For reference, when I mention where players finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system. This is the standard stuff;
Tackles = 1.5
Assists = .75
Sacks = 4
Forced fumbles = 3
Fumble recoveries = 3
Interceptions = 4
passes defended = 1.5
Touchdowns = 6
Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league. From time to time I will reference the "rookie corner rule". For those who are new to IDP or the EOTG, the rookie corner rule is basically the fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie at corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses, thus these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. Most often these guys are the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon) and their numbers will begin to drop sharply after their rookie seasons. When I mention tackle numbers, I do not lump assists and solo tackles together. Unless I make a reference one way or the other, I am talking about solo tackles. When I talk about a total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries and fumbles forced since all of these score very similarly in most scoring systems.
The Minnesota defensive line will look different without Jared Allen and Kevin Williams, but that does not necessarily mean they will not improve up front under new head coach Mike Zimmer. The team will try to replace Allen's perennial double digit sack totals with a combination of veterans Everson Griffen, Corey Wootton and rookie third round pick Scott Crichton. Griffen looks to be the most likely fantasy prospect of this group. The fifth year pro has served as a versatile backup for the Vikings over most of his career, and has seen considerable playing time at both tackle and end over the past three seasons. Griffen's best production came in 2012 when he finished with career highs in both tackles at 22, and sacks with 8. He is a strong run defender and is above average as an pass rusher. Griffin is expected to move into the starting role at end where he could be surprisingly productive. There are however, some concerns that I have with him. In the past Griffen has worked at end on early downs and moved inside in passing situations. If he continues to be used that way, it could be the difference between 5 sacks and 9 sacks this year. There is also the addition of Wootton who will likely be in the mix for significant playing time. Wootton is almost eerily similar to Griffen in many ways. Like Griffen, Wootton is entering his fifth year as a pro, he has a career best of 27 tackles and 7.5 sacks, and has been an early down end who shifts inside in passing situations over the past couple of years with Chicago. Then there is the rookie. Crichton is somewhat of a developmental prospect. He came out after a junior season that produced 47 combined tackles and 7.5 sacks at Oregon State. I could see Zimmer using him as a third down specialist, much like he did Carlos Dunlap early in his career. It is not likely that any of these guys will sniff the top fifteen at the position this year, but there is good potential for Griffen to produce quality DL2 or excellent DL3 numbers.
The one relatively known commodity here is Brian Robison. As a starter opposite Allen, Robison has produced 24.5 sacks over the past three seasons, including a career best of 9 in 2013. There are some who believe that Robison's solid sack numbers have been a result of offenses concentration on Allen. While I agree that it was a factor, I also believe that Robison will still be good for 7-8 sacks in the current situation. what really concerns me about him is the lack of quality tackle numbers. Robison has never totaled more than 27 solo stops in a season. Over the past three seasons he has been a solid DL3. There is no reason to expect more than that out of him this time around.
I have mixed feelings about the production potential of the Vikings interior line. On one hand we have the fact that no Minnesota defensive tackle has been a fantasy standout over the past several years. Add in for reference the fact that none of them recorded more than 16 solo tackles last year. While those are some ominous points, we should not overlook several positive facts. Probably the most promising being that Mike Zimmer's defense produced Geno Atkins. Then there is 2013 first round pick Sharrif Floyd who will replace Kevin Williams in the starting lineup. Floyd is a mobile big man with the ability to stuff the run on early downs and enough athleticism to possibly stay on the field in most pass rush packages. Floyd had 9 tackles and 2.5 sacks in a limited role as a rookie and will likely draw the same role in Zimmer's defense that Atkins played. This could be a good marriage of skill set and scheme. It certainly has the potential to make Floyd a gem for owners in tackle required leagues. As difficult as it is to find productive interior linemen, he is worth sliping onto your sleeper list as a last round pick.
DE Everson Griffen - Sleeper with low end DL2 potential
DE Brian Robison - Solid DL3 with limited upside
DE Scott Crichton - Deep dynasty sleeper
DE Corey Wootton - Dark horse sleeper with limited potential
DT Sharrif Floyd - Sleeper to target late as a DT2 with upside
DT Linval Joseph - No value
DT Fred Evans - No value
At this early stage of the NFL year, the Vikings linebacker situation is clear as mud. The only thing we know for sure is that Chad Greenway is the guy to have here. Greenway has given us a couple of top ten finishes over his seven year career and has put up at least 80 solo tackles in six consecutive seasons. He is not exactly a big play linebacker but has consistently made a few contributions in those columns each year. The Vikings are looking at all their options with this group, including Greenway in the middle. Ultimately I expect to see first round pick Anthony Barr in the strong side role where Greenway has lined up over the past two seasons. Greenway is not really a middle backer by nature, which means there is a good chance he will land on the weak side. The last time he lined up there was 2010. That year Greenway had his best season, finishing at 109-36-1 with a couple of takeaways. He has top ten potential and can be counted on to finish no worse than somewhere in the LB2 range. With consistency and dependability adding to his value, I am targeting Greenway somewhere between the twelfth and fifteenth linebacker at this point. He will move up a couple of slots if he settles in on the weak side.
There are five players in contention for the other two starting spots. The team's decision at those positions will hinge largely on what they do with the rookie. Barr was recruited by UCLA as a running back but switched to a 3-4 outside linebacker in 2012 under Jim Mora Jr. Barr's two seasons at that position produced a whopping 23.5 sacks so the coaching staff will be looking to get the most out of his big play ability. The big question here is, can he play the strong side in a 4-3 or is he ultimately better suited to line up at defensive end? Early expectations are that he will be used much like Von Miller. A linebacker in the base package and a rush end in passing situations. It would be no surprise to me however, if he were to eventually become a full time end. Putting a value on Barr is going to be tough until we get a better feel for his role. That said, I do not have grand expectations.
Audie Cole finished last season as the starting middle backer. He was not graceful but managed to do an efficient job both on the field and in the box scores. Cole will be in the mix this summer but will have a hard time holding off veteran Jasper Brinkley. Brinkley was Minnesota's fifth round pick in 2009. He made a few starts for them in 2012 but never really excelled. Brinkley spent last season as a backup in Arizona before signing with the Vikings as a free agent this offseason. He has been penciled in as the starter entering training camp but is far from a lock to have the job come week one. Brinkley's injury struggles have been one problem and his average coverage skills could also be a factor. Even is he does hold onto the starting job, Brinkley could be a two down player.
Second year pros Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti are also worth mention here. Hodges was the team's fourth round pick last year. He is a capable weak side linebacker who could eventually make some noise. Good cover skills may even make him a candidate for sub package action this season. Hodges is one of those guys that could surprise if he is given an opportunity. Mauti also falls into that category. The former Penn State star was and early-middle round prospect before a serious injury derailed his senior season. Now that he is fully recovered, Mauti may emerge as the team's best option in the middle.
At the least this is an evolving situation that we will be keeping a close eye on over the summer. If you draft early, consider Brinkley a late round sleeper target with LB3 upside at best. Barr is likely to have marginal value as a linebacker, but a shift to end could be huge. In the long run I believe that both Mauti and Hodges are going to get their chances.
WLB Chad Greenway - Quality LB2 with top ten potential
MLB Audie Cole - Sleeper with LB3 upside
MLB Jasper Brinkley - Sleeper with LB3 potential at best
SLB Anthony Barr - Big play threat who is unlikely to make an impact in the tackle column
WLB Gerald Hodges - Dynasty/sleeper with long term potential
MLB Michael Mauti - Deep sleeper with good upside
The Minnesota secondary gives us one of the best defensive backs in the fantasy game. Harrison Smith missed eight games with an injury in 2013. In the other eight games he set a pace that would have put him at 94-22-0 with six takeaways. At 6'2" and 214 pounds, Smith brings to the field a rare combination of size, speed and instincts. He is an intimidating big hitter that is equally effective in coverage or supporting the run. Improvements in the front seven will likely cause a dip in Smith's gaudy tackle production, but it should provide an opportunity for him to add a few big plays to his totals. During his time in Cincinnati Mike Zimmer never had such a presence at the safety position. It will be interesting to see how the scheme might be adapted to take advantage of Smith's strengths. When it comes to box score production from the safety position, Smith and Barry church are in a tier of their own. When drafting I generally like to wait on defensive backs, but Smith and Church will be the rare exception this draft season.
A rash of injuries at the safety positions in 2013 allowed the Vikings to get a long look at their depth. Jamarca Sanford, Andrew Sendejo and Mistral Raymond all made starts during the season. Sanford took advantage of the opportunity, playing well enough when he was healthy, to secure the starting spot opposite Smith. What makes Sanford so intriguing is that he averaged 8 solo tackles in his first four starts in 2013. After that he was in and out of the lineup with an ankle injury for a while, returning to the for good in week eleven. Sanford had a couple of decent games down the stretch but was never the same player. Improvements up front, a healthy Smith beside him and a new coaching staff are all factors that could impact Sanford's production. Even so, he may be worth a late round flier in deep drafted leagues.
In years past the Vikings use of a cover-2 scheme made their corners rather box score friendly. Antoine Winfield is long gone and the new coaching staff will not employ the cover-2. History tells us that corners in a Zimmer defense are rarely more than marginal fantasy options. While the signs are clearly not positive, they do not necessarily mean that there will be no value here. It is true that no Minnesota corner put up more than 47 solo tackles last season, but that is a misleading statistic since all of the team's top three corners missed time with injuries. Josh Robinson was on pace for 83 tackles before he was injured, Chris Cook was on pace for 59 and then rookie Xavier Rhodes was heading for 50+. Free agent addition Captain Munnerlyn replaces Cook who has moved on. Rhodes will compete with Robinson and free agent addition Shaun Prater to establish the rest of the pecking order. We could get some production out of someone here, but the best move would be to take a wait and see approach.
FS Harrison Smith - Elite tier one fantasy option
SS Jamarca Sanford - Sleeper with DB3 potential
SS Mistral Raymond - No value
SS Andrew Sendajo - No value
CB Captain Munnerlyn - CB3 at best
CB Xavier Rhodes - Deep sleeper
CB Josh Robinson - Sleeper with low end CB2 potential
CB Shaun Prater - No value
The Lions have thrown a lot of resources at their defensive line in recent years. In former first round picks Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley they have a pair of interior linemen with the potential to be dominant both on the field and in the fantasy game. Both players are powerful, athletic and quick 300+ pounders with the ability to stuff the run between the tackles and push the pocket in passing situations. What sets them apart however, is the ability to make plays in pursuit and get by pass blockers with their quickness. Between them they accounted for 60 solo tackles and 11 sacks in 2013. Suh is the better fantasy option of the pair. He had a huge rookie season in 2010 that included 48 tackles and 10 sacks. Since that time his numbers have fallen sharply. Over the past three seasons Suh has averaged about 29-11-5.5. While those numbers are not impressive to owners in leagues that lump all defensive linemen into one position, they are very useful in leagues that require interior linemen. With a mark of 36-11-5.5 and 6 batted passes, Suh was a top five tackle in 2013. With the coaching staff considering the option of using him at end on some early downs, he could fare even better in 2014.
Fairley has averaged just 25 tackles over the past two season but tends to be more of a big play threat. His 11.5 sacks over that span are on par with Suh, but Fairley has forced 4 fumbles, recovered 3 and scored once in his last 28 games as well. He has the potential to breakout for a big year and should at the least, repeat as a solid DT1.
Ezekiel Ansah battled injuries as a rookie, but the 2013 first round pick managed an impressive 9for a rookie) 8.5 sacks in his twelve games. On the other hand, Ansah put up just 18 solo tackles. That has been the common denominator for Detroit defensive ends in recent years. The team has used a lot of players in various roles with good overall production, but lacking individual numbers. That could change with a new coaching regime in place. Ansah is an excellent pass rusher who will likely reach double digits in sacks. He may even have the ability to press for the league sack title at some point. If he can improve versus the run and get on the field on early downs, he could become a perennial top ten defensive linemen. At this point however, we can not count on that happening. I see Ansah as a high upside DL3 that should be targeted as priority depth.
There will be an open competition for playing time between injury prone veteran Jason Jones and 2013 fourth round pick Devin Taylor. Jones is a versatile player who has worked at tackle over much of his six years as a pro. He will likely see most of his action on early downs until he is injured, which history suggests is inevitable. Jones has never played a full slate of game and is coming off a ruptured patellar tendon that could open the door for the youngster. Taylor managed 3 sacks in his very limited playing time as a rookie. Like Ansah, he will need to show improvement as a run defender before he can earn a more significant role. We will want to keep an eye on the entire Detroit defensive line situation this summer as there is much yet to be learned and potential to be exploited.
DE Ezekial Ansah - DL3 withy high upside if he can land an every down role
DE Jason Jones - Minimal value at best
DE Devin Taylor - Deep sleeper with long term potential
DE Darryl Tapp - Veteran depth with no value
DT Ndamukong Suh - Potential top five tackle
DT Nick Fairley - Potential top five tackle
DT C.J. Mosley - no value
Heading into 2013 I was not very high on either Stephen Tulloch or DeAndre Levy. Both players were unimpressive in 2012 and there was little reason to have grand expectations. As it turned out Levy nearly doubled his fantasy point total from the previous year and Tulloch turned in what was by far the best box score production of his three years in Detroit. So what should we expect this year? The Lions strong front four is a big plus for the linebackers. The optimist would reason that one strong season should lead to another. I have been around this game long enough to know that is not always the case. Levy totaled 85-32-0 with six interceptions, 15 passes defended and a score. In his previous four seasons he averaged 60-27-0 with a career total of 5 picks and 13 passes defended. So which is most likely to be the mirage? With Suh and/or Fairley drawing double teams on every running play, there is going to be room for the linebackers to work. As such I will not be surprised if Levy has another 80+ solo tackles. Expecting a repeat of his big play production however, would be a mistake. Let someone else draft him early based on the one big season. I would target Levy as no more than a decent LB3 with a little upside.
Tulloch's history gives us much more reason for optimism. His 2012 totals were actually his lowest production since 2008. In fact, Tulloch has exceeded 90 solo tackles three times in the past five seasons, including 111 in 2010. He is not a big play linebacker but has consistently made some contribution in those categories. Much like Chad Greenway, what adds to Tulloch's value is his week to week tackle consistency. In 2013 he posted 5 or more solo tackles in thirteen games with double digit fantasy points in fourteen games. Slot Tulloch in the area of a dependable low end LB2 with a little upside.
With the selection of Kyle Van Noy in the second round, the Lions seem to be going with the trend of play making strong side linebackers. Over his final two seasons at BYU, Van Noy totaled 17 sacks, 4 picks, 6 forced fumbles, a safety, 2 blocked kicks and a score. The downside was his average tackle production of 123 combines tackles and assists over those two seasons. Put him in the category of Von Miller, Kahlil Mack and Anthony Barr as a player who should be big play productive but inconsistent in the tackle columns. Owners in big play based leagues should give him a much higher ranking. For the rest of us he is a marginal LB3 prospect that should be targeted as depth.
MLB Stephen Tulloch - Low end LB2 with a little upside
WLB DeAndre Levy - Low end LB3 with a little upside
SLB Kyle Van Noy - Sleeper with more value in big play leagues
SLB Ashlee Palmer - No value
OLB Travis Lewis - No value
OLB Tahir Whitehead - No value
The Lions secondary has been void of fantasy production for as long as I can remember. There is no reason to believe anything will change this year. Glover Quin and Louis Delmas played all sixteen games at the safety positions in 2013. Both are good players in NFL terms but neither was able to muster more than 49 solo tackles. Delmas is gone so free agent addition James Ihedigbo will step into the free safety role. Like the player he is replacing, Ihedigbo is a solid veteran contributor who has never made much of a splash in the box scores. Maybe new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin will bring a change of philosophy that will help, but this curse has lasted through several other coaching changes.
The corner position has given us much the same result. With the recent release of Chris Houston, second year pro Darius Slay will take over as the team's number one cover man. He joins veteran Rashean Mathis in the starting lineup. Both players are solid if unspectacular cover men with little big play potential. Being an inexperienced first time starter, Slay may fall under the rookie corner rule to some extent. He served as the team's nickel corner for much of last season, but failed to make much of an impact. In fact, the Lions current starting corner tandem did not record an interception in 2013. Owners in corner required leagues may want to keep an eye on Slay as a possible early free agent pickup. Beyond that, avoid the Detroit secondary like the plague.
SS Glover Quin - No value
FS James Ihedigbo - No value
FS Don Carey III - No value
CB Darius Slay - Sleeper in corner required leagues
CB Rashean Mathis - No value
CB Bill Bentley - No value
CB Jonte Green - No value
In 2013 the Bears were 31st in sacks, last versus the run and allowed the second most points in the league. In response the organization has gone to great lengths in an effort to improve the talent level on that side of the ball. On draft day they used their first three, and four of their first five picks on defenders. Two of those pick were tackles Ego Ferguson in the second round and Will Sutton in the third. Ferguson is expected to have a role right away, but these guys will likely see limited action as rookies. It is free agent additions Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen that are expected to provide the immediate impact up front. Both of these guys are battle tested and proven. Allen has turned in double digit sacks in each of the last seven seasons and has never fallen short of 8 during his ten years in the league. He is not only an outstanding pass rusher, but is a force versus the run as well. In 2013 Allen's tackle production dropped below 40 solo stops for the first time since his rookie season, but the 12 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 6 batted passes more than made up for it. He has been a perennial top ten and usually a top five lineman for the past decade. Allen turned 32 years old in April and has shown no sign of slowing down.
Houston is not the prolific pass rusher that Allen is, but he may be even more physical as a run defender. Over the past two years Houston has been a three down player for the Raiders, totaling 104-32-10.5 with 5 takeaways. He is a powerful and versatile 300 pound beast who may be asked to slip inside in passing situation sub packages.
Both of these player pack a great deal of fantasy value/potential. What concerns me a little here however, is the track record of defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. His first season with the Bears produced the numbers I mentioned earlier. Over the five seasons prior to that he was the coordinator for Cleveland (2008) and Jacksonville (2009-2012). None of Tucker's defenses have ever produced more than 31 sacks in a season or allowed fewer than 22 points a game on average. There is no excuse this year. I expect Allen to rack up 40+ tackles and double digit sacks yet again, and give us yet another top ten finish. I see Houston at 45+ tackles and 5-7 sacks making him a quality DL2 prospect.
In Willie Young the Bears have a potential pass rush specialist who could get on the field in sub packages if the coaching staff elects to shift Houston inside in those situations. Young saw significant playing time with the Lions last season, putting up a mark of 29-18-3. He is a bit undersized for an every down role and could be more successful in the third down role.
On the inside the Bears will go with Stephen Paea and Jay Ratliff. Paea was the team's second round pick in 2011 but to date, has not been able to solidify himself as a starter. His three year career has produced a total of 33 solo tackles and 6.5 sacks. It will be interesting to see if the changing landscape and bigger role will jump start his box score production. I am not holding my breath.
The soon to be 33 year old Ratliff has spent more of the past two seasons in the trainers room than on the field. He did manage to go 14-2-1.5 in four games with Chicago last year. Ratliff also has some history of decent production, having put up 62 tackles and 13.5 sacks over the course of the 2008 and 2009 seasons. If he can stay healthy, Ratliff could be a surprisingly productive option for owners in tackle required leagues.
DE Lamarr Houston - Quality DL2
DE Jared Allen - DL1 with top five potential
DE Willie Young - Injury sleeper at best
DT Stephen Paea - No value
DT Jay Ratliff - Sleeper with low end DT1 upside
DT Ego Ferguson - Possible dynasty prospect in tackle required leagues
After using a second round pick on Jon Bostic in 2013, Chicago's only significant additions at the second level this year comes in the form of D.J. Williams and Lance Briggs returning from injury, and transplanted former end Shea McClellin moving to strong side backer. Williams replaced Brian Urlacher in the middle last season, but went down with a torn pectoral in week six. The Bears signed the soon to be 32 year old to a second one year contract this offseason, in hope that he can play a full sixteen games for first time since 2010. Williams was not setting the world on fire before the injury last season, but the fact that he put up double digit fantasy points in two of his last three games is reason for optimism. So is his history of outstanding production. Williams put up 94 or more solo tackles in three of the four season between 2007 and 2010. He is a big play threat as well having averaged a little better than 3 takeaways and 4 sacks over the five seasons before the injury issues started. There is clearly some risk involved but Williams is a guy that can be picked up for a song in most leagues, and could easily end up being a solid LB3.
Briggs was on fire through the first seven games last season. A shoulder injury cost him the next seven. In his eight starts Briggs was on pace to go 102-40-8 with 4 takeaways and 16 passes defended. That would have made him the number six linebacker ahead of Luke Kuechly and Kiko Alonso. We would be nuts to expect that king of production from him again in 2014, but this clearly demonstrates that the soon to be 34 year old still has some fuel in the tank. The combination of his age and last year's injury will understandably make some owners nervous. Consider however, that Briggs has been both very durable and highly productive throughout his eleven year career. He is healthy entering camp and is ready to resume the leadership role that the Bears so missed last season. Many fantasy owners just look at last year's numbers without considering that guys may have missed time with injuries. That will often work in the favor of the astute owner. Briggs will be largely overlook and/or underrated. At worst he should be an excellent LB3 for us this year and he could very well end up in the top twenty yet again.
The wildcard at linebacker in Chicago is Bostic. The club drafted him with visions of the next great Bears middle linebacker. Those visions began to fade when injuries forced him into the lineup as a rookie. We are hearing good things out of Chicago about how much he is improving, but we also know that he has been moved into a two down role on the strong side. Bostic will get some looks at MLB during camp and will likely be the backup at that position if Williams goes down again, but I would not put too much weight on the coach speak about him "competing for the starting job" in the middle. In fact, Bostic could end up losing some snaps to McClellin who has reportedly looked good in his move to the strong side position.
MLB D.J. Williams - Risky late round sleeper with LB3 potential
WLB Lance Briggs - Target as a priority LB3 with upside
SLB Jon Bostic - Dark horse sleeper
WLB Khaseem Greene - Deep dynasty sleeper with good long term upside
SLB Shea McClellin - Minimal value at best
With the word that Chicago is going to scrap the cover-2 base defense, everything we thought we knew about Bears defensive backs goes out the window. In a cover-2 the safeties are each responsible for a deep half of the field. Thus they generally line up well off the ball and do not have a lot of run support responsibilities. Those duties most often fall to the corners who use a lot of press coverage and work in front of the safeties. This has helped Charles Tillman to be one of the fantasy game's elite corners for most of the last decade. This is not to suggest that Tillman's fantasy value is completely gone. His physical nature and knack for the big play should mean continued fantasy relevance for Tillman. We should however, temper our expectations when it comes to his tackle production and value in leagues that lump the defensive back positions together.
Tim Jennings has also given us some useful box score production over the past three seasons, albiet only in corner required leagues. Because much of his fantasy value is based on big plays, the shift of scheme philosophy is likely to take less of a toll on his value. Jennings should still be able to put up 45-50 tackles with his usual 5-7 takeaways and 15 or so passes defended. Worthy of consideration as a third corner with low end CB2 upside.
With both Tillman and Jennings north of 30 years old, the Bears selected Virginia Tech corner Kyle Fuller in the first round. He will likely gain plenty of experience this season as the team's nickel back while he is being groomed for a starting job in the near future. Fuller proved his cover skills in college but did not show much of a knack for box score production either in the tackle or big play columns. In twenty one starts over the last two years he totaled just 77 combined tackles with 2 interceptions and 15 passes defended.
As with most teams that run a cover-2, Chicago safeties have been rendered fantasy useless by the scheme for years. The changes could give us a big jump in value for whoever ends up as the starting strong safety. However, it is hard to say who that might be. Bears veterans Chris Conte and Craig Steltz will be joined by free agent additions Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings as well as rookie fourth round pick Brock Vereen in competition for the starting spots. Entering camp Conte has been penciled in at free safety and Mundy at strong, but the pencil has an eraser. Mundy is not a starting NFL safety so it will be a big surprise if he holds onto the job. Vereen is more of a free safety, so an educated guess is that either Conte moves over or Steltz, who is probably the best pure strong safety option of the group, ends up with the job. Fantasy owners are better off to avoid this situation all together until we get some clarity. We will be keeping an eye on this situation as the summer progresses.
FS Christopher Conte - Sleeper with modest upside
SS Ryan Mundy - Minimal value at best
SS Brock Vereen - No grand expectations
FS M.D. Jennings - Minimal value at best
SS Craig Steltz - Sleeper with DB3 upside if he wins the strong safety job
CB Charles Tillman - Should still have low end CB1 value, CB2 at worst
CB Tim Jennings - Depth in corner required leagues
CB Kyle Fuller - Rookie corner rule could come into play
Green Bay Packers
Since the Packers turned to a 3-4 scheme in 2009, they have thrown a ton of resources at their defensive line. To say that their rate of return thus far has been poor would be an understatement. 2009 first round pick B.J. Raji went 29-10-6.5 in his second season. He has all of 43 tackles and 3 sacks since, including a mark of 12-5-0 in 2013. 2010 second round selection Mike Neal has struggled both on and off the field. As a defensive lineman he had career totals of 12 tackles, 5 assists and 4.5 sacks. 2012 second round pick Jerel Worthy went 11-3-2.5 as a rookie, then spent nearly all of last season on the sideline with an injury that is still giving him problems. Last year's first round pick Datone Jones was 8-3-3.5 in his rookie season. This year the team used a fourth round pick on Khyri Thornton in hope that he will be able to break the curse.
Despite the fiasco this unit has been, there is some reason for optimism in 2014. The Packers line as a group accounted for 11 sacks last season. While that is not an impressive number, it is not horrible production for the line in a 3-4 scheme. Mike Daniels led the unit with 6.5 sacks and will continue to have a significant role even with the addition of Julius Peppers. Jones did not play much at all during the first half of last season but looked pretty good when he finally got his opportunity. Though the jury is still out, the Packers believe that Jones can be a special player. He may prove to be the next breakout fantasy product to come from a 3-4 front.
Then there is the Peppers addition. We are talking about a player who is 34 years old and has been a 4-3 defensive end on virtually every snap of his twelve year career. I have to wonder if the Packers plan to use Peppers as a three down player, or if they will use him as a pass rush specialist in nickel packages where he will not have the early down run responsibilities. There is also the rumor bouncing around that Green Bay may be contemplating a shift back to a 4-3. That has been denied by the organization but I have a feeling we are going to see the Packers mix in some four man fronts as several other 3-4 teams have been doing over the past few years. There are a lot of fantasy owners out there who will pick up Peppers beacuse of the name. All I can say is that there will be no Green Bay linemen on any of my draft lists. I will however, be keeping an eye on Jones just in case he has that breakout season Packer fans are expecting.
NT B.J. Raji - no value
NT Letroy Guion - No value
DE Julius Peppers - Likely no better than depth
DE Datone Jones - Sleeper with breakout potential
DE Mike Daniels - No value
DE Jerel Worthy - No value
DE Khyri Thornton - No value until proven otherwise
There are a couple of statistical facts that speak volumes about the Packer outside linebacker positions. Let us start with the fact that Green Bay's 44 sacks ranked eighth in the league in 2013. That number alone would tend to have us looking for a couple of standout pass rushers. The second number to look at however, is 7.5, which is the number of sacks recorded by Clay Matthews who led the team in that category. What this tells us is that the Packers have a lot of guys involved, but no one that stands out in fantasy terms. Fourteen players, including seven linebackers, recorded sacks for the Packers in 2013. Much of this spreading of the wealth can be attributed to injuries. Starting outside backers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry missed eleven games between them. To fill the void Green Bay shifted Mike Neal from defensive end into a stand up role. Neal performed surprisingly well, finishing with 38 tackles, 11 assists and five sacks. Perry continues to sit out for "undisclosed" reasons, and may not yet be fully recovered from his foot injury. If this persists he may be out of a starting job. At the least we should see Neal getting a fair amount of playing time as the third outside linebacker.
As is most often the case with 3-4 outside backers there is plenty of big play potential to be found among this group. Matthews has reached double digit sacks in three of his five seasons as a pro and would likely have made it five years straight if not for a couple injuries. Perry has not been able to stay healthy, but has the potential to reach double digit sacks as well. Neal was only a starter for about half of last season and still managed 5 sacks. The problem with all of these guys is the same one that plagues all outside backers in this scheme, a lack of tackle opportunity/production. Matthews best fantasy totals came in 2010 when he finished at 54-5-12.5 with 3 takeaways. That was his only season with more than 37 tackles. In Perry's five starts before the foot injury, he was on pace for 9.5 sacks but only 48 solo stops. Owners in big play based leagues should weigh the potential here against the injury risk and act accordingly.
The Packers inside linebacker situation had many of us scratching our heads last season. As expected, Brad Jones opened as a three down player posting 20 tackles, 6 assists and a couple of big plays over the first three games. He went down with a hamstring injury in game four, missing the next three games. when Jones returned he was bumped from nearly all of the sub packages for the remainder of the season. He is penciled in as a starter entering camp but is clearly in a battle for his starting job and possibly his roster spot.
Then we have A.J. Hawk who has been a mainstay in the Packers starting lineup since his rookie season in 2006. When the club shifted to a 3-4 however, Hawk became a two down thumper, coming off the field in most of the passing down packages. Last year Hawk returned to a three down role in week five and held the sub package job the rest of the way. Coverage is not among his strengths but since the team added no competition at the position, Hawk is once again in line for a three down role. Just as strange as this situation is the fact that the every down role made relatively little difference in his production last season. Hawk's 74 solo tackles were actually 7 fewer than his 2012 total. Where the extra duties did show up a little was in Hawk's big play production. Over the course of 2011 and 2012 he totaled 4.5 sacks and failed to record a takeaway. In 2013 he put up 5 sacks and three turnovers. We will be keeping a close eye on this situation but unless something changes before the opener, expect Hawk to be a solid LB3 prospect with somewhere in the area of 80-85 tackles and a handful of big plays.
A couple of guys to keep an eye on here are Jamari Lattimore and Sam Barrington. when Jones was out last year, Lattimore stepped into a two down role next to Hawk. He went 9-3-1 in his first start but came back to reality in the following weeks. Barrington was the team's seventh round pick last April. He had an impressive training camp but played very little as a rookie, spending the second half of the season on IR with a bad hamstring. Both of these players are expected to be in the mix for the starting job next to Hawk. If one of them proves to have better cover skills, there is a chance he could emerge as a three down starter. Barrington in particular interests me here. As a senior at south Florida he totaled 80 tackles, 3.5 sacks, forced 2 fumbles and broke up 3 passes, earning second team all conference honors in the Big East.
ILB A.J. Hawk - Solid LB3 prospect unless something changes
ILB Brad Jones - Projects to have little value
ILB Jamari Lattimore - Deep sleeper
ILB Sam Barrington - Deep sleeper to keep an eye on
OLB Clay Mathews - Solid starter in big play based leagues, bye week depth for the rest of us
OLB Nick Perry - Risky potential second starter for big play leagues
OLB Mike Neal - Deep sleeper in big play based scoring
OLB Carl Bradford - Injury sleeper at best
A glance at last year's totals would suggest that Packers defensive backs offer marginal fantasy value. It is true that corner Tramon Williams led the Green Bay secondary in tackles with only 61 in 2013, but this was more of a fluke than the beginning of a trend. Morgan Burnett is the top prospect of this group. His 2013 mark of 59-37-0 with no interceptions will have a lot of owners writing him off. There are some important factors to consider before you make that mistake. For starters, Burnett missed the first three games last season with an injury. He returned in week five, posting 8 total tackles over the next three games. He then went on to put up at least 5 solo stops in seven of the final ten contests. If we average his production from that stretch of games over a full schedule, we find that he was on pace for 82 solo stops. Burnett accounted for only 3 takeaways with no picks in 2013, but over his first two years as a starter he totaled 12 takeaways (5 picks) and 3 sacks. Another big plus for Burnett's 2014 potential is the addition of first round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Burnett has been working mostly at free safety for the past three years. With Dix being better suited as a free safety, it is expected that Burnett will move to strong in 2014. All things considered, I expect a return to the top five if not the top three for Burnett this season.
Clinton-Dix has some potential as well. Keep in mind that the Packers have no tackling machines in the front seven. It is also worth mention that Green Bay has a history of producing two quality prospects at safety. This goes all the way back to the days of LeRoy Butler and Darren Sharper and has been as recent as Nick Collins and Charles Woodson and then Woodson and Burnett. Clinton-Dix was not known as a ball hawk during his time at Alabama but he will be expected to become one in this defense. He reacts quickly, has good range and is an excellent tackler who rarely misses. While I expect him to fall well short of Burnett when it comes to fantasy value, Clinton-Dix should at worst provide us with quality depth and he will likely be a solid DB3 as a rookie.
With 61 solo tackles, 22 assists, 7 takeaways, 2.5 sacks and 11 passes defended, Tramon Williams recorded the best box score totals of his career in 2013. Those numbers were good enough to make him the number three fantasy corner. While it was his best production, 2013 was not the first time that Williams has provided good value. Since becoming a starter in 2008, he has put up at least 50 solo stops in all but one season and has averaged nearly 6 takeaways and 16 passes defended. Expecting a top five repeat may be pushing it a little, but Williams should continue to be a solid CB1 or a priority CB2 at worst.
An injury to 2012 second round pick Casey Hayward, opened the door for Sam Shields to claim a starting spot in last season. Shield went on to also produce rather useful numbers for us. In fourteen games he totaled 51-10-0 with 4 interceptions and 17 passes defended. His average of 9.7 fantasy points a game was number fourteen among corners. Shields however, is not a lock to be the opening day starter. Hayward totaled 40 tackles and 6 picks as a starter during his rookie season and was set to be the starter opposite Williams last season before suffering a hamstring injury that eventually landed him on IR. Hayward will be back in the mix this summer and will be looking to reclaim his starting job. Owners in corner required leagues will want to keep an eye on this situation. Whoever lands this job is likely to be a viable CB2 option.
SS Morgan Burnett - Solid DB1 with top 5 upside
FS Ha Ha Clinton-Dix - Target as a DB3 with upside
FS Micah Hyde - injury sleeper
CB Tramon Williams - Quality CB1
CB Sam Shields - CB2 potential
CB Casey Hayward - CB2 potential
CB Davon House - No value
That is going to do it for the NFC North. Next up the AFC South.