In Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy the Panthers have one of the league's premier defensive end tandems. Both players have reached double digit sacks in each of the past two seasons and have been strong options for fantasy owners. With a total of 28 sacks and at least 40 solo tackles in each of those two seasons as well, Hardy has turned in back to back top five finishes among defensive linemen. The one area that he could stand to improve is takeaways. Hardy has never accounted for more than three in a season. Despite the career best of 16 sacks, he managed just 1 forced fumble in 2013. At age 25 Hardy is just hitting the prime of his career and should continue to be an elite top five target for us. If he can make a bigger impact in the takeaway columns, Hardy may well land in the top three this year.
With at least 9 sacks in every season since 2010, Johnson is well established as a dependable fantasy option. In any given year he has the potential to finish among the fantasy elite. Unfortunately it seems that Johnson always falls a little short somewhere. In 2010 he posted a career best 50 solo tackles with 10.5 sacks, but failed to record a single takeaway. In 2011 Johnson managed 9 sacks but his tackle numbers fell to 31 and he once again failed to account for a takeaway. In 2012 he put up a career best 12.5 sacks and blew up for 8 turnovers (7 forced fumbles and a recovery) but again managed only 31 tackles. Johnson missed a couple of games in 2013, finishing at 25-6-11 with a fumble forced and one recovered. It is hard to argue with the solid and consistent sack totals. It is also tough to overlook the fact that Johnson has not posted more than 31 tackles in any of the past three seasons and has accounted for more than 2 turnovers only once in his seven years as a pro. All things considered, it is hard to target him as more than a quality DL2. The fact that he once had 50 solo stops in a season leaves room for optimism however.
The Panthers are deep at the DE positions as well. Frank Alexander and Mario Addison provide a veteran presence. Addison got the call to start a couple of games last year when Johnson was out. He had a pretty good showing against Miami in week twelve. Still it is rookie Kony Ealy that is the most interesting of the backups and the only one with any real potential. On draft day Mike Mayock pointed out Ealy's inconsistency during his college career. On the other hand it is hard to overlook his production versus SEC competition. Ealy started 24 games for Missouri over the past two seasons. In fourteen starts last year he had 43 combined tackles and assists (14.5 for loss) and 9.5 sacks. He is quick, athletic and talented as a pass rusher but has some things to work on as he is groomed for a possible starting job in the future. Consistency and maximum effort on every snap is one thing the coaching staff will work on. Ealy also needs to hit the weight room hard and work diligently to improve as a run defender. Both Hardy and Johnson are still young players, so it would appear that Ealy will be stuck as no more than a third DE in the rotation for a long while. However, both starters are making serious money and are scheduled to make even more as their contracts advance. If Ealy can step up, it will give the team options. As we hear over and over, this is a business. If they believe Ealy can do the job at half the cost, he will get the chance at some point. His only value as a rookie will be as an injury replacement. In the long run Ealy could prove to be the top fantasy lineman from this draft class.
Every year both NFL teams and fantasy owners look for that explosive interior lineman that will be the "next Warren Sapp". Heading into last year Star Lotulelei was though by many to be the closest thing the 2013 draft class had to offer. His size, and low center of gravity make Lotulelei tough for offenses to root out, while his quickness and athleticism for a 315 pound man, make him a factor as a pass rusher as well. As a rookie Lotulelei finished at 30-11-3. Those numbers were enough to make him a top fifteen interior lineman. This is a talented front four that will play off of one another's success. It is doubtful that we will ever see "Sapp like numbers" from this young man, but it will be no surprise to see him put up 35+ tackles and 4-5 sacks a season over the next several years. At worst he should continue to be a perennial DT2 for us.
Veteran Dwan Edwards and Second year pro Kawann Short will compete for playing time at the other tackle position. They are likely to continue sharing time much as they did last season when Short finished at 19-12-1.5 and Edwards was 11-8-2. Neither player would seem to have much fantasy upside.
DE Charles Johnson - Solid DL2 with top 12 potential
DE Greg Hardy - Elite top ten DL1 with top 3 potential
DE Mario Addison - No value
DE Kony Ealy - Injury sleeper with strong long term (dynasty) upside
DT Star Lotulelei - Quality DT2 with top ten potential
DT Kawann Short - Minimal value as depth in leagues that start two tackles
DT Dwan Edwards - No value
In 2012, then rookie Luke Kuechly opened the season as an outside linebacker while veteran Jon Beason worked in the middle. Kuechly got off to a slow start statistically, with only 3 tackles and 6 assists over his first two games. Shortly after that he was moved to his natural MLB position, going on to a huge season that included 103 solo stops, 62 assists, a sack, 5 takeaways and 8 passes defended. After finishing with 9 or more solo stops in four of the final five games that season, fantasy owners had enormous expectations for the young man in 2013. Everyone, myself included, had him as the top linebacker on our draft boards last summer. As it turned out Kuechly was an excellent LB1 for us, but he came in as the number nine linebacker overall. So what happened and where does that leave us with Kuechly heading into this summer's draft season? First of all let me point out that his 93-63-2 with four picks and 7 passes defended were hardly numbers to be disappointed about. I believe that most of his slight slip in fantasy points can be attributed to an overall improvement of the Panthers as a team. In 2012 Carolina defenders were credited with 1084 total tackles. In 2013 that number fell to 1012. That is roughly the equivalent of playing one less game. As for what to expect this year, Beason is gone and the Panthers no longer have an excess of talent at the linebacker positions. Tackles Star Lotulelei and Kwann Short have a year of experience under their belts and will help the Panthers to have one of the leagues better defensive lines. Less competition for tackles should add a few to his totals and having quality linemen to keep him clean is a big plus as well. I will be surprised if he falls short of triple digits in solo stops and expect a top five finish for Kueckly. That said, his consistency, dependability and upside potential are enough to make an argument for Kuechly as the top linebacker off the board again this summer. We certainly cannot go wrong with him as our number one.
Thomas Davis is one of the NFL's great feel good stories. A player who has battled through three major injuries to the same knee, and has come back to play at a high level. His most productive season as a pro came before the series of injuries. In 2008 Davis broke out with a mark of 92-21-3.5 with 3 takeaways and 6 passes defended. He was on pace for an even bigger 2009 when he suffered the first ACL tear. Two more major injuries followed over the next two seasons. He returned to the field for fifteen games in 2012 but understandably, was not the same player. In 2013 Davis not only played his first full season since 2008, he looked much like the player he had been earlier in his career. Davis opened his career as a strong side backer before moving to the weakside in 2008. He opened 2013 on the strong side but was shifted back to weak when Beason was traded to the Giants last October Davis went on to produce 85-38-4 with 3 turnovers, 8 passes defended and a top twenty fantasy finish. Regardless of where he lines up, Davis is a three down backer with a nose for the ball and a knack for the big play. He is also a player that is largely underrated in fantasy circles. His knee understandably makes a lot of people nervous but the risk/reward here makes him an excellent target as a priority LB3 that could finish among the top fifteen, and will likely be available much later than his value would suggest.
With the injury history of Davis, it is a good idea to know who the Panthers next best option would be. When Beason was traded last season, Chase Blackburn moved into the starting lineup as a two down strong side linebacker. He is a ten year veteran who has spent most of his career as a backup with the Giants. At best Blackburn is little more than a serviceable short term option for the Panthers. The name to know here is A.J. Klein. The 2013 fifth round pick has caught the eye of the Carolina coaching staff and is expected to compete for (and likely win) the starting job on the strong side. Klein saw limited action as a rookie, totaling 18-3-2 on the season. What is important to know is that he was productive as three down starter over his final three years at Iowa state. Klein is a strong and versatile run defender who lacks great speed but is still more than adequate in coverage. He played both inside and outside linebacker during his college career, so if either Kuechly or D avis were to go down, Klein would be the hands down favorite to assume the three down duties at either of those positions. With everyone healthy he is likely to work as a two down strong side backer with minimal fantasy value. If/when he gets an opportunity to play full time, Klein could prove to be an excellent pickup. Dynasty owners may want to put this guy on the short list of future prospects that are worth tucking away on the taxi squad.
MLB Luke Kuechly - Solid LB1 with top five potential
WLB Thomas Davis - Risk/reward pick with top twenty potential
SLB Chase Blackburn - No value
OLB A.J. Klein - Injury/dynasty sleeper
MLB D.J. Smith - No value
This is year twenty for the Eyes of the Guru column. Over that span of time I have seen and written about a lot of things, but do not remember ever seeing a team with four new starters in the secondary. That could very well be the case in Carolina. It is a given that former Saints starter Roman Harper will get the call at strong safety while former Falcons free safety Thomas DeCoud will hold that position for the Panthers this year. Harper is less than stellar in coverage but over his nine year career, has provided both on field and box score success. He is a big hitting in the box strong safety with a good deal of big play potential. Harper was injured early in 2013 and saw a reduced role when he returned. Prior to that he had recorded at least 73 solo tackles in six consecutive seasons. In 2011 the Saints hid some of was Harper's coverage deficiencies by having him blitz often. That approach resulted in a whopping (for a DB) 7.5 sacks. His best tackle numbers came in 2012 when Harper racked up 89 solo stops, adding a career best 11 passes defended. It has been a while since the Panthers last gave us a high quality fantasy option in the secondary. With that in mind, the new situation is reason to be conservative in out expectations for Harper. I will be targeting him as a low end DB2 or a quality third starter, but I will admit that those expectations may be a bit optimistic. Call it a gut feeling but I expect Harper to pick up right where he left off in 2012.
DeCoud is a solid if unspectacular free safety who fits the mold as the Panthers center fielder. He is not particularly physical but has good size, speed and cover skills. During his six seasons with the Falcons, DeCoud never put up more than 67 solo stops. His only contribution in the big play columns last year was a single fumble recovery. Over the four prior seasons he recorded 14 interceptions and averaged five takeaways. DeCoud should be a quality on field addition for the Panthers, but his fantasy prospects are nothing to be excited about. He may be worthy as depth in 14-16 team leagues that start 3 defensive backs.
The Panthers coaching staff probably has no idea what they will look like at corner come week one. Captain Munnerlyn was their number one cover guy last year but he will be wearing Vikings purple this season. Former starting free safety Charles Godfrey has been moved to corner where he will compete with free agent addition Antoine Cason, rookie fifth round pick Bene Benwikere, second year man DeQuan Menzie and veteran holdovers Josh Thomas and Josh Norman to determine the pecking order at the position. The only certain thing here is the Panthers are lacking a true number one corner. For owners in corner required leagues there could be some value in this group. Trying to pick it out at this point however, is a complete crap shoot.
SS Roman Harper - Quality DB3 with DB2 upside
FS Thomas DeCoud - Depth in large leagues at best
SS Robert Lester - No value
CB Charles Godfrey - No value unless proven otherwise
CB Josh Norman - No value unless proven otherwise
CB Antoine Cason - No value unless proven otherwise
CB Josh Thomas - No value unless proven otherwise
CB DeQuan Menzie - No value unless proven otherwise
CB Bene Benwikere - No value unless proven otherwise
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers used all of their draft picks on the offensive side of the ball but they did not ignore the defense this offseason. This unit finished in the middle of the pack in many of the important defensive categories last year. The two areas that generally reflect on the defensive line are run defense and sacks. Tampa Bay was 18th versus the run in 2013 and their 35 sacks ranked 23rd. Free agent additions Michael Johnson and Clinton McDonald should help improve both of those areas. The Johnson addition will get the most attention from fantasy owners. The question I have is; will be Buccaneers get the Johnson who was 36-17-11.5 in 2012, or the one that has averaged fewer than 4 sacks over the other four years of his career and finished at 35-21-4 last season? The answer is probably somewhere in between. Johnson is a talented player with plenty of upside. He is solid versus the run and has the ability to get pressure on the quarterback. What last year's sack totals do not show is that Johnson had 10 pass breakups. That number (and the game films) tell us that he was around the quarterback often and made a bigger contribution than the sack total would suggest. He is a good fit in this scheme and the Buccaneers have plenty of talent across the front line to keep offenses honest. Johnson may not reach double digits in sacks but he should come close. Now that he has escaped the Cincinnati stats crew, some of those 21 assists are likely to become solo tackles in 2014. My expectations of Johnson are in the area of 40 solo tackles with 8 sacks, a couple of takeaways and 5-6 batted passes. He is not a threat to lead the league in sacks but should be a solid DL2 for fantasy owners.
Adrian Clayborn has not yet lived up to the expectations that come with being a first round pick, but he has shown signs that have many feeling optimistic about his future. As a rookie in 2011 he finished with modest numbers of 27-13-7.5 with 3 forced fumbles. Clayborn missed nearly all of 2012 with a knee injury before returning to start all sixteen games last year. The scouting report on Clayborn coming out of college basically said that he was a strong physical run defender who could set the edge and hold ground at the point of attack, but that he was not a great pass rusher. His 2013 numbers of 44-20-6 with a couple of forced fumbles pretty much confirms that report. In fantasy terms Clayborn reminds me a lot of Lamarr Houston. A guy who will post a solid 45-50 solo tackles and has the potential to approach double digit sacks, but is no threat to become an elite pass rusher. Much like his counterpart on the other end, Clayborn projects to be a consistent and dependable DL2 but h is upside is somewhat limited. Da'Quan Bowers may be the most gifted defensive end on the Buccaneers roster. Unfortunately his injury woes started during his college career and followed him into the NFL. In three years as a pro he has missed more games than he has played and has a career total of 33 tackles, 11 assists, with only 5.5 sacks. Many have speculated that 2014 will be the last opportunity for Bowers and that the Johnson signing sends a clear message that the organization has already given up on him. It will be interesting to see if he is even on the team come September.
One thing that may help with the decision to let Bowers go is the presence of last year's 4th round pick William Gholston. He played sparingly early in 2013 but earned a bigger role late in the campaign. Over the final month of last season Gholston totaled 11-9-1.5 and averaged just over 10 fantasy points a game. There is little chance that he will unseat either of the starters, but he is likely to land the job of third end in the rotation. If either Johnson or Clayborn go down with injury, Gholston could be a solid in season addition.
In Gerald McCoy, Akeem Spence and Clinton McDonald the Buccaneers have a formidable rotation at the tackle positions. McCoy is the fantasy headliner of the group. The 2010 third overall pick had a breakout season in 2013 when his 35-15-9 mark was enough to land at number three among interior linemen. He is a powerful run defender with rare quickness and athleticism for a man of 300 pounds. With McCoy's performance last season, Bucs fans were having visions of Warren Sapp. One big year is certainly not enough to start drawing such comparisons, but McCoy's talent and skill set combined with the strongest supporting cast he has seen in his pro career, are clearly reason for optimism. At worst McCoy will likely return to the top five and he has the potential to be this year's number one interior lineman.
Spence will likely get the title of starter next to McCoy. At 6'1" and 307 pounds, he is a fireplug with a low center of gravity that makes him hard to move. He will make a strong contribution to the run defense, but in fantasy terms Spence is unlikely to have much of an impact. Most of his action will come on early downs as he will give way to McDonald in passing situations. McDonald however, could be an interesting sleeper prospect for owners in tackle required leagues. He was 19-16-5.5 on 670 snaps as part of the Seahawks rotation last year. McDonald is a starter quality player who could have a bigger role with the Buccaneers. At worst he will provide the team with excellent depth and a quality option to spell the starters. There is a reasonable chance that McDonald could earn the starting nod over Spence. Pick McDonald up in the last round as a DT3 with upside.
DE Adrain Clayborn - Solid DL2 with limited upside
DE Michael Johnson - Priority DL2 with low end DL1 potential
DE Da'Quan Bowers - Deep sleeper at best
DE William Gholston - Injury sleeper
DT Gerald McCoy - Top five DT with potential to be number one
DT Clinton McDonald - Target as a DT3 with upside
DT Akeem Spence - Minimal value at best
As the old cliché goes, if it's not broken, don't fix it. Thus Tampa Bay made no significant changes at the linebacker positions this offseason. In Lavonte David the Buccaneers have one of the best young linebackers in the game. He is a stout run defender with sideline to sideline range, the speed to track down runners in pursuit and the discipline to rarely miss in the open field. Those skills have helped David to amass 218 solo stops over his two seasons as a pro. He is just as productive in coverage as demonstrated by his 6 interceptions and 14 passes defended in two years (5 picks and 9 PD last season). David even has 8 sacks on his resume' already, with 6 of those coming last seasons. His 2013 totals of 106-39-6 with 8 takeaways and 9 passes defended left David just a handful of points short of being the number one linebacker in the fantasy game. He is as sure a bet as it gets to finish in the top five again in 2014 and likely for several years beyond.
Owners that want David on their rosters will need to step up and get him early. If you pass on that option or get snaked by another owner, take a hard look at Mason Foster late in your draft. For reasons that escape me, the previous coaching staff in Tampa Bay insisted on using Foster in a two down role. As a result his overall numbers last year were an unimpressive 62-28-2. However it is noteworthy that even in the reduced role he still managed 3 interceptions and 7 passes defended. Foster held a three down role over the first month of the 2012 season. Over that four week span he racked up 32 solo tackle and an interception. Since that time Foster has seen only spot duty in sub packages. Simply put, he has been the best two down linebacker in the fantasy game, and possibly in the NFL over the past two seasons. I will be watching intently to see if defensive minded head coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier will have a different plan for Foster. It will be shocking to me if they do not. Foster is not as good in coverage as David, but he is certainly as good or better than any of the team's other options. Even in the reduced role he was the number twenty six linebacker in last season's final rankings. If you draft before August, target Foster as an LB4 with serious upside. At the worst he will provide quality depth. If he lands the three down role as I expect he will, the Buccaneers may have a pair of top fifteen fantasy options at the position.
With Dekoda Watson moving on, Jonathan Casillas is the favorite to start on the strong side. He will need to hold off former Patriots backup Dane Fletcher and a collection of young players that most of us have never heard of. Casillas has shown flashes of fantasy value over his four years as a pro, but has never been able to sustain anything. If there is an injury to either Foster or David, Casillas would likely take on an expanded role and possibly be worth a roster spot. An injury to any of the starters however, could be a serious blow to this team. Tampa Bay has little quality depth and even less experience behind the top 3.
The biggest offseason impact on the Buccaneers secondary did not come in the form of a player, but rather the coaching change. Both head coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier are proponents of the cover-2 scheme. In effect, a cover-2 base defense will considerably alter the responsibilities of the DB positions. Each of the safeties would become responsible for covering a deep half of the field in many instances. As such they will often line up fifteen or more yards deep and will not have as many run support duties. Meanwhile the corners will play more press coverage, putting them close to the line of scrimmage and in turn adding more run support responsibilities. It is easy to recall some of the corners that have been successful in this scheme. Antoine Winfield and Charles Tillman are the first two that come to mind. It is not so easy however, to think of any safeties that have really flourished in this scheme from a fantasy perspective.
Holdover Dashon Goldson will compete with free agent addition Major Wright for the starting job at free safety. Having played for Smith in Chicago, Wright should have the edge in that battle going into camp. Wright is also a perfect example of just how big a difference the scheme change can make. In three seasons under Smith in Chicago, Wright never posted more than 52 solo stops. Under head coach Mark Trestman and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, the Bears moved away from the cover-2 last season. Wright responded with a career best 78 solo stops despite missing a game. Strong safety Mark Barron was the best fantasy option among Tampa Bay's defensive backs last season. His average of almost eleven fantasy points a game was just inside the top twenty at the safety position. Barron is a very good player and could manage decent production despite the scheme change, but the new defense is certainly not going to be a plus for his value. At this point Barron is not even on my draft list, though I would certainly have to consider him if he fell far enough. Most owners will not be looking deep enough to realize how the situation has changed. Let one of them pick Barron as their first or second DB.
The value in this secondary now falls to corners Jonathan Banks and Alterraun Verner. Both of these guys are in line for good box score production. What we need to learn now is who will line up on the left, AKA strong side. While the cover-2 will put both corners up near the line more often, it is the strong side corner that generally takes on the run support role of strong safety. Both Winfield and Tillman were strong side corner in this scheme. Banks was the left corner for Tampa Bay last season while Verner lined up on the right in Tennessee. So a somewhat educated guess would be that both guys stay in those same positions. That said, this one could go either way. The bottom line here is that owners in corner required leagues are likely to get some good value out of these guys. I would put Banks slightly ahead on my draft board at this point but will be keeping a close eye on the situation as the summer progresses.
SS Mark Barron - DB3 at best until we see what the scheme change does to his production
FS Dashon Goldson - Minimal value at best
FS Major Wright - Minimal value
CB Alterraun Verner - Strong sleeper with CB1 potential
CB Johnthan Banks - Strong sleeper with CB1 potential
CB Leonard Johnson - No value
CB Mike Jenkins - No value
New Orleans Saints
When the Saints made the move from a 4-3 to a 3-4 heading into the 2013 season, we all had the usual questions about how the holdover players would fit into the new philosophy. Cameron Jordan was coming off a solid sophomore campaign that saw him post 39-26-7 with four total takeaways and 3 passes defended. For most of us the initial thought was that we were losing yet another good fantasy prospect to a 3-4 scheme. As it turns out, the 3-4 was not such a bad thing. Despite being a little undersized for the job, Jordan took to the new scheme like a fish to water. His skill set seemed to be a perfect match for Rex Ryan's aggressive approach and he quickly established himself as a cornerstone of the unit. The end result was a dip in solo tackles for Jordan, but most of the fantasy points were made up in his 12.5 sacks. The only thing that makes me a little nervous about him is the fact that so many productive 3-4 ends prove to be one year wonders. That said, Jordan sure passed the eyeball test in 2013. I expect similar production from him in 2014, with tackles in the 30-35 solo range, double digit sacks and a handful of takeaways. The light tackle totals are likely to be enough to hold Jordan out of the top ten but he is a good bet to be an upper echelon DL2 again in 2014.
From a physical perspective, Akiem Hicks would seem to be the more proto-typical 3-4 end. A powerful 324 pound road block with excellent mobility for a man of his size and the ability to both command multiple blockers in the running game, and contribute as a pass rusher. Hicks finished 2013 at 29-27-4.5 and flashed a handful of double digit fantasy games along the way. The third year pro is just hitting the prime of his career physically and will only get better with the year of experience in the system. He is no threat to approach double digit sacks, but it would be little surprise to see better tackle numbers and 5-6 sacks out of him in 2014.
In 2013 veteran Broderick Bunkley and rookie third round pick John Jenkins split time at the nose tackle position. The 359 pound Jenkins is likely to earn the title of starter but both players will see a good deal of action. These guys are space eaters that will anchor the run defense and do a lot of the dirty work. As is most often the case with nose tackles in these schemes, much of their contribution to the success of the team will not be measured in the box scores.
Because the outside linebacker position is so important to the success of a 3-4 team, and the skill set is so specific; When teams move to this scheme they usually go after a proven veteran free agent or use an early draft pick to fill one of those spots. New Orleans is going into their second year using the 3-4 and they have still not made much additional investment in an outside pass rusher. There may be a good reason for that however. After posting 9.5 sacks in three years as a backup end, Junior Galette has found his calling. The former undrafted free agent led the Saints with 12 sacks in 2013, adding 3 takeaways for good measure. As is always the case, the nature of this position limited Galette's tackle opportunities and his fantasy value. With just 28 solo tackles, his was limited even more than most. Those numbers are so low in fact, that they diminish his value even in big play based leagues. Gilette may show some improvement in that area in 2014 but there is no reason to expect more than 40 tackles and 10-12 sacks.
The team got very little from the other OLB position where Parys Haralson finished at 16-14-3.5. That is clearly not the production the organization is looking for, but they believe the answer is already on their roster. When defensive coordinator Rob Ryan came over from Dallas, he brought Victor Butler with him as a free agent. Butler was projected as a starter before tearing his ACL last June and is a player that the Saints believe can excel. He had 11 sacks in four seasons as a backup for the Cowboys and will be given every opportunity to land the starting job opposite Galette. Butler comes with low expectations from a fantasy perspective. Even if he proves to be the missing component for the Saints pass rush, keep in mind that neither of the outside linebacker positions accounted for more than 28 tackles a year ago.
Quality fantasy production from 3-4 inside linebackers is far from rare. That is unless you are looking a 3-4 defenses coached by one of the Ryan brothers. In David Harris and Demario Davis the Jets have a pair of very good players by NFL standards. Yet neither of those guys have been more than a solid LB3 in recent years.
Likewise the Saints have a couple of quality inside backers in Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne. Lofton was the team's leading tackler in 2013 but his mark of 82-43-1 with a single turnover, made him the number twenty nine linebacker in last year's final rankings. Hawthorne's 60-31-3 with a forced fumble, put him outside the top fifty. There is no reason to expect a huge jump in tackle number from either of these players. That said, with the departure of Roman Harper, Hawthorne should get more of the sub package snaps this year. While neither Lofton nor Hawthorne are well known for making a lot of big plays, they are better in that area than the 2 takeaways between them in 2013 would suggest. Reasonable expectations for Lofton would be tackle numbers in the mid 80s with a couple of sacks and a handful of other big plays. His upside is limited but he is a safe target as a solid LB3. I expect a little more out of Hawthorne that we got last season, but not enough to make him more than a low end LB3 or quality depth in twelve team leagues that start three.
Rookie Khairi Fortt is an interesting player to keep an eye on here; especially for dynasty owners. He is developmental guy who battled a number of injuries during his college career but showed flashes of big potential along the way. He is fast, athletic, strong and agile with excellent range and good coverage skills. He came out after his junior season and most scouts seem to agree that he should have stayed in school for another year. Even so, if Fortt can stay healthy and become more instinctive, he could develop into a starter in a year or two.
ILB Curtis Lofton - Quality LB3 with minimal upside
ILB David Hawthorne - Solid depth with LB3 upside
ILB Khairi Fortt - Dynasty sleeper
ILB Ramon Humber - No value
OLB Victor Butler - LB3 potential in big play based leagues
OLB Parys Haralson - No value
OLB Junior Galette - Solid LB3 with low end LB2 upside in big play based leagues
As fantasy value goes, the Saints secondary was a black hole in 2013. Much has changed in a few short months. This unit will have a different look in 2014 and may well become a fantasy goldmine. Last year's first round pick Kenny Vacarro will be the headliner. At 62-17-1 with a couple of takeaways and 7 passes defended, he was the leading tackler in the Saints secondary and the top scoring fantasy option. Those numbers on their own are far from impressive, but there are circumstances that must be taken into consideration. First of all Vacarro missed a couple of games with minor injuries. Average in those games and he becomes a more attractive option. More importantly however, He shared the position with Roman Harper for about half of last season. Vacarro was basically an every down player in 2013, but in an effort to get his best players on the field, Rob Ryan often had both Vacarro and Harper in the game together. In those instances Harper usually lined up in the box and had most of the run support responsibilities. Now that Harper has moved on, Vacarro will have a more traditional strong safety role. He has the skill set to become one of the leagues best safeties over the next few years. Vaccaro has a high football IQ, is fast enough, highly athletic, excels in man coverage and is a ball hawk. Looking back at his last year in college when he finished with 92 combined tackles, 2 picks and 7 passes defended, it is safe to add highly productive to our expectations as well.
For several years Harper was a fantasy mainstay and a consistent DB1 prospect. Vaccaro should pick up right where his predecessor left off when it comes to tackle production. His big play potential could make him even more valuable. Target Vaccaro as a low end DB1 or a priority DB2, but do not be shocked if he lands among the top five this year.
The Saints entered the offseason looking to improve the big play production of their defense, and particularly the secondary. In 2013 corner Keenan Lewis led the club with a solid 4 picks, Malcolm Jenkins was second with 2 and no other defensive back had more than 1. As a result the Saints let Jenkins walk in free agency and signed Jairus Byrd to replace him. Byrd is not going to impress anyone with his physicality or tackle production, but he has become one of the league's premier big play threats at the position. His career best of 9 interception came as a rookie in 2009 and he has averaged 7.5 takeaways over the course of his career. Byrd had a career best of 75 solo stops in 2011 but has turned in no more than 62 in any other year. He was on pace for 53 in an injury shortened 2013. One additional plus that comes with Byrd is his potential to blow up for a big game on any give week. The downside of that is a lack of consistency. 55-60 tackles, 20 or so assists, 8 takeaways and 8-10 passes defended are reasonable expectations for the Saints new free safety. Those numbers would make him a solid DB3.
Quality play last season earned Keenan Lewis another crack at the starting role at corner. He is a solid if unspectacular cover man that is probably best suited to be the number two guy in the long run. Lewis had no interceptions as a starter for the Steelers in 2012, but that does not mean his 4 last season were a fluke. In Ryan's scheme the corners have more freedom to go for the big play. In fact they are encouraged to do so. With that in mind it would be no surprise to see Lewis repeat his big play production of last year. Unfortunately, Saints/Ryan's corners tend to come up short in the tackle columns. Lewis led the group last season with a meager 39. When Ryan was in Dallas none of his corners produced more than 48. That alone is a pretty strong reason to stay away from Lewis.
At the other corner position we have the sixteen year veteran Champ Bailey who may be in the hall of fame one day, versus rookie second round pick Stanley Jean- Baptiste who is the proto-typical corner in today's NFL. Bailey has been penciled in as the starter entering camp but the 36 year old is clearly not the player he once was. Still his experience, talent and savvy could be enough to hold off the youngster for a while. There is little doubt that Jean-Baptiste will eventually claim that job. The only real question is will he do it in time to be a fantasy factor this year? At 6'3" and 218 pounds with a vertical jump that was the best among defensive backs at the combine, Jean-Baptiste has the physical stature to take on the leagues growing number of big receivers. Bring a converted receiver he has good ball skills as well. In nineteen starts at Nebraska Jean-Baptiste broke up 22 passes and hauled in 7 interceptions. He lacks great speed and is a bit raw when it comes to some of the technical aspects of the position, but should be a good one once he is coached up. If Jean-Baptiste gets the opportunity early this season, the rookie corner rule would come into play and would trump the historical numbers of the Ryan coached defenses.
Veteran holdover Patrick Robinson will also be in the mix, though it is unlikely that he would be considered for a starting job. In the long term he will probably settle in as the nickel corner.
SS Kenny Vaccaro - Solid DB1 with top five potential
FS Jairus Byrd - Quality DB3 with big play upside
FS Rafael Bush - No value
CB Keenan Lewis - Minimal value
CB Champ Bailey - No value
CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste - Strong sleeper, rookie corner rule
CB Patrick Robinson - Minimal value at best
The Atlanta defense finished last season ranked 31st against the run, 21st versus the pass, 29th in sacks and 25th in takeaways. Multiple injuries had the Falcons lining up with as many as seven rookies on the field at times. If the mixture of veterans in various stages of recovery, free agent additions and the slew of rookies the team drafted are not enough to confuse things, there is the rumored change to a 3-4 scheme. One thing that is certain, Atlanta will not be caught unprepared in 2014, at least not up front. They now have six proven defensive linemen with starting experience and that does not count talented second round pick Ra'Shede Hageman.
The coaching staff has been so secretive about the scheme that it has almost taken on a humorous tone for those covering the team. What we get by reading between the lines of all the various reports, is that the Falcons plan to use multiple fronts that include plenty of both 4-3 and 3-4 looks. Until we get a chance to see them in at least some preseason action, there is no way to know what to expect from any of these guys in fantasy terms. This is what we do know; Paul Soliai is going to be an interior lineman regardless of the scheme. He is a 320+ pound space eater that has starting experience as a 1-technique (nose tackle) in both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes. His contribution on the field will be that of a two down run stuffer while his contribution in the box scores will be insignificant.
In Corey Peters and Peria Jerry the Falcons have players that are proven starters as tackles in a 4-3 but have the skill set to potentially succeed at defensive end in a 3-4. Peters in particular would seem to be a good fit as a 3-4 end. He is a highly mobile 295 pounds and is coming off a 5 sack season. Peters is also coming off an Achilles' injury he suffered in December and may not be 100% by the beginning of the season. When healthy his ability and versatility should keep him on the field regardless of which front is called. It could also make him the best fantasy prospect of the group providing he continues to be designated as a tackle.
Tyson Jackson comes over from Kansas City where he has been a starting end in their 3-4 over the past three seasons. He is a stout run defender that has not lived up to the expectations of a third overall pick, but still has something to offer. Jackson is coming off a career best 4 sacks and projects to be on the field in most three man fronts. He has not played tackle in a 4-3 since coming to the NFL, but would likely have no problem if called upon to do so.
Jonathan Babineaux has been a starter at tackle for the Falcons over most of his nine years as a pro. His best box score production came in 2009 when he totaled 37-10 -6 with 4 turnovers. Babineaux has seen a good deal of action as a 4-3 end over the past two seasons with marginal results. He trimmed down to a sleek 280 pounds last season but could easily add 10 pounds if he is asked to play end in the 3-4. Babineaux is yet another option that would seem to have the versatility to work in either scheme. Like Peters, Babineaux could also benefit by retaining the DT designation while working at both positions regularly.
Ra'Shede Hageman was considered by many to have first round talent. He slipped to Atlanta in the second presumably due to a lack of consistency during his time at Minnesota. He is a bit raw and needs to be more of a physical presence against the run. As a rookie Hageman will likely see most of his action as a one gap tackle in passing situations. If the coaching staff can find a way to tap this kid's full talent potential, he could prove to be special in a year or two.
You may have noticed that there has been no mention of these guys prowess as 4-3 ends or as serious pass rush threats. This is why I believe the Falcons will be a predominantly 3-4 defense in 2014. The only pass rush threat they have as a 4-3 end is holdover Osi Umenyiora. To his credit Umenyiora led the club in sacks a year ago, albiet with just 7.5. He was a three down starter for much of the season before being relegated to a role of rush specialist late in the year. I expect Umenyiora to have a reduced role as a nickel package specialist in 2014. A situation that will likely all but void his fantasy value completely.
DE Osi Umenyiora - Nickel rush specialist with limited potential
DE Tyson Jackson - Minimal value at best
DE/DT Ra'Shede Hageman - Dynasty prospect with good upside as an interior lineman
DE/DT Jonathan Babineaux - Could have some value in tackle required leagues
DT/DE Corey Peters - Solid DT2 prospect if he is healthy
NT/DT Peria Jerry - No value
NT/DT Paul Soliai - No value
The Falcons have an abundance of defensive linemen that would seem to fit well in a 3-4 scheme. Unfortunately the season ending injury to their best linebacker (Sean Weatherspoon) leaves Atlanta short handed at linebacker regardless of the scheme. The team finished the 2013 season with undrafted rookie free agents Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu working as starters. It appears that they will open 2014 that way as well. Worrilow is an interesting prospect. He is not the most talented of players and has shown little prowess as a playmaker, but he is fundamentally sound both in run support and coverage. At 6'0" and 230 pounds, he is a bit undersized for the job. On the other hand, it is hard to argue with his work ethic and production on the field. Worrilow saw little action before taking over the starting job at middle
linebacker in week seven last season. In the final eleven games he racked up 75 solo tackles, 46 assists and 2.5 sacks. Average those numbers over a full season and you get 109-67-3.5. Granted a lot of that production came over the second half of the season when the Falcons were struggling greatly. While the optimistic spin coming from the organization is that they will turn things around this year, a good look at their defensive roster and especially the linebacker positions, would suggest otherwise. This defense is not only in rebuilding mode from a talent perspective, they are learning a new scheme as well. Worrilow has done a solid job and will get a chance to prove himself further. He will line up as the middle backer in the 4-3 and at the weak inside backer position when the team is in a 3-4. If he continues to play well worrilow may earn a long term roster spot and possibly a long term starting job. Fantasy value all starts with opportunity. The one thing we know for sure about Worrilow is that he is plenty good enough to take advantage of his target rich environment. Even without much big play production he projects to be a solid LB2 in 2014.
Bartu started eleven games at strong side linebacker and two games on the weak side in 2013. With Kroy Biermann expected to get a lot of work on the strong side this year, Bartu will likely shift to the weak side when the Falcons are in a 4-3. After that it is hard to say what the coaching staff will do with any of their linebacker positions. Biermann, Bartu and fourth round pick Prince Shembo are expected to compete for playing time on the outside in the 3-4. Bartu, veteran free agent additions Tim Dobbins, Omar Gaither and possibly fifth round pick Marquis Spruill will be in the mix for the strong inside backer position in the 3-4. With everything so wide open, even seventh round picks Yarwin Smallwood and Tyler Starr could get some opportunity. Anything could happen here but I will admitt to having low expectations for Bartu. The guy I am keeping a close eye on here is Spruill. Like Worrilow, he is not the most talented of players, but Spruill was a tough, durable four year starter at Syracuse that brought intensity and leadership to both the field and locker room. Those are all qualities that the Falcons could sure use as they work to turn their fortunes around.
ILB Paul Worrilow - Solid LB2 with a questionable dynasty status
ILB Tim Dobbins - Minimal value until proven otherwise
ILB Yarwin Smallwood - Deep sleeper
ILB Marquis Spruill - Sleeper with interesting upside
OLB Kroy Biermann - Minimal value at best
OLB Joplo Bartu - Possible depth
OLB Prince Shembo - Potential dynasty option in big play based leagues
OLB Tyler Starr - Deep dynasty sleeper in big play leagues
OLB Omar Gaither - No value
The Falcons started working on their secondary last year when they drafted Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford in the first and second rounds respectively. Trufant stepped right into a starting job and is poised to take over the role of number one corner. He is not a physical tackler but is technically sound in that aspect of the game. What he lacks in physical nature, Trufant makes up for in speed and athleticism. It remains to be seen if he is up to the task of a number one corner but the organization has confidence that he is. Expect Trufant's numbers to follow the path of the rookie corner rule. In his first season he totaled 55-15-0 with four takeaways (2 picks) and 17 passes defended. In his second season we can expect to see his tackle numbers drop to around 45-50 while his big play production goes up by 2 or 3. Trufant's 140 fantasy point in 2013 were good enough for a top fifteen finish. He could drop a few slots depending on the scoring, but should still be a solid CB2 for us this season.
Alford spent much of last season as the nickel corner behind Robert McClain. Those two will renew their competition for the starting job this summer. McClain also finished last season with 55 solo tackles, but his other contributions and especially his pass breakups, were nothing to get excited about. McClain is a solid corner but lacks the big play production that the coaching staff is looking for. Alford on the other hand, recorded a pair of picks and 4 total takeaways in his part time role. Despite being under 190 pounds, Alford is a very physical corner with excellent speed and a knack for the big play. Now that he has some experience under his belt, I expect Alford to pass McClain for the starting job. His playmaking ability and willingness in run support, along with the exaggerated number of oportunities that Falcons defensive backs are likely to have, make Alford one of my favorite sleepers at the corner position this season.
The Falcons continued the youth movement this offseason with the addition of third round pick Dezmen Southward. He played both free safety and corner during his career at Wisconsin, creating some initial speculation as to what position he would play for the Falcons. The club is in good shape at corner and with Thomas Decoud now in Carolina, Southward is almost certain to fill the void at free safety. He is blazing fast and has the cover skills of a corner, but there are some red flags that come with Southward when it comes to fantasy potential. We would have to look back more than six seasons to find an Atlanta safety who posted more than 67 solo tackles in a season. Then there is the fact that Southward was not particularly box score friendly during his college career. As a senior he started thirteen games totaling only 40 combined tackles with 1 interception and 5 passes defended. He will have a lot of opportunity behind that group of linebackers, but needs to show that he can take advantage of it before getting any consideration from me.
Strong safety William more is one of the more difficult players to figure out from a fantasy perspective. In 2012 when the Falcons were playing well, he missed the final four games but was on pace for 79 solo tackles, 9 takeaways and 10 passes defended. His averaged of nearly 13 points a game was among the top defensive backs that season. Last year when the team struggled, he managed to go 66-19-2 with 8 takeaways and 8 passes defended for an average of about 10.5 points a game. Not that those are weak numbers, just that one would expect the better production from the safety position when the team was struggling. The bottom line here is that Moore is a strong if somewhat inconsistent fantasy option. In 2013 he reached double digit points in nine games while posting 6 or fewer points in six other contests. Much of Moore's value comes from the big play columns where he has contributed at least 7 takeaways in three of the last four years. With the situation at linebacker as it is, this year will be a golden opportunity for him to reach the 70 solo tackle mark for the first time in his career. Moore was a top twelve defensive back in 2013. It will be little surprise if he breaks into the top ten for the first time in 2014.
SS William Moore - Solid low end DB1
FS Dezmen Southward - Limited expectations
FS Dwight Lowery - No value
CB Desmond Trufant - Solid CB2 prospect
CB Robert Alford - Sleeper with CB1 potential if he wins the starting job
CB Robert McClain - Depth in corner required leagues if he wins the starting job
That does it for the NFC South. Next up the AFC East.