. Church was on a tier by himself last year. He may come back to earth a little but he clearly remains the top fantasy target among defensive backs.
Church is not the only Dallas DB that has something to offer. It is certainly worth mention that the Cowboys free safety position produced 76 solo stops, 30 assists and three takeaways in 2013. Last year's third round pick J.J. Wilcox will compete with Jeff Heath and possibly Matt Johnson for the starting job at that position, but he organization expects/wants to see Wilcox win that job. Like Church, Wilcox is a big physical safety, checking in at 6'2" and 217 pounds. He brings more to the field than a physical presence however. Wilcox was a wide receiver until his senior year at Georgia Southern, so he has excellent ball skills. He is fast, athletic and solid in coverage despite being rather inexperienced as a defensive back. Whoever wins this job is likely to have some value so long as they are not forced to share playing time as was the case last year. Slip Wilcox onto your draft list as a late round DB5 that no one will be paying any attention too. He may prove to be a solid contributor.
Brandon Carr will be one of the starting corners with veteran Orlando Scandrick and 2012 first round pick Morris Claiborne competing to determine the rest of the pecking order at the position. This trio of quality cover men not only made the corner position a strength of the Dallas defense last year, they also gave fantasy owners some quality options. At 60-11-0 with 4 takeaways, 13 passes defended and a score, Carr was the number seven corner. Not far behind was Scandrick at 59-5-2 with 3 takeaways, 13 passes defended and a ranking of tenth. It would be easy to look at the numbers and say that these guys are both solid CB1 prospects. Before doing that, there are some things to consider. First of all we are talking about the corner position which is highly inconsistent on a year to year basis anyway. With the exception of a small group of players, it is rare for corners to repeat a top fifteen finish. Then there is the fact that Scandrick is not a lock to be a starter as he will be hard pressed to hold off Claiborne for another year. Finally there is the point that we are not sure how the change of defensive coordinators is going to affect the box scores here. All things considered, I am fairly confident that Carr will continue to give us at least solid CB2 production. Beyond that I will have to take a wait and see approach.
SS Barry Church - Elite top 3 DB with a strong possibility of repeating as #1
FS J.J. Wilcox - Sleeper with DB3 upside
SS Jeff Heath - Dark horse sleeper
FS Matt Johnson - No value
CB Brandon Carr - CB1 potential but target as a priority #2
CB Morris Claiborne - CB2 upside if he can win the starting job
CB Orlando Scandrick - Low end CB2 if he can hold off Claiborne for the starting spot
New York Giants
The Giants have been one of the more difficult teams to figure out over the past several years. It seem that when we expect them to be good, they tend to fall apart. But When we expect them to struggle they win Super Bowls. The good Giants teams all seem to have one thing in common; excellent play from their defensive line. This group certainly did not hold up their end of the deal in 2013. Justin Tuck was hot over the second half of the season. He ended up leading the team with 11 sacks while no one else had more than 6. Tuck will be wearing silver and black in 2014, leaving the rest of this group to pick up the pieces. The team will be relying heavily on fifth year pro Jason Pierre-Paul and last year's third round pick Damontre Moore at the defensive end positions. Pierre-Paul's monster 2011 season with 67 solo tackles and 16.5 sacks seems like ancient history. We can add his totals from the past two years together (63 tackles, 8.5 sacks) and it would still not come close to his 2011 production. The story that the numbers fail to tell is that Pierre-Paul has not been completely healthy for most of the past two seasons. The back problem that developed in 2012 eventually led to surgery and was followed by a shoulder injury that seriously impacted his play in 2013, causing Pierre-Paul to miss the final five games all together. The back is healed and is not expected to create further problems. The shoulder injury however, could still be an issue. At the end of last seasons it was determined that he would not need surgery and that the shoulder should heal fine with rest and rehab. In mid June Pierre-Paul told reporters that he has something to prove and that he plans to "shut a whole bunch of people up" with his play in 2014. Less than a week later Giants general manager Jerry Reese told reporters that the shoulder was still not 100%. Fantasy owners know what a healthy Pierre-Paul is capable of. What we do not know is if we will see a healthy Pierre-Paul anytime soon. This is a situation that will be under the magnifying glass when the Giants open camp. Hopefully he will be full go at some point during the preseason, but the reality is that shoulder injuries tend to linger and are easily aggravated. Until we know more about the situation, Pierre-Paul is a big risk as anything more than a priority DL3 with high upside.
Many people have already anointed Moore as the replacement for Tuck. I am not so sure that Mathias Kiwanuka is one of those people. Despite the issues with Pierre-Paul, Moore saw surprisingly little action as a rookie. He does however, bring a great deal of potential to the table. On the field Moore graded out much higher than a third round pick over his final season at Texas A&M. He declared for the draft after a junior season that saw him total 85 combined tackles and assists with 12.5 sacks and second team All-American honors. The Aggies used a 3-4 during Moore's first two years there. He worked as an outside linebacker in that scheme before moving to end in the 4-3 when the school hired a new defensive coordinator. There are some scouts who believe that had Moore stayed in school for another year, he may have been a first round pick. He has an great motor and no one questions his potential as a pass rusher, but Moore did not fare well as a point of attack run defender in college. The man he is expected to replace was one of the league's best at that part of the game. Moore has a lot of unproven potential and will be given every opportunity to impress. The fact that he has not yet shown anything at he pro level is reason to be cautious. He may prove to be as much as a solid low end DL1 but the uncertainty
makes it a risk to count on him as a starter. Unless you have a Giants fan in your league, Moore is likely to slip into the later rounds where he can be picked up as a priority DL3 sleeper.
Kiwanuka got the call over Moore when Pierre-Paul was out down the stretch in 2013. In all he started nine games last season, including the final seven. Kiwanuka is a good fall back plan for the team in the event that Pierre-Paul is still not healthy, or if Moore fails to impress. The 2006 first round pick has spent much of his career bouncing back and forth between defensive end and strong side linebacker, but has been at end for most of the past two seasons. He is a capable player with a career best of 8.5 sacks, but is not an elite pass rusher. Kiwanuka finished last season at 25-16-6 with a couple of forced fumbles. The coaching staff would like to keep him in a reserve role as their third end, but would be comfortable with him as a starter if needed. If he ends up in a starting role, Kiwanuka should put up numbers in the area of 35-20-8 with a sprinkling of big plays.
The Giants added former Bronco Robert Ayers during free agency. The 2009 first round pick failed to live up to expectations in Denver. We never know what a change of scenery will do for a talented player who has struggled. At this point Ayers is unlikely to see the field much and is no more than an insurance plan for the Giants.
In 2013 the Giants gave us a pair of top twenty interior linemen. Linval Joseph was the most productive at 34-25-3 with a couple of takeaways and a final ranking of thirteen. Meanwhile Cullen Jenkins was 25-6-5 with 4 takeaways and ranked number twenty. Joseph has moved on to Minnesota and will be replaced in the lineup by last year's second round pick Johnathan Hankins. Both Jenkins and Hankins are solid, fairly athletic big men who should provide a good anchor in the middle of this defense. Both have the potential to be second starters for owners in leagues that break out the defensive line positions, but neither Jenkins Nor Hankins would seem to have a great deal of upside.
DE Damontre Moore - Strong sleeper, target as a priority DL3 big upside
DE Jason Pierre-Paul - Big injury risk that could pay dividends if he is healthy
DE Mathias Kiwanuka - DL3 at best
DE Robert Ayers - Injury sleeper with marginal value
DT Cullen Jenkins - Solid DT2 with little upside
DT Johnathan Hankins - Potential DT2
DT Jay Bromley - No value
The Giants have been dealing with questionable linebacker talent for a long time. When they traded for Jon Beason last year, he made an immediate impact both on the field and in the box scores. In eleven starts for New York, Beason averaged nearly 6 solo tackles and over 11.5 fantasy points. After staying healthy for the first time since 2010, the team inked him to a three year deal. Unfortunately for both the Giants and fantasy owners, Beason's injury woes have returned. He missed nearly all of 2011 with an Achilles' injury and most of 2012 with a knee. Now he will miss all of training camp and the preseason with a broken foot. The good news for everyone is that he will not need surgery and is expected to play in 2014. The bad news is that he seems unlikely to be ready for the opener. Depending on how close he is when the season draws near, the organization may elect to put Beason on the PUP. In that case he would miss the first six games for sure. When/if he is able to get healthy, Beason is a highly productive fantasy option. For owners who can afford the roster spot, he is worth picking up cheap and holding onto. For those who are not able to stash him, keep a close eye on the situation and beat your opponents to the punch when he gets close to playing.
For those who need help in the interim, take a look at free agent addition Jameel McClain. The former Raven will take over in the middle while Beason recovers. He was a two down thumper during most of his six years in Baltimore, but is the closest thing the Giants have to a three down middle backer without Beason. McClain has never posted more than 56 solo stops but that was more due to the situation he was in than a knock on his ability. Playing next to Ray Lewis would make it tough for anyone to put up good numbers. With foot injuries having a tendency to linger, McClain could prove to be a nice late round addition. He will likely shift over to start on the strong side When Beason comes back.
Beyond those two, the Giants give us very little at the linebacker positions. Mark Herzlich is a great story, but is a marginal player at best. Jacquian Williams could earn a role in the passing down sub packages but he has not been able to hold a job on early downs over his three seasons with the team. Spencer Paysinger opened last season as a three down middle backer. That did not work out well and he became a two down player on the weak side after the Beason addition. Rookie Devon Kennard is a somewhat interesting addition from an NFL perspective. The former Trojan made starts at middle backer in a 4-3, outside linebacker in a 3-4 and as a 4-3 defensive end during his career at USC. The versatility could earn him a significant role down the road as he could be a younger version of Kiwanuka.
MLB Jon Beason - Big injury risk with LB2 upside when/if healthy
MLB/SLB Jameel McClain - Sleeper who could be a surprise LB3
MLB Mark Herzlich - No value
WLB Spencer Paysinger - Minimal value at best
WLB Jacquian Williams - No value
SLB Devon Kennard - Deep sleeper/dynasty prospect worth keeping an eye on
From both an NFL and a fantasy perspective, there are few safeties in the game that are more dependable than Antrel Rolle. Being a former corner he has excellent cover skills and good speed, but he also has the physical toughness of a linebacker. Over the course of his nine years in the league, Rolle has produced 73 or more solo tackles six times including each of the past four seasons, and he has averaged better than 4 takeaways a year since 2007. Despite all of those facts, I have to advise caution when drafting him this year. Rolle was the fantasy game's number two defensive back in 2013. While his 80 solo tackles and 18 assists were not career highs, the 6 interceptions were. In fact they were more than the previous three years combined. The 8 total takeaways Rolle recorded last season were double his total from any year since 2007 and were 3 more than he had ever produced in a single season. His 12 passed defended were also a career best and were more than double any of his prior years since moving to safety. Rolle even had 2 sacks in 2013, bringing his career total to 2.5. I have every confidence that he will continue to be a quality fantasy option. I just do not believe he will be able to repeat last year's impressive totals. When/if the Giants get Stevie Brown, Beason and McClain all on the field at the same time, there will be more competition for tackles as well. If the offense is able to get back on track as they likely will to at least some extent, there
will be fewer opportunities for defenders in general. All things considered, I like Rolle as a solid DB2 with low end DB1 potential. After last year's production however, he is probably going to be among the top five defensive backs off the board.
Our best idea may be to let someone else have Rolle early and target Brown a few rounds later. After missing all of last season with a knee injury, Brown claims to be fit and ready for action. He will enter camp as the starting free safety and expects to pick up right where he left off in 2012. In case some of you do not remember where he left off... In 2012 it was Brown who finished as the fantasy games number two defensive back (Rolle was #27). In thirteen starts that year Brown was 64-10-0 with a healthy 8 interceptions and 12 total takeaways. At 5'11" and 221 pounds he also adds a physical presence to the Giants backfield. In fact, Brown and Rolle are virtually interchangeable parts at the safety positions. Owners cannot go wrong with either of these guys but I have to think that Brown will give us better value based on where we can get him. A year out of sight will have put him out of mind for a lot of owners.
Veteran free agent addition Quentin Demps and rookie fifth round pick Nat Berhe will compete for the backup job at the safety position. Demps is a six year career backup with only a handful of starts to his credit, but he is coming off the best year of his career. He had a sub package role With the Chiefs last season, totaling 24-11-0 with 4 interceptions and 10 passes defended. If one of the starters were to go down, he would likely be the next man up and would be a more than adequate short term replacement. Behre is somewhat of a project but has some positive attributes. He is a bit undersized for a safety at 191 pounds and is not particularly fast, but he plays with intensity, has excellent anticipation and a nose for the ball. Despite his small stature, Behre led San Diego State in tackles in each of the past two years. He will earn his keep on special teams this year but could be an interesting prospect down the road.
2011 first round pick Prince Amukamara finally claimed a starting job in his third season. His 76 solo tackles was best in the league among corners and helped him to a top ten fantasy finish at the position. He will enter camp as the favorite to retain the starting job, but his lack of big play production could open the door for one of the several veteran free agents the Giants have added. There is clearly some fantasy potential to be harnessed at these positions but it is hard to say at this early juncture, who it will lie with. In 2013 Amukamara was joined by Corey Webster as the starters with Terrell Thomas working as the nickel corner. Thomas is gone but the team has added Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Walter Thurmond, and Zachary Bowman to the mix at the position. 2012 third round pick Jayron Hosley could also be a factor after serving his four game suspension. Again I will point out that with a few exceptions, corners rarely repeat top fifteen finishes. Whoever wins the starting jobs here will be available on the waiver wire if they start to show promise.
FS Stevie Brown - Sneaky DB2 with top 10 upside
SS Antrel Rolle - Solid DB2 with low end DB1 potential
SS Nat Berhe - Deep dynasty sleeper
FS Quentin Demps - Injury sleeper
CB Prince Amukamara - Possible CB2
CB Corey Webster - Minimal value
CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie - Possible CB3
CB Walter Thurmond - Minimal value
CB Jayron Hosley - No value
CB Zachary Bowman - No value
The Eagles are entering just their second season using a 3-4 scheme but their defensive line is already set for the long term. In Fletcher Cox and Cerdic Thornton Philadelphia has a pair of young guns who were able to make a smooth transition from 4-3 tackles to 3-4 ends. Both guys are active and mobile 300+ pounders who fit the mould well. As is often the case with linemen in a 3-4, the full contribution of these two players went unrecognized in the box scores last season. In last year's column I mentioned that Cox was a guy with the potential to post decent numbers in this scheme. The 29-12-3 he put up were about the norm for most 3-4 ends. Instead it was Thornton who proved to have a little value. He managed only 1 sack and 1 forced fumble, but his 48 solo tackles were enough to make Thornton a decent DL3. It would be no surprise if both Cox and Thornton were to show a bit of improvement, especially in the sack column. That said, neither of them are worthy of much consideration until they show us something.
Second year man Bennie Logan will complete the starting lineup in 2014. Last year's third round pick made his first NFL start at nose tackle in week nine. He performed well enough to keep the job for the remainder of the season and is now entrenched at the position. All three of the Eagles starters are 26 or younger and signed for at least two more years. They were not very box score friendly in 2013 but as they grow more comfortable in the scheme and continue to develop chemistry, we may see someone in this group step up. Until that happens fantasy owners need to look elsewhere.
DE Fletcher Cox - Minimal value until proven otherwise
DE Cedric Thornton - Low end DL3 with limited upside
DE Vinny Curry - Injury sleeper with DL3 potential at best
DE Taylor Hart - No value
NT Bennie Logan - No value
NT Damion Square - No value
NT Beau Allen - No value
When the Texans turned to a 3-4 scheme in 2011 DeMeco Ryans seemed to be a poor fit. As a result he had the worst production of his career and was subsequently shipped off to Philadelphia via trade. He had a solid if unspectacular 2012 in the Eagles 4-3, but it was enough to show that Ryans was far from washed up. When Philadelphia announced their plan of moving to a 3-4 last offseason, many took it as a bad sign for Ryans. He proved the doubters wrong by having one of the best seasons of his eight year career. At 103-25-4 with a couple of interceptions and 7 passes defended, Ryans slipped into the top twelve for the first time since 2007. Looking back we can now make the assumption that his poor 2011 had more to do with his 2010 Achilles' injury and the elbow problem he was dealing with at the time. Heading into 2014 there is a new obstacle for Ryans to overcome. In June it was reported that the coaching staff is looking to reduce his workload for the upcoming season. Exactly what that means is yet to be seen, but the first step was to strip Ryans of the play calling duties. Mychal Kendricks will wear the communications helmet and will be making the defensive calls in the huddle this season. While that does not necessarily mean that Ryans will become a two down player, it does open the door for that possibility. A look at the Eagles roster tells us that the team has no obvious option as a nickel package replacement. This is a situation that will be high on the watch list when camp opens. At this point it is safe to expect that Ryans numbers will slip to some extent, but I will be shocked if he becomes a complete non-factor for fantasy owners. I am still looking to pick him up as a third starter with LB2 upside at this point.
Kendricks turned in substantially lower tackle totals than Ryans in 2013, but his big play production made up the difference. In fifteen games Kendricks was 81-25-4 with 9 takeaways and five passes defended. He finished a couple of slots below Ryans in the overall rankings but Kendricks points per game average was slightly higher. Kendricks will turn 24 in September and is just entering the prime of his career. This guy is a beast! He is a fast, physical playmaker that has only scratched the surface of his potential. He will be the centerpiece of the Philadelphia defense for years to come and is set to become a perennial top ten fantasy option.
The old cliché "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" is generally true when it comes to 30+ year old pass rushers making the move between 4-3 and 3-4 schemes. Trent Cole is one of the exceptions. Between 2006 and 2011 Cole averaged 49 solo tackles and 10.5 sacks. The Eagles so called "wide-9" did not work for anyone in 2012 so his numbers suffered. At age 31 Cole was introduced to the 3-4 for the first time. He responded with a mark of 44-12-9 with 3 forced fumbles and 5 pass breakups. Cole will be 32 in October but has shown no signs of slowing down. There is no reason to expect a drop off in production. In fact, the year of experience in the scheme could translate to slightly better totals in 2014. Unfortunately for fantasy owners, 40-50 tackles are not good numbers for a linebacker. Thus the positional change has all but ruined Cole's fantasy value. for those in big play based leagues he could be as much as a strong second starter. For everyone else Cole is little more than a bye week flier.
The Eagles added Connor Barwin last offseason not so much because they had grand expectations of him reaching double digits in sacks, but because he had starting experience at outside linebacker in a 3-4 and could help with the transition. Barwin had a career best 11.5 sacks in 2011 but has totaled only 7 over the past two seasons. Tackle production from this position is consistently low in general but Barwin's average of roughly 37 solo stops over the past three years is below average. This is a tough position for a rookie to learn so Barwin is likely to at least open the season as the starter, but there is little doubt that the team plans on replacing him as soon as first round pick Marcus Smith II shows that he is ready. If Smith lives up to expectations the change could happen very quickly. The rookie needs to improve as a point of attack run defender before he can take on a three down role, but his 14.5 sacks as a senior at Louisville is a strong indication that the coaching staff will be looking to get him on the field in passing situations right away.
A player to keep an eye on here is Brandon Graham. Not so much because he is can produce in Philadelphia, but because he is rumored to be on the roster bubble due to the Smith addition. There are a lot of 4-3 teams out there that would love to see the Eagles set this guy free. Graham is one of those true 4-3 ends who failed to make a successful transition to the 3-4. As a part time player in the rotation, he managed to go 30-8-5.5 with 3 takeaways in 2012. If cut, Graham would not be unemployed for long. If he were to land in the right place he could well be a 40 tackle and double digit sack guy as early as this year.
ILB Mychal Kendricks - On the way to being a perennial top ten linebacker
ILB DeMeco Ryans - Solid LB3 with low end LB2 upside
ILB Najee Goode - Injury sleeper
ILB Casey Matthews - no value
OLB Trent Cole - Solid second starter in big play based leagues
OLB Connor Barwin - No value
OLB Marcus Smith II - Sleeper/dynasty option in big play based leagues
OLB Brandon Graham - Sleeper with strong potential if he can escape Philadelphia
One side effect of the Eagles fast paced offense is that both teams tend to run more plays. That translates to additional opportunity for defenders. No one had more passes attempted against them in 2013 than the Eagles 670, with only the Vikings allowing more passes to be completed against them than the Eagles 408. Philadelphia was even in the top third when it came to rushing attempts against. The extra opportunities show up in the numbers at inside linebacker to some extent but they were even more profoundly reflected in the production of the defensive backs. In all, Eagles corners and safeties accounted for over 330 tackles in 2013. Starting corners Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams each put up at least 57 solo stops with nickel corner Brandon Boykin contributing 42. All three players finished among the top twenty corners in the final fantasy rankings. Boykin's 8 takeaways (6 picks), 17 pass breakups and a score helped him to lead the way at number eight.
The coaching staff was so satisfied with the play of this trio that no significant additions were made at the positions. I have mentioned a number of times that corners tend to struggle with year to year consistency. while that is certainly true in general, the Eagles corners could prove to be an exception. At the least we can be sure that they will have plenty of opportunity. Taking a look at the history of these guys gives us another good reason for optimism. Fletcher was injured in 2011 and was not able to reclaim his starting job in St. Louis the following year. As a starter in 2010 however, he went 65-10-0 with 5 takeaways and 11 passes defended. Thus it is safe to say that his 2013 numbers were not a one shot deal. As a starter for the Ravens in 2011 and 2012, Williams averaged 64-12 in the tackle columns, adding 6 takeaways, a sack and 35 passes defended. Also proving that he is capable of a repeat. Boykin was the fourth round pick of the Eagles in 2012 so last year was his first opportunity to show his potential. All things considered, there is a good chance that both Fletcher and Williams will repeat as solid second starters. The jury is still out on Boykin simply because he is not an every down player. That said, I would still give him strong consideration as a third corner with strong upside.
Safety has been a problem for the Eagles over the past couple of years. Over that time the team has used several players in various combinations in search for the right fit. In 2013 Nate Allen started ten regular season games at strong safety and six at free. Rookie Earl Wolff started 4 games at strong safety and two at free while veteran free agent pickup Patrick Chung also made multiple starts at each position. At season's end the organization was no closer to having a long term answer at either position than they were in week one. The important thing to know entering 2014 is that there is good value to be mined at the Eagles safety positions. Kurt Coleman started fourteen games for the team in 2012 and averaged just under eleven points a game. Last season the five players who saw action at safety combined for 157 solo tackles, 5 takeaways and a sack.
The Eagles added former New Orleans starter Malcolm Jenkins to take over at free safety. In fantasy terms he was never much more than a marginal DB3 or good depth during his four years at the position with the Saints, but Jenkins should give the Eagles exactly what they were looking for at the position. Being a converted corner, he has a good combination of speed and cover skills. Jenkins is not the most physical of safeties when it comes to run support, but he is technically sound and rarely misses. He has the range to get deep with the speedy receivers in the NFC East and enough big play ability to make a solid contribution in that area as well. Jenkins is little threat to be a top twenty defensive back, but he does have the potential to post 65-70 tackles, double digits in passes defended and a handful of takeaways. He is worth a shot as a DB4 target with DB3 upside.
The most interesting prospect here is second year man Earl Wolff. The 2013 fifth round pick saw a good deal of action as a rookie and may have emerged as a full time starter had he not missed the final six games with injury. Over his final two seasons at N.C. State Wolff totaled 224 combined tackles with 5 picks and a handful of forced fumbles. In the eight games that he saw significant action last year, he was on pace for 72 solo stops with 10 passes defended and a couple of picks. He is a player that the coaching staff is high on and Wolff will be given every opportunity to beat out Allen for the starting strong safety job. If he can claim that spot and hold it for a full season, Wolff could post surprisingly strong numbers. He will be flying under the radar at least until preseason games get started. Mark him as a late round sleeper and pick him up as your #4, but do not be surprised if he ends up as an every week must play.
Allen will try to fend off Wolff and hold onto the job but in reality his days as the starter are numbered. He is a serviceable veteran backup who will make some contribution to the Eagles cause, but if he were the answer at either of the safety positions he would have settled into that role on a regular basis at some point over the last two years.
SS Earl Wolff - Strong sleeper with good upside
SS Nate Allen - Minimal value at best
FS Malcolm Jenkins - Possible DB3 prospect, no worse than a quality backup
CB Bradley Fletcher - CB2 with low end CB1 upside
CB Cary Williams - CB2 with low end CB1 upside
CB Brandon Boykin - CB3 with added big play potential
CB Nolan Carol - Injury sleeper with no current value
The design and responsibilities of a 3-4 scheme make it difficult in general for linemen to be productive in the box scores. Washington's defensive linemen however, have been the poster children for fantasy frustration in recent years. In 2011 Stephen Bowen was 20-22-6 and averaged a whole 6 points a game. Since that time no Washington lineman has reached 20 solo tackles, recorded more than three sacks or averaged more than 4.5 points a game. With the free agent addition of Jason Hatcher, the team hopes to break that trend. As a 3-technique tackle in the Cowboys 4-3 last season, Hatcher was 34-7-11 with a pair of forced fumbles and ranked twenty second among defensive linemen. So will Hatcher finally give Washington a fantasy friendly lineman or with the scheme crush yet another quality player's production? The only thing that is certain here is that we have lost a productive defensive tackle. What most people do not realize is that Hatcher is a 32 year old, eight year veteran. Before last year's breakout he had never recorded more than 27 tackles or 4.5 sacks in a season. So we are not only looking at a guy who has moved to a bad situation, we have to consider that he may have been a one year wonder as well. Hatcher may prove to be the most fantasy productive lineman that Washington has produced this decade, but that is not necessarily saying much. He will be overvalued by many owners based on last year's production and is a player we should avoid in 2014.
Barry Cofield is a solid player at the nose tackle position. As a defensive tackle for the Giants in 2010 he totaled 40-14-4 and was a top five interior lineman. In three years (48 games) at nose tackle in Washington he has posted a combined 47-46-7. In the immortal words of Forest Gump, "that's all I have to say about that".
Hatcher is recovering from a knee scope and will not be ready for the start of camp. He should be good to go for the season opener however, and is all but a lock to start if he is healthy. The rest of the depth chart at defensive end is up in the air. Long time starter Stephen Bowen is recovering from microfracture knee surgery and may not be ready for the season opener. There is speculation that he could even be a cap casualty. That leaves 2012 second round selection Jarvis Jenkins and eight year veteran Kedrick Golston as the top candidates. Backup nose tackle Chris Baker and free agent addition Clifton Geathers could also be in the mix. Regardless of who wins the job, there is very little fantasy value to be found here.
It seems strange to be talking about the Washington linebackers without London Fletcher being the focus. He will certainly be missed by both NFL fans and fantasy owners but life goes on for the team. Washington was not caught unprepared for Fletcher's retirement. 2010 fourth round pick Perry Riley has been a starter for the past two seasons while he was being groomed to take over as the centerpiece and leader of this unit. Riley actually out produced his mentor last season when his 72-43-3 with a couple of takeaways, 9 passes defended and almost 11 points a game, landed him at number twenty eight among linebackers. Riley is similar to Fletcher in both physical stature and the fact that both players have been excellent run defenders. While Riley is solid in coverage, he has not yet displayed the big play potential that helped Fletcher be a fantasy standout for most of the last twenty years. Riley's two years as a starter have produced a respectable 6 sacks but only 4 takeaways. I like his chances of reaching 85 or more solo stops in 2014 and the Washington stats crew is known for being generous with the assists. I believe that Riley's new responsibilities will open him up to make a few more game changing plays and that he could be as much as a top shelf LB2 for us in 2014. At worst he should continue to be a priority LB3.
With Riley moving into the lead role at inside linebacker there is a starting position to be filled. The organization added veteran free agents Darryl Sharpton, Akeem Jordan and Adam Hayward to compete for the job. While all of those guys are decent players with starting experience at the pro level, they will have a hard time beating out Keenan Robinson for the job. Robinson is one of my favorite sleepers at linebacker this year. As a rookie in 2012 he was stuck behind Fletcher and Riley, so he saw little action before a torn pectoral ended his rookie campaign in week twelve. He was looking good last summer and was seeing time behind the starters at both ILB positions when he tore the other pectoral in training camp, landing him on IR for the 2013 season. Robinson has a career total of only 8 solo tackles and 2 assists which means the most fantasy owners will know nothing about him. Robinson was a productive three year starter at inside linebacker for Texas. He has good size and speed, is strong in coverage and is smooth when sifting through trash in pursuit. Most importantly, he has been working with the first team throughout Washington's offseason activities and will open camp as the starter. Robinson is a player that many owners will overlook. He has the potential to be something special in the long run and should be at least a decent LB3 for us in 2014. Best of all, he can be picked up as a fourth or even fifth linebacker in leagues that start three.
As 3-4 outside linebackers go, Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan are good ones. Orakpo is coming off a career high in tackles at 43, and he put up double digit sacks in 2013 for the first time since his rookie season in 2009. Throw out an injury shortened 2012 and Orakpo has averaged roughly 39-19-9.5 over his five year career. Kerrigan has consistently been a little better in the tackle column where he has recorded at least 41 solo stops in each of his three years as a pro. He has posted at least 7.5 sacks in each of his three years as a pro, but is still looking for his first 10 sack season. Both players are going to have good value in big play based leagues but neither will be more than a matchup based bye week fill in for most owners.
Washington used their first round pick on Stanford outside linebacker Trent Murphy. It is hard to say where he will fit in as a rookie, but the fact that Orakpo is not signed beyond this season is a good sign that the organization see's Murphy as a starter in the near future. He was a highly productive three year starter for the Cardinals, leading the nation with 15 sacks as a senior. Murphy will surely suffer the same struggles when it comes to tackle production but could be a perennial double digit sack guy once he breaks into the starting lineup. Owners in big play dynasty leagues should put a high value on him.
ILB Perry Riley - Quality LB3 with high end LB2 upside
ILB Keenan Robinson - Strong sleeper with LB3 or better potential
ILB Darryl Sharpton - No value
ILB Akeem Jordan - Injury sleeper with limited potential
OLB Brian Orakpo - LB2 in big play based leagues, minimal value for everyone else
OLB Ryan Kerrigan - Low end LB2 in big play based leagues, minimal value for everyone else
OLB Trent Murphy - Sleeper/dynasty option in big play leagues
OLB Adam Hayward - No value
For the past few years Washington has been searching for consistency and long term answers at their safety positions. Brandon Meriweather has the ability that the team has been looking for but durability has been a problem as he has not played a full slate of games since 2010. Meriweather was a big play free safety for Patriots early in his career. In three seasons as a starter there he grabbed 12 interceptions and had 17 total takeaways. After two injury shortened seasons with Chicago and Washington respectively, Meriweather made thirteen starts in 2013. Four of those were at strong safety with the other nine coming at free. With 4 turnovers and a sack, Meriweather proved that he still has the knack for the big play. His average of just over 9.5 points a game last year would have landed Meriweather in the area of a decent DB3 had he played a full schedule. With the addition of Ryan Clark who is expected to start at free safety, Meriweather has been penciled in at the strong safety position entering camp. If he is able to stay healthy and can hold off the competition for the job, he has the potential to be as much as a low end DB2 this season. It is the "holding off the competition" part that concerns me here. Washington used a fourth round pick on safety Phillip Thomas last year. He was working with the first team while Meriweather sat out last summer and was impressing the coaching staff until a foot injury landed him on IR late in the preseason. Thomas is a fast, physical big play threat who has already been identified by new head coach Jay Gruden and a possible long term answer. As a senior at Fresno State Thomas recorded 84 combined tackles (12 for loss), 8 interceptions, four sacks and 3 forced fumbles. If he is all the way back from the injury, Thomas is going to make a
strong bid for one of the starting jobs. I was high on him entering last season and still believe that he could prove to be something special for fantasy owners. Slip him onto your list as a late round sleeper and pick him up as your fourth or even fifth DB. The gamble could pay big dividends.
Ryan Clark is entering year twelve of his NFL career and will be 35 years old in October. He was with Washington for a couple of years early in his career before going to the Steelers in 2006. Clark has been a dependable starter in the league for ten seasons and was a key contributor to the success of the Pittsburgh 3-4 over the past eight years. His ability as a catch all centerfielder made him a very valuable contributor on the field for the Steelers and was a big reason why Troy Polamalu was allowed to freelance so much in that scheme. As a fantasy prospect Clark had a couple of good seasons, but for the most part he was never much more than a marginal third starter or a solid backup. The question is; how much does he have left? He has been penciled in as the starter at free safety, but the pencil has an eraser. It will be no surprise to see Clark end up as the third safety behind Meriweather as the starter at free and Thomas as the starter at strong. The bottom line here is that whoever lands the starting spot at strong safety is going to have a good deal of potential. My money is on Thomas who also has the most upside of the trio.
Fantasy production from the corner positions has always been a moving target. The group of players that can be counted on as perennial number one fantasy options is very small. I keep saying this, but let me put it into perspective. There are a total of seven corners who have finished in the top twenty four in each of the past two seasons. Only Tim Jennings, Richard Sherman, Carey Williams and Washington's DeAngelo Hall have graced the top twenty four in each of the past three years, and only Hall has three consecutive top ten finishes. He was the fantasy game's top producing corner in 2013 and was the only corner to finish among the top fifteen (he was #6) in leagues that lump the defensive back positions together. Hall is a fierce competitor as well as a leader both on and off the field. Throw out an injury shortened 2009 and the ten year veteran has averaged nearly 62 solo tackles, better than 6.5 takeaways and just over 15 passes defended since becoming a starter in 2005. He even has an impressive 9 defensive scores on his resume'. He is 30 years old and is coming off one of the most productive seasons of his career. It is unlikely that Hall will finish number one at the position again in 2014, but he is as close as it gets in this game to a can't miss CB1.
Surprisingly Hall's counterpart Josh Wilson is also among that group of seven that have been fantasy starters in each of the past two seasons. Unfortunately Wilson will be wearing a Falcons uniform in 2014. His replacement in Washington's starting lineup will be last year's second round pick David Amerson. As a rookie Amerson earned significant playing time as the nickel corner. The fact the he finished at 40-8-0 with 3 takeaways, 10 passed defended and a score while playing on only 67% of the defensive snaps, is a pretty good indication that Amerson will fill Wilson's shoes admirably. Wilson finished among the top fifteen in both 2012 and 2013. I like Amerson's chances of making it three years in a row for the starter at that position. It certainly does not hurt that he is flying under the radar and can probably be picked up in the last round of most drafts.
Free agent addition Tracy Porter and holdover E.J. Biggers are expected to compete for the nickel corner job. Both are solid veteran cover men with the ability to step in and produce if either of the starters go down. These two help make Washington both strong and deep at the position.
FS Ryan Clark - DB3 at best
SS Brandon Meriweather - Low end DB2 potential if everything falls just right
SS Phillip Thomas - Sleeper with a high ceiling if he can claim the strong safety job
FS Bacarri Rambo - No value
CB DeAngelo Hall - Solid CB1
CB David Amerson - Sleeper with low end CB1 potential
CB Tracy Porter - Injury sleeper
CB E.J. Biggers - Injury sleeper
That does it for the NFC East. Next up the AFC West.